Professor Bhaer in His Element, Part 3
February 24, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious by these sons of Bhaer!
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Men, or Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys, in 1871; Jo’s Boys, and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to “Little Men” came in 1886 and marks the official end of the March series. Both sequels, if such you can term them, take place at Plumfield, the progressive boys’ school Jo and her husband, Professor Bhaer, run out of a New England mansion she’s inherited. While the books deal primarily with the antics and travails of the various pupils, they also feature an older Jo and, you guessed it, Professor Bhaer, whom I’ve been taking a close look at this week. It’s in these two books that Bhaer really comes into his own.
Yes, he’s still saintly in these stories, but somehow his saintliness sits better with me here than it did in Little Women. For one thing, the school is a blissful showcase for all of Alcott’s modern theories, summed up at one point thus: “Sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, and good in everything.” She’s clearly passionate about these, and Bhaer becomes an eloquent messenger rather than a reluctant paragon—he’s effective propaganda. Father Bhaer, as he is known to his students, encourages learning by doing; he teaches the children how to manage money they have earned, acts as a sympathetic and omniscient friend to all, and tailors his methods sensitively to the temperament of each individual child. He is, in short, a model headmaster:
In Professor Bhaer’s opinion, self-knowledge, self-help, and self-control were more important, and he tried to teach them carefully. People shook their heads sometimes at his ideas, even while they owned that the boys improved wonderfully in manners and morals.
Plus—and this is crucial!—Bhaer has lost his distracting written accent. “He had improved much in the last five years,” Alcott quickly informs us. (He’s still into the plainspoken second-person pronouns, but less of that tortured phonetic stuff.) It should be noted that he’s introduced as “a stout man, with a chubby child on each shoulder,” but at this point we’re used to that.
Professor Bhaer is about a thousand times more likable in this guise than that of a lover; putting him in the domestic sphere makes him infinitely more palatable. The same things that made him an off-putting romantic hero (maybe too much like Alcott’s own father? To be discussed … ) render him an ideal husband. The role of paterfamilias makes his didacticism less objectionable, and he’s loosened up: his attitude towards Jo is less that of pedant and more that of partner.
By this time, the Bhaers have two little boys and while Bhaer is certainly cock of the walk, he and Jo really do run things jointly. They’re forever communicating silently—“Mr. Bhaer’s eyes had exchanged telegrams with his wife’s”—on how best to exert their benevolence over orphans and wastrels, and more than once we see him consult Jo on a problem. ”You are right, as usual,” he tells her once. And they go in for some flirtatious banter:
“And if you succeed half as well as she did, you will have done a magnificent work,” interrupted Mr. Bhaer, who labored under the delusion that Mrs. B. was the best and most charming woman alive.
“Now, if you make fun of my plan I’ll give you bad coffee for a week, and then where are you, sir?” cried Mrs. Jo, tweaking him by the ear just as if he was one of the boys.
Bhaer has a particular soft spot for underdogs; he tutors a mentally handicapped boy, and we learn of his special affection for the foundling Nat, whom he finds “as docile and affectionate as a girl. He often called Nat his ‘daughter’ when speaking of him to Mrs. Jo.”
Bhaer attempts to cure his students’ faults with typical pedagogical zest, encouraging each to record his misdeeds in a “conscience book.” In a passage that’s traumatized 150 years of kids, Bhaer relates fondly,
When I was a little lad I used to tell lies! Ach! what fibs they were, and my old grandmother cured me of it how, do you think? My parents had talked, and cried, and punished, but still did I forget as you. Then said the dear old grandmother, ‘I shall help you to remember, and put a check on this unruly part,’ with that she drew out my tongue and snipped the end with her scissors till the blood ran. That was terrible, you may believe, but it did me much good, because it was sore for days, and every word I said came so slowly that I had time to think. After that I was more careful, and got on better, for I feared the big scissors.
When Nat lies, his punishment is to hit Professor Bhaer with a ruler, which so upsets the child that he’s promptly cured of his mendacity. Meanwhile, when little Nan wanders off disobediently to pick berries, Bhaer ties her to a chair: “I don’t like to tie you up like a naughty little dog, but if you don’t remember any better than a dog, I must treat you like one.”
Look, he’s not exactly anyone’s idea of fun. He hates drinking, gambling, and swearing; he gave up smoking; he talks “long and earnestly … with an air of mingled firmness and regret.”
By the time we get to Jo’s Boys, the Bhaers have come into a fortune and founded a thriving and respected college. He and Jo are as happy and companionable as ever, Jo has become a successful, Alcott-ish writer, and the sons are fine young men who presumably shun drinking, smoking, and lies. “The hard times are very sweet now,” Bhaer says, “and I bless Gott for all I seemed to lose, because I gained the blessing of my life.” Jo, too, is philosophical in middle age:
Don’t do it for the reward; but be sure it will come, though not in the shape you expect. I worked hard for fame and money one winter; but I got neither, and was much disappointed. A year afterwards I found I had earned two prizes: skill with my pen, and Professor Bhaer.
This is almost a rebuke, it seems, to anyone who worried about Jo throwing away her career: Alcott has let her have it all, to a degree any woman would envy. Fame, fortune, an adoring husband, and tons of worshipful kids—what could be a better “reward” for the author’s alter ego? And progressive education into the bargain! It’s as if, contrary fit aside, Alcott’s just giving the reader what she wants—albeit on her own, peculiar terms. She says as much. She could, she adds at the book’s end, burn the school and kill everybody. But instead, she’ll wield her power benevolently:
As that somewhat melodramatic conclusion might shock my gentle readers, I will refrain, and forestall the usual question, ‘How did they end?’ by briefly stating that all the marriages turned out well … having endeavoured to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall for ever on the March family.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.