FEW moments in American literary history equal the extraordinary creative burst of the early 1850s. Ralph Waldo Emerson published his great essays, Herman Melville unleashed "Moby-Dick" (for my money, the Great American novel) and Nathaniel Hawthorne produced not one but two masterpieces -- "The Scarlet Letter" and "The House of Seven Gables." Henry David Thoreau mused about the simple life in "Walden," while Walt Whitman topped the whole thing off with "Leaves of Grass." As the literary critic F.O. Matthiessen wrote in "American Renaissance," his classic 1941 survey of the period, "you might search all the rest of American literature without being able to collect a group of books equal to these in imaginative vitality."
These texts are staples of high school and college literature courses, their critical terrain well trod. With "American Bloomsbury," Susan Cheever doesn't add much to our understanding of the time. From its misleading title to her gushing prose and off-key readings of Thoreau and company, the book suffers from the flaws that give middlebrow writing a bad name. Cheever's discussions of her subjects' works feel second-hand, even if her inclusion of the neglected Louisa May Alcott in this pantheon of greats is a refreshing gesture. "American Bloomsbury" is more a study in domestic arrangements and sense of place -- Concord, Mass., where her subjects lived, wrote and thought. It's also a kiss-and-tell masquerading as literary history.
If the austere Matthiessen had little time for gossip, Cheever goes completely in the other direction. She writes with bodice-ripping breathlessness that "these men and women fell desperately in and out of love with each other, tormented each other in a series of passionate romantic triangles, edited each other's work, talked about ideas all night, and walked arm in arm under Concord's great elms."
Concord was a tiny town that attracted people with big ideas. At the center of it all was Emerson, ringleader and philosopher who spouted the oracular pronouncements -- "the all is in each particle" -- that would form the core principles of Transcendentalism. New ideas were in the air: Emerson was trying to get beyond a religion fixated on God; he wanted to sanctify the individual, and his disciples fed on his effusions. (Try getting your head around this: "that there is One Mind, and that all the powers and privileges which lie in any, lie in all.")
Emerson made a mint from lecturing (and he had an inheritance from his first wife), which allowed him to lavishly subsidize his chronically hard-up friends. "[I]t is as the sugar daddy of American literature that he really takes his place in the pantheon of Concord writers," Cheever writes. Well, that's one way of putting it. Emerson paid the Alcotts' rent (Louisa's father, Bronson, was a daydreaming minor sage who idealized the rural life and was always in need of cash), lured Hawthorne and his wife from dreary Salem, Mass., and lent Thoreau -- a world-class freeloader -- a woodlot on Walden Pond. Margaret Fuller, intellectual, activist, a feminist "unafraid of her own brilliance," was a frequent guest at the Emerson house, as were many others.
There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, moving from houses (sometimes you feel like you're reading a mortgage ledger), and fallings-in and fallings-out to track. Cheever follows her subjects from the 1840s through the Civil War, switching from the Hawthornes to the Alcotts, to Fuller, Emerson and Thoreau. Emotional turmoil reigned as much as new ideas about American life. The young Louisa Alcott fell for Thoreau, who showed her the glories of nature, then Emerson. The brooding Hawthorne and Emerson were both entranced by Fuller. Very much her own woman, she put both men to the test -- emotionally and intellectually.
Fuller implored Emerson to "forego these tedious, tedious attempts to learn the universe by thought alone." And as much as Hawthorne thrived on banter with smart women, he sought out a meeker spouse. "He was in love with challenge," Cheever writes of Hawthorne, "but he didn't want to live it." Both Emerson and Hawthorne were suspicious of the institution of marriage but stayed wed nonetheless.
This mixed-up gang was a coterie of sorts searching for new ways of living and thinking, but it's unhelpful that Cheever has decided to call her book "American Bloomsbury." In the first place, she never tells us what Bloomsbury was: a London neighborhood and home to a tight group of English writers (including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster) who rebelled against the mores of the early 1900s. Bloomsbury was a specifically English phenomenon; theirs was a very close conspiracy. And they were all snobs to boot, which Emerson and friends weren't.
Worse still are Cheever's overwrought atmospherics: "But it was springtime in Concord, the lilacs perfumed the air, and grapevines dripped from the broad white porches on Main Street."
Cheever at times seems desperate to make the writing of these American greats relevant to our times, but her overly strenuous advocacy isn't needed. Their work speaks for itself; as long as there is a culture of American letters, Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau will be relevant. She reduces the latter to a kind of dippy proto-hippie, and her curious readings of his works diminish him: "We revere Thoreau for his contempt for material things. We love him for damning new clothes and cautioning us against possessions." Uh, "we" do? I can appreciate Thoreau as a naturalist, an American original and a fine writer, but I have nothing against material possessions, and I certainly have nothing against new clothes (when I can afford them).
Still, Cheever delivers some good chapters on how the vexed issue of slavery played out in Concord. Emerson, Thoreau and the Alcotts were absolutists who championed the violent messianism of anti-slavery crusader John Brown, hardly the first time in U.S. history that intellectuals got mixed up with political fanaticism. Hawthorne, however, wanted nothing to do with Brown, of whom he said, "Nobody was ever more justly hanged."
It's also hard to fault Cheever's tenderness for Alcott, who emerged from the shadow of great men as a writer. Alcott battled illness and opium addiction and wrote the bestselling "Little Women" in 1868, a book Cheever feels has been treated unjustly. Though I'm not sure it's the great, forward-looking novel Cheever says it is -- "in tone and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir" -- "Little Women" certainly deserves to be rescued from junior high school reading lists, where it has been relegated for too long. *