Saturday, March 01, 2008

Book: American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever

Subtitled: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work

So after my completely self-indulgent Little Women spree a couple weeks ago, I was still in the mood for Transcendentalist gossip. I saw a review of this book somewhere, and was thrilled to discover that my library had a copy.

This book is about the above-mentioned authors/thinkers in mid-1800 Concord, Massachusetts. I must have known somewhere in my mind that all these people were there at the same time, but I had tucked that bit of knowledge away quite well and so was fascinated by the 'genius cluster' that occured in this tiny village around the 1840s. What is even more fun and interesting is that they all lived within walking distance of one another and were intimately connected in each other's lives.

Aside from a few problems I had with the writing (I'll get to that in a minute), this was completely fascinating. I admit I mostly read it to get the gossip on Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, but since I have also loved Emerson's writing ever since first encountering it in high school, I found the personal portrait herein very interesting as well.

What I liked: the descriptions of the personalities of each person (gleaned, I think, from letters and journals, as well as historical accounts), and the web of relationships that was woven so tightly among them. Louisa May loved Thoreau and Emerson, Thoreau loved someone else, Emerson loved quite a few people (and paid the rent for most of them), Hawthorne was loved and hated in equal turns... and so on. Oh, the walks through the forest! The secret love poems! The veiled proposals! The turning-outs of house and home! The poverty and redemption!

I especially liked learning about the Alcotts: completely impoverished, surviving only by the kindness of others and luck, the family moved often, ate almost nothing and, it seems, it's a miracle any of them survived very long. After a series of misadventures they landed at Orchard House (half paid for by Emerson) and finally were able to 'land'. I loved making the connections between LMA's life and Jo March -- it becomes quite clear that the story of Little Women is the life she wished she had had, could have had if certain events had been different. I mean, I guess this is fairly common knowledge but it was fun to have just read LW and then to read this. Now I want a LMA biography.

Thoreau was also really interesting, and completely tragic. Brilliant, almost an outcast, an eccentric, and uncompromising in his morals and beliefs, he and Louisa are the ones I would most liked to have met in person.

Overall, the stories were really fun, the connections fascinating (I know I keep using that word, but it's true!), and it was like reading the gossip records of all these famous people, and really, who doesn't like that?

What I didn't like: I don't really know what Susan Cheever was going for with her style here. In her preface, she says that she tried to present certain events from all the different points of view, and so that accounts (she says) for the repetition of certain things. I just found it confusing and annoying. You read the same story, told three or four different ways, without any new information. It's like this: "Emerson loved his wife. He also loved Margaret Fuller. This relationship caused lots of strain with his wife." And then, "Emerson's wife loved Emerson. Emerson also loved Margaret Fuller, which caused lots of strain with his wife." And so on, from Margaret Fuller's point of view, and from everyone else's in the community...

I mean, come on! How many times until we get the point? Also, I didn't read the extended bibliography at the end (although I'm sure it was... what's that word? Oh yeah, fascinating...) but I was struck by how school-report-ish her style was. Instead of "showing, not telling," all we got was 'telling." As to-the-point as my mocking sentences above -- "Emerson also loved Margaret Fuller." But as for supporting evidence, there wasn't much provided. A few snippets from letters here and there, but mostly, she just told the gossip (and repeated herself often). I would have much preferred more letters, more evidence. How do we know Louisa loved Thoreau? All we get is one poem offered as evidence. The rest we are simply told.

Those gripes aside, this was definitely fun and interesting to a fan of these authors. I wish I could have seen Concord back then, before the Civil War, before the trains came. It sounds so beautiful and peaceful. People did not have much, but what they did have was time. The fact that their writing all has such depth to it is testament to the value of having time to just think, to just be. I'm romanticizing, but I do think it's true that having all that time lent a certain thoughtfulness to the writing which can be difficult to find now.

Oh -- the other thing I found interesting were the brief asides about nineteenth-century medicine. Mercury was prescribed for almost everything and killed almost everyone who took it, slowly and agonizingly, by mercury poisoning. It's what killed Louisa May Alcott.

Anyway. Good stuff, so-so writing. I don't quite get what the author was trying to do, but the lives of the people she was writing about carried her book anyway.


Alex said...

True story: I worked with someone who was in an MFA program. Susan Cheever was her advisor. My friend said SC was a total nightmare to work with. She ended up dropping out of the program because she found it impossible to take her directives. Could this have something to do with her weird style requirements?

Kate said...

Ha! That's hilarious! Not to knock the author or anything, since I haven't read the book, but it's always interesting to get colloquial info on the writer.

Daphne, do you know of any good biographies of LMA? I feel a nonfiction swing coming on post-Bellairs binge...

Alex said...

I came across a Thoreau reference in the book I'm reading, "The Brooklyn Follies" by Paul Auster. According to a character (who wrote his thesis on Transcendentalism), Thoreau died a virgin. Does Cheever get into that?

Daphne said...

No, she didn't, although if you do the math you can come to that conclusion. There was a fair amount of sex discussed in the book, but nothing really confirmed.