Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly described Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, as the founder of the 1840s utopian community Brook Farm. George Ripley was the founder. This version has been corrected.
Our founding fathers and mothers of American literature mostly made their home in Concord, Mass., during the middle of the 19th century, and besotted English majors have told stories about them over the years:
Nathaniel Hawthorne courting one of the beauteous Peabody sisters and writing their initials in a window with a diamond to confirm their love for eternity (tourists can still find his scratching there today); Henry David Thoreau living on the shores of Walden Pond but hauling his laundry home for his mother to wash; andLouisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson, sitting on a tree stump waiting for intellectuals to stroll by so that he might snare them in endless conversation, which meant that intellectuals got a little more exercise, nimbly staying out of his way.
April Bernard, the director of creative writing at Skidmore College, is the latest in a long line of writers to be beguiled by these thinkers, and in her new historical novel, “Miss Fuller,” she captures them in all their quirky, inspiring and difficult ways. Thanks in good part to Ralph Waldo Emerson, they invented an American moral code and tried to live by it: Plain living and high thinking (which, for some of them, also functioned as a good excuse for being poor). If “things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” as Emerson wrote, mightn’t there be other ways to organize “work” so that folks might have ample time to think?
Along with these thoughts came a backlash of satire, often from the Great Minds themselves. There was something faintly silly about some transcendental enterprises, their naive schools and communes. And, of course, the highest-thinking men could always fall back on low thinking when it came to women: Hawthorne’s “Blithedale Romance,” a spoof of George Ripley’s Brook Farm, featured a pretentious femme fatale named Zenobia, who showed her commitment to untainted rural life by wearing an exotic flower in her hair. Hawthorne killed that character off, partly because she claimed she could think.
Zenobia was based on a real woman, Margaret Fuller, who spoke several languages and dared to hold “conversations” in which she proposed to educate young ladies of culture and open their eyes to the larger world. According to Bernard’s fascinating and touching novel, there was just too much of Margaret Fuller: her luxurious hair, her magenta silk dresses, her endless essays and her impudence in thinking she knew enough about the world to say anything about it.
Fuller adored Mr. Emerson, who took her under his wing, but Hawthorne scorned her (we see here that he was a bit of a self-regarding ninny). She had read about intellectual women, dared to think she was one, and prevailed upon her newspaper editor to send her to travel (well-
chaperoned) to Europe to report on the Italian revolution, which was raging at the time.
In real life, the iconoclastic writer died in a shipwreck off the coast of New York along with her Italian lover and their 2-year-old son. In Bernard’s version, much the same thing happens. When Fuller drowns within sight of land, the people who watched her remarkable life unfold and end have mixed emotions about her. She was so loud, so opinionated, so careless of the conventions of her day. Yes, this is fiction, but the facts holding it together are true and embarrassing, quite opposite to the images that stiff-necked Concordians wanted to project. Perhaps that’s why the story works best as an intense, fascinating jewel of a novel.
Reading “Miss Fuller” is like leafing through the family album and finding that great-aunt who ran away with, well, an Italian. Fuller is our rebellious streak, the part of us who gets in trouble, who puts her hand on a hot stove and gets soundly burned. I can’t tell you how much I love this book — and think a little less of Hawthorne.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.
By April Bernard
Steerforth. 180 pp. Paperback, $14.99