Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Great War, Volume Two, Chapter 5-3

This section concludes Chapter 5. Next week, I'll post the first installment of Chapter 6 which returns to Philomene.

Aisne Sector near Passel, France. October 1st, 1915. The MPs led them back into town, to a house on the main road that looked nearly ordinary, but for the fact that the houseplant in the kitchen window was growing out through a broken pane and another green-tuniced MP was standing guard outside the front door. This man came to attention and gave a salute as the small group approached the door. He held there stiffly, until Walter realized that he was the highest ranking one present, and thus the recipient of the salute. He returned the courtesy, allowing the guard to return to an at-ease position.

All this saluting and standing at attention was usually dispensed with in the line, and increasingly the line regiments did so even when in reserve, except when dealing with actual officers. Perhaps the military police maintained a more formal tone, or perhaps this courtesy masked a deeper trouble. Surely the men could not have got into so very much trouble in the little time since he had left them drinking at the estamine.

“You’re from 5th Kompanie, yes?” the MP asked.

“Yes,” Walter replied. “I’m the sergeant of 7th Korporalschaft.” If the men had got into some kind of trouble, perhaps he could smooth it over without Leutnant Weber having to find out. Or at least keep the incident within the kompanie. If only the MPs would agree not to report it to the regiment.

“Good. Good. You see, it’s a matter of some delicacy,” said the MP, and led the way into the house.

continue reading

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Humans Are Worth It

I recently read a progressive Catholic who argued in reference to why the political left was a better fit for Catholics than the political right:
[A] society that puts before a woman $30,000 in childbirth costs and a $350 abortion is a wicked society.
I think that there's a certain truth which is important to acknowledge here, in that in a Christian society it is important that we help people to do good. Christ is clear that we have a moral responsibility for those who are in need. All of us have dual duties, to fulfill out duties to ourselves and others to the best of our ability, and to help those unable to help themselves. This means that people do indeed have the duty to meet their own expenses to the greatest degree possible, but that we also have the duty to find ways to help people who cannot fully meet those needs on their own.

However, I think there's also a deep problem with this kind of "it's the unjust structures" argument for how to address abortion. It is true that paying the wages of the medical professionals who assist throughout pregnancy and childbirth (which, possible inefficiencies aside, is what that $30,000 cost represents) is more expensive than paying an abortionist to kill the child. However, there are countless senses in which it would be cheaper to immorally ignore the needs of another than it would be to meet those needs.

Is it wicked for a society to confront parents with either the costs of feeding and clothing and housing a child for eighteen years or the option of simply drowning the child as an infant?

Is it wicked for a society to ask a city or state to pay for the treatment and rehabilitation of someone addicted to hard drugs when it would be much cheaper to have some vigilante just shoot them?

We don't tend to make these rhetorical comparisons because it's not considered socially acceptable to kill one's child to avoid expense. And while we do a pretty bad job of treatment and rehabilitation, I would hope that society would still recoil at the idea of a cost calculation as whether it's cheaper to treat or murder someone addicted to drugs.

Indeed, in every example I can think of, it is in the short term easier and cheaper for people to neglect or discard the vulnerable than it is to care for them. Various social solidarity schemes can, to some extent, spread out the cost and work, but caring for someone is always going to take more time and resources than not caring for them. Does this mean that caring for people makes society worse off? By no means. To look at the time and resources it takes to care for others is to look at only one side of the equation. Why do we put the time and resources into caring for others instead of disposing of them? Because they are people. They are themselves of great value.

Is our society or our economic system wicked because it costs more to pay for childbirth than for an abortion? No. A childbirth costs more because it involves more work from more people. What is wicked is that we have fostered the idea that it is acceptable to discard the most vulnerable -- whether the unborn, the elderly or terminally ill, or the disabled -- rather than investing the time and resources to take care of them. Humans are worth it. That should be the foundation of our society and its structures.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Movie Review: 1917

Given the topic and the extremely positive buzz around the movie, it was virtually a necessity that I go see Sam Mendes's Oscar nominated film 1917. Fortunately, it came in for a short run at our town's three screen independent theater, and so MrsDarwin and I were able to catch a Sunday matinee performance. We both very much enjoyed it, and I would strongly recommend the film.

The premise of the film is simple: Two soldiers are given a mission to carry a message to an isolated forward unit of British soldiers. This unit is preparing to make an attack the next morning but the general has just received aerial photos showing that they will be walking into a trap, unknowingly attacking a heavily fortified position. Telephone lines to this unit have been cut, and so these two soldiers have been selected to act as runners and get the general's orders through. They've been selected because the brother one of the soldiers is a lieutenant in the unit they are trying to reach.

As the two soldiers set off, the movie follows them through their experiences as they try to deliver their message.

In a sense, this is an inversion of the plot of another famous war movie of a later war. In Saving Private Ryan, a whole platoon is sent off to pull one man out of the post D-Day fighting in Normandy, in what's a combination mercy and PR play chosen by the top brass because his brothers all happen to have been killed within days of each other. In this movie, two men are sent out with a message to pull out 1600 men lest they lose their lives in a misguided attack. (For those who found the famous D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan a little too much for their movie sensibilities, I'd say that 1917 is significantly less violent as a movie. It does contain several moments of trench grotesqueness and some of the violence in it is quite personal, but it is not of the quivering piles of intestines school of war movie.)

1917 is very much my kind of war movie and historical movie in that it is focused entirely on the small scale. There are no famous people portrayed in the movie. On a few occasions we see large vistas or large numbers of men in action, but the story is taken up with two men, their mission, and the people and situations they meet along the way. The characters are also very human characters. They are not stand-ins for great causes. Everyone you meet seems like someone you could easily meet in real life. Some reviews I've seen complained that the movie was nationalistic or that it failed to present the madness of the Great War. I think both of these complaints are off. What I think these critics were reacting against is that they've come to expect that any WW1 movie will involve some very broadly drawn parables about the conflict, along the lines of Kubrick's Paths of Glory. In fact, Paths of Glory owes a lot more to the desperately anti-war fiction of the 1930s than it does to how the French actually operated during the Great War. And similarly, the "lions led by donkeys" legend about the British army is just that, a legend. This movie dispenses with these kind of point scoring exercises to tell a story which is simply human, and I think it does so with restrained brilliance.  Here, when at a key moment we meet an officer who desperately wants to send his men into an attack, he's not because he's some bloodthirsty maniac wanting to get a promotion, it's because he actually thought he had a chance to stage a breakthrough and finally move things towards an ending.  We end up feeling for the officer as well as for his men.

Also of interest to me was how good the historical setting of 1917 would be. Having been deeply immersed in all things WW1 related for the last eight years or so, I was naturally curious to see if they would do a good job or if a lot of things would throw me out. Overall it's very well done. The historical detail in costumes and settings was meticulous. It's also well set among the wider strategic context of 1917. In the spring of 1917 the Germans sought to strengthen their position on the Western Front by making a strategic withdrawal to a set of positions called the Hindenburg Line which had been constructed ahead of time. This gave them a stronger set of fortifications to defend, and it effectively shortened the line. Both of these meant that they could hold the line with fewer troops, and by 1917 the Germans were running short on troops. The move also put the French and British at a disadvantage, because it forced them to try to move their lines of communication and supply forward across the utterly devastated area that the opposing sides had been fighting over for the previous two and a half years.

