Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review Redux: American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

I offer you the following book review, copied from BookLoons (site linked here) where it originally appeared; I have also appended a postscript at the end of the review: 

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)     

Special moments occur in history when certain lives and circumstances intersect - as if ordained by a higher power - and the world is enriched because of those intersections.

The Golden Age of Greece was one such moment (and philosophy, literature, and architecture were forever altered and influenced); the English Renaissance was another such moment (and, once again, literature, including drama and poetry as rendered by William Shakespeare was changed); then, during the middle of the nineteenth century in a landlocked town a few miles west of Boston, Massachusetts, another special intersection of lives and minds occurred.

That intersection is the subject of Susan Cheever's magnificent book, American Bloomsbury. Yes, this golden age of American literature was of a scale and quality different from its Greek and English antecedents, but - as argued by Cheever in her exciting narrative - it was, for all of its differences, the most important and most intriguing intersection in American literary history.

With Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord, Massachusetts, as the gravitational center of their intellectual and social universe, four other geniuses - Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau - gathered together, and 'these men and women wrote some of the most enjoyable and enduring works in American literature'. Moreover, they 'debated and wrote about original ideas that continue to shape our beliefs about environmentalism, feminism, sexuality, freedom, education, materialism, spirituality, and the importance of the individual.'

In a period of about twenty-five years in the middle of the nineteenth century, the American character was given its special shape and voice; in fact, if you want to understand America's intellectual heritage, and if you want to understand the challenges that continue to confront American culture, then you simply must read Cheever's American Bloomsbury. This must-read book offers everyone 'a fresh and intimate look at a very special time and place, where five giants of our culture tangled with one another and the world, and wrote the books that inspire us still.'

In closing, I would add only this additional endorsement for Susan Cheever's superb study: As a former university instructor of literature, I have found the one book - above all others - that I can recommend to anyone who wants to appreciate the significant forces, ideas, and personalities in 19th century American literature; better than individual biographies, American Bloomsbury is wonder-filled portrait of five of America's most important literary figures. Don't miss it!

* * * * *


The reason I have offered you a reprint of this review is because I will be revisiting the times and lives of people in Susan Cheever's book. Perhaps you ask, "Why?" Well, like a ship without a rudder, I have been drifting around without any navigational control for the last few months, but I think I can regain some sensible direction and purpose by spending some time with Hawthorne, Alcott, Thoreau, Emerson, and other great minds of the era. Herman Melville, although not a major player in Cheever's book, also waits for me.

Moreover, my previous posting this morning -- about Aldous Huxley's dystopian vision in Brave New World -- has been the catalyst for my reading plan. Perhaps the following excerpt from the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (which appears as an epigraph in Cheever's book) will make this all a bit more clear:

"I think we escape something by living in villages. In Concord here there is some milk of life, we are not so raving distracted with wind and dyspepsia. The mania takes a milder form. People go a-fishing, and know the taste of their meat. They cut their own whippletree in the woodlot, they know something practically of the sun and the east wind, of the underpinning and the roofing of the house, of the pan and mixture of the soils."

And there is this excerpt from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (which also appears as an epigraph in Cheever's book):

"There is always room and occasion enough for a true book on any subject, as there is room for more light on the brightest day, and more rays will not interfere with the first."

So, ponder those epigraphs and my previous posting, and you might have an insight into why I am returning to a simpler life via my vicarious experiences in Concord and the 19th century. 

But there is more (and this is important):

I remain an eclectic, impulsive, and unpredictable reader. So, even though I have declared my renewed interest in the Concord group, I will still be including all sorts of other books, postings, digressions, and comments here at Informal Inquiries. Perhaps some things will pique your interest. 

Perhaps you have comments, and you might also have special favorites and a few reading recommendations from the American Bloomsbury era. And what on earth do you think was in the water at Concord? Something was going on there. Well, ponder that for a moment. At any rate, I look forward to hearing from you. Let the discussions begin!


  1. This was one of those rare literary groupings, with centripetal and centifugal balancing each other.

    1. Frank, I guess Emerson was the solar center of that planetary system, but I think some of the smaller planets were (and remain) much more interesting. Still, it was quite an array of personalities and minds.

  2. It is fascinating how those groupings can happen, Tim. Thanks for sharing this one.

    1. Margot, there was a smaller-scale, much less sublime gathering of odd personalities and minds at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn in the 1940s: Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, George Davis, Gypsy Rose Lee, Richard Wright, and a dozen more. An interesting book -- February House -- examines the bizarre group.

  3. we've lost so much... what's a whippletree? old farmers used to be able to turn their hands to any task, from furniture making to house building... my grandfather was like that... even Thoreau's family ran a pencil factory... in addition to all the other stuff they did...
    try "A Week on the Concord and Merricack Rivers" its' delightful...

    1. Thanks for the reading Rx, Mudpuddle. Times have changed, even in our lifetime. Our parents and grandparents did things. We hire people to do things. I wonder what has happened to us.