Getting to know the prolific literati of Concord
Many of the literary masterpieces of 19th-century American literature were written within a relatively short span of time by writers who lived in Concord, Massachusetts. This assemblage of intellectuals continues to American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever's spirited, perceptive and clear-eyed portrait of literary icons Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, the author writes that she discovered "more and more coincidences of greatness being the result of proximity to greatness." Cheever, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, has firsthand knowledge of life with a famous writer and is perhaps best known for her exquisite and acclaimed memoir, Home Before Dark, which tells of her life as the daughter of novelist and short story writer John Cheever.
American Bloomsbury covers the period from roughly 1840 to 1882, the year Emerson died. It was he who was most responsible for the gifted group of writers being in Concord; he encouraged and, more importantly, financed them. Although his lecture fees helped, it was Emerson's inheritance from the death of his first wife—a settlement he had to contest in court—that made a significant difference. According to Cheever, "without this obscure lawsuit in 1836, it's hard to know what would have happened in Concord, if anything."
Despite these writers' progressive thinking on other issues, Cheever notes that "one of the beliefs of the age, one that had a deep impact on the Concord community, was that women were inferior to men, not just in physical strength, but in emotional strength and intelligence." The presence of the brilliant Margaret Fuller should have been enough to convince everyone of the absurdity of this kind of thinking. Fuller was, as Cheever tells us, "both erotically and imaginatively entangled" with Emerson and Hawthorne, although they were married to other women. She was committed to bringing about a revolution for women's place in society and took jobs that heretofore only men had done. In the 12 years following Fuller's death, Cheever writes, Hawthorne memorialized her in his fiction, which included "four of the greatest American novels ever written."
Other Concord women played more traditional roles. Emerson's second wife, Lidian (she changed her name from Lydia at Emerson's request), for example, found life with him to be extremely demanding; she felt Thoreau was "the one human being on earth who seemed to see her clearly." Louisa May Alcott, who spent much of her life taking care of her family, had doubts about writing Little Women, but "without intending to," according to Cheever, "invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens and bedrooms."
Cheever's enthusiasm for her subjects comes through on every page of American Bloomsbury. She introduces us to these writers as human beings rather than literary monuments. After reading her book, many will be inspired to read or reread the works of this extraordinary group of writers.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.