5 who remade American culture

A fascinating look at the intellectual giants of 19th-century Concord, Mass.

Review Literary History

December 24, 2006|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

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 / 240 pages / $26

At a time when it can often seem this country has lost touch with the cultural and social idealism which once undergirded American democracy, Susan Cheever's enthralling new literary history serves to remind us of a time when unbridled intellectual excitement, curiosity and achievement reigned.

American Bloomsbury is a lively, gossipy story about the intersecting lives of a small phalanx of intellectual and social giants, centered in Concord, Mass., from 1840 through the 1860s (most living on the same street off Cambridge Turnpike). Through the works of five of these literary greats, Cheever posits that many a future aspect of American literary, social and political life was born, including feminism, environmentalism, conservation and, of course, The Great American Novel.

The title itself is a bit of a misnomer, evolving out of the gossipy nature of the tale. In Cheever's revisiting, these men and women engaged in the complex romantic and sexual rondeau that their London counterparts, the Bloomsbury group, would do a few years later.

However - although the Bloomsbury set had tremendous influence over modern literature (Virginia Woolf being perhaps the greatest literary stylist of the 20th century, and Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell artists of acute caliber), the Bloomsburys postdated the group Cheever presents by 50 years and simply did not influence (despite the machinations of Roger Fry in the Dreadnought Hoax and the occasional appearances of economist John Maynard Keynes on their landscape) England the way these writers and intellects influenced America. The times and places were worlds apart, and then some.

At the heart of Cheever's passion play are Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, creators of the American Transcendentalist movement and founders of The Dial, ostensibly America's first literary magazine. With Fuller and Emerson stand Henry David Thoreau, the American founder of civil disobedience; the Alcotts, notably Louisa May and her father, Bronson; and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the quintessential novelist of 19th-century America. (Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe also have cameos.) If Cheever's title somewhat undercuts her tale, her characters and presentation more than compensate. Fuller, Emerson and Thoreau utterly changed - and challenged - American letters, thought, religious fervor and social mores. These three and their close friends, Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, singlehandedly altered the social and intellectual landscape in mid-19th-century America. For this, Cheever makes a persuasive case with her compelling narrative.

One cannot overstate the synergistic impact of Fuller and Emerson, nor the importance of Transcendentalism to the fundamental concepts of American self-reliance and individualism. Although Fuller died at 40 (she drowned when the ship upon which she was returning from a trip abroad went down in 1850 off Fire Island), Emerson went on to expand the movement of Transcendentalist idealism that the two had founded.

America was changed forever by the work of these two, in particular, and, as Cheever posits, by Thoreau, Hawthorne and Alcott as well.

Cheever focuses much of her book on the emotional roundabout of the group, which clearly had a large effect the way - and whether - they worked. In her telling of the romantic side of their lives, with language in full flush - florid, sensual, inciting - these men and women seethed with passion for their ideas and each other, and, insists Cheever, without that interconnectedness, none of the works they produced might have been written. (Cheever asserts that Hawthorne would never have written his most renowned novel, The Scarlet Letter, without having known Fuller, on whom he based the iconoclastic Hester Prynne; nor would Thoreau have written at all without Emerson's subsidizing his work.) The writing in American Bloomsbury is lively and engaging, if a tad overwrought. Cheever is clearly in love with her subjects (and it's difficult not to love the brilliant and passionate Fuller and thoughtful and compassionate Emerson) and brings them vividly to life - albeit with a revisionist's slant.

The book's main flaw lies in its very strengths: In choosing to focus on the social and romantic lives of these towering intellectuals, Cheever often confuses her theorizing with historical fact and forces connections that don't exist (there's no evidence that Fuller had been lovers with either Emerson or Hawthorne, for example) or ignores those that did (like the homoeroticism of Alcott, Fuller and Hawthorne).

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