As the Germans pulled back, they intentionally destroyed or booby-trapped anything which might be of use: cutting down fruit trees, killing farm animals, dumping bodies down wells to foul them, etc. Buildings that weren't pulled down were often rigged with timed explosives in order to kill Allied troops and returning French civilians. Memoirist Ernst Junger writes in Storm of Steel about how his stormtroop unit found the work so distasteful they refused to participate, feeling that such wanton destruction was no occupation for soldiers.

No one pauses to deliver a history lesson, but that's clearly the moment in which 1917 takes place, and we see the results everywhere. In that sense, this was the rare war movie that actually had additional rewards for the viewer who knows more about the period, whereas many historical movies only offer the knowing viewer extra cringes.

Overall, definitely a movie that I'd recommend.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Great War, Volume Two, Chapter 5-2

Aisne Sector near Passel, France. September 28th, 1915. It was not until the end of September that Walter first led the new assault unit into action. This had not been for lack of effort on the part of Walter, Gefreiter Herman Reise, and the new gruppe leader they’d chosen to round out the assault unit: Gefreiter Karl Bretz

They had quickly selected the men for the assault unit, a mix of soldiers Walter believed had the right sort of toughness to lead under fire and younger replacements who had not yet gained the caution of experience, and Leutnant Weber had fulfilled his promise to excuse the unit from most duties when the kompanie was behind the lines, giving the NCOs time to train their men in new tactics. Through the good offices of the supply section they had supplied themselves with knives, revolvers, and the new M1915 hand grenades.

“You’ll like these,” the supply sergeant had told Walter of these latter, when he first provided him with a case of them.

Walter had eyed the grenades doubtfully. Each one looked like a steel can mounted at the end of a wooden hammer handle.

The sergeant showed him how to pull the cord that hung down from the can -- “Pull firmly. It’s a friction fuse. You should feel a sharp scrape. Pull it, count to five, and” -- he gestured with his hands. “BOOM!”

Skeptical, Karl and Herman had tested one against a couple of water barrels they set up in a communication trench. Pulled the string. Lobbed the stick around the corner. Counted to five. The blast was earsplitting, a higher, sharper blast than an artillery or mortar shell that left their ears ringing. On inspection, the water barrels were all leaking. Not from clear shrapnel holes. The steel can seemed to have blown itself to pieces too tiny to do much damage. But from the smashing blow of the concussion.

From that moment they were all converts to this new battle creed.

“Leave your rifle slung over your back,” Walter told the men. “Your rifle is for the enemy fifty yards away. You’ll use it to defend the enemy’s trench once you’ve taken it and cleared it. But to attack, you’ll use the grenades. As you approach the trench, throw a grenade in, drop to the ground, and wait for the blast before rushing in. When you’re clearing, thrown one around every corner. Don’t look. That’s why your rifle is useless. Lean around the corner with your rifle to see the enemy and he’ll shoot you in the face. Lob the grenade over. Wait for the explosion, then go around the corner and see what you find.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to throw a grenade where we can’t see, Sergeant? What if it’s our own men?”

“We’re an assault unit. When we’re attacking an enemy position, we stay together, and everyone else is an enemy.”

And so they’d practiced attacking old positions with dummy grenades: tin cans filled with sand attached to wooden handles. They rushed the trench and threw grenades down into it. They hurled grenades around corners. They dropped them into dugouts.

After a few weeks Walter had been ready to test the unit against a real objective.

“Surely the men need more time?” Leutnant Weber asked. “All this is still so new.”

“It is new, sir. But because of that we won’t know what is successful until they try these things in battle. Right now it’s all a game, based on what I think will work, not on facing a real enemy.”

“Soon then, sergeant. Keep up the training.”

And so the weeks had passed. Walter had seen some of the reports Leutnant Weber had written, detailing the preparations for the assault unit. It was clear that Weber took pride in the plan. And yet Weber gave no orders to attack. Was he perhaps afraid to follow through, afraid to put his idea up against a real enemy and risk the chance that they would not fair well?

Things went on in this way for some time. The stretch of the line occupied by the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment was quiet. To the north, near Arras and Loos, the French and British were both making attacks. To the east, the French were attacking in Champagne. But here, the French opposite were quiet, and it was a quiet that even the Leutnant was not particularly eager to disturb just in order to test his new assault unit.

Among the men the unit was in danger of becoming a joke. The fact that they were often excused from the more mundane duties in order to train provided a ready source of resentment.
[continue reading]

Friday, January 17, 2020

Paying For College

We spent the other night filling out the FAFSA (Free Application For Student Aid) form for our eldest daughter, who is in the final stages of applying to go to the college were MrsDarwin and I ourselves went. The FAFSA collects information about how much income and savings you have, and informs you how much the federal government believes you can afford to pay towards your child's college education. This amount is then subtracted from the cost of the college you want to attend to determine your need, which is the amount which colleges are supposed to help you find some kind combination of grants and loans to cover.

Knowing that we have come to make a pretty good income, I expected that we would be responsible for paying a good bit more of our children's college costs than my parents were able to when I went to college. But at the same time, I had heard over and over again, "Don't worry, the published tuition is funny money. No one pays full price."

It was, thus, with some shock that I sat staring at the computer screen when, after several hours of Kafka-esque struggle during which I went through all the stages of modern disillusion other than turning into a giant bug, I completed the form and was informed by the FAFSA website that our "estimated family contribution" was somewhat over four months of my take-home income (and incidentally more than the total cost of tuition, room, and board for our daughter's chosen college.)

Now, there's a certain logic to this. The whole point of financial aid is to help people afford college who could not otherwise afford it. Thus, logically, we do not need financial aid as much as a family that makes half what we do. And there are, in truth, plenty of families that make half what we do, or even less. It is entirely just that the public money intended to help people afford college go to those people and not to us.

And yet, even people who make well above the median income don't tend to have significant portions of their income just sitting around as spare. People make decisions about what house to buy, what classes to enroll their kids in, what contributions to commit to make to their churches, etc. based on their income, and although with increased affluence comes increased flexibility, it doesn't tend to be 25% flexibility.

Of course, one very clear solution to this probably would have been to spread the college expense out over more years. Any financial planner would tell you that you should start saving for college early so that you can have the power of compounding interest working for you and also so that you can spread the expense over more years. However, this is where our particular history makes things a bit more difficult. For the first five years we were married (during which we had our first three children) our income was low enough and our family budget was so tight that we weren't successfully putting away savings for anything: retirement, college, emergency fund, nothing. Fortunately, during that period my mother put aside some money to help pay for the kids' college, and since that was fifteen years ago it's grown over the intervening years to the point where each of the older kids have almost a year's tuition in savings. That will prove a huge help, and it underscores that having a family that can help with such things makes a big difference.

