Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Louisa May Alcott and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué

Another post, another youthful Gilded Age reader. I must have perused the opening passages of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868-9) a good handful of times by now, and every time one moment has given me pause.

Jo March, famously grumbling that Christmas won't be Christmas without presents, continues:
Later in the book, Jo gets her wish. And the book - or, at least, Sintram - appears again in Jo's Boys (1886), and is particularly associated with the character of Dan:
Undine and Sintram? Who or what might that be? I decided to do a bit of digging.

The texts that Jo March longs for, acquires, and then passes on to her children are the creation of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a German romantic (pictured above) who published most of his works in the early nineteenth century. In Undine, first published in 1811, a water sprite marries a knight. In Sintram, a knight undertakes a semi-allegorical quest. And since it appears, at the moment, that all my roads of enquiry lead back to Walter Scott, I was pleased to find that, in 1845, the American Review declared unabashedly, "Fouqué is the German Scott, with a higher sense of the ideal, a finer feeling of the beautiful, and a greater delicacy of execution." Certainly, the two men seem to have been linked together, not least because of their historic and chivalric concerns. The preface to this 1845 American edition of Undine and Sintram (translated by the Rev. Thomas Tracy, also American), quotes Coleridge's judgement:
Scott himself was also quick to pay compliment:
As such quotations suggest, the works of de la Motte Fouqué had a prominence in literary culture - both English and American - that has all but vanished, which hints at the importance of German romance in the first half of the nineteenth century. For example, Longfellow expressed his admiration for his works; Emerson owned this 1824 American edition of his Peter Schlemihl; Poe reviewed, favourably, an 1839 translation of Undine; and, perhaps most revealingly, Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott's teaching associate, translated some of de le Motte Fouqué's stories 

For Alcott, certainly, these stories seem seem to have held a special resonance. In Madeline B. Stern's life of Alcott, she makes explicit reference to the copy of Undine that belonged to Elizabeth Alcott, Louisa May's sister and the model for Beth in Little Women, who died in 1858. And a quick trawl through Google Books shows that, alongside the incidents mentioned above, Alcott referred to Undine and other works by de la Motte Fouqué repeatedly. I think I'll put Undine and Sintram on the summer reading pile.

Further reading:
This article by Karen Sands-O'Connor for American Transcendental Quarterly explores the significance of Alcott's use of de la Motte Fouqué's stories in Little Women.