Megan Armknecht and Paul Kerry, History
In February 2014, I received an ORCA grant to work on my Honors Thesis, “Jo Marries Goethe: Dr. Bhaer as the Goethean Ideal in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.” I had found resonances between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the character of Dr. Bhaer in Little Women, and I wanted to explore whether these connections held any ground and if I could make a case for Dr. Bhaer as Louisa May Alcott’s representation of the Goethean ideal. I applied for an ORCA grant in order to travel to Harvard to conduct research in Houghton Library’s Special Collections, which has an excellent collection of Louisa May Alcott’s papers and letters.
Before I traveled to Boston, I first did preliminary research at the Harold B. Lee Library and found research supporting my claim that Goethe could be a model for Dr. Bhaer. I discovered that Goethe and his writings had deeply influenced the transcendentalists, especially Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was the Alcotts’ next-door neighbor). I read in Louisa May Alcott’s “Recollections” that Goethe was “her favorite author,” and that she considered him a major influence in her life. I also conducted a close reading of Little Women, looking for German influences and resonances between Dr. Bhaer and Goethe. I found many, furthering strengthening my claim that Goethe could be a model for Dr. Bhaer. As I continued to do secondary research, it still surprised me that no scholar had directly drawn the connections between Dr. Bhaer and Goethe, but I was excited that my ideas were original and that they could make a contribution to Alcott scholarship.
Once in Boston, I traveled to Harvard’s Houghton Library to conduct research in their archives. The Houghton Library has one of the finest collections of Alcott material, and I was able to look at not only Louisa May Alcott’s papers, but also Bronson and Abba Alcott’s materials. While in Boston, I read letters written by Louisa May Alcott to her mother, father, sisters, and neighbors. I was also able to study Alcott’s personal copy of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, written by Goethe. This copy was given to her by Ralph Waldo Emerson and was filled with Alcott’s handwriting and commentary, confirming her own statements that Goethe was her favorite author and that his work had profoundly influenced her writing. I also was able to study Alcott documents at the Concord Library, including the only two remaining chapters of Little Women, and I met with Jan Turnquist, the director of the Orchard House. Jan Turnquist encouraged me in my research and reassured me that the research I was doing was original and would be beneficial to further studies about Louisa May Alcott.
Although it would be improper to say that Goethe was the only model for Dr. Bhaer, from the research I conducted at the Houghton along with the historical context of the Transcendentalist era strengthened my argument that there are similarities between Goethe and Dr. Bhaer, and that Dr. Bhaer could be Louisa May Alcott’s representation of the Goethean ideal. Their philosophies, personalities, and beliefs are too similar to be counted as mere coincidence. Since Little Women is based on Louisa May Alcott’s life, and since Goethe played a huge influence in her life, it would make sense for Louisa May Alcott to include a man like Goethe in her novel. Louisa May Alcott would have felt comfortable having Jo marry a man like Goethe. Furthermore, Goethe’s influence on Louisa May Alcott and Little Women helps prove that Little Women is more than just a children’s novel—it is a collection of philosophies, ideas, and culture which can be used as an important tool for understanding nineteenth-century culture and values.
My time in Boston helped me to strengthen my Honors Thesis, especially because the primary sources I found in the Houghton Library. My ORCA Grant experience was extremely meaningful to me, helping to make my thesis stronger and giving me encouragement as I began the final drafts of my Honors Thesis. I have already revised my Honors Thesis several times because of the information I found in the Houghton Library’s archives, and my research has strengthened my argument significantly, especially because of the primary sources I have been able to incorporate. I am planning on defending my Honors Thesis in February, and also hope to present my findings at this year’s Louisa May Alcott Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. Since this is the first time anyone has tied the ends of transcendentalism, Goethe, Louisa May Alcott, and Dr. Bhaer together, there is obviously much more research that could be done on this topic. However, I am eager to present and publish my findings to bring new light to this American classic.