American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever
Concord's literary lions, fueled by sexual tension?
American BloomsburyPublisher: Simon & Schuster
Subtitle: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives...
Author: Susan Cheever
US publication date: 2006-12
In the 1840s and '50s, Henry James once suggested, Concord, Mass., was "the biggest little place in America." Lured by the magnetic and magnanimous Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nation's literary giants -- the American Transcendentalists -- lived in or near the town. Without Emerson's dream of community and the creativity unleashed by their intellectual and romantic entanglements, according to popular writer Susan Cheever, there would have been "no Walden, no The Scarlet Letter, no Little Women," and no articulation of the ideas that ignited the environmental and feminist movements.
"The real spirit of the scenes" in American Bloomsbury, Cheever acknowledges, "came from something simpler than library work." As she walked through marshes and meadows, along the Assabet River, and visited the homes once inhabited by the Alcotts and the Hawthornes, Cheever began to see the sepia tones of their world, hidden beneath the bright hues of 21st-century Concord. Her narrative -- of five people competing with and inspiring one another -- emerged from this "imagined landscape."
Cheever appears often on that landscape. She reflects on the role of her ancestor in the Salem witchcraft trials, recalls that her physician-uncle taught her the meaning of the term "iatrogenic," and remains "haunted" by John Brown's Pottawatomie Massacre. Nonetheless, American Bloomsbury is not a novel or a memoir. Nor is it, alas, a reliable work of history.
Cheever is inadequately informed about mid-19th-century American politics, society and culture. She claims, without evidence, that after the American Revolution, "a freer sexual morality -- more of a frontier morality -- seemed to prevail." She suggests, incorrectly, that in the 1840s, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe were Emerson's friends. And she asserts (ungrammatically) that "most people" in New England believed "that no one should be judged by the color of their skin" -- before making the opposite assessment a few chapters later.
Cheever's portrait of the Concord intellectuals -- referred to on the book jacket as their "sexy, subversive side" -- originates, apparently, in Freud-inflected speculations about what they could, should, and must have felt about one another. Although she calls her protagonists "the original hippies," Cheever portrays them as "high-minded prudes."
Beneath the superficial concord of Concord, she imagines a combustible Victorian atmosphere of lust, envy, repression and sublimation. Cheever's Hawthorne is "a rat with women," who courted Elizabeth Peabody, married her duller and more docile sister Sophia, and then toyed with Margaret Fuller. Emerson, who believed that Fuller "had always somehow belonged to him," evicted the Hawthornes from the house they were renting when she "floated out of his grasp."
Thoreau, Cheever contends, loved Fuller as well. But he also fell for Emerson's wife, Lidian, "after having done some flirting with her sister." While living in New York City, he wrote her "a frank letter bordering on something else." What's the smoking gun? "You must know," Thoreau wrote, "that you represent to me woman."
Thoreau was devastated, Cheever concludes, without documentation, when Lidian sent a "cool note" affirming their friendship. Several years later, Emerson went to Europe and left Thoreau in charge of his household. Lidian, Cheever reports, seemed "cheered" by the younger man -- and three-year-old Eddy asked Thoreau, "Will you be my father?" When Emerson returned, Thoreau no longer felt welcome, built his own place on land owned by his (former) friend, and wrote "Walden.
Without these consuming and unrequited loves, American Bloomsbury implies, the Concord quintet might well have been underachievers. But the "imagined landscape" described in these pages does not do justice to what we know -- and can legitimately say -- about their lives, works, characters and feelings.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.