Concord's other revolution
A history of a creative ferment in thought, letters
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 & Schuster, 223 pp., illustrated, $26
Henry David Thoreau, we're informed in Susan Cheever's new book about the smart set that descended upon mid-19th century Concord, was not a large man. The only big things about him, writes Cheever, "were his nose and his ideas."
If you're given pause by the glib tone of that remark, then you're not quite the bull's-eye on the target market for "American Bloomsbury," which abounds with lighthearted observations about some of the country's heaviest writers -- Thoreau, the cranky, abundantly snouted naturalist; Hawthorne, whose crabbed personality led Ralph Waldo Emerson to snipe that the irresponsible Bronson Alcott and he "together would make a man" ; and Emerson, "the sugar daddy of American literature" who routinely covered for his friends' financial shortcomings.
If, on the other hand, you can take your literary history with a pinch of irreverent salt, then "American Bloomsbury" is an easily digested retelling of the oft-told story of Massachusetts' own loosely organized, vastly influential Transcendentalists.
Cheever, the author of several family memoirs and daughter of the late, Quincy-born short story master John Cheever, clearly has in mind an audience that's more likely to be reading "The Other Boleyn Girl" than, say, Emerson's rarefied essays "Love" and "Friendship." If it means bringing a few converts and returnees to the nearly forgotten masters of long-ago high school English classes -- curiosity seekers poking through the book aisle for a new page-turner while the kids debate their next video game purchase at Target -- then God bless her. Someone's God, at any rate.
The cultural convulsion centered on Concord "was a revolution that gently toppled God off his throne and replaced him with nature," Cheever writes, "with the glory of the physical world, and with the best things in the human heart." Not that her subjects were perfect representatives of those "best things": Like any other affiliation of families in the burbs, the fresh thinkers of Concord struggled endlessly with money, child-rearing, misguided affections , and petty arguments, and Cheever is only too happy to demonstrate.
Though the Transcendental "movement" really lasted only as long as the lifespan of The Dial, the journal edited first by Margaret Fuller and then Emerson from 1840 to 1844, little ripples ultimately made big waves. Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody were two of Alcott's assistants at his progressive Temple School in Boston. Peabody's sister, Sophia, married Hawthorne. Hawthorne's friendship with Herman Melville was intense; Melville's "Moby-Dick" is dedicated to the author of "The Scarlet Letter," which, as Cheever notes, was likely drawn from Fuller's defiant independence.
Given that these personal entanglements inspired some of the most enduring work in American letters, Cheever manages to emphasize them without quite turning Concord into Peyton Place. True, the shipwreck death of the "glamorous " Fuller gets squeezed for every drop of its inherent tragedy, and the author delights in wondering whether it was Louisa May Alcott's youthful crush on Thoreau or the fatherly Emerson that drove her, later in life, to churn out her masterpiece, "Little Women."
In the end, however, Cheever doesn't forsake the group's historical impact in favor of its temporal pecadilloes. She makes a nice case for Thoreau's "Walden" as the birth of the American memoir, and her enthusiasm for "Little Women," in which Alcott "invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women," is genuine.
Fuller, she suggests, "was a Dorothy Parker woman in a Jane Austen world," and the author calls the core Transcendentalists, with their spiritual and philosophical upheavals, "the original hippies." In terms of making comparisons across generations, she's in good company here: Emerson himself, in his essay "History," argued against the hard-and-fast rules of chronology in favor of a more fluid, intimate connection between students of human behavior and their case studies.
"We, as we read," wrote Concord's sugar daddy, "must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king . . . must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall see nothing, learn nothing, keep nothing." The stories of Concord's elite minds do, in fact, transcend time.
James Sullivan is the author of "Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon."