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[LITERATURE] American Bloomsbury - Tales of Great 19th Century Writers

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  • madchinaman
    Susan Cheever s American Bloomsbury A bodice-ripping tale of the lives, loves and works of America s great 19th century writers. By Matthew Price
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 17, 2006
      Susan Cheever's 'American Bloomsbury'
      A bodice-ripping tale of the lives, loves and works of America's
      great 19th century writers.
      By Matthew Price

      American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret
      Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives,
      Their Loves, Their Work
      Susan Cheever
      Simon & Schuster: 224 pp., $26

      Few moments in American literary history equal the extraordinary
      creative burst of the early 1850s. Ralph Waldo Emerson published his
      great essays, Herman Melville unleashed "Moby-Dick" (for my money,
      the Great American novel) and Nathaniel Hawthorne produced not one
      but two masterpieces — "The Scarlet Letter" and "The House of Seven
      Gables." Henry David Thoreau mused about the simple life in "Walden,"
      while Walt Whitman topped the whole thing off with "Leaves of Grass."
      As the literary critic F.O. Matthiessen wrote in "American
      Renaissance," his classic 1941 survey of the period, "you might
      search all the rest of American literature without being able to
      collect a group of books equal to these in imaginative vitality."

      These texts are staples of high school and college literature
      courses, their critical terrain well trod. With "American
      Bloomsbury," Susan Cheever doesn't add much to our understanding of
      the time. From its misleading title to her gushing prose and off-key
      readings of Thoreau and company, the book suffers from the flaws that
      give middlebrow writing a bad name. Cheever's discussions of her
      subjects' works feel second-hand, even if her inclusion of the
      neglected Louisa May Alcott in this pantheon of greats is a
      refreshing gesture. "American Bloomsbury" is more a study in domestic
      arrangements and sense of place — Concord, Mass., where her subjects
      lived, wrote and thought. It's also a kiss-and-tell masquerading as
      literary history.

      If the austere Matthiessen had little time for gossip, Cheever goes
      completely in the other direction. She writes with bodice-ripping
      breathlessness that "these men and women fell desperately in and out
      of love with each other, tormented each other in a series of
      passionate romantic triangles, edited each other's work, talked about
      ideas all night, and walked arm in arm under Concord's great elms."

      Concord was a tiny town that attracted people with big ideas. At the
      center of it all was Emerson, ringleader and philosopher who spouted
      the oracular pronouncements — "the all is in each particle" — that
      would form the core principles of Transcendentalism. New ideas were
      in the air: Emerson was trying to get beyond a religion fixated on
      God; he wanted to sanctify the individual, and his disciples fed on
      his effusions. (Try getting your head around this: "that there is One
      Mind, and that all the powers and privileges which lie in any, lie in

      Emerson made a mint from lecturing (and he had an inheritance from
      his first wife), which allowed him to lavishly subsidize his
      chronically hard-up friends. "[I]t is as the sugar daddy of American
      literature that he really takes his place in the pantheon of Concord
      writers," Cheever writes. Well, that's one way of putting it. Emerson
      paid the Alcotts' rent (Louisa's father, Bronson, was a daydreaming
      minor sage who idealized the rural life and was always in need of
      cash), lured Hawthorne and his wife from dreary Salem, Mass., and
      lent Thoreau — a world-class freeloader — a woodlot on Walden Pond.
      Margaret Fuller, intellectual, activist, a feminist "unafraid of her
      own brilliance," was a frequent guest at the Emerson house, as were
      many others.

      There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, moving from houses (sometimes
      you feel like you're reading a mortgage ledger), and fallings-in and
      fallings-out to track. Cheever follows her subjects from the 1840s
      through the Civil War, switching from the Hawthornes to the Alcotts,
      to Fuller, Emerson and Thoreau. Emotional turmoil reigned as much as
      new ideas about American life. The young Louisa Alcott fell for
      Thoreau, who showed her the glories of nature, then Emerson. The
      brooding Hawthorne and Emerson were both entranced by Fuller. Very
      much her own woman, she put both men to the test — emotionally and

      Fuller implored Emerson to "forego these tedious, tedious attempts to
      learn the universe by thought alone." And as much as Hawthorne
      thrived on banter with smart women, he sought out a meeker
      spouse. "He was in love with challenge," Cheever writes of
      Hawthorne, "but he didn't want to live it." Both Emerson and
      Hawthorne were suspicious of the institution of marriage but stayed
      wed nonetheless.

      This mixed-up gang was a coterie of sorts searching for new ways of
      living and thinking, but it's unhelpful that Cheever has decided to
      call her book "American Bloomsbury." In the first place, she never
      tells us what Bloomsbury was: a London neighborhood and home to a
      tight group of English writers (including Virginia Woolf, John
      Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster) who rebelled
      against the mores of the early 1900s. Bloomsbury was a specifically
      English phenomenon; theirs was a very close conspiracy. And they were
      all snobs to boot, which Emerson and friends weren't.

      Worse still are Cheever's overwrought atmospherics: "But it was
      springtime in Concord, the lilacs perfumed the air, and grapevines
      dripped from the broad white porches on Main Street."

      Cheever at times seems desperate to make the writing of these
      American greats relevant to our times, but her overly strenuous
      advocacy isn't needed. Their work speaks for itself; as long as there
      is a culture of American letters, Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau will
      be relevant. She reduces the latter to a kind of dippy proto-hippie,
      and her curious readings of his works diminish him: "We revere
      Thoreau for his contempt for material things. We love him for damning
      new clothes and cautioning us against possessions." Uh, "we" do? I
      can appreciate Thoreau as a naturalist, an American original and a
      fine writer, but I have nothing against material possessions, and I
      certainly have nothing against new clothes (when I can afford them).

      Still, Cheever delivers some good chapters on how the vexed issue of
      slavery played out in Concord. Emerson, Thoreau and the Alcotts were
      absolutists who championed the violent messianism of anti-slavery
      crusader John Brown, hardly the first time in U.S. history that
      intellectuals got mixed up with political fanaticism. Hawthorne,
      however, wanted nothing to do with Brown, of whom he said, "Nobody
      was ever more justly hanged."

      It's also hard to fault Cheever's tenderness for Alcott, who emerged
      from the shadow of great men as a writer. Alcott battled illness and
      opium addiction and wrote the bestselling "Little Women" in 1868, a
      book Cheever feels has been treated unjustly. Though I'm not sure
      it's the great, forward-looking novel Cheever says it is — "in tone
      and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir" — "Little Women"
      certainly deserves to be rescued from junior high school reading
      lists, where it has been relegated for too long.
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