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American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Workby Susan Cheever
"Cheever doesn't really offer much that's new, but she packages it all so nicely. Rather than revering them as 'static daguerreotypes,' she brings these icons to life as men and women who fell in painful love, lived in crowded quarters, tramped on muddy roads, and 'walked arm in arm under Concord's great elms.' She also does a wonderful job of resurrecting the 19th century itself, and reminding us of how often her subjects were cold, hungry — well, the Alcotts, anyway — uncomfortable, and at the mercy of unenlightened doctors who harmed at least as often as they healed." Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
Synopses & Reviews
Even the most devoted readers of nineteenth-century American literature often assume that the men and women behind the masterpieces were as dull and staid as the era's static daguerreotypes. Susan Cheever's latest work, however, brings new life to the well-known literary personages who produced such cherished works as The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Walden, and Little Women. Rendering in full color the tumultuous, often scandalous lives of these volatile and vulnerable geniuses, Cheever's dynamic narrative reminds us that, while these literary heroes now seem secure of their spots in the canon, they were once considered avant-garde, bohemian types, at odds with the establishment.
These remarkable men and women were so improbably concentrated in placid Concord, Massachusetts, that Henry James referred to the town as the biggest little place in America. Among the host of luminaries who floated in and out of Concord's American Bloomsbury as satellites of the venerable intellect and prodigious fortune of Ralph Waldo Emerson were Henry David Thoreau — perpetual second to his mentor in both love and career; Louisa May Alcott — dreamy girl and ambitious spinster; Nathaniel Hawthorne — dilettante and cad; and Margaret Fuller — glamorous editor and foreign correspondent.
Perhaps inevitably, given the smallness of the place and the idiosyncrasies of its residents, the members of the prestigious circle became both intellectually and romantically entangled: Thoreau serenaded an infatuated Louisa on his flute. Vying with Hawthorne for Fuller's attention, Emerson wrote the fiery feminist love letters while she resided (yards away from his wife) in his guest room. Herman Melvillewas, according to some, ultimately driven mad by his consuming and unrequited affection for Hawthorne.
Far from typically Victorian, this group of intellectuals, like their British Bloomsbury counterparts to whom the title refers, not only questioned established literary forms, but also resisted old moral and social strictures. Thoreau, of course, famously retreated to a plot of land on Walden Pond to escape capitalism, pick berries, and ponder nature. More shocking was the group's ambivalence toward the institution of marriage. Inclined to bend the rules of its bonds, many of its members spent time at the notorious commune, Brook Farm, and because liberal theories could not entirely guarantee against jealousy, the tension of real or imagined infidelities was always near the surface.
Susan Cheever reacquaints us with the sexy, subversive side of Concord's nineteenth-century intellectuals, restoring in three dimensions the literary personalities whose work is at the heart of our national history and cultural identity.
"This beguiling book is Cheever's exploration of the extraordinary cross-fertilization of creativity in Concord, Mass., during the mid-19th century, when Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and the Alcotts lived as neighbors there. If it won't offer much new information for serious students of American literature, it does provide a lively and insightful introduction to the personalities and achievements of the men and women who were seminal figures in America's literary renaissance, and who, Cheever theorizes, influenced the social activism of succeeding generations. In episodic chapters, Cheever describes their entwined relationships. Margaret Fuller was their brilliant, free-spirited muse and a model for Hester Prynne. Louisa May Alcott, was forced to support her family because her feckless father, Bronson, had no intention of doing so. Herman Melville briefly entered the enchanted circle through his friendship with Hawthorne. Cheever touches on their love affairs and intellectual platonic attractions, their high-minded idealism, their personal losses, their intermittent misunderstandings and jealousies, the years of penury suffered by all except Emerson and their full-fledged tragedies -such as Margaret Fuller's drowning. While Cheever sometimes indulges in high-flown speculation about their personal lives, she keenly analyzes the positive and negative ways they influenced one another's ideas and beliefs and the literature that came out of 'this sudden outbreak of genius.'" