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Professor Bhaer’s Vital Stats, Part 4

February 25, 2016 | by

William Shatner as Professor Bhaer in a 1978 adaptation of Little Women.

This week, Sadie is taking an in-depth look at Professor Bhaer, the most divisive character in Little Women. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

We know he’s kind, emotional, and paternalistic. We know he loves children. But how many facts do we really have about Professor Friedrich Bhaer, aka Father Bhaer, aka Old Fritz, aka Lager Beer, aka Ursa Major? (NB: Those are the nicknames for him the young bucks at the boarding house use. And if you’re wondering how to pronounce his name, Alcott tells us, “It isn’t pronounced either Bear or Beer, as people will say it, but something between the two, as only Germans can give it.”) 

Professor Bhaer was born ca. 1828. We know he’s forty when Jo meets him, and we’ll assume that the book takes place, more or less, at the time of writing. 

Professor Bhaer is from Berlin. If indeed Berlin is his childhood home—personally I imagine him somewhere bucolic (as parts of Berlin still would have been then) largely because of his pedagogical enthusiasm for gardening and animals—he would have grown up in a rapidly changing city transformed by steam power, and possibly in his final years by the introduction of the railway. We know for a fact that he is in America because his late sister wished her half-American sons to be educated in their father’s country; what we don’t know for sure is if this is why Bhaer left Germany, or whether he is a refugee—possibly involved with the German revolutions of 1848—and part of a wave of German immigrants to the United States. This could also have been a factor in his sister’s immigration.

Professor Bhaer likes food. He is observed shoveling food into his mouth in an early scene, and is unfailingly described as “stout,” even at his poorest. Perhaps this is to indicate unaffected animal appetites. 

Professor Bhaer is a slob. When Jo goes into his room with their New York landlady, they find “books and papers everywhere, a broken meerschaum, and an old flute over the mantelpiece as if done with, a ragged bird without any tail chirped on one window seat, and a box of white mice adorned the other. Half-finished boats and bits of string lay among the manuscripts. Dirty little boots stood drying before the fire, and traces of the dearly beloved boys, for whom he makes a slave of himself, were to be seen all over the room. After a grand rummage three of the missing articles were found, one over the bird cage, one covered with ink, and a third burned brown, having been used as a holder.”

Professor Bhaer loves animals. Besides those white mice, we see him caressing a cat. At Plumfield, he gets really angry when he sees a rough boy treating an animal carelessly, one of the few sins which he considers unforgivable. 

Professor Bhaer is a “scholar.” “He never spoke of himself, and no one ever knew that in his native city he had been a man much honored and esteemed for learning and integrity, till a countryman came to see him … She felt proud to know that he was an honored Professor in Berlin, though only a poor language-master in America.” What he studies, we do not know, although it is in a discussion of “philosophy or metaphysics” that he comes to verbal blows with a group of New York sophisticates. Here, again, is the scene: 

The conversations were miles beyond Jo’s comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms, and the only thing ‘evolved from her inner consciousness’ was a bad headache after it was all over … She looked round to see how the Professor liked it, and found him looking at her with the grimmest expression she had ever seen him wear. He shook his head and beckoned her to come away, but she was fascinated just then by the freedom of Speculative Philosophy, and kept her seat, trying to find out what the wise gentlemen intended to rely upon after they had annihilated all the old beliefs.

Now, Mr. Bhaer was a diffident man and slow to offer his own opinions, not because they were unsettled, but too sincere and earnest to be lightly spoken. As he glanced from Jo to several other young people, attracted by the brilliancy of the philosophic pyrotechnics, he knit his brows and longed to speak, fearing that some inflammable young soul would be led astray by the rockets, to find when the display was over that they had only an empty stick or a scorched hand.

He bore it as long as he could, but when he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up with honest indignation and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth—an eloquence which made his broken English musical and his plain face beautiful. He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well, but he didn’t know when he was beaten and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo. The old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new. God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact.

While it is possible his philosophy falls into the general, Victorian, “Key to All Mythologies” school, it seems that if nothing else we can deduce that:

Professor Bhaer is not a Speculative Philosopher.

Professor Bhaer does not go in for philosophic pyrotechnics.

Professor Bhaer is probably not a Hegelian.

Professor Bhaer is maybe a Kantian. 

Professor Bhaer believes in God. Given the breakdown of Berlin at the time of his birth, it’s likely that he belonged to the Protestant majority. 

Professor Bhaer is almost certainly a German Romantic of Transcendental disposition, which we will discuss more tomorrow.

Professor Bhaer does not drink. Teetotaling comes with the territory. 

Professor Bhaer believes in educating women. Not only does he encourage Jo’s education and writing career, but he admits several girls to Plumfield. 

Professor Bhaer likes music. In an early encounter, Jo finds him humming Schubert (and a Goethe setting, at that—Romanticism!) “like a big bumblebee.” There’s that flute. In Little Men, we learn that he has a violin lying around—he gives it to a talented pupil—and that he himself plays bass viol in Plumfield’s regular musicales. 

Professor Bhaer has a family. He had a sister (deceased) and supports her two sons. At the end of Little Women we learn that the sister was named Minna; in Little Men we discover that the nephews are named Emil and Franz Hoffmann. Somewhat older than the other pupils, they help out around Plumfield school. Given that they are twenty-six in Jo’s Boys, we can assume that they were very young—more than twenty years younger—when they were orphaned, and when Jo first met Bhaer. 

Later, Emil becomes a sailor, conducts himself with valor during a shipwreck, and marries the captain’s daughter, Mary. She is, Alcott tells us, “unusually lively for an English girl.”

Franz, meanwhile, is a merchant and marries “blonde and buxom” German woman called Ludmilla Blumenthal. Jo “had feared that Franz would settle down into a comfortable, moneymaking burgher, and be content with that; but she soon saw that his love of music and his placid Ludmilla put much poetry into his busy life, and kept it from being too prosaic.” They live in Germany. Quoth his uncle, “He is too German to be content away from Vaterland, so we shall have him as a link between the new and the old, and that pleases me much.” 

Professor Bhaer’s teaching methods seem to be influenced by the writings of Johann Friedrich Herbart, who advocated for the development of productive members of society, with an emphasis on moral fiber. His teaching methodology involved lots of instructive stories from history and literature. As the historian E. J. Miller explains it, “Using this structure a teacher prepared a topic of interest to the children, presented that topic, and questioned them inductively, so that they reached new knowledge based on what they had already known, looked back and deductively summed up the lesson’s achievements, then related them to moral precepts for daily living”—aka, a typical day in the Bhaer neighborhood. 

Professor Bhaer ends up a college president. 

Professor Bhaer knows how to darn.

Professor Bhaer has “friends in Leipzig.” He writes a letter of introduction for a former pupil traveling to Germany. 

Professor Bhaer owns at least one umbrella. Obviously.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.