Sunday, October 30, 2016

American Bloomsbury. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work..

The fields and homes of 1850s Concord, Massachusetts proved to be some of the most fertile ground for US writers and thinkers. A literary group which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, developed there. Transcendentalism was the romantic, nature-oriented philosophy, that moved all of them (Hawthorne negatively). They lived and wrote in close proximity and communication with each other. Their relationships ranged from romance, to infatuation, to deep friendship to intense repugnance. It always affected their writing.

Some fascinating, but perhaps mythical, theory cited by the author, suggests that “genius clusters” of special individuals form when “circumstances, political conditions, landscape, and community forces sometimes come together to create an unusual concentration of talent.” (Cheever, p.5). While this is an entrancing notion, the circumstances that created this collection of talent are far more mundane, as the author later illustrates: Emerson paid for it. He had a fortune obtained from his first wife and an eye for talent. All of the above mentioned writers were, at one time or another broke. Emerson sought interesting, inspiring company, in his distant home and paid for housing. Regardless of how this community arose, what is important is that it did. The happy result was that a number of talented people had the opportunity to live near and influence each other.

The book is divided into four parts; though what distinguishes the breaks between parts is hard to tell. However, within these parts are short, 4 to 7 page “chapters” that are primarily episodes in the lives of the people discussed, presented from their perspective. This allows Cheever to weave a narrative that includes all the points of view of the different players; a method that she crafts masterfully. She will even present the same scene from a different individual’s viewpoint, without it feeling redundant given that she is presenting different emotions and thoughts through different eyes. This is especially helpful in a book that focuses upon relationships, both romantic and platonic, since the emotions and interpretations of relationships and their effects are always personal.

Susan Cheever is particularly well-suited to this internal, relationship-based form of history writing. As the daughter of author John Cheever, she is well acquainted with memoirs of famous writers, and is not shy about depicting personal details. Her best-selling Home Before Dark talks about her father’s bisexuality; her personal memoir Note Found in a Bottle recounts the influence of alcoholism in her life. She has exhibited bold honesty and self-revelation in these memoirs. One could expect no less in her discussion of iconic writers who are not family. Cheever capably describes the jealousy between Emerson and Hawthorn over Margaret Fuller (as well as the reactions of their respective wives); Hawthorne’s anti-social leanings; A. Bronson Alcott’s unwillingness come down from the philosophical clouds and provide for his impoverished family, the non-violent Transcendentalists being “seduced by the false authority of John Brown” (Cheever, p.6); and numerous other scandalous or questionable occurrences in the Concord community. While she is enchanted by this group of writers, she is realistic about them as people and is used to tossing-up dirt.
There are few flaws in Cheever’s otherwise personable and artful style. She inserts some unnecessary, distracting personal paragraphs concerning her own trips to Concord. She has a tendency towards hyperbole. Her chapter introducing Margaret Fuller is entitled “The Sexy Muse;” which is fun, but demeans and sensationalizes that writer. She calls Walden “the first American memoir” (Cheever, p.125). But there are numerous precursors (importantly Joseph Plumb Martin’s memoir of his time as a Revolutionary soldier, which preceded Thoreau by 30 years and is cited by historians today  http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/joseph-plumb-martin ). She claims “in April of 1847, Fanny Longfellow had been the first woman to deliver a child with the aid of ether” (Cheever, p. 148). But “on January 19, 1847…James Young Simpson, a Scottish obstetrician, administered diethyl ether to facilitate delivery of a child to a woman” ( https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/c/caton-blessing.html ). But these are minor hiccups in an otherwise well-written history.

It is not hyperbole to say that the Transcendentalists were one of the most important literary and philosophical movements in US history. They challenged the puritanical morality and rigidity of their time with innovative, liberating styles and ideas. This book on their personal lives and connections provides a reader with insight on the creative processes and unique interactions which permitted that innovation. Susan Cheever is not an academically-trained historian. But her slim book permits a picture of this ground-breaking community that surpasses the efforts of many academics in its’ ability to vividly portray the Concord community. Sometimes the personal iconoclasm of an author allows her to show aspects of historical, iconoclastic personalities that are missed by more traditional historians.


Cheever, Susan. American Bloomsbury. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.