Spirits in the Material World

(© Bettmann/corbis)
Reviewed by Kit Bakke
Sunday, January 14, 2007


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

By Susan Cheever

Simon & Schuster 223 pp. $26

Susan Cheever is the latest literary moth to be drawn to the bright flame of mid-19th century Concord, Mass. Her 12th book, American Bloomsbury, invites readers to meander through the lives of five neighbors whom we would do well to remember. Cheever sets her stage early on: "We may think of them as static daguerreotypes, but in fact 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, and walked arm in arm under Concord's great elms."

She will resuscitate Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller by telling us that they, too, had feet of clay and their oh-so-human foibles were salacious enough for a 21st-century TV reality show.

Perhaps that's what it takes these days to get anyone to pay attention. But is that what we should be paying attention to? Should we not remember instead these Concordians' fertile mix of intellectual firepower and daily friendships? We might do well to ponder how to bring their rigorously ethical and independent thinking into today's conversations. But perhaps Cheever intends to argue that their "passionate romantic triangles" were necessary to fuel their lively genius.

Cheever correctly points out that most of us would be hard put to describe exactly what Emerson stood for, why Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond (and why he left it) or the dark themes Hawthorne wrestled into his fiction. We may know Louisa May Alcott only through Little Women, the shallowest reflection of her energetic and opinionated life. And we may never have heard of Margaret Fuller at all.

Unfortunately, the book's haphazard pastiche of stories diminishes its ability to improve our understanding of these amazing Americans. None of the gossip is new or infused with fresh insight. We learn only tidbits of what they did and nothing to help us understand the how or the why. Cheever takes the easy potshots at the Alcotts' Fruitlands commune, dwells with Victorian pathos on Fuller's shipwreck and repeats Thoreau and Emerson's best-known bon mots.

Cheever's title assumes a readership that is familiar with the London Bloomsbury crowd, although never once does she mention Bloomsbury in the text -- a potentially interesting direction not taken. Rather, much of the book is pitched toward adolescents: "In other words, Hawthorne had come to the point where he needed to get out of Dodge"; "Slaves had been used in ways that even animals were never used. This was wrong." She mystifyingly describes Fuller as a "Dorothy Parker woman in a Jane Austen world" and calls Emerson the "sugar daddy of American literature." Cheever's most emotional paragraphs are devoted to excoriating John Brown, calling him a "passionate con artist in desperate need of money for his chosen cause."

Cheever's attempt to bring the women of the neighborhood closer to the center of the action is laudable, although she slights the two women most deserving of attention -- Abba Alcott, Louisa's mother, and Lidian Emerson, Ralph Waldo's second wife. Lidian's Transcendental Bible, which Cheever never mentions, is a scathingly accurate parody of Emerson's beloved transcendentalism and shows her to be a woman of intelligence and verve. Abba was a remarkably prescient economic analyst, understanding the dislocations of immigration and the Industrial Revolution with greater clarity than most. But Cheever dwells more on her famously short temper than on her intellectual contributions.

Instead, she focuses on Fuller (who stayed for several months with the Emersons but never lived in Concord) and Louisa May Alcott (who certainly lived there but was of a younger generation than the Emerson-Thoreau-Hawthorne triumvirate). To her credit, Cheever devotes more space to Louisa's father, Bronson, who was the fourth and rarely silent partner of the Concord circle.

Attempting to write a biography of one person is tricky enough; to delineate a group of active and prolific geniuses is a challenge few dare to attempt. The good ones stand out: Leon Edel's House of Lions about the actual Bloomsbury group, William St. Clair's The Godwins and the Shelleys and John Worthen's The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons and the Wordsworths in 1802. The neighborly sages of Concord warrant as many tries as it takes to get it right. ·

Kit Bakke's latest book is "Miss Alcott's E-Mail." She can be reached through

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