Scenes from an American Eden
How did a rustic village foster a 'genius cluster'? Susan Cheever engagingly recreates the overlapping literary lives of Concord, Mass.
I don't know why Susan Cheever's publishers changed their minds and released her book a month early but I am grateful that they did. Because what dropped into my lap – just at the height of the season of holiday excess – was a trim (223 pages, with notes and bibliography) and pleasing volume that I had not been expecting. It was like having a Christmas present arrive early.
Cheever explains in her preface that sheer serendipity led her to write American Bloomsbury. She was asked – somewhat offhandedly – to prepare a preface for a new edition of "Little Women." That experience caused her to delve into the life of Louisa May Alcott. Doing so surprised her. "I remembered F.O. Matthiessen's bold statement that all of American literature had been written between 1850 and 1855," she writes. "What I hadn't realized is that most of it was written in the same cluster of three houses."
The place was Concord, Mass. (Henry James called it "the biggest little place in America"; Hawthorne simply labeled it "Eden") and within its bucolic confines stood three houses that were, at different times, home to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry and John Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and feminist Margaret Fuller. Nearby neighbors included Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Horace Mann. Is there anything further to be said?
Yes. 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.
"American Bloomsbury" focuses on Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Fuller, and Louisa May Alcott between 1840 and 1868. Emerson (described as "tall, handsome, brilliant ... with a deep, dreamy baritone voice") was "the sugar daddy" of the group who kept most of the others afloat.
But Emerson's wealth didn't spare him the ache of unconsummated love. He and Hawthorne both (as married men) fell hard for the magnetic Fuller who oozed "erotic power and sexual confusion" and who appears to have tortured husbands with intense talk about spiritual love and an airy disdain – at least in theory – for marital bonds. She's probably the muse behind "A Scarlet Letter" and she may have caused a jealous Emerson to oust Hawthorne from his home.
Meanwhile, Henry and John Thoreau were suffering unrequited pangs of love for a preacher's lovely but somewhat shallow daughter. Henry may have taken some comfort in the schoolgirl crush of his young pupil, Louisa May Alcott, but he was still "ugly as sin" (according to Hawthorne), had bad table manners, wild hair, and shabby clothes. Hawthorne, for his part, was blessed with "handsomeness" and "tender good manners" but spent much of his life mooching off others and was "a rat with women."
But although Cheever delights with dollops of gossipy detail, "American Bloomsbury" is not Entertainment Weekly for 19th-century intellectuals. Cheever never forgets that it's their achievements that make these people worth caring about and she does a wonderful job of tracing the constant overlap and interplay of common experience and shared ideas that helped to shape their remarkable output.
Cheever's tidy account of these connections, however, leaves little room for complexity or nuance. (Of course "A Scarlet Letter" is not solely the result of one magic evening Hawthorne spent with Fuller and Thoreau was probably not the only model for Laurie in "Little Women.")
So don't hand this book to a scholar. But do share it with anyone who may long ago have studied Concord's "genius cluster" in lit class but would today welcome a brisk new take on a fascinating old story.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.