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

Niina Pekantytär

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There I might with thee my beloved go

“First thing Jo hears from Bhaer is him singing “Kennst du das land” (do you know the land) to himself, the opening line of Mignon´s love song from Goethe´s Wilhelm Meister. Here again, is the literary intertextuality of Wilhelm Meister in Little Women. By having Bhaer sing Mignon´s song to himself. Alcott not only draws a direct connection between Bhaer and Goethe but also an emotional connection between herself and Goethe”.

Louisa points out that both Jo and Friedrich are familiar with Wilhelm Meister. In the chapter surprises, Friedrich comes to court Jo, and Jo asks him to perform Mignon´s song with her.

“Now we must finish with Mignon´s song, for Mr Bhaer sings that”

“You will sing with me, we´ll go excellently well together?” he asked.

A pleasing fiction, by the way, for Jo had no more idea of music than a grasshopper, but she would have consented, if they had proposed to sing a whole opera, and warbled away, blissfully regardless of time and tune. It didn´t much matter, for Mr Bhaer sang like a true German, heartily and well, and Jo soon subsided into a subdued hum, that she might listen to the mellow voice that seemed to sing for her alone.

“Know´s thou the land where the citron blooms”

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Used to be the Professor´s favourite line, for “das land” meant Germany to him; but now he seemed to dwell, with peculiar warmth and melody, upon the words;

“There, oh there might I with thee, Oh my beloved go”

and one listener was so thrilled by the tender invitation, that she longed to say she did know the land, and would joyfully depart thither, whenever he liked.

How did Jo know that was his favourite line? they must have had deep one-to-one discussions about Goethe.

Quote from Little Women fan Christina:

Maybe she noticed how a certain gleam come across his eyes as he sings the line. Maybe his lips turn upward into a smile when the lyric comes up, no matter how many times he sings it. Or maybe it was because of the warmth in his voice as he spoke of his home that Jo recognized as she speaks of her home.

But she notices. She notices all the little things of Friedrich but had yet to have a reason why. But when she leaves New York and is alone after Beth’s death, she thinks of those little things and smiles to herself.
When he comes to her home, she thinks about that line. Home. He is home.
There is another way to interpret this chapter. Mignon´s song is about departure and reuniting with your loved one in the afterlife. Louisa believed that in the next life, she would meet her loved one again and then she would get the life that she had wanted. Maybe this scene was written about Henry, the same way as the umbrella chapter. Henry had the same Goethe´s books as Louisa and he was also a good singer and when he would come to visit the Alcott´s, they sometimes sang together.

Quote from Megan Armknecht

Another parallel between Bhaer and Goethe is their philosopher, especially regarding the purposes of art and religion. Bhaer is very interested in Jo´s writing, encourages her to read Shakespeare, and helps explain his work to her. Bhaer gives her as a New Year´s present. Classic writers, such as Shakespeare were very important to Goethe, who read Shakespeare and often wrote about and criticized him in letters to Schiller.

As Jo reads Shakespeare, she not only begins to notice true, an honest character more, but she also recognizes just how good Bhaer truly is. She discovers a “live hero”, who interested her in spite of many human imperfections. Mr Bhaer, in one of their conversations, had advised her to study simple, true and lovely characters whenever she would found them, as good training for a writer; Jo took him at his word — for she coolly turned round and studied him and finds him to be good and benevolent. In this way Bhaer´s love of the simple, honest and pure, mirror´s Goethe´s who remained ever in touch with the reality of things as revealed to the sense, but never blind to ideal interpretations.

This is all in the text of Little Women. Friedrich encourages Jo to become a genuine writer. I have never understood people who say that Friedrich prevents Jo from writing when in the book, he does the exact opposite, but the people who spread that type of false information, are usually Jo and Laurie fans.

Another quote from Armknecht:

“Bhaer is trying to help Jo to become a genuine writer instead of one who caters to the whims of the crowd. This is something that Goethe would have done. He disliked superficiality in people and in art and was through life frequently offended by the shallow pretensions, the false aims. He insists that a poem must be suggested by real life, and having herein a firm foundation”.

This is particularly important information. When Louisa was in her twenties she wrote sensational stories for a New York magazine. Weekly Volcano in Little Women, is a caricature of this magazine. These stories are not Louisa´s best stories, and in Little Women, she describes how Jo has mental health problems because she feels powerless in the hands of the editor, who wants her to write stories that have shock value and when Jo looks for material she begins to have anxiety attacks. This is all in the text. It has never been adapted and that must affect any anti-Friedrich statements people might have, because in the novel Friedrich comes to Jo´s help, when he sees how much she is struggling.

When Louisa wrote these sensational stories, she was not very experienced with the darker side of life and struggled with a lot of these themes that she was requested to write about. It makes sense that she looked up to her literal hero, Goethe and take his advice that a good story, should have a real-life foundation and this is how Jo in Little Women moves on from writing trash to write successful realism thanks to Friedrich, and Louisa did the same thanks to Goethe.

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

Finland, MN
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