Over the following five years, our income grew a bit and we were able to pay off some debts and start making basic 401k contributions. But even then, we didn't really have much money to put away for the kids college, and if our income was still at that level, the FAFSA would have assessed our family contribution as essentially zero.

Then over the last ten years our income began to grow pretty steadily. I changed jobs three times. We moved to Ohio and bought our big old house which gobbles up a chunk of money in repairs every year. We had more kids, bought vehicles large enough to carry a family with more than seven members, and yes, finally began putting away money to help pay for the kids' college. But because this growth in our earnings was fairly recent (and at first we used it to pay off debts and pay for family resources we hadn't had before) we didn't have that many years to save. We also didn't have that many years to re-adjust our thinking. I was still thinking of the conventional wisdom that "no one pays full price". And not knowing the precise nature of the FAFSA calculation, I was thinking that just as having seven kids lowers our taxes quite a bit, having seven kids would also reduce the amount that we were expected to cover out of pocket for college. (Hint: FAFSA gives you very little credit for having lots of kids.)

With a little more time, I might have realized that I needed to go on a crash college savings program. And indeed, when I sat down with a financial planner at our bank a month ago to talk about retirement savings, he looked at my summary of our family and said, "You have seven kids? Your biggest thing to think about right now is that you could have nearly a million in college expenses over the next twenty years."

And I laughed nervously because a million dollars is a number that one isn't used to talking seriously about outside of work, and I was still half thinking, "But no one pays full price..." We're having our follow-up meeting in a couple weeks, and I won't laugh off the college question this time.

It also strikes me that this explains a bit about a phenomenon which had seemed odd to me in politics: young adults from fairly upper-middle-class backgrounds being very, very attached to the "free college for all" plans being presented by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Well, if a lot of these people had parents who were too affluent to qualify for many grants or subsidized loans, yet committed to too much spending to afford to actually pay for their colleges, they ended up with a fairly large amount of debt in unsubsidized (higher interest) loans. So now they're out of college, with lots of debt to pay off, and looking up at their parents who are making a lot more money than they are and getting ready to retire soon. It's easy to see how such people would conclude the system is fundamentally unfair. And yet, from a progressive point of view, the way that the family contribution to college education is calculated is one of the most progressive taxes they could desire. People in the bottom 60% or so of incomes will be assessed virtually no contribution. And over a certain level of income, the calculation assumes that you can devote nearly 50% of all your incremental income to paying for college. Add that to taxes, and it's close to the kind of 1950s top marginal tax rates that progressives pine for.

My own advice, having gone through this experience is: If you make over $100k a year (the exact cliff point will depend a bit on your taxes, family size, etc.) or if you are likely to make that much by the time your kids reach college, you are going to be end up being assessed with a pretty hefty "estimated family contribution". Unless you're pretty confident that your child is going to be so strong on some recruiting criteria (academic, sports, arts, or what you will) that colleges will be throwing money at him or her for the privilege of getting him as a student, start socking away money in a 529 college savings account or an ordinary investment account and let the power of compound interest do some of the work for you. You may find that you are one of the "nobodies" who is asked to pay pretty close to full price for college. Also, of course, do some reasonable assessment whether college is the best fit for each child and what college options are more affordable. (In the case of this student, college does seem like the right next step, and the college she wants to go to is about as cheap as a private college gets.) But be prepared for applying for financial aid to be a pretty harrowing experience.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Great War, Volume Two: Chapter 5-1

It has been a while, and I've struggled with time and other obligations, started a new job, and got my earlier novel If You Can Get It accepted for publication in the fall of 2020. However, I've not been entirely idle on The Great War, and I am determined to finish it, as I believe it's the best thing I've written thus far. Some day I'll see this beast in print.

I've got a number of installments that I've written during the interlude, and starting today I will post one each Sunday while continuing to write more. My hope is that I can write fast enough that I won't fall behind this weekly schedule even once I'm through my backlog. Thank you to anyone who is reading along. I appreciate your patience.

Aisne Sector near Passel, France. July 12th, 1915. The officer bunker of the 5th Kompanie, 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment, served as a perverse memorial to the French homes which had once stood in the villages south of Passel. The entrance was hidden by a curtain of sacking hung across an opening in the woven wicker wall of the trench. Two steps beyond -- enough that stray shrapnel coming from any angle other than a burst directly in the entrance would find a resting place in the floor or walls -- there stood a door. An eight paneled door, solid oak, which had once graced the home of a doctor’s widow in Rib├ęcourt-Dreslincourt. The scratch marks where her Pekingese had demanded uncounted times to be let in were still visible in the finish of the bottom foot of the wood. But now the widow and the Pekingese were living with her daughter and son-in-law in Paris, the house was a shattered shell, and the door opened onto a flight of forty wooden steps that led steeply down into the ground, lit by several small kerosene lanterns hung from wood support beams above.

The room at the bottom was furnished with all the best that scavenging could supply. Several Persian rugs, of varying design and condition, covered the rough planks of the floor. Two large beds, complete with carven headboards and feather mattresses, stood against opposing walls, and against the third was a pair of Second Empire settees, their unyielding cushions upholstered in faded green velvet. A black enameled wood-burning stove, which had been the pride of a young housewife until her neighbor became the first in the town to get a gas one, stood in a corner, and its chimney pipe disappeared into the ceiling, running up through more than forty feet of earth to a hooded vent set in the ground behind the trench line. The walls were lined with wooden boards, and on them hung pictures: engravings, paintings, photographs.

Leutnant Weber did his work at an elegant little desk with curving legs and claw feet. On the table nearby stood crystal decanters, and on a shelf that served as sideboard were plates and cups culled from the remains of a half dozen different sets of china. A bookshelf was packed with handsome French volumes, which to Weber’s schoolboy French were readable. When word had got out that the kompanie commander liked books, the men took to outdoing each other in finding volumes bound in smooth, fragrant leather and stamped with gold. For themselves, bound volumes of the illustrated La Petit Parisien and photographs of unclad girls were of more interest, but they were proud to show their affection for the leutnant with elevated tastes.

Few of these men would have ever considered taking something from another’s home a year before, and yet none would have thought to describe what they now did so naturally as stealing. These little treasures, the leavings of people who had fled their homes before the flood waters of war washed over them, were just another part of the new world the men inhabited. These finds were theirs by right, a small compensation for the loss of freedom, of friends, of women, of time and space for themselves. They no more questioned their right to them than they questioned the authority of the officers who told them when to wake, when to stand guard, where to go, and when to attack.

And so when Walter was summoned to meet with Leutnant Weber, he came down the wooden steps into the round-the-clock dimness of the dugout, scraped his boots on the mat at the bottom under the critical eye of Weber’s soldier servant, sat in a wooden chair opposite the desk, and accepted a delicate china teacup full of steaming tea generously laced with cognac.

Continue reading...

