In preparation for our trip to New England, I’ve once again picked up American Bloomsbury, which is about Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Margaret Fuller, the writers who shaped American literature. Susan Cheever attempts to portray the real lives of these auspicious men and women. She states in chapter 1: “[T]his is not only a story about ideas and their power to form a national identity; it’s about love triangles and the difficulties of raising children, about grief and inspiration and bad advice and passionate friendships, about the ebb and flow of daily life in the New England seasons of a small town.” Sounds good, right?
Cheever has done loads of research, and much of the stories are written in narrative form, which gives the book an air of fiction. She also makes bold statements about their lives; sometimes, it’s amusing (see following quote on Emerson) and sometimes, it’s annoying. I started reading this last year, when we initially planned our New England trip, and couldn’t even make it through part 1. I didn’t want my perceptions of Thoreau, Emerson, and the others to be ruined by her opinions. I have since decided to give it another chance.
Some points that Cheever makes:
1. Emerson, with the money left to him by his first wife, who died young of TB, supported all of his fellow thinkers and writers at some time or another. Cheever states:
Emerson wrote some wonderful lines, and some true biographical portraits, but it is as the sugar daddy of American literature that he really takes his place in the pantheon of Concord writers.
Of what I had previously read, this is the statement that I distinctly remembered, one that makes me smile a little every time I think of it. I wonder what Emerson would think of this particular phrasing?
2. I’m not really a fan of Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), so this book hasn’t really skewed my perception of him. Still, I found Cheever’s statements about his marriage with Abba Alcott to be interesting:
Bronson Alcott, in his doomed consociate society, believed that marriage shouldn’t limit a man’s ability to be with other women or a woman’s ability to be with other men, a freedom that rang hollow to his wife, who had no desire to be with other men and less and less desire to be with Alcott himself.
Alcott, though beloved by Louisa May, was not a good husband and father. He spent a lot of time away from home, visiting other areas of New England, and even England on occassion, teaching his radical beliefs on education (not all of which are bad, admittedly), and attempting to persuade others to his ideology of communal living. (Granted, I’m all for communal living, but Alcott attempted to live communally, with far too many social freedoms, and a lack of intelligence about farming and gardening. He didn’t believe in milking the cows or using the animals to plow and was, therefore, a terrible agrarian.)
3. Cheever talks way too much about sex in this book. The way she tells it, the Concord Transcendentalists were all having affairs with each other. The married men Emerson and Hawthorne were both in love with Margaret Fuller, young Louisa May Alcott loved both Emerson and Thoreau, and Thoreau was in love with Emerson’s wife, Lidian. She also even speculates on whether Thoreau was gay.
On that note, however, I tend to agree with some of what she says. While Cheever believes the other authors’ sexuality greatly influenced their word (i.e. Hawthorne’s infatuation with Margaret Fuller was the basis of both The Blithedale Romance and The Scarlet Letter), she states about Thoreau:
[I]t isn’t clear that Thoreau’s sexuality affected his life at all. It’s a twenty-first century question directly at an emphatically nineteenth-century personality. What is to be said about a man whose connections to birds and fish and all living things sustained him in a way that his connections to other people could never do?
That seems more fitting with the ideas I’ve had about Thoreau–the man who loved Nature and was so in tune with the trees and the animals that he sort of wandered through the rest of his life in a sort of daze.
Cheever’s discussion on Walden might be my favorite parts of the whole book. She writes:
Freed from his daily indebtedness to Emerson, [Thoreau] wrote as if awakening, and the sense of awakening runs through the book. Walden is the first American memoir, the first book in which the days and nights of an autobiographical, confessional narrator are the central plotline. Thoreau invented nature writing and memoir writing in one swift, brilliant stroke.
In regards to the popularity that Walden has in present-day America, Cheever states:
Walden is a masterpiece, but it is generally cited more than it is read. The mention of Walden in polite society inevitably elicits great praise. “My favorite book,” someone says. Or, “I live by that book.” What they mean is that they know about the book and take it to be a hand book for the simpler life they might want to lead, if they ever got tired of making money and going to parties, or if they ever came to believe that the status in their community that makes them comforatable was really not important at all.
So true. I love Walden–for those reasons. Ideally, I’d like to live a simple life, free of clutter and materialism. But all you need to do is walk in my room, where piles of stuff clutter my life and wonder where the simplicity is.
All in all, I’d say this book definitely improves as one keeps reading. Cheever, I think, sometimes takes too much liberty in telling these stories–I think she assumes too much about the details of their lives that we could never actually know. And as much as I like New Historicism, there’s something to be said for limiting the details of the author’s life–I don’t think knowing every detail about Hawthorne’s supposed love affair with Fuller should in any way influence my reading of The Scarlet Letter. His Puritan ancestry…yes, it’s quite important. I don’t think his sexual life is. And with that, I’m finished.
I read this book over the course of the day yesterday, and this morning, I dreamed that I was sitting in some house in Concord having a fantastic discussion with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. I don’t remember what we were discussing, but I know we were all friends. 🙂