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Mama Deb
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Jo's Favorite Boy

I've been reading Louisa May Alcott recently (thank you, Project Gutenberg!) and just finished the March family trilogy.

Jo, who is LMA's alter ego, declares at some point in Little Women that she prefers boys to girls, and she proves it by opening a mostly boy's school by the end of the first book, and which forms the setting of the second, Little Men. This is where she introduces her most compelling character.

LM, and its sequel Jo's Boys, is full of boys - the fourteen or so that make up Jo and Fritz Bhaer's Plumfield school (plus the two little girls who are also students there.) Almost one quarter are relatives - the two orphan nephews plus Jo's sister's son. These are the "good" boys - Franz at sixteen has adult responsibilities, Emil has a temper of sorts, and is annoyingly nautical (which is interesting given that there is no sense that the boy has ever been to sea - they seem to have been born to German parents but in the US.)

And Demi is, of course, nearly perfect - bright, extremely pious, kind to all the others with perfect manners. He is believed to be capable of no wrong worse than the occasional fantasy. He's a little old man even at the age of ten. Good thing, since his father is that book's sacrifice (she doesn't do it in every book, but it does seem like LMA likes killing one character per novel.) As we see nothing of John Brooke until the chapter where he dies - well, the chapter still had me crying, but mostly I was thinking about his thirty-one year old wife, who seems to have decided that she's going to be a widow forever. Anyway, Demi is too perfect and rather hard to like.

She has a fat kid (who eats incessantly *sigh*), a stammerer, a boy with a bent back, a boy who suffered brain damage, a young man who tortures mice and turns wood, and the only villain - a "sharp", "clever" shopkeeper type who stole, lied about it, allowed two other boys to be villainized in his place, leaves and returns. The older boys never do forgive him, though, which is a good touch. She has Tommy Banks, who is sweet and naughty and it's clear that until the halfway point, he's LMA's favorite. Through Jo, we can see she actually doesn't like Nat, the introductory character, who has a weak mouth and chin, is sickly and not "manly" enough.

She has a couple of girls, too - Jo's niece Daisy and a girl brought in to be her friend so she shouldn't be the only one of her age and sex about the place. Daisy is also extremely good and "womanly" (domestic) - she sews well and keeps a book of needles with her; she does her doll's laundry meticulously; she dreams only of keeping house - first for her brother and later for Nat, whom she will marry. And she cooks - in what I think of as one of the most charming chapters in the book, she gets a tiny working cookstove. The narrative and the characters seem to approve of this, but given her best friend, I wonder. Because Nan is as much a troublemaker as Tommy, but she's bright and wants to be a doctor - and Jo approves, and she becomes so. She is not to marry, but that's also approved. And she's far more interesting than Daisy - Daisy gets almost nothing in JB, but Nan gets at least one chapter where she's heroic.

There's also Laurie's daughter, Bess, who is a princess in every way.

This is for another essay, but the girls in both books seem to have a secondary position to the boys that concerns me.

However, the girls are more complex - Nan is the doctor, Daisy the housewife, Bess the artist, Josie the actress (and Jo the writer) than the boys. Which is also interesting in its own way.

But this isn't about them. It's about Dan. Dan shows up partway through LM as a friend of Nat's, and he's totally unlike all the other boys in the story. He's bright - extremely bright - but he's undisciplined so he has a hard time in the classroom - not least being sitting still. He has more energy than he knows how to manage, he's very strong, he has a temper that burns very hot and he's resistant to all the "civilizing" things, including religion, that the Bhaers try to give him. He is, in fact, "manly" in a way that none of the other boys, including the paragons Franz and Demi, ever will be.

He's a tall, dark and handsome bad boy with a heart of gold. Yes, I know that sounds familiar.

He's essentially adopted by Jo as a son, and he treats her older son, Robbie, as a younger brother - looking for him when he gets lost, assuming that he'll carry the boy to bed. The professor accepts him and seems to care, but I don't get "father" from him - that's reserved for the unmanly boy that Bhaer calls his "daughter."

And then there's Teddy. Teddy is a toddler, barely verbal and still wearing dresses when Dan comes in, and this fourteen year old boy who has taken care of himself most of his life forms a bond with the little boy - a bond so strong that neither of his parents has any compunction of "his Dannny" babysitting, even putting the child to bed. When John Brooke dies and they have to take care of Meg and her family, they are relieved that Dan is taking care of the baby.

It's a relationship I can't define - it's not just big brother, and Teddy is too young for hero worship, and while Dan protects those weaker than him, this is different. It's not father-and-son, it's not friendship. It's an incredibly strong bond that never weakens as the boys grow older and Dan's life continues to deviate from Ted's in every respect. If they were the same age, well, I'd be writing stories about them. It's as intense as any "buddy" pair we've ever seen.

Dan ends up in prison - he killed a man in defense of himself and a young man who reminded him of Ted - and finds religion. He becomes a hero, saving lives, and comes home ill and injured (Dan is always coming home ill and injured), requiring nursing from his foster mother and from Ted. And he also decides that when he is well, he'll do what he can for the American Indians he's grown to love and respect as he traveled around the country. They refer to that as going on "mission", but I seriously don't see him as preaching - just defending. And he does eventually die a hero defending his people.