MrsDarwin at the Movies: Star Wars and Little Women

We kept meaning to write a review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but the more reviews I read of it, the more I realized I'd completely forgotten about The Last Jedi. Total plot threads, simply deleted from my memory. I also realized: I just don't feel strongly enough about The Rise of Skywalker to have much interesting to contribute to the discussion. At this point I am so little invested in the world-building of Star Wars that whatever bizarro givens the Powers That Be want to toss out for why the Bad Guys Do What They Do just wash over me. Even the mega trade wars of the prequels made more sense than the strange rise of the First Order and collapse of the Revolution. (In no way do I mean to apply the word "sense" to the prequel scripts, though -- I remember blinking during the second prequel, what was it, Attack of the Clones?, and wondering what on earth was going on in the current scene and why I couldn't remember anything that had previously happened in the movie.)

Anyway, enough about the prequels, from anyone, ever again.

There were only two major plot threads in TROS I cared about, and I've blocked most else from my memory. One of them, the resolution of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo was exactly what I felt it ought to be, from a dramatic and tragic perspective. I was completely satisfied there. The second, the resolution of Rey and Finn, was not what it should have been, and was underwritten and underserved. I award no points to the screenwriters and director, and may God have mercy on their souls.

Just about everything else, you understand, I've already forgotten. Someone mentioned Chewie's medal, and I was like, "What?" Someone mentioned Lando, and I'd forgotten he was in it, for the very reason that his role was completely forgettable. Someone talked about Leia training Rey, and I thought, "Was THAT what was going on?", but I don't think you can blame me there, because the entire movie was so rushed and bits were crammed in piecemeal here and there.

Just kidding, there's one other thing I do remember: Poe's conversation with the girl in the mask, and then she lets him see her eyes, and he asks if he can kiss her when he's escaping, and even at the end when she smacks him down the viewer is satisfied because there is some chemistry going on.

...Which is largely what the movie lacked everywhere else, except between Kylo/Ben and Rey because Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are spectacular actors, and John Boyega should sue for having the character with the best set-up and the least payoff. 

And that's enough about Star Wars, from anyone, ever again.


Today we went to see Little Women, and while we were there some crazy driver did a hit and run and sideswiped our massive van, sitting innocently in the middle of a long line of cars parallel parked on the street. The van is huge and it is steel. We're dented, but we're indestructible, and taking a swipe at us is going to hurt you a lot more than it will hurt us.

Which is about how I felt about Greta Gerwig taking on Louisa May Alcott in Little Women. It was a visual treat (except for the damn flowing hair -- costumers, please, have your 19th century women pin up the tresses, please, for my sake) and shot on lush location. And it was well acted, by the women. Saoirse Ronan is a nice spicy Jo, Eliza Scanlen gives even gentle Beth a bit of character, and Florence Pugh is my current favorite actress and she went all out on Amy. (Emma Watson was the weak link in the non-American cast of sisters.) And I'm going to say right here that I cried through most of it because it's Little Women. But my tears dried up well before the ending. And I think that the way the movie jumps in time, framed by Jo's publishing ventures, is almost calculated to make sense only to people who are already quite familiar with the plot.

I say the plot, not the book, because this version of Little Women feels like it was made essentially for people who read or encountered Little Women at a pivotal point of development and intensely identified with Jo and who now consider her a proto-saint of the Smash the Patriarchy movement. The careful attention that the book pays to the development of character and to the sense of the passage of time is truncated here. Moments that are worth spending time on -- conversations about the impending death of Beth, moments when characters other than Laurie profess their love, moments when characters other than Jo get to show their mettle -- are here elided or done away with altogether, and the result is a strange melange of strong female characters and underbaked males with no character at all. 

Greta Gerwig is so bound and determined that Jo not be tied down to the horrible fate of marriage and romance that she has found it necessary to take Alcott's charming, idiosyncratic, honorable, unique Prof. Bhaer and genericize him into a cipher, a handsome fellow with an indeterminate European accent who is given few lines and less motivation. The actor does his best with the bits he's given, but what he's given is not enough. John Brooks is served worse, and along with Jo we're not quite sure what Meg sees in a fellow allowed only a few desperate lines of dialog, none of which ever flowed from Alcott's pen. Father March is a non-entity, not there even when he's there. Fortunately, Mr. Lawrence is allowed some character, and Chris Cooper is allowed the space to develop it, in a lovely performance. 

Indeed, I wonder if in the unhappy way that many movies allow only males to develop personality and interests and relegate women to the background, Little Women will stand as the beginning of a wave of women-centric movies that feature background men with no characters. And no one is richer for that.

Time is a real problem for this movie. With the exception of Florence Pugh's Amy, whose hair does the aging for her, the aging process is inexplicable. When Laurie proposes to Jo, they look no older than they did when they first met. There's no sense of how much time elapses before Meg gets married. The Civil War is an afterthought, featuring most significantly in a scene in which Marmee utters a Michelle Obama-esque sentiment about never having been proud of her country -- a sentiment that Greta Gerwig doubtless shares, which would have horrified Alcott. 

I would also like to see the historical research that goes into Jo spreading out the pages of her novel on the floor and moving them around exactly as if they were, say, screenplay scenes being arranged into the best structure.

Ah, Jo's novel. There's the rub. No Little Women production has been made stronger by having Jo write the proto-Little Women -- something that Alcott did herself in middle age, not in her early twenties. The reason for that is bound up in what's going on in the novel at that point, something that doesn't fit well into a two-hour screenplay. Jo has turned from writing after realizing (based on Prof. Bhaer's insight) that she has not been serving her talent well by churning out racy genre puff pieces. In her hiatus, she learns at the school of suffering, caring for Beth in her last days and her parents in their mourning. When she begins writing again (at her father's urging), it is small pieces, short stories, little poems -- small but honest. The very littleness of them is part of a new humility on Jo's part, a maturation that doesn't require talent to be expressed in huge bombastic displays. And it is, in fact, one of these little poems that bring Bhaer to her door -- the first piece of hers he's actually seen. The quiet longing expressed in a simple line or two gives him hope that she might want more than friendship from somebody.

And when he comes, the novel spends time to allow him to develop friendships with her family, to be of service both in practical ways and in companionship. And when Jo and Bhaer finally do profess their love, under a dripping umbrella in the pouring rain, it is in a completely unromantic, impractical, comic, honest way, absolutely in character for both of them.

A way which bears no resemblance at all to the storified, glammed-up, boring version in the movie, which is shown as being a bit of unbelievable romantic fluff that Jo has thrown into her novel for the sake of selling it to the public. The fictional Jo March is nowhere near as interesting and human a novelist as Louisa May Alcott is. And to my mind, that's detrimental to what Greta Gerwig is trying to say about women and their talents and their opportunities. The ending was a sad disappointment in my eyes -- so much lost potential wasted on message. The titles at the beginning might well have said, "Little Women, by Greta Gerwig", because it's much more her vision than Alcott's. And long after Gerwig's vision has been forgotten, people will still be reading Little Women, by Alcott.

