Here is a brilliant, controversial, and fascinating biography of those who were, in the mid-19th century, at the center of American thought and literature. 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.
"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)
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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.