It was an eclectic cast of characters. At various times in Concord, Massachusetts, three houses on the same road were home to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry and John Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Among their friends and neighbors were Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, and others - men and women are at the heart of American idealism.
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, edited each other's work, discussed and debated ideas and theories all night long, and walked arm in arm under Concord's great elms - all of which creates a thrilling story.
It was America's equivalent to England's Bloomsbury. American Bloomsbury explores how, exactly, Concord developed into the first American community devoted to literature and original ideas - ideas that, to this day, define our beliefs about environmentalism and conservation, and about the glorious importance of the individual self.
©2006 Susan Cheever; (P)2007 Tantor Media Inc.
"Beguiling....[a] lively and insightful introduction to the personalities and achievements of the men and women who were seminal figures in America's literary renaissance...[Cheever] keenly analyzes the positive and negative ways they influenced one another's ideas and beliefs and the literature that came out of 'this sudden outbreak of genius'." (Publishers Weekly)
This is a well-publicized work by a well-known author (daughter of John Cheever); I picked it up after hearing a few interviews with the author on various NPR shows. It coincided with the interest I already had in the Transcendentalists.
I would recommend this title with some BIG caveats. As many have pointed out, there are several quite glaring factual errors in the book. (Please see the Amazon.com reviews for this title if you'd like more details about this)
The overall tone is light, chatty, even dishy and gossippy, and much more time is spent on the love lives and intrigues among the Hawthornes, Emersons, Thoreau brothers, Alcotts, Margaret Fuller, et al, than their lives of thought and literary output that was so profoundly influential to everything that followed in American culture.
OK, that having been said, I do think Cheever gets right a very superficial overview of the Concord group. It's a decent introduction for the absolute beginner. It's also appreciated that she gives equal weight to the women of the circle (which some other even contemporary books on this subject do not).
I hope the listener will use this selection as an intro in that way, then move on to other more scholarly works (Robert Richardson's bios of Emerson and Thoreau, Geldard's books on the spiritual teachings of Emerson) and then the works of the residents of Concord themselves, an amazing cluster of authors and thinkers.
This book repeats a lot of inaccurate cliches about these writers that haven't been taken seriously for a generation or two. A number of reviewers here and on Amazon have pointed out its factual errors. But what really surprised me was the old-school Confederate apologia that creeps in throughout the first three quarters and grows into an ugly rant when Cheever gets to the Transcendentalists' support for John Brown.
At the start of her discussion of John Brown, Cheever mentions about as briefly and vaguely as possible the sustained violence of the pro-slavery side before the war (though not really of slavery, which remains curiously abstract for her here, as elsewhere). But she describes the violence of Brown's raids in the goriest details she can imagine -- the sound of knife on bone, the smell of guts and vomit. It's the most vivid description in the book. In a familiar pattern, the constant, ubiquitous violence of slavery and its supporters gets barely an acknowledgement, but any violence by its opponents is recounted in lavish, horrified detail.
It never occurs to Cheever that anyone could have opposed slavery enough to feel violenct resistance was justified. Brown is just a religious lunatic to her, or a "con man." And suddenly she has contempt for the subjects of her book, the same people who brilliance and importance she describes in rapturous superlatives everywhere else. She dismisses Thoreau and Alcott as "immature boys who had never been able to support themselves" (as if their poverty invalidated their politics) and Emerson -- who, as the "eminently practical father figure for those feckless boys," should have known better -- as an effete intellectual perhaps "too caught up in translations of Goethe and Pindar" to understand the reality of what he supported.
In fact, the whole Civil War seems misguided and unnecessary to her. She approvingly cites Robert Penn Warren's portrait of the war as the needless result of Northern zealotry: "Brown was a 'higher law man.' ... Unhappily, a corollary of this divine revelation was to make the South pay, and pay again. The disagreement might conceivably have been settled under terms of law, but ... there is only one way to conclude a theological argument: bayonets and bullets." I'm sure the people being exploited, beaten, raped, and murdered by their slave-drivers would have loved to see the "disagreement" settled amicably, if it only hadn't been for those irrational Northern theologians and their war of aggression.
Much of Cheever's perspective in this discussion comes from Warren, and she quotes him extensively. What she doesn't mention is that she's quoting from Warren's first book from 1929, back in his pro-segregation days as the de facto leader of the reactionary "Southern Agrarian" movement. He repudiated these earlier views in the 1950s when he became an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement. Cheever exploits Warren's moral and intellectual authority without ever acknowledging that he recanted the attitudes on which the book she cites was based.