Alcott will endure, long after being sideswiped by Gerwig.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Precept upon Precept, Line upon Line

Whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
for it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.
--Isaiah 28:9-10

This year I'm teaching 7th grade Sunday school. I like it; there's less pressure than teaching confirmation year, and less focus on ticking the sacramental boxes. Most weeks I have less than 30 kids in class, and there are usually three other adults to help monitor.

In November I was gone for a weekend at a wedding, and the next week one of the other adults said, "The sub who was here, did anyone tell you about her class? She was just so..."

I waited eagerly to see how someone else's teaching style would compare with mine.

" amazing! She played this game and got the kids moving. They had to cross to the other side of the room if the answer to the question was yes, and they were things like, 'Have you ever been bullied?' 'Do you want to be confirmed?' The kids had to think, and they were really involved. It was so fun."

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a fun teacher. I cannot think of games. I can talk engagingly, for the kind of people who like that sort of teaching, but crafts and games don't arise naturally to the top of my head. My 6th-grade son loves his class this year, and I asked him why. He said that they start every class with an ice-breaker, and it's a lot of fun. (His teacher is also fantastic, so that helps.)

I came across this passage from Isaiah during Advent, and felt like it summed up my experience teaching religion class at the parish level. Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line. This year in particular I have moved away from the text of our books. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's too wordy. I have tried to make my classes less like "school" and more like a chance for kids to encounter truth and interact with it. Even so, I feel like my attempts to engage seem to them like precept upon precept, line upon line. Someone with a game beats someone with an idea every time.

To that end, I've been trying to shake myself up. Last class we played Eucharistic hangman. This week, we're getting a rare chance to tour the sacristy (since our Sunday morning class overlaps the mass schedule), as part of thinking about the sacrament of holy orders. I'm hoping that ability to see and touch vestments, to get a feel for the work of a priest, will spark an interest in vocations, or at least make someone see that the idea of a religious vocation is not preposterous. Will that linger and take root when my words have dried up and drifted away? I hope so.

And I keep reminding myself that the word of God is living and effective, that the Spirit takes our efforts and grows them beyond our ken, that it doesn't matter if I ever see a return from this work. And that I'm not locked into my preferred style, that there are a wealth of resources to help me find games, activities, whatever will break through to my kids.

And I've been asking the intercession of St. Bernadette, who was no great shakes at her catechism but was a great saint anyway. I think she knows these kids better than I do. I hope I'm more flexible and understanding than her teachers.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Little Women: The Development of a Writer

I finished re-reading Little Women on Friday.  I can't actually recall for sure whether this is the first time I've re-read it all the way through as an adult.  (I've read sections of it to the kids, but not all the way through.)  As middle and high schooler I definitely read it several times, and liked it, but it's not a book that I'd continued to read regularly through adulthood.

I wrote earlier about the themes of family and marriage in the book. That continued to stand out to me in the latter part of the book. Indeed, it's interesting to see how Alcott positions the three sisters differently to examine different types of marriage and aspects of marriage. Meg and John's experience is fairly universal, and the things they struggle with in early marriage (balancing expectations and time in a sustainable way, spending within their means, continuing to have a relationship as a couple with young children) are very universal struggles that most couples will encounter. Amy and Laurie have the most attractive courtship, and here Alcott takes the opportunity to show how even among the courtship of the rich virtue can be followed: with Amy goading Laurie into getting over his self-pity and laziness and Amy overcoming her initial determination to marry the much richer Fred Vaughn for money so she can take care of her family. Even so, the chapter "My Lord and Lady" where we see Amy and Laurie planning the charitable works they will champion as leading members of society is grating in the way that watching people who have everything way too easy making a example of their planning always is. I think it's perhaps to a certain point that in the final flash-forward chapter, we see Amy and Laurie with their daughter, Beth, who like her namesake is in delicate health. Dealing with the universal pain and worry of a child's ill health gives the couple a chance to show their virtue in much more human way than their plans to create charities to help those living in distressed gentility. And Jo. She and Professor Bhaer as the couple in whom we see an example of two people who share a common set of intellectual and artistic ideals, and a common dream for how to live them out with the school for boys they want to create together.

And yet, in think-pieces about the novel and its recent adaptation, I keep seeing Professor Bhear being described as a dour character who squelches Jo's artistic ambitions and as a "problem" character whom Alcott was forced to introduce to satisfy the insistence by her publisher that she marry off all her surviving characters. I'd like to argue that far from showing Professor Bhaer as an obstacle to Jo's development as a writer, Alcott actually shows him as a positive influence on her maturation as a writer. And in this sense, Professor Bhaer shows himself a much more suitable partner for Jo than her youthful friend Laurie would have been, as Laurie would never have provided her with that encouragement to produce better writing.

When we first meet Jo, we see two types of writing that she's been doing, the "operatic tragedy" which the girls act out in Chapter 2, and the "little book" which Amy burns up which is described thus: "Jo's book was the pride of her heart, and was regarded by her family as a literary sprout of great promise. It was only half a dozen little fairy tales, but Jo had worked over them patiently, putting her whole heart into her work, hoping to make something good enough to print."

A bit later, we actually get a chance to read a piece of Jo's fiction writing, which is reproduced in their Pickwick Portfolio newspaper. "A Masked Marriage: A Tale of Venice" is very much in the operatic tragedy genre.
Gondola after gondola swept up to the marble
steps, and left its lovely load to swell the
brilliant throng that filled the stately halls of Count
Adelon. Knights and ladies, elves and pages, monks
and flower girls, all mingled gaily in the dance.
Sweet voices and rich melody filled the air, and so
with mirth and music the masquerade went on.
"Has your Highness seen the Lady Viola tonight?"
asked a gallant troubadour of the fairy queen who
floated down the hall upon his arm.

"Yes, is she not lovely, though so sad! Her
dress is well chosen, too, for in a week she weds
Count Antonio, whom she passionately hates."

"By my faith, I envy him. Yonder he comes,
arrayed like a bridegroom, except the black mask.
When that is off we shall see how he regards the
fair maid whose heart he cannot win, though her
stern father bestows her hand," returned the troubadour.

"Tis whispered that she loves the young English
artist who haunts her steps, and is spurned by the
old Count," said the lady, as they joined the dance....
When Jo succeeds in getting her first stories printed it's in a newspaper which says that it "didn't pay beginners, only let them print in his paper, and noticed the stories. It was good practice, he said, and when the beginners improved, anyone would pay." What we learn of "The Rival Painters" is fairly vague, but it sounds like it's probably of similar genre to "A Masked Marriage".
"The Rival Painters."

"That sounds well. Read it," said Meg.

With a loud "Hem!" and a long breath, Jo began to read very fast. The girls listened with interest, for the tale was romantic, and somewhat pathetic, as most of the characters died in the end. "I like that about the splendid picture," was Amy's approving remark, as Jo paused.

"I prefer the lovering part. Viola and Angelo are two of our favorite names, isn't that queer?" said Meg, wiping her eyes, for the lovering part was tragical.

"Who wrote it?" asked Beth, who had caught a glimpse of Jo's face.