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This beguiling book is Cheever's exploration of the extraordinary cross-fertilization of creativity in Concord, Mass., during the mid-19th century, when Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and the Alcotts lived as neighbors there. If it won't offer much new information for serious students of American literature, it does provide a lively and insightful introduction to the personalities and achievements of the men and women who were seminal figures in America's literary renaissance, and who, Cheever theorizes, influenced the social activism of succeeding generations. In episodic chapters, Cheever describes their entwined relationships. Margaret Fuller was their brilliant, free-spirited muse and a model for Hester Prynne. Louisa May Alcott, was forced to support her family because her feckless father, Bronson, had no intention of doing so. Herman Melville briefly entered the enchanted circle through his friendship with Hawthorne. Cheever touches on their love affairs and intellectual platonic attractions, their high-minded idealism, their personal losses, their intermittent misunderstandings and jealousies, the years of penury suffered by all except Emerson and their full-fledged tragedies — such as Margaret Fuller's drowning. While Cheever sometimes indulges in high-flown speculation about their personal lives, she keenly analyzes the positive and negative ways they influenced one another's ideas and beliefs and the literature that came out of 'this sudden outbreak of genius.' 8 pages of photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Susan Cheever is the latest literary moth to be drawn to the bright flame of mid-19th century Concord, Mass. Her 12th book, 'American Bloomsbury,' invites readers to meander through the lives of five neighbors whom we would do well to remember. Cheever sets her stage early on: 'We may think of them as static daguerreotypes, but in fact these men and women fell desperately in and out of love with each... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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.' She will resuscitate Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller by telling us that they, too, had feet of clay and their oh-so-human foibles were salacious enough for a 21st-century TV reality show. Perhaps that's what it takes these days to get anyone to pay attention. But is that what we should be paying attention to? Should we not remember instead these Concordians' fertile mix of intellectual firepower and daily friendships? We might do well to ponder how to bring their rigorously ethical and independent thinking into today's conversations. But perhaps Cheever intends to argue that their 'passionate romantic triangles' were necessary to fuel their lively genius. Cheever correctly points out that most of us would be hard put to describe exactly what Emerson stood for, why Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond (and why he left it) or the dark themes Hawthorne wrestled into his fiction. We may know Louisa May Alcott only through 'Little Women,' the shallowest reflection of her energetic and opinionated life. And we may never have heard of Margaret Fuller at all. Unfortunately, the book's haphazard pastiche of stories diminishes its ability to improve our understanding of these amazing Americans. None of the gossip is new or infused with fresh insight. We learn only tidbits of what they did and nothing to help us understand the how or the why. Cheever takes the easy potshots at the Alcotts' Fruitlands commune, dwells with Victorian pathos on Fuller's shipwreck and repeats Thoreau and Emerson's best-known bon mots. Cheever's title assumes a readership that is familiar with the London Bloomsbury crowd, although never once does she mention Bloomsbury in the text — a potentially interesting direction not taken. Rather, much of the book is pitched toward adolescents: 'In other words, Hawthorne had come to the point where he needed to get out of Dodge'; 'Slaves had been used in ways that even animals were never used. This was wrong.' She mystifyingly describes Fuller as a 'Dorothy Parker woman in a Jane Austen world' and calls Emerson the 'sugar daddy of American literature.' Cheever's most emotional paragraphs are devoted to excoriating John Brown, calling him a 'passionate con artist in desperate need of money for his chosen cause.' Cheever's attempt to bring the women of the neighborhood closer to the center of the action is laudable, although she slights the two women most deserving of attention — Abba Alcott, Louisa's mother, and Lidian Emerson, Ralph Waldo's second wife. Lidian's 'Transcendental Bible,' which Cheever never mentions, is a scathingly accurate parody of Emerson's beloved transcendentalism and shows her to be a woman of intelligence and verve. Abba was a remarkably prescient economic analyst, understanding the dislocations of immigration and the Industrial Revolution with greater clarity than most. But Cheever dwells more on her famously short temper than on her intellectual contributions. Instead, she focuses on Fuller (who stayed for several months with the Emersons but never lived in Concord) and Louisa May Alcott (who certainly lived there but was of a younger generation than the Emerson-Thoreau-Hawthorne