Jo and Friedrich, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau

Niina Pekantytär
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There is a very compelling case to be made that Henry David Thoreau was the real-life Friedrich.

When I read Little Women part 2 for the first time there was something that always puzzled me in Friedrich´s last name. I speak German and Bhaer is not German. Bhaer doesn´t mean anything. Baer without “h” is an actual German last name and means a bear. For years I actually thought that Bhaer was a typo, but if it was a typo why no one hasn´t fixed it for the past 150 years? unless was intentional

For the 1880 edition of Little Women Louisa went back correcting some of the German phrases. For example “Das ist gute!” in the first edition of the novel to “Das ist gut! but she does not touch on Friedrich´s last name and she knows it is written incorrectly. Every single feature that Fritz has that for some readers, especially the younger ones have come out as horrendous, they all come from Henry. Henry and Fritz both had the last name that Americans had difficulties pronouncing. This is what Henry´s good friend, Edward Emmerson wrote:

“We always called my friend Thó-row, the h sounded, and accent on the first syllable and other friends called him “Mr Thorough.”

This is what Jo write´s about Friedrich´s last name:
“Now don´t laugh at his horrid name; it isn't pronounced either Bear or Beer, as people will say it, but something between the two, as only Germans can do it”

. Friedrich´s looks seem to be a constant conversation topic. Most people seem to forget that Jo in the books is not that great looking. They both look average, to say the least. In fact, considering the time, Jo is quite unattractive. Jo has sharp, androgynous features and she is quite skinny. Meg who is described to be “plumpy” fits the ideal of 19th-century female beauty. When Jo meets Fritz for the first time, he is handsome-but-not-handsome but when Jo falls in love with Fritz, in her eyes he is now truly handsome.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry´s neighbour describes him “as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed….

​Louisa´s views on Henry were quite different. In Moods the protagonist Sylvia describes Adam as the “manliest man she has never seen, not only in demeanour but in stature, standing a head taller than Moor.

again in Little Women..

His bushy hair had been cut and smoothly brushed, but didn’t stay in order long, for in exciting moments, he rumpled it up in the droll way he used to do, and Jo liked it rampantly erect better than flat because she thought it gave his fine forehead a Jove-like aspect.

​Henry passed away in 1862 at the age of 44. Louisa was 28 at the time.

​Jo goes into great detail when she describes Friedrich´s clothes, they are all shabby and need mending, but for Jo Friedrich´s homely looks are nothing else than inviting. Henry was drawn into simplicity. He writes in Walden, “Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprises or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old….”

The poem that Friedrich reads from a magazine, is about Jo´s loneliness. The poem “In the Garrett” was first published in The Flag of Our Union (18 March 1865) but with a number of differences. It discussed the chests of Nan, Lu, Bess, and May, rather than Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.

The poem appears again in Little Women. In the version from 1869 text it says:

A woman in a lonely home,
Hearing like a sad refrain,
“Be worthy, love, and love will come,”
In the falling summer rain.

The earlier version reads:

A woman musing here alone,
Hearing ever her life’s refrain
“Labor and love, but make no moan”
In the drip of the summer rain.

At least during the time of writing the poem and (carefully estimated) perhaps when writing Little Women, this idea of being a literal spinster with a pen as a spouse was not very tempting. Alcott troubles the divide between author and narrator to claim herself, if problematically, as a character, as the “Lu” to whom she has given a version of her own name in this earlier rendering of the poem. And this woman’s fate differs from that of Jo: no love waits for her except the love that she must give, second only to labour; neither of which, it seems, can make her happy (West).

Many Alcott scholars believe that Louisa fell in love at least once, maybe twice. When a person destroys their journals that usually means that they wish to hide something. Louisa was very careful to protect her reputation, almost paranoid about it. Still today women can have thousand different reasons for not marrying. When Louisa was in her early 20´s she considered marrying for money and she had way more suitors than Jo March ever had (Reisen) but her mother reminded her that love was more important. How many modern readers can imagine Jo even considering marrying for money? Louisa is not Jo. Jo is fiction.

If Louisa would have married later in life, she would have married for love. Based to the very little that we know about her love life, it would seem that she was either jaded by love, or that the person she loved had passed away.

Family friend Julian Hawthorne ponders in his 1922 essay, “Louisa May Alcott: The woman who wrote Little Women” — “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate escape it?”

One of the Little Women fans who I chatted with said that if Friedrich is based on someone who Louisa truly loved, that would explain why she was frustrated by the little girls who were demanding her to marry off Jo to Laurie.
Little Women 2018

“It is idle to speculate how Thoreau´s career might have been changed had Miss Ford been successful in her assault. But it is interesting to note that she was not the only woman who wanted to ensnare him. Annie Russel Marble, after interviewing many of Thoreau's close friends, has reported that there were two women “quite willing”, even anxious, to link their lives with his”. The identity of that second woman has been lost”

Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, 1917

Knowing Louisa´s adoration for Henry and that he is the romantic lead in all of her novels I have a pretty clear idea about the identity of our mystery woman. Miss Ford, by the way, was Louisa´s teacher and she admired her very much. I think she might have been even one of the inspirations for Jo (and maybe the governess Meg).

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

Finland, MN

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