American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The word "Bloomsbury" conjures a time and place peopled by artistic visionaries whose creativity changed the perception and practice of art, literature, philosophy, and criticism. I think of it as a wheel that radiated outward from Virginia Woolf to Lytton Strachey, Carrington, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Lady Ottoline, Vita Sackville-West, Katherine Mansfield, Ethyl Smith - clearly, not all Bloomsberries, but artists who were reaching out and breaking barriers everywhere.
These people (especially VW!) were great gossips, and they had plenty to gossip about. Everyone seemed to be sleeping with everybody else, in and around Garsington, and feuding with someone over something, or pretending to be the father of someone else's child... All manners of sexual expression were the norm (as it should be). This was a vibrant, exuberant, iconoclastic bunch of people, and I wish I could have been there, just to listen and pour the tea.
Ms. Cheever wants to makes the case for Concord as an American Bloomsbury because of the writers who lived in, or passed through the area. Ralph Waldo Emerson desired a creative community, and his influence drew some literati, either for love or for money. (Often, for Emerson's own money!)
Some passed through on their ways to or from one failed utopian community or another. Two of these, Brook Farm and Fruitlands, were the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blythedale Romance. Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May, brilliant and inscrutable educator, and abysmal provider for his family) showed up after one well-meaning failure or another. He visited (unnamed) Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and made an appearance in Louisa May Alcott's [Little Women:] as the usually) absent Mr March. (William Ellery Channing described him as "Orpheus at the plough.")
Only one woman was and intellectual brilliant enough, to fit into this community: the doomed Margaret Fuller: intellectual, vigorous, and devastating to many a married couple's domestic bliss. Not a single Transcendentalist male seemed to be able to resist her charms, whether by lusting in his heart or in a more appropriate region of his body. (They disappointed her, however. As she wrote in her journal, "Waldo was here three times yesterday, and sang his song... on his lips is the perfumed honey of Hymettus, but we can only sip.")
Hawthorne, described by Ms. Cheever as "a rat with women," was more openly besotted than any other. He used her as the inspiration for the character Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance. She also may have inspired The Scarlet Letter's Hester. As Ms. Cheever writes, Fuller was "a Dorothy Parker woman in a Jane Austen world."
The writers of Concord were good for gossip, and loved to gossip as much as any of the Bloomsbury crowd. Since the Transcendentalist philosophy was born and developed there, Emerson's Concord did create something new and powerful, even though there was no moment when the world changed (as it purportedly did when Lytton Strachey pointed at a stain on Vanessa Bell's clothes and said, "semen?") Some have followed Thoreau's lead by going on their own into the woods, to meld philosophy and science.Emerson's essays are masterpieces of philosophy and graceful writing. Hawthorne's novels are (rightly) studied in nearly every school in America.
Ms. Cheever writes, "people of the time still believed that at the north and south poles the globe was indented with a tropical paradise... Another of the exotic beliefs of the age was that women were inferior to men," and they could not change the mores of their time. How could they, when people still believed these fantasies? (I enjoy imagining Bronson Alcott, for example discussing gardening with Vita Sackville-West, or art with Virginia Woolf, but in reality, both groups were products of their times, and most likely would have bewildered each other.)
And what of Louisa May Alcott, whose Little Women may be one of the most beloved books ever written? She played with Thoreau, moved back and forth between Boston and Concord, Fruitlands and borrowed houses, for most of her childhood, and never had sufficient food or security because her father never earned a living. She was too young to play a role in developing new philosophies. We are lucky: her hard life never stifled her love of words and writing, so she was able to earn a living writing potboilers under pseudonyms. But she never would have written Little Women had it not been for her parents' urging for her to write "a girl's book." In my mind, Louisa May Alcott is the best ambassador between Concord and the present - quite an accomplishment for anyone, man or woman.
If you are looking for a detailed critique of Transcendentalism, or in-depth biographies, look elsewhere. American Bloomsbury is a gossipy romp and chronology of a time and place where a group of fascinating and intellectually-fearless men advanced the American spirit.
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