The reader suddenly sat up, cast away the paper, displaying a flushed countenance, and with a funny mixture of solemnity and excitement replied in a loud voice, "Your sister."

"You?" cried Meg, dropping her work.

"It's very good," said Amy critically.

"I knew it! I knew it! Oh, my Jo, I am so proud!" and Beth ran to hug her sister and exult over this splendid success.

Dear me, how delighted they all were, to be sure! How Meg wouldn't believe it till she saw the words. "Miss Josephine March," actually printed in the paper.
Jo's next step on her writing journey is inspired by a contest in a newspaper that prints sensation stories:
It was a pictorial sheet, and Jo examined the work of art nearest her, idly wondering what fortuitous concatenation of circumstances needed the melodramatic illustration of an Indian in full war costume, tumbling over a precipice with a wolf at his throat, while two infuriated young gentlemen, with unnaturally small feet and big eyes, were stabbing each other close by, and a disheveled female was flying away in the background with her mouth wide open. Pausing to turn a page, the lad saw her looking and, with boyish good nature offered half his paper, saying bluntly, "want to read it? That's a first-rate story."

Jo accepted it with a smile, for she had never outgrown her liking for lads, and soon found herself involved in the usual labyrinth of love, mystery, and murder, for the story belonged to that class of light literature in which the passions have a holiday, and when the author's invention fails, a grand catastrophe clears the stage of one half the dramatis personae, leaving the other half to exult over their downfall.

"Prime, isn't it?" asked the boy, as her eye went down the last paragraph of her portion.

"I think you and I could do as well as that if we tried," returned Jo, amused at his admiration of the trash.

"I should think I was a pretty lucky chap if I could. She makes a good living out of such stories, they say." and he pointed to the name of Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury, under the title of the tale.

"Do you know her?" asked Jo, with sudden interest.

"No, but I read all her pieces, and I know a fellow who works in the office where this paper is printed."

"Do you say she makes a good living out of stories like this?" and Jo looked more respectfully at the agitated group and thickly sprinkled exclamation points that adorned the page.

"Guess she does! She knows just what folks like, and gets paid well for writing it."

Here the lecture began, but Jo heard very little of it, for while Professor Sands was prosing away about Belzoni, Cheops, scarabei, and hieroglyphics, she was covertly taking down the address of the paper, and boldly resolving to try for the hundred-dollar prize offered in its columns for a sensational story. By the time the lecture ended and the audience awoke, she had built up a splendid fortune for herself (not the first founded on paper), and was already deep in the concoction of her story, being unable to decide whether the duel should come before the elopement or after the murder.

She said nothing of her plan at home, but fell to work next day, much to the disquiet of her mother, who always looked a little anxious when 'genius took to burning'. Jo had never tried this style before, contenting herself with very mild romances for The Spread Eagle. Her experience and miscellaneous reading were of service now, for they gave her some idea of dramatic effect, and supplied plot, language, and costumes. Her story was as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it, and having located it in Lisbon, she wound up with an earthquake, as a striking and appropriate denouement. The manuscript was privately dispatched, accompanied by a note, modestly saying that if the tale didn't get the prize, which the writer hardly dared expect, she would be very glad to receive any sum it might be considered worth.

Six weeks is a long time to wait, and a still longer time for a girl to keep a secret, but Jo did both, and was just beginning to give up all hope of ever seeing her manuscript again, when a letter arrived which almost took her breath away, for on opening it, a check for a hundred dollars fell into her lap. For a minute she stared at it as if it had been a snake, then she read her letter and began to cry. If the amiable gentleman who wrote that kindly note could have known what intense happiness he was giving a fellow creature, I think he would devote his leisure hours, if he has any, to that amusement, for Jo valued the letter more than the money, because it was encouraging, and after years of effort it was so pleasant to find that she had learned to do something, though it was only to write a sensation story.

A prouder young woman was seldom seen than she, when, having composed herself, she electrified the family by appearing before them with the letter in one hand, the check in the other, announcing that she had won the prize. Of course there was a great jubilee, and when the story came everyone read and praised it, though after her father had told her that the language was good, the romance fresh and hearty, and the tragedy quite thrilling, he shook his head, and said in his unworldly way...

"You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money."

"I think the money is the best part of it. What will you do with such a fortune?" asked Amy, regarding the magic slip of paper with a reverential eye.

"Send Beth and Mother to the seaside for a month or two," answered Jo promptly.

To the seaside they went, after much discussion, and though Beth didn't come home as plump and rosy as could be desired, she was much better, while Mrs. March declared she felt ten years younger. So Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her 'rubbish' turned into comforts for them all. The Duke's Daughter paid the butcher's bill, A Phantom Hand put down a new carpet, and the Curse of the Coventrys proved the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns.
It's perhaps significant that Father, who is always the voice of truth and wisdom in Little Women, observes that "You can do better than this, Jo." I think from a writing perspective it's worth pausing on why. I think there's a tendency (especially among people who themselves grew up feeling persecuted for writing or reading genre fiction, which is at times accused of being trash fiction simply because of its subject matter is magic or the future or what have you) to assume that Jo's father and later Professor Bhaer object to these more sensational stories simply because they deal with fantastical subject matter. However, it's worth noting that Mr March has been supportive of Jo's previous writing, which was also fantastical in its settings.  I think that the objection is two-fold.  I think that Alcott (and the characters who tend to speak the truth as she sees it) does think that there's potentially a morally corrupting influence in stories which focus primarily on the lower passions: revenge, despair, hatred, etc.  But more importantly, I think that it's obvious to the more discerning readers that Jo is writing of things about which she doesn't know very much. As the narrator says, the story was "as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it."  Jo is writing about dark stuff in hopes of making her story exciting, but she doesn't actually know much about these human experiences, so she's having to fill the gaps by extrapolating and using examples from other books.  She'd tell a more human story if she focused on feelings and experiences she actually knew.

Jo's next literary experience is with the publication of her novel.  Her travails will sound familiar to anyone who's struggled with writing.  After shopping it around to several publishers, she finds one who will publish it "on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired."

She hesitates on what to do, and ends up agreeing to shorten it while taking everyone's advice at once:
[W]ith Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone's advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.

Her father liked the metaphysical streak which had unconsciously got into it, so that was allowed to remain though she had her doubts about it. Her mother thought that there was a trifle too much description. Out, therefore it came, and with it many necessary links in the story. Meg admired the tragedy, so Jo piled up the agony to suit her, while Amy objected to the fun, and, with the best intentions in life, Jo quenched the spritly scenes which relieved the somber character of the story. Then, to complicate the ruin, she cut it down one third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world to try its fate.

Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it, likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.

"You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it's so contradictory that I don't know whether I've written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?" cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dismay the next. "This man says, 'An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness.' 'All is sweet, pure, and healthy.'" continued the perplexed authoress. "The next, 'The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.' Now, as I had no theory of any kind, don't believe in Spiritualism, and copied my characters from life, I don't see how this critic can be right. Another says, 'It's one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.' (I know better than that), and the next asserts that 'Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.' 'Tisn't! Some make fun of it, some overpraise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money. I wish I'd printed the whole or not at all, for I do hate to be so misjudged."

