two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
27-Mar-Apr-2007
user_rating: 
0

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

A-American BloomsburyThe tiny town of Concord, Massachusetts, housed some of the great American writers of the 19th century. Drawn together in part by coincidence and in part by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s expansive welcome, they frequently lived together and spent many hours in each others’ company. Avant-garde idealists and social activists, as a group they forged new literary forms and social structures. Susan Cheever draws on a variety of historical sources as well as her own speculation to explore the ways that sex and romance, both realized and frustrated, might have affected the lives and work of Alcott, Emerson, Fuller, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.
Simon & Schuster. 223 pages. $26. ISBN: 0743264614

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Cheever has crafted a stirring book along the apex of love triangles, the edge of jockeying egos and the crest of creative bursts set against the crabbed human condition." Karen R. Long

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"American Bloomsbury isn’t all peeping through keyholes. Cheever has a sharp eye, a good ear and the novelist’s knack for letting individuals hold onto their complexity and contradictions." David Laskin

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"American Bloomsbury doesn’t add much to the already extant histories of these amazing men and women. What it does do, however, is bring each of them vividly to life in a context that is neither achingly pedantic nor sonorously academic." Victoria A. Brownworth

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"[S]he does a wonderful job of tracing the constant overlap and interplay of common experience and shared ideas that helped to shape [the authors’] remarkable output. Cheever’s tidy account of these connections, however, leaves little room for complexity or nuance." Marjorie Kehe

Oregonian 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Her opening chapters are curiously half-baked. … Cheever then signs off with a handful of first-person intrusions that suggest we should care for these characters … because [she] loves Concord and wants us to love it, too. Between those annoying bookends, however, Cheever collects some nice material and finds her stride." Steve Duin

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"From its misleading title to her gushing prose and off-key readings of Thoreau and company, the book suffers from the flaws that give middlebrow writing a bad name. … It’s also a kiss-and-tell masquerading as literary history." Matthew Price

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"Cheever re-examines the [Concord] setting through a blurry 21st-century lens of psycho-sexuality, conventional feminist politics and a dose of leaden personal memoir all couched in travel-story prose usually found in Yankee magazine." Bob Hoover

Philadelphia Inquirer 1.5 of 5 Stars
"American Bloomsbury is not a novel or a memoir. Nor is it, alas, a reliable work of history. Cheever is inadequately informed about mid-19th-century American politics, society and culture." Glenn C. Altschuler

Critical Summary

The extent to which Susan Cheever bases her analysis on pure guesswork is up for debate. While she includes an extensive bibliography and footnotes many of her claims, several reviewers note errors of fact and the unlikely nature of some of the extrapolations. The slim size of the volume and the depth of the lives it examines necessarily lead to occasional elisions and terseness. Cheever does, however, successfully evoke the reader’s sympathy and interest in both the authors and their books, even if she sometimes sacrifices historical accuracy for the sake of emotion.