March 29, 2007

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American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, by Susan Cheever (Simon & Shuster, 2006, 223 pages)
Reviewed by Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

American Bloomsbury wouldn’t be a bad suggestion for high school or college American lit classes. It’s also a quick and revealing read for anyone with interest in Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott or Margaret Fuller. Susan Cheever humanizes American thinkers and writers of the mid-19th century who went down in history, describing the friendships, romances and fallouts that linked them all. Concord, Mass., was home to a genius cluster not unlike that of the Bloomsbury district of London, Cheever argues. Bloomsbury claimed Charles Dickens and later Virginia Wolf, John Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster.

Concord’s concentration of intelligentsia wasn’t by accident. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the gravity that pulled families there over and over, often because he offered to cover rent. For many years Emerson bankrolled the lot. The story behind Walden is that Emerson let Thoreau build a hut on some land Emerson had acquired on Walden Pond. Before that, Thoreau had lived at the Emerson family home for two years and Emerson’s put-upon wife Lidian and their children had enjoyed Thoreau’s presence. But Thoreau overstayed his welcome with Emerson.

Emerson had another frequent house guest, journalist and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller, whose presence wasn’t as agreeable to Lidian Emerson. Nathanial Hawthorne’s presence in Concord with his young wife created a triangle since he and Emerson were taken with Fuller. Fuller’s adventures as a brilliant, unmarried woman included visiting the Brook Farm experiment, and moving to New York and then Italy as a journalist.

Cheever also mentions the week-long canoe trip Thoreau took with his brother John up the Merrimack River to Concord, N.H. New Hampshire towns are mentioned several times as the Concord families moved elsewhere and traveled. New Hampshire native, and then president, Franklin Pierce is also mentioned several times, as a friend of Hawthorne.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Captain John Brown, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville are among those Cheever’s cast is also connected with.

The transcendentalist values and many causes of the group make these lives intriguing to read about. Several started or taught at progressive schools. The group was involved with utopian experiments like Brook Farm, and seemed to have some liberal ideas about marriage. Some were vegans or vegetarians or didn’t drink. Most were involved in the anti-slavery movement, often participating in the Underground Railroad.

Bronson Alcott’s grand ideas and lofty principles eventually left his daughter Louisa May to become the main breadwinner and caretaker for her family. The family was always poor and moved 20 times because of it. Little Women was the product of a request from an editor for a book for girls. Louisa May romanced her childhood in the novel, a breakthrough in the genre which also secured her financially. She worked from her family home in Concord, all the while suffering from mercury poisoning as were many people at the time. She’d become sick after six weeks of nursing Civil War soldiers in Washington D.C. and mercury was prescribed as a cure for many illnesses.

While Cheever’s book is a quick read, she often repeats information in each chapter, as if she were writing for the book to be read in installments or out of order. On the other hand, the many connections, places and the wide time span covered make it challenging to tell everyone’s story simultaneously and chronologically. Really, though, the book probably could be even shorter without those repetitions.

American Bloomsbury includes a timeline, bibliography, some images of the people and places, and an index and concludes with Cheever’s impressions of Concord today. Cheever, of New York, is a Guggenheim Fellow and wrote 12 previous books including five novels. B