He also has this thing to make him even more tragic - he's in love with Bess, the "princess", who is a sheltered rich man's daughter and no one, not even he, thinks he's worthy to marry her, so they make sure he leaves as soon as he can while she's on a trip with her parents, and they never see him again. He goes into exile so that he never sees Bess again - she can't marry a poor, homeless ex-prisoner.

Dan's character is vividly colored in a collection of pale archetypes and morals - he's deeper and richer and more complex with motivations that feel real, not tacked on as perfect morals. He's also an archetype himself - tall, dark, handsome, dangerous, but also sweet and gentle and loving. He's the lead in a romance novel, destined to win the heart of the reluctant noblewoman or the frontier schoolteacher, or the rich woman who owns the horse ranch. Except, he doesn't - the heart he holds closest is that of a boy ten years his junior - and whom he abandons as much as he abandons Bess.

I don't think there's another similar character in any of her other "girl's books".


Guessing where in the author's life elements of her work came from is always risky, but I've read enough of Alcott's biography to think it perhaps relevant that Alcott's father, whom she worshipped and whose IMO utterly harebrained and hypocritical philosophy she bought into completely, was very hard on her for her adventurous streak, although it evidently came from him. His role was to travel the world and spread the teachings of True Philosophy to the intellectual elite; his wife and daughters were to stay home and work, or beg when necessary, to keep him in funds to accomplish this. I'm not surprised that her favorite character was a headstrong rebel with a temper he couldn't quite tame, and I'm also not surprised that he had to come to grief in the end. Bronson Alcott's philosophy wouldn't allow his daughter to feel comfortable creating a character who had her temperament, indulged it, and got away with it.

There are elements of Charlie Campbell, from _Eight Cousins_ and _Rose In Bloom_ in Dan, and Charlie comes to an equally bad end, but Dan's a lot more fleshed out. I know that a lot of the obvious elements to Dan's character which Charlie doesn't have, such as the interest and talent in the natural sciences, were based off Henry David Thoreau, whom Alcott had loved since she was a child; it's possible that incorporating aspects of a closely observed real individual helped the character breathe.

before I got to the end of this post, I was also thinking of Charlie, who was my favourite (for a variety of reason) LMA character. I reread most of her books, and always came back to him. glad I'm not the only one who sees some similarities

I think my overall favorite Alcott character is Laurie, but of the Campbell clan I like Archie best. Charlie actually interests me more now that I'm seeing parallels than he did when I was considering him by himself; I may have written him off as two-dimensional when he wasn't. I shall have to reread.

The Rose books are not my favorites, so Charlie doesn't come to mind. Poor, pretty Prince, though.

I don't think I'd say that Charlie's end and Dan's are equally bad.

Dan dies a hero; Charlie dies because he's a drunk driver.

Fair enough. They both have their lives wrecked by a final unleashing of the temperamental weaknesses they'd been struggling with, but Dan's doesn't kill him, it only gets him imprisoned. I still see in both Alcott's determination that anyone who lets their 'wild side' loose will be terribly punished for it, and I think much of that came from her own need to stifle her own wild side in order to spend her life serving the father she worshipped. The idea that one could seek freedom, or pleasure, or self-expression, or even have a temper, and *not* have something terrible happen because of it was too dangerous.

I'm just rereading the Rose Duology now. Set me on some interesting dress reform research.

I knew Thoreau had a thing for Bronson Alcott (that's fairly unanimous in the biographies of both father and daughter - at least those meant for adults) but I didn't realize that she had one for Thoreau. Although it does make sense.

Charlie is much more of a portrait of a wasted life - an intelligent, talented (but not genius) young man who goes to sin and is punished for it - Dan never does that. He has a much better end than Charlie. Charlie is therefore a Lesson. Lessons don't need to breathe. Dan is...Dan.

I actually wonder how much more the Transcendentalism affected her stories. I'm thinking now of one particular moment between Amy and Laurie where Amy realizes that all she has is talent, but not genius - that at the age of 20 or so, she's not the equal of the Italian Masters. So she is resolved to give it up and marry well. And it's clear the only thing she's doing wrong is resolving to marry well without love.

Later, Laurie realizes that he, too, only has talent, but not genius - that in his midtwenties, he is not the equal of the German composers. So he gives that up and becomes the grandson and successor his grandfather wants him to be. To the evident approval of the narrator, too. This shows up in other books - Nat's allowed to play because he has to earn his own money, but it's clear he is no genius, and Josie is allowed to act because she apparently does have genius.

One must be the best or there's no point - right?

I hadn't thought about that at all and it's fascinating; thanks for pointing it out! Rose also says something to the effect of she has no great talent, contrasting with Phoebe who does, and Mac is accused of genius but disclaims it, claiming it's just inspiration. :)

I've read only LW, but you're motivating me to try the next two. But you've gotta read Behind the Mask, which is a collection of Alcott's stories that she published under a pseudonym because they were too "racy."

Edited at 2008-03-05 09:23 pm (UTC)

just testing to see if I get notifications.