Tuesday, February 26, 2008

American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau by Susan Cheever

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the essential person in the creation of a remarkable community of authors in Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century, according Susan Cheever in American Bloomsbury. Many of the other authors who settled in the village (or in the cases of the Alcotts and Hawthorne who came and left repeatedly) came at Emerson's invitation, which was often supplemented with an offer to pay their rent. This might not have happened if Emerson's first wife had not died and left him a fortune. But it did and this collective issued The Scarlet Letter, Walden, Little Women, and Moby Dick, the core titles of American literature.

You may notice that Melville is not listed in the subtitle. He was more of a visitor than a resident, but his stay with Hawthorne transformed his writing from good old fashioned sea stories to something much deeper and more disturbing. In his case, the price of success was personal dissatisfaction.

Margaret Fuller was also a visitor, never having her own place in Concord. Her appearance always stirred the affections of Emerson and Hawthorne, both married men. She is now the least recognized of the group, but she may in a sense be the most known, as she was Hawthorne's inspiration for The Scarlet Letter and for Henry James for Portrait of a Lady. As a journalist, editor, and irrepressible character, she was an inspiration for the early feminist movement, and her tragic death unsettled the community.

Emerson, Alcott, and Hawthorne lived for years within rock-throwing distance of each other. They were in and out of each other's houses. Thoreau lived with Emerson for several years, even though his family lived nearby. He also built a little shed and lived by the pond until the new railroad made it less comfortable.

The title of the book is meant as a compliment, but it seems a little odd to me. The Concord community predates the London set. Perhaps there should be a book Concord in London. Still, American Bloomsbury is a quick read introduction to a fascinating group of people who transformed American literature. Any library that missed getting it in 2006 should make amends.

Cheever, Susan. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 9780743264617

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