Jo Marries Goethe, Louisa May Alcott´s Love For The German Poet

Niina Pekantytär

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Sentimental Language of Louisa May Alcott

Greta Gerwig has been very vocal about how much she hates Friedrich´s character. I don´t know what her problem is but there is one thing that annoys me to no end. In every one of her interviews, Gerwig has argued that Friedrich forces Jo to use the word “thou”. I can´t even fathom how absurd this is.

When you study German one of the first things that you learn is that there are two ways to address a person. There is “Du” which is what you use with someone you are very close and then there is “Sie” that you use when you are discussing with someone who is not very close to you. In the 19th century when German literature was translated into English “Du” became “thou”. When Friedrich and Jo call each other “Thou” it means that they want to be close to one another.

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In the book, it says that Jo thought that “thou” was a “lovely syllable”. It sounds that Gerwig is just making excuses to spread hate speech about a fictional character and it doesn´t have any base on reality.

Alcott Scholar: Christine Doyle writes:

​When Jo terms Friedrich´s request to use “thou” in addressing him “sentimental” (while privately thinking it is lovely), he says, “Sentimental? yes, thank Gott, we Germans believe in sentiment, and keep ourselves young mit it. Your English “you” sounds so cold. Friedrich in fact retains his German accent throughout the March novels, occasionally dropping German words and phrases such as “Mein Sohn” and “Vaterland” into his speech despite his much-imrpoved command of English (for example in Little Women Friedrich says “haf” but then Little Men and Jo´s boys he says “have”). Like Friedrich´s defence of religion, his sentimental language is significant in both cultural and literary contexts. Alcott seems here to be standing up for emotion in the face of staid New England culture”.

Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel that first skyrocketed Goethe into great fame has been often used as an example of the over-sentimentality of the German Sturm und Drang movement. Louisa was heavily affected by the Sturm und Drang and in her youth, she consumed and wrote these “Stress and thunder” tales. Despite being more of a realistic novel, Little Women is written in a sentimental language and this applies to all of Louisa´s novels, children´s books and adult books. Friedrich is sentimental, but so is Louisa May Alcott.

Louisa´s real-life crush, and possible lover Henry David Thoreau also always used “thou” in his love poems when addressing his loved one.

Jo describes Friedrich to look like a regular German. He has brown hair and a bushy beard. Kind blue eyes, big hands and big feet and he has a kind tone in his voice “that does one´s ears good after our sharp or slipshod American gabble”.

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This description is similar to Friedrich Schiller´s first impression of Goethe:

“His appearance greatly lessened the idea I had conceived from hearsay of his imposing and handsome person. He is of middle height and looks and walks stiff. His countenance is not open, but he has beaming eyes. The expression of his countenance is serious, at the same time that it is benevolent and kind. He has brown hair and appears older than I should say he really is. His voice was exceedingly pleasing, and his conversation flowing, lively and amusing. It is a pleasure to listen to him, and when he is in a happy mood, which he was on this occasion, he is fond of talking and takes and interests in what he says”.

Friedrich´s looks and his somewhat stoic personality can also be traced back to Henry David Thoreau, but like Goethe, Henry as well opened up in a company, especially when the conversation was lively and interesting.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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