When John Brooke Came Marching Home Again, Hurrah?

When John Brooke Came Marching Home Again, Hurrah?

“When John got out his books that night, Meg’s heart sank, and for the first time in her married life, she was afraid of her husband.”[1]

Judy Giesberg recently reminded Muster readers how much the Civil War shrouds Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, in print and on screen. The March sisters miss their Christmas presents just after Fredericksburg. Their chaplain-father serves in Virginia. Marmee volunteers at the Soldiers Aid Society until she leaves to care for Father. The Hummels starve with their breadwinner in uniform, and Amy attends a fair to raise money for freedpeople. In reality it was the author, however, not her father, who went to war. She served as a nurse in Washington, just after Fredericksburg, until typhoid fever nearly killed her. The experience led to her Hospital Sketches, but medicinal mercury shortened her life. She struggled with depression and alienation thereafter, which biographers link to the war. A veterans’ marker adorns her grave today.[2]

Eric Stoltz (bizarrely uniformed as both a sergeant and an officer) and Trini Alvarado as John Brooke and Meg in Little Women (1994). Brooke never appears in uniform in the 2019 film. Courtesy of Richly Rooted.

Re-reading Little Women after watching Greta Gerwig’s new film version–and looking at it through the lens of new literature on the difficult post-war readjustment of some Civil War veterans–I’m suddenly struck by the possibility that a veteran in the book serves as a stand-in for this side of Alcott. John Brooke is Laurie’s tutor, a soldier, and eventually Meg’s husband. Alcott based him on her brother-in-law John Pratt. She eventually embraced Pratt, but most readers dismiss Brooke as decent and boring. Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle are exceptions, countering that “there is no more loathsome character anywhere” in American literature. They highlight the infamous episode where new housewife Meg fails to make jelly that gels. Brooke comes home to a mess, a distraught wife, and no dinner. The authors are appalled at how he “laughs at her in front of his friend!”[3]

On the surface, such tensions in the Brooke family seem to reflect no more than trite comedy about newlyweds and new parents, complete with breezy prose and a happy ending. But with the recent literature on veterans in mind, we should return to Brooke. Smitten with Meg in 1863, he complains of his poverty and status before describing plans to enlist when Laurie goes to college. Brooke accompanies Marmee to Father’s bedside and endears himself to the family. Returning home, he woos Meg, who almost refuses his proposal until she relents to spite Aunt March. Her parents mandate delay; she is too young. We next see Brooke three years later. Alcott’s description is worth unpacking:

“She came suddenly upon Mr. Brooke.” From the 1896 edition of Little Women. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

John Brooke did his duty manfully for a year, got wounded, was sent home, and not allowed to return. He received no stars or bars, but he deserved them, for he cheerfully risked all he had, and life and love are very precious when both are in full bloom. Perfectly resigned to his discharge, he devoted himself to getting well, preparing for business, and earning a home for Meg.[4]

In 1864, John Pratt dodged military service and moved his family into the Alcott’s home, but his avatar “manfully” joined the army in another bit of Alcott revisionist history. He saw combat and was wounded badly enough to earn a discharge. Two years passed before Brooke recovered and could earn a living. Alcott never hints at chronic physical pain, but Brooke has changed. Reconsider the jelly incident. Meg apologizes, reflecting Marmee’s advice on subservience, but difficulties continue. Meg overspends on silk for a dress and blurts out that she hates poverty. Her under-employed and embarrassed husband sulks until Meg broaches a reconciliation that results in twins. Her nervous devotion to her children, however, again drives John away. Here Meg remembers Marmee’s admonitions:

John is a good man, but he has his faults, and you must learn to see and bear with them, remembering your own….He has a temper, not like ours—one flash and then all over—but the white, still anger that is seldom stirred, but once kindled is hard to quench. Be careful, be very careful, not to wake his anger against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect. [5]

“Both felt desperately uncomfortable.” From the 1896 edition of Little Women. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

In another book, that would be a mother’s warning about a potentially abusive husband. The effect is jarring; Marmee only praised Brooke before he enlisted. No stranger to suppressed anger, she has seen his inner demons. Meg too is “afraid” as John reads her expense accounts. Brooke pouted, but Meg and Marmee imagined worse. Indeed, Meg is later frantic that Brooke will be “harsh” with their tantrum-throwing son when he decides to stay alone in the child’s nursery. Despite John’s orders, Meg slips inside when sudden silence leaves her “imagining all sorts of impossible accidents.” What did she think John had done? [6]

Alcott to be sure stresses Brooke’s goodness. He is not her villain. Yet his wife and mother-in-law fear him, and years pass before the couple finds peace. One need not enter the current debate over post-traumatic stress disorder in the Civil War to acknowledge Brooke’s touchy disquiet and its effects on others. That was not a storybook ending, and it never appears on screen, but many veterans’ struggles to re-enter society were a real part of the war’s legacy. That included the nurse who wrote Little Women. One wonders how many of her original readers recognized someone even closer to home in John Brooke.

 

[1] Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868-69; reprint ed. with afterword by Nina Auerbach, New York: Bantam, 1983), 265. My thanks to readers Melissa Blair, Judy Giesberg, Nancy Noe, and Anne Sarah Rubin.

[2] Judy Giesberg, “Castles in the Air: A Review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women,” Muster, January 7, 2020, accessed January 15, 2020, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2020/01/castles-in-the-air-a-review-of-greta-gerwigs-little-women/; John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 234, 239-41, 250-56, 260-85, 290-94, 315, 368-69; Martha Saxton, Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography (New York: Noonday Press, 1995), 9, 101-3, 191, 196-98, 217-19, 221, 229-30, 230-40, 251-68, 309-11.

[3] Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle, “No One Likes Meg,” Avidly: A Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, July 18, 2016, accessed January 15, 2019, http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2016/07/18/no-one-likes-meg/.

[4] Alcott, Little Women, 112-29, 148-63, 211-220, 224 (quotation, 224).

[5] Alcott, Little Women, 257-69 (quotation, 263).

[6] Alcott, Little Women, 367-73 (quotation, 371).

 

 

 

Kenneth Noe

Kenneth W. Noe is the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. He is the author of three books and a forthcoming volume from LSU Press on the effect of weather on the Civil War.

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