Her family and friends administered comfort and commendation liberally. Yet it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well and had apparently done so ill. But it did her good, for those whose opinion had real value gave her the criticism which is an author's best education, and when the first soreness was over, she could laugh at her poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself the wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received.
The story moves on to other topics are Jo recovers from the experience of publishing her novel, and the next step we hear is when she is staying in a boarding house in New York (where she makes the acquaintance of Professor Bhaer) and she goes to the offices of a newspaper called the Weekly Volcano and offers them a sensation story in the mold of those she wrote earlier. The publisher offers to take her stories but wants changes.
"We'll take this (editors never say I), if you don't object to a few alterations. It's too long, but omitting the passages I've marked will make it just the right length," he said, in a businesslike tone.

Jo hardly knew her own MS. again, so crumpled and underscored were its pages and paragraphs, but feeling as a tender parent might on being asked to cut off her baby's legs in order that it might fit into a new cradle, she looked at the marked passages and was surprised to find that all the moral reflections—which she had carefully put in as ballast for much romance—had been stricken out.

"But, Sir, I thought every story should have some sort of a moral, so I took care to have a few of my sinners repent."

Mr. Dashwoods's editorial gravity relaxed into a smile, for Jo had forgotten her 'friend', and spoken as only an author could.

"People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don't sell nowadays." Which was not quite a correct statement, by the way.
Jo changes her writing to suit his demands since she has little experience with the kind of life he wants to see portrayed, she turns to research.
Mr. Dashwood rejected any but thrilling tales, and as thrills could not be produced except by harrowing up the souls of the readers, history and romance, land and sea, science and art, police records and lunatic asylums, had to be ransacked for the purpose. Jo soon found that her innocent experience had given her but few glimpses of the tragic world which underlies society, so regarding it in a business light, she set about supplying her deficiencies with characteristic energy. Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons. She studied faces in the street, and characters, good, bad, and indifferent, all about her. She delved in the dust of ancient times for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed. She thought she was prospering finely, but unconsciously she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us.
Alcott herself made a living off writing sensation stories prior to her breakout success with the much more realistic Little Women, and so whether we agree with Alcott in her feelings about sensation stories I think it is only fair to assume that she is documenting her own experience in saying that Jo is feeding her imagination of "dangerous and unsubstantial food". Further, though, I think it's also fair to assume that Jo is probably not writing very good work. She's not writing about people she knows much about. "[S]he went abroad for her characters and scenery, and banditti, counts, gypsies, nuns, and duchesses appeared upon her stage, and played their parts with as much accuracy and spirit as could be expected. Her readers were not particular about such trifles as grammar, punctuation, and probability...." So I think it's fair to say that from Alcott's authorial point of view, Jo is doing badly in two respects: morally she's indulging in base emotions, and artistically she's portraying locations, people, and emotions of which she knows little and thus can't make an accurate portrayal.

Contrary to a number of articles floating around (probably inspired by various film adaptations) Professor Bhaer never actually reads one of Jo's sensation stories. He does, however, chance upon a copy of a paper that prints sensation stories (not the one Jo writes for, and her stories she has printed without a byline anyway because she's embarrassed at the idea of people finding out what she's writing) and the following exchange occurs:
Mr. Bhaer caught sight of a picture on the hat, and unfolding it, said with great disgust, "I wish these papers did not come in the house. They are not for children to see, nor young people to read. It is not well, and I haf no patience with those who make this harm."

Jo glanced at the sheet and saw a pleasing illustration composed of a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper. She did not like it, but the impulse that made her turn it over was not one of displeasure but fear, because for a minute she fancied the paper was the Volcano. It was not, however, and her panic subsided as she remembered that even if it had been and one of her own tales in it, there would have been no name to betray her. She had betrayed herself, however, by a look and a blush, for though an absent man, the Professor saw a good deal more than people fancied. He knew that Jo wrote, and had met her down among the newspaper offices more than once, but as she never spoke of it, he asked no questions in spite of a strong desire to see her work. Now it occurred to him that she was doing what she was ashamed to own, and it troubled him. He did not say to himself, "It is none of my business. I've no right to say anything," as many people would have done. He only remembered that she was young and poor, a girl far away from mother's love and father's care, and he was moved to help her with an impulse as quick and natural as that which would prompt him to put out his hand to save a baby from a puddle. All this flashed through his mind in a minute, but not a trace of it appeared in his face, and by the time the paper was turned, and Jo's needle threaded, he was ready to say quite naturally, but very gravely...

"Yes, you are right to put it from you. I do not think that good young girls should see such things. They are made pleasant to some, but I would more rather give my boys gunpowder to play with than this bad trash."

"All may not be bad, only silly, you know, and if there is a demand for it, I don't see any harm in supplying it. Many very respectable people make an honest living out of what are called sensation stories," said Jo, scratching gathers so energetically that a row of little slits followed her pin.

"There is a demand for whisky, but I think you and I do not care to sell it. If the respectable people knew what harm they did, they would not feel that the living was honest. They haf no right to put poison in the sugarplum, and let the small ones eat it. No, they should think a little, and sweep mud in the street before they do this thing."
After this discussion, Jo sits down with her stories and reads them over again.
As soon as she went to her room, she got out her papers, and carefully reread every one of her stories. Being a little shortsighted, Mr. Bhaer sometimes used eye glasses, and Jo had tried them once, smiling to see how they magnified the fine print of her book. Now she seemed to have on the Professor's mental or moral spectacles also, for the faults of these poor stories glared at her dreadfully and filled her with dismay.

"They are trash, and will soon be worse trash if I go on, for each is more sensational than the last. I've gone blindly on, hurting myself and other people, for the sake of money. I know it's so, for I can't read this stuff in sober earnest without being horribly ashamed of it, and what should I do if they were seen at home or Mr. Bhaer got hold of them?"
I think it's important to recognize that Jo comes to this conclusion on her own, in private, and that there's no pressure from Bhaer having read her stories or asking if she has stopped writing them. And given that we've seen her pushed into writing in this fashion by an editor with a very specific idea of the sort of story that he wants (and idea that does not match the type of story that Jo was originally writing) I think that to a great extent what we're seeing here is Jo realizing that she's stopped writing the kind of story that she herself can respect and like.

Jo then briefly swings, pendulum like, in the opposite direction and tries writing heavily didactic stories, in a section which is clearly also written with the sharp satiric pen of Alcott's experience in the publishing world.
Jo wrote no more sensational stories, deciding that the money did not pay for her share of the sensation, but going to the other extreme, as is the way with people of her stamp, she took a course of Mrs. Sherwood, Miss Edgeworth, and Hannah More, and then produced a tale which might have been more properly called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it. She had her doubts about it from the beginning, for her lively fancy and girlish romance felt as ill at ease in the new style as she would have done masquerading in the stiff and cumbrous costume of the last century. She sent this didactic gem to several markets, but it found no purchaser, and she was inclined to agree with Mr. Dashwood that morals didn't sell.

