ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Laura Dassow Walls
"The Cosmopolitical Project of Louisa May Alcott"
Louisa May Alcott is best-known for her domestic novels, but her global success in this form points to an emerging cosmopolitanism, which she shares not only with father Bronson Alcott (who educated her in the most current European philosophies and theories of education) but with a widening transatlantic circle of women, including the transcendentalists Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, and Eliza Cabot Follen. These women used cosmopolitical self-culture, which traces to Immanuel Kant, as the means to become independent, self-unfolding intellectuals, members of a cosmopolitical “league” capable of realizing a global ethical revolution. Alcott’s own work, in particular, points to the power of fiction to connect with others across divisions of race, poverty, gender, and nation, and her domestic novels, as well as her thrillers, all play out both the hopes and the very real dangers of cosmopolitanism. These tensions are reflected in her construction, in the Little Women series, of Professor Fritz Bhaer as a German father-figure to pair with the American Jo March as ideal mother: Bhaer seems to derive from Eliza Cabot Follen's husband Karl/Charles Follen, a republican revolutionary intellectual who was exiled from Germany to the United States in 1824, and who became intimate friends with the Alcott circle before his untimely death in 1840. Even as Plumfield, the Bhaers’ school, tames dangerous romantic energies into Germanic Bildung and an educational program for global social progress, Alcott’s more transgressive novels unleash various Byronic, skeptical, and gender-bending potentials. Where other writers played out the era’s fierce and hopeful energies in philosophy or social activism, Alcott played them out in fictions that still speak to us today, to the degree that we are still caught in the same revolutionary moment.