And to top it all off, at the end of this ugly chapter, Cheever tries to suggest that the Transcendentalists were justly punished, though whether for their support of Brown or of the war itself is unclear: "The Civil War, when it came, would destroy Concord.... By the time it was over, both Hawthorne and Thoreau would be dead, Emerson would be on the path to the severe Alzheimer’s disease that crippled him so completely that at the end of his life he couldn't spell Concord, and Louisa May Alcott would have changed from a dreaming girl into an angry, sick, and very practical middle-aged spinster. Were they the victims of a greedy, warmongering South? Or did they help bring on the catastrophe with their own willful innocence and self-righteousness?" This is nuts. Thoreau's and Hawthorne's deaths had nothing to do with the Civil War, and neither did Emerson's Alzheimer's more than a decade later. Only the description of Alcott has anything to do with the war, though that too leaves so much out of the story, as Cheever should know. But applying the sexist caricature of the bitter old maid to Alcott at all is snide and inappropriate, as is the gratuitous and sadistic detail about Emerson's dementia. Emerson's dementia is clearly not gratuitous to Cheever, though. a crucial point in this discussion for Cheever, though. She centers her whole, incredibly vapid conclusion to this chapter on a description of an 1880 Emerson lecture "patched together by his daughter and his secretary because he was too far gone to write his own lectures and almost too far gone to deliver them" and then imagines his audience getting bored and staring out the window. Take that, Northern Aggressor!
A lot of what Cheever wants to do in this book is dish about how various famous people were in love with one another. Usually, she's wrong. It's like middle school gossip -- "I know who Nathaniel likes!" -- interspersed with purple passages about "the madness that envelops lovers on hot summer nights.” The title should have suggested how trite and and superficial the book would be. I should have read the reviews and spared myself. But I had no idea I was in for such old-school pro-Confederate bias. It's unpleasant.
Narrative makes the world go round.
As noted other reviews, this may not be interesting to those who already know much about the Concord writers, but since I was mostly ignorant, this narrative fascinated me and helped flesh out my outline knowledge of American literary, cultural and political history. As also noted in other reviews, the book's style is chatty, but I wasn't looking for a heavy read and enjoyed this aspect, too. Kate Reading is perfect for such narration. This is also the kind of history in which the author sometimes inserts herself or contemporary re-evaluations; she also spirals outward from her central narrative to touch on lives of others who intersected with her main characters, so she covers much ground in less than 7 hours. Depth suffers consequently and the cyclical storyline style necessarily leads to some repetition. Cheever did seem to get at the complicated soul of Thoreau, though, and really motivated me to read more about him. To me, this made a great companion read to Geraldine Brooks' novel, "March."
One discordant note that is struck a couple of times: Cheever often rightly underlines the oppression of women, even within the progressive Transcendentalists; however, in a couple of places she draws parallels to African American slavery, and there is no comparison in the degree of human bondage between the two. Cheever probably did not mean to imply this.
I was forewarned by the other reviewers that this book contains some factual errors, but as I knew little about the lives of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Alcott, and was unaware of Margaret Fuller until I listened to this book, I found this audiobook was a good introduction and overview of these writers and their stories. There are some very good passages in this book, for example where Cheever looks at the significance and resonance of Thoreau's Walden, but there are also some passages that seemed out of place. For some reason, Cheever wanted to introduce a memoir-style element into the text by occasionally discussing her own experiences with the places where the Transcendentalists traveled and wrote. Yet these interjections didn't add anything to the understanding of the writers, and often were banal or even bathetic. When Cheever complains that Concord doesn't look like she pictured it from reading about it as it was 150 years ago, I felt like shouting, "Well, what did you expect?!!" The closing passage, in which she imagines still meeting Emerson or Thoreau on the streets of Concord, was trite and self-indulgent. Even so, these digressions were relatively brief and don't prevent the book from being a good overview of its subject matter.
Ms. Cheever writes with much love for her material. She skips nimbly from person to person. I never lost track and all the stories tie together in a manner which was sometimes dramatic and suspenseful. I learned much and have now downloaded other books from the authors mentioned here. I can't wait to read this book again.
Let me say first that I love the writers of the Transcendental Movement. I spent a lot of time in college studying their works. I was intrigued by this book after hearing Susan Cheever on NPR. It turned out to be the least interesting book on the movement I've ever read. There were a few things about the interpersonal relationships, but not presented in an interesting way. Dry, dry, dry.
A rather ho-hum account of the community surrounding Emerson that included Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts, with guest appearances by Melville, Whitman, and Franklin Pierce. It may be that Cheever just took on too much in trying to tackle all of these eminent writers in one book. She jumps from year to year, person to person, place to place. It's not difficult to keep focused, but the end result, for me, was a book that stayed on the surface. I really learned nothing I didn't already know--and I'm no expert in the transcendentalists. And I don't feel that I got a very good sense of time and place here either.
Highly recommended. Paints a detailed and entralling picture of a vital period in American thought and literature.
I wanted more than just a soap opera about the Transcendentalists, and this was a bit more, but not a lot more. I enjoyed learning about these renowned figures as people, but would have liked to hear more about their philosophical and literary contributions as well. Still, it's the only book about the Transcendentalist community that is available on audiobook, so I suppose I should be grateful. And I'm not sorry I listened, I'm just left wanting more than I got.
A couple specific comments:
The portrayal of Louisa May Alcott is the most compelling part of the book. Cheever has written a biography of Alcott, and I suspect it is worth the read.
The chronological oddnesses mentioned by other reviewers are real. I wish Cheever had found a better way to address the problems of the interconnecting and overlapping lives. It would probably be less of an issue in a paper book.
well read, fascinating and I walk with it every day, will be really sorry to finish it. A great time travel experience back to 1840's.
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