Then she tried a child's story, which she could easily have disposed of if she had not been mercenary enough to demand filthy lucre for it. The only person who offered enough to make it worth her while to try juvenile literature was a worthy gentleman who felt it his mission to convert all the world to his particular belief. But much as she liked to write for children, Jo could not consent to depict all her naughty boys as being eaten by bears or tossed by mad bulls because they did not go to a particular Sabbath school, nor all the good infants who did go as rewarded by every kind of bliss, from gilded gingerbread to escorts of angels when they departed this life with psalms or sermons on their lisping tongues. So nothing came of these trials, and Jo corked up her inkstand, and said in a fit of very wholesome humility...

"I don't know anything. I'll wait until I do before I try again, and meantime, 'sweep mud in the street' if I can't do better, that's honest, at least."
I have a personal soft spot for Jo's conclusion here, because it's similar to a decision I myself made about writing fiction while I was in college. I'd spent my high school years writing a few dozen short stories and a three novels, and during that time I'd gradually improved to the point where I'd finally had a couple of short stories published, though in non-paying markets. But as I assessed my increasingly competent writing at the age of twenty I concluded that I was mostly writing clever variations on what I'd read in other books. I didn't yet know myself and the world well enough to be writing based on my own knowledge of people. And so I decided to set it aside until I knew more.

Jo doesn't wait as long to start writing again as I did, but she has plenty of difficult experiences in the meantime, with her rejection of Laurie and her nursing of Beth through her final illness. It's as Jo is struggling to fill Beth's place in the March household, consigning herself to a "little way" of small duties helping others, that Mrs. March sees her unhappiness and encourages her to start writing again. And this time, Jo writes from the heart and from experience and finds a success that surprises even her.
Jo never knew how it happened, but something got into that story that went straight to the hearts of those who read it, for when her family had laughed and cried over it, her father sent it, much against her will, to one of the popular magazines, and to her utter surprise, it was not only paid for, but others requested. Letters from several persons, whose praise was honor, followed the appearance of the little story, newspapers copied it, and strangers as well as friends admired it. For a small thing it was a great success, and Jo was more astonished than when her novel was commended and condemned all at once.

"I don't understand it. What can there be in a simple little story like that to make people praise it so?" she said, quite bewildered.

"There is truth in it, Jo, that's the secret. Humor and pathos make it alive, and you have found your style at last. You wrote with no thoughts of fame and money, and put your heart into it, my daughter. You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best, and grow as happy as we are in your success."

"If there is anything good or true in what I write, it isn't mine. I owe it all to you and Mother and Beth," said Jo, more touched by her father's words than by any amount of praise from the world.

So taught by love and sorrow, Jo wrote her little stories, and sent them away to make friends for themselves and her, finding it a very charitable world to such humble wanderers, for they were kindly welcomed, and sent home comfortable tokens to their mother, like dutiful children whom good fortune overtakes.
She does not, at this juncture, write a story equivalent to Little Women, though many adaptations show her doing this. Alcott does have her heroine do this, but not until twenty years of story time later, when in Jo's Boys, the sequel to Little Men, which is the sequel to Little Women, there is a chapter entitled "Jo's Last Scrape" in which she writes a book apparently similar to Little Women and like Alcott experiences a surprise best-seller which at last makes her and her family financially secure.

However, Jo's writing does touch one reader particularly deeply. When Professor Bhaer arrives to visit, and the two of them at last declare their attachment to each other and become engaged, Jo asks him what brought him from New York to visit her, and he pulls out a poem of hers that he read in the newspaper. This is, in fact, the first time that Bhaer has read her writing, and he is moved by it to come and see her. I think that's a good a testament to the maturation of Jo as a writer as any, and also a sign that when he spoke to Jo about the problems with sensation stories, he set her back on a path toward writing truer and better things, things that were truly the best that she was capable of. As such, it's probably appropriate to close with that poem which brings Professor Bhaer back into her life and causes him to say that he is eager to read all of the book in which she keeps her compositions.

Four little chests all in a row,
Dim with dust, and worn by time,
All fashioned and filled, long ago,
By children now in their prime.
Four little keys hung side by side,
With faded ribbons, brave and gay
When fastened there, with childish pride,
Long ago, on a rainy day.
Four little names, one on each lid,
Carved out by a boyish hand,
And underneath there lieth hid
Histories of the happy band
Once playing here, and pausing oft
To hear the sweet refrain,
That came and went on the roof aloft,
In the falling summer rain.

"Meg" on the first lid, smooth and fair.
I look in with loving eyes,
For folded here, with well-known care,
A goodly gathering lies,
The record of a peaceful life—
Gifts to gentle child and girl,
A bridal gown, lines to a wife,
A tiny shoe, a baby curl.
No toys in this first chest remain,
For all are carried away,
In their old age, to join again
In another small Meg's play.
Ah, happy mother! Well I know
You hear, like a sweet refrain,
Lullabies ever soft and low
In the falling summer rain.

"Jo" on the next lid, scratched and worn,
And within a motley store
Of headless dolls, of schoolbooks torn,
Birds and beasts that speak no more,
Spoils brought home from the fairy ground
Only trod by youthful feet,
Dreams of a future never found,
Memories of a past still sweet,
Half-writ poems, stories wild,
April letters, warm and cold,
Diaries of a wilful child,
Hints of a woman early old,
A woman in a lonely home,
Hearing, like a sad refrain—
"Be worthy, love, and love will come,"
In the falling summer rain.

My Beth! the dust is always swept
From the lid that bears your name,
As if by loving eyes that wept,
By careful hands that often came.
Death canonized for us one saint,
Ever less human than divine,
And still we lay, with tender plaint,
Relics in this household shrine—
The silver bell, so seldom rung,
The little cap which last she wore,
The fair, dead Catherine that hung
By angels borne above her door.
The songs she sang, without lament,
In her prison-house of pain,
Forever are they sweetly blent
With the falling summer rain.

Upon the last lid's polished field—
Legend now both fair and true
A gallant knight bears on his shield,
"Amy" in letters gold and blue.
Within lie snoods that bound her hair,
Slippers that have danced their last,
Faded flowers laid by with care,
Fans whose airy toils are past,
Gay valentines, all ardent flames,
Trifles that have borne their part
In girlish hopes and fears and shames,
The record of a maiden heart
Now learning fairer, truer spells,
Hearing, like a blithe refrain,
The silver sound of bridal bells
In the falling summer rain.

Four little chests all in a row,
Dim with dust, and worn by time,
Four women, taught by weal and woe
To love and labor in their prime.
Four sisters, parted for an hour,
None lost, one only gone before,
Made by love's immortal power,
Nearest and dearest evermore.
Oh, when these hidden stores of ours
Lie open to the Father's sight,
May they be rich in golden hours,
Deeds that show fairer for the light,
Lives whose brave music long shall ring,
Like a spirit-stirring strain,
Souls that shall gladly soar and sing
In the long sunshine after rain.