By Daniel Shealy
The chapter “A Friend” presents readers with two important topics: a glimpse into America’s mass-market publishing world of the 19th century and the nascent romance between Jo and Professor Bhaer. While these two topics initially appear at odds with each other, they instead blend together by the chapter’s end to give us a better understanding of both the Professor and Jo.
When Jo, in her best attire, climbs the stairs to the “Weekly Volcano” office, she stands in stark contrast to the male world she enters—a world Alcott herself knew well since she was still penning thrillers for Frank Leslie, even as she was composing this chapter. (From the late 1850s until 1870, Alcott published over 30 sensational stories.) In this portrait of a shabby room engulfed in cigar smoke, the author paints an unflattering image of a slightly seedy male-dominated publishing world. As Mr. Dashwood edits Jo’s story, striking out all of her “moral reflections,” he advises her, “Morals don’t sell nowadays.” However, readers often overlook the narrator’s ironic comment immediately following his remark: “[This] was not quite a correct statement, by the way.” With winking self-regard, the author ridicules one genre while embracing another. Part 1 of Little Women was already successful when Alcott wrote these words. The qualifying “not quite a correct statement” whispers to the reader: consider the volume in your hand.
As Jo conjures up heroes “with every perfection under the sun” for her sensation stories, she discovers, in Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house, “a live hero”: Professor Bhaer. After he condemns the writing of thrillers in general, she takes his message to heart because she values Bhaer’s “goodness” and “intellect.” Examining her own work, she realizes that her stories “are trash” and abandons them. Her attempts at didactic fiction and children’s stories prove unsuccessful, so she gives up writing and begins to spend more evenings with Bhaer, a good use of her time as our narrator hints of Jo’s future: “she was learning other lessons besides German, and laying a foundation for the sensation story of her own life.”
As the chapter closes with Jo’s preparation to return home, readers get the first glimpse that Bhaer is romantically interested in Jo. When she asks him to come and visit, Bhaer questions, with a look of “eager expression, which she did not see,” if her request is genuine. But after Jo quickly invites him to come the following month for Laurie’s graduation, he immediately thinks that she is in love with Laurie and speaks to her in “an altered tone.” As he sits in his room alone later that night, we see him hoping for a future that he does not think possible. But Alcott, in the final lines of the chapter, gives her readers a hint as to how it may all turn out. When Jo says goodbye to Bhaer the next morning, she notes that she has made a good friend and thinks to herself: “I’ll try to keep him all my life.”
Daniel Shealy is Professor of English at UNC-Charlotte. He is co-editor of Alcott’s Selected Letters and Journals and most recently edited Little Women: An Annotated Edition. In the late 1980s, he discovered “new” Alcott thrillers, which were later published in Freaks of Genius.