Little Men or Little Monsters: Louisa May Alcott on Teaching Boys

I am reading, for the first time, Little Men, by the gentle soul, Louisa May Alcott.

It’s a kind of sequel to her far more famous book, Little Women, which told of the joys and the sorrows of the March family – the saintly “Marmie” and her four daughters, living on the edge of penury during the Civil War, while Mr. March, a Unitarian minister in the day when Unitarians spoke freely and warmly about our Father in heaven, was serving as a chaplain in the Union army. The most sprightly of the March girls, Jo, ends up marrying an older German gentleman, a gentle bruin of a professor named Mr. Bhaer, and he and she, in their home at Plumfield, establish a school for boys, rich and poor, those with good homes and those with none at all. Hence Little Men.

Miss Alcott shows us what a liberal used to be like. The Bhaers insist upon honesty and obedience from the boys, but they understand that they are only boys, and that their task is to help them become plain-dealing, strong-limbed, clear-thinking, and energetic men. Forgiveness is therefore the air that the boys breathe, forgiveness and the generosity that makes forgiveness possible; not leniency and indifference. The Bhaers know quite well that boys are not girls, so that one form of this forgiveness and generosity comes across in their tolerance of boyish action, adventure, and play. The boys are permitted a pillow fight before settling in at bedtime – a pillow fight with sensible rules of engagement. The boys become the occasions for study and learning. One boy breaks in a young colt, without helmet or padding. The boys are more than permitted, they are encouraged to roam the fields and the woods in their free time, playing, swimming, collecting birds’ eggs, stones, butterflies, arrowheads, and other objects. Another boy keeps chickens for their eggs, which he sells for spending money. Another boy is saved from the streets, he and his violin, and he plays for the Bhaers and their young menagerie. The Bhaers have a niece and two children of their own, a very young girl and her still younger cousins, and these too take part in the adventures, with the girl, Daisy, cooking sweets for the boys on her own makeshift stove. Mrs. Bhaer believes that it is good for boys to be around girls, to make their dispositions a little more mild, and to orient them toward the respect for women that true men ought to show.

Now, you know that something is very wrong with your society when Louisa May Alcott strikes you as more sensitive to the masculine character and genius, and wiser about who boys are and how to make them into men, and more adventurous in her treatment of children generally than you are. It is as if Jo March the tomboy or Mrs. Bhaer the matron could whip the typical male high school senior physically, let alone morally or intellectually. Or you know that something is very wrong with your church’s approach when the moral, educational, and religious wisdom of a Unitarian woman living in New England a hundred and fifty years ago can appeal more powerfully to the soul of a boy than can your schools, your sub-sacred music, and your dilute reading of the word of God.

There’s another consideration, one that is painful to express. The Bhaers must consider very carefully which boys they may admit to Plumfield. Everyone enters on a trial basis. That is because the Bhaers assume that their work is at least as moral as it is educational in a narrow sense. A bad child can spoil the others, and indeed much of the book is concerned with the moral reclamation of a spirited roughneck taken from the streets. We might ask, “Which of our own children would the Bhaers allow to be near their boys?”

To judge from how they speak, how they carry themselves, what music they listen to, what images by the many thousands have passed before their eyes; to judge from their sallow countenances, their sloping shoulders, and their massive ignorance both of gainful trades and the life of the intellect; to judge from the few books they have read, and how little of the Good Book they are aware of, the Bhaers would no more permit our children to be around the boys at Plumfield than they would lace the boys’ dinners with shredded toadstools. Little Monsters, they might call us.

One thing is certain. You can’t have any clear idea of how to raise boys if you don’t have any aim for them, precisely as boys on their way to manhood. If you deny that there even is such a thing as manhood, then you have no business teaching boys, no more than you ought to be a pilot if you deny the science of aerodynamics. And yet our schools, even Catholic schools, are filled with just such deniers of nature.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.