American Bloomsbury – the title shouted at me from the shelf of a Seattle used bookstore. I couldn’t resist Susan Cheever’s 2006 work on the Transcendentalists, with the explanatory subtitle: “Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.” I confess to knowing more about British literary history than I do American, so this was a fantastic introductory text to fill some gaps.
In addition to the intermingled lives of these five, who lived in three neighboring houses in Concord, Mass., in the mid-19th century, American Bloomsbury weaves in threads of Dickinson, Whitman, Longfellow, Melville, and Poe—the core of American literature in a nutshell. Margaret Fuller was the least known to me and the most fascinating; Cheever describes her as “a Dorothy Parker woman in a Jane Austen world” (and there’s a new bio of her by Megan Marshall that I’ve put on my to-read list).
Cheever writes 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…” Sounds like Bloomsbury, right? But even more than the similarities and fascinations of their convoluted personal relationships, Cheever’s title draws from the idea of constellations of genius, “greatness being the result of proximity to greatness.” She refers to the philosophers of ancient Rome—Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles—as one example; the so-called “founding fathers”—Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Franklin—as another.
And, of course, Bloomsbury. But Bloomsbury and its inhabitants are never mentioned or alluded to outside of the title. Of course they came later, but still, my curiosity led me to contact Susan Cheever about it, and she confirmed her intentions: “I used Bloomsbury as a synonym for all literary genius clusters.”
When I finished the book, I turned to see what Woolf had to say about them. She discusses all but Alcott (was she dismissed for writing “children’s” novels, or have I missed something?), even a mention of Margaret Fuller’s journals, in her essays:
“Emerson’s Journals have little in common with other journals. They might have been written by starlight in a cave if the sides of the rock had been lined with books” (from “Emerson’s Journals”).
The Transcendentalist movement represented “the effort of one or two remarkable people to shake off the old clothes which had become uncomfortable to them and fit themselves more closely to what now appeared to them to be the realities.” When we read Walden, “we have a sense of beholding life through a very powerful magnifying glass” (from “Thoreau”).
Woolf thought that Emerson and Hawthorne “have had their counterparts among us and drew their culture from our books.” In “American Fiction” she holds up Walt Whitman as the first to be “so uniquely American.” Still, there’s no doubt that the five were trailblazers, and I feel more grounded in our burgeoning literary history thanks to Cheever’s thorough and engrossing work.
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