triumvirate). To her credit, Cheever devotes more space to Louisa's father, Bronson, who was the fourth and rarely silent partner of the Concord circle. Attempting to write a biography of one person is tricky enough; to delineate a group of active and prolific geniuses is a challenge few dare to attempt. The good ones stand out: Leon Edel's 'House of Lions' about the actual Bloomsbury group, William St. Clair's 'The Godwins and the Shelleys' and John Worthen's 'The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons and the Wordsworths in 1802.' The neighborly sages of Concord warrant as many tries as it takes to get it right. Kit Bakke's latest book is 'Miss Alcott's E-Mail.' She can be reached through www.kitbakke.com." Reviewed by Kit Bakke, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Cheever's accomplishment here is in making this fab five come alive for a new generation....American Bloomsbury is a charming book, and a welcome addition to the writings about these incomparable figures of American history." Balitomire Sun
"[Cheever's] small volume about American Transcendentalists proves so lively and absorbing that it may awaken our desire to read some classics our teachers neglected to bludgeon us with." Hartford Courant
"Cheever has crafted a stirring book along the apex of love triangles, the edge of jockeying egos and the crest of creative bursts set against the crabbed human condition." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Essential reading for anyone with an interest in American letters." Library Journal
"Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury is a rather odd, and occasionally absorbing." Oregonian
"[Cheever] does a wonderful job of tracing the constant overlap and interplay of common experience and shared ideas that helped to shape their remarkable output." Christian Science Monitor
"[Cheever's] inclusion of the neglected Louisa May Alcott in this pantheon of greats is a refreshing gesture." Los Angeles Times
Between 1840 and 1868, three houses on the same road in Concord, Massachusetts, were home to such writers as Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. In this brilliant, controversial, and fascinating history, noted author Susan Cheever explores how, exactly, Concord developed into the first American community devoted to idealism. 8 pages of photos.
A revelatory life of Clover Adams, casting a lens on her iconic marriage to the historian Henry Adams and her fatal embrace of photography in her final months
Clover, an inquisitive, loving, fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin, married at twenty-eight the older and soon-to- be-eminent Henry Adams. She thrived in her role as an intimate to political insiders in Gilded Age Washington, where she was valued for her wit and taste by such artistic luminaries as Henry James and H. H. Richardson. Clover so clearly possessed, as one friend wrote, andldquo;all she wanted, all this world could give.andrdquo;
And yet at the center of her story is a haunting mystery. Why did Clover, having embarked on an exhilarating self-taught course of photography in the spring of 1883, end her life less than three years later by drinking from a vial of potassium cyanide, a chemical she used in developing her own photographs? The answer is revealed through Natalie Dykstraandrsquo;s original and dramatic discoveries regarding the thirteen-year Adams marriage.
The denouement of Cloverandrsquo;s death is equally compelling. Dykstra illuminates Cloverandrsquo;s enduring stature as a woman betrayed. And, most movingly, she untangles the complex and poignant truth of her shining and impossible marriage.
About the Author
Susan Cheever is the bestselling author of eleven previous books, including five novels and the memoirs Note Found in a Bottle and Home Before Dark. Her work has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Boston Globe Winship Medal. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the Corporation of Yaddo, and a member of the Author's Guild Council. She writes a weekly column for Newsday and teaches in the Bennington College M.F.A. program. She lives in New York City with her family.
Table of Contents
A Note to the Reader
1 Concord, Massachusetts
2 The Alcotts Arrive for the First Time
3 Louisa, Girl Interrupted
4 Louisa in Love...Henry David Thoreau
5 Sic Vita
6 Two Loves
7 Ellen Sewall
9 Emerson Pays for Everything
10 Two Deaths
11 The Curse of Salem
12 Hawthorne Emerges
13 The Execution
14 Another Triangle
15 Bronson Alcott, Peddler Turned Pedant
18 Thoreau Goes to New York City
19 Wall of Fire
20 Walden Pond
21 Margaret Fuller, the Sexy Muse
23 The Margaret Ghost
24 Hawthorne Leaves Salem Forever
27 The Railroad
29 Without Margaret
30 Louisa May Alcott Returns
31 Louisa in Boston
32 Concord Again
33 Walden, Walden
34 Thoreau Now
35 Leaving Walden
36 The Birth and Death of Margaret Fuller
38 The Hawthornes' Return to Concord
39 President Frank
40 Bayonets and Bullets
41 Local Martyr
42 The Death of Thoreau
43 Louisa in Washington, D.C.
44 Return and Illness
45 Hawthorne Leaves Concord
47 Little Women
48 Emerson and the Fire
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