Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men

To use the phrase of St. Thomas Aquinas, farming and education belong to the category of “cooperative arts.” The farmer does not himself produce the harvest, but provides the cultivation of the soil, the sowing of the seed, the tending of the crop, and the labor of reaping. Mother Nature’s fruitfulness produces the abundance of the fields which the farmer has prepared by his plowing and sowing. Likewise, the teacher does not literally teach any more than the farmer produces fruit. The teacher also relies upon another power, the reason of the student, to complete the process of teaching and learning. The teacher too prepares the proper environment, broadcasts seeds, tends to the young, removes weeds, and hopes for a bountiful harvest. This image of the teacher as the sowing farmer and the pupil as the fruit of the harvest inspires Alcott’s classic. When Mr. Bhaer begins his story, “Once upon a time … there was a great gardener who had the largest garden ever seen,” the young pupils of Plumfield Academy know he is alluding to teaching and learning, especially when he mentions the bad habits or “weeds” that need removal and “the great harvest” he hopes to glean.

The Bhaers as teachers cooperate with nature, respecting the maleness and femaleness of their students, acknowledging the ability of the child to learn and to love learning, and appreciating each pupil’s temperament, individuality, and bent. As they practice their art, they envision the fruit they wish to gather—the ideals of education they wish to instill. Mrs. Bhaer envisions a harvest of children who love God and neighbor, learn the virtue of kindness, live with honesty and integrity, and do useful, productive work; and Mr. Bhaer hopes to see the boys acquire the virtues of “self-knowledge, self-help, and self-control.” The education at Plumfield Academy includes ample opportunity for play, daily chores caring for animals or gardens, instruction in manners and morals, and academic subjects. The educational ideal that governs the school is the norm of balance and wholeness that addresses the mind, body, heart, and conscience and cultivates civilized human beings. The Bhaers are wary of too many rules that enforce only discipline and stifle the spirit. They are suspicious of too much study that breeds only bookishness and deprives the children of the experience of the senses and the adventure of the outdoors. With the ideals of developing sensitive, dutiful, fun-loving, gracious, and intelligent boys and girls the Bhaers take all the necessary preparatory measures to provide the environment, seeds, correction, and standards to produce the bountiful harvest in which boys and girls mature into little men and little women.

If fifty percent of education consists of the right atmosphere and environment as Chesterton observed, Plumfield Academy provides a natural setting for the love of learning. As Nat the new boy enters the school, his first impressions sense the hospitable aura of the school that resembles a home: “The house seemed swarming with boys, who were beguiling the rainy twilight with all sorts of amusements.” Nat observes all the lively fun that surrounds him: boys discussing cricket, playing a flute, drawing caricatures, or reveling in games of tag, marbles, or checkers and the customary Saturday night pillow fight. This wholesome mirth that fills the air convinces Nat that he belongs to this most human world. The boys not only testify that “We have such good times here” and “It’s the nicest place in the world” but also Mrs. Bhaer affirms their sentiments: “This place is made for all sorts of boys to have a good time in, and to learn how to help themselves and be useful men.” In short, Plumfield Academy provides the air, sunshine, and water in the form of kindness, friendship, and mirth that allow for the growth of the mind, body, and heart. The school welcomes ordinary, common boys like Nat and Dan and forms them chivalrous little men: “If a single day of care and kindness had done so much, a year of patient cultivation would surely bring a grateful harvest from his neglected garden ….”

The Bhaers offer not only the rich soil and environment of Plumfield Academy as fertile ground for potent seed, but also tend the young plants in their care with mercy and  justice,  love and discipline, in order to form the children in gentleness and strength. When Nat arrives as a sickly, neglected orphan, Mrs. Bhaer’s motherly care addresses his most primary needs with a bath, a hearty meal, and the comfort of rest. When Nat reverts to his bad habit of lying, Mr. Bhaer insists on correction to cure the fault.  When Dan disobeys the rules and endangers the boys with reckless behavior and cigar smoking that causes a fire, he is expelled. Recalling the punishment he once received for dishonesty when his grandmother snipped his tongue with a scissors, Mr. Bhaer decides that Nat will inflict punishment on him rather than the teacher punishing the student. When Dan repents and apologizes, he is forgiven and welcomed. The Bhaers combine a strict sense of justice and a scrupulous examination of conscience with kindness, forgiveness, and patience to eliminate the predominant faults or “weeds” that spoil the flourishing of the garden of children. Mrs. Bhaer’s “conscience book” offers the boys weekly reports about their progress in overcoming bad habits, improving in manners, and growing in virtue. This special attention the boys receive amounts to the tender care they receive as young plants—a vigilance that encourages them not only to do good for a reward but also “to love goodness for itself” and to acquire “a glimpse of the beauty of virtue.”

The final chapter “Thanksgiving” celebrates both the bounty of the earth and the harvest of Plumfield Academy. All the children bring to the feast the fruits of their gardens, they provide entertainment with their musical performances, plays, and gymnastics, and they end the feast with a dance as the little men and women  prove that they have been refined and civilized by the wholesome influences of the culture of the school and home that have nourished them. Dan, the rough bully, has learned to show tenderness to young children because Mother Bhaer has touched “the soft spot in his heart.” Demi, the bookish scholar, has learned to appreciate “the knowledge of common things” like birds, and bees, and leaves. Nan the tomboy has acquired the graces of femininity, and Daisy the “Bettyish” little homemaker has learned to enjoy the physical life of outdoor adventure.

The gardening of Father and Mother Bhaer, then, has yielded an abundant harvest that corresponds to the fruitfulness of love. When asked the secret of this cornucopia, Mrs. Bhaer answers, “I only loved them, and let them see it. Fritz did the rest.” The garden teems with a rich harvest when the farmer or teacher sows, tends, weeds, and reaps as a labor of love; when he releases the hidden potentialities needing cultivation to be awakened; when he cooperates with Mother nature’s design; and when he trusts in divine providence to bless the work of human hands. As the Bhaers marvel at the variety and copiousness of their fruitful garden-school, they are caught by surprise when their little men and women encircle them and sing “And we come to offer/ Thanks where thanks are due, / With grateful hearts and voices, / Father, mother, unto you.” The wonder of the plentiful harvest and the fruitfulness of love reveal the great divine law at work in the field and in the school: “For love is a flower that grows in any soil, works its great miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow, blooming fair and fragrant all the year, and blessing those who give and those who receive.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children s Literature.

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