Coming to Concord this summer? Here’s some recommendations

The Wayside, home to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts

I just created a page with personal recommendations of places to visit and things to do while visiting Concord, Massachusetts. The one thing I could not recommend is hotels because I live too close to Concord to have stayed overnight.

Here’s some recommendations for those of you who want to indulge in living history (to me, that’s fun :-)):

Come Visit Concord . . .

“Walking” with Henry David Thoreau

I don’t care what anyone says: I believe that Henry David Thoreau was a romantic. True, he certainly preferred his solitude over the company of others (although he and his brother at one time loved a woman named Ellen, enough to want to marry her, and it’s rumored that Thoreau loved Lidian Emerson), but I believe he was a romantic in the way he felt about nature.

At least he swept me away yesterday (probably not unlike the way he swept away Louisa May Alcott). On the way to the gym for my workout, I listened to his essay entitled “Walking” which prompted me to skip the gym and take a walk over at the dog field at Tufts  Veterinary School. Thoreau made the outdoors sound so compelling that I couldn’t imagine shutting myself up in a gym when I could experience the glorious outdoors. After all, I prided myself on being a lover of nature, right?

Ah, you have to love audio books! I strapped on my iTouch and began listening to part 2 of “Walking” as I began my walk. Everything was lovely at first – tall green grass with birds diving to and fro, cool breezes, this was living! Until, I stumbled on the rough path and fell down, nearly spraining my ankle! The reading of “Walking” was blaring in my head as I massaged both feet (both of which give me pain most of the time anyway) and wondered if I would be able to continue, let alone get back to my car! Under my breath I found myself muttering, “Thanks a lot, Thoreau!”

I did manage to continue my walk, trying to get back in the spirit of what I was hearing. All went well until I got into the woodsy part of the trip and the mosquitoes had me in their cross hairs!  At one point there was a swarm around me and I wondered what  Thoreau must have used to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

I got back to the meadow and completed my walk just as the audio book finished. My little excellent adventure! :-)

I must admit though, I enjoyed the walk and would like to do it again, feet permitting!

I’m reading through the printout of “Walking” now so I can take a closer look and will write more when I finish it.

I still think he’s a romantic and I’ll tell you why soon . . .

 

Take a tour of the final resting place of the Alcotts

There’s a terrific article on the Concord Patch written by a licensed Concord tour guide, Harry Beyer. He takes you on a tour of the Alcott family plot at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Here’s a teaser from the article:

Louisa May was an active abolitionist, helping to shelter runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. She was also an early feminist. Protesting the exclusion of women from Concord’s 1875 Centennial parade and ceremony at Old North Bridge (the celebration at which Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue was unveiled), she wrote “It was impossible to help thinking, that there should have been a place for the great granddaughters of Prescott, William Emerson, John Hancock, and Dr. Ripley, as well as for … the scissors that cut the immortal cartridges” for the shot heard round the world. “It seemed to me that … the men of Concord had missed a grand opportunity of imitating those whose memory they had met to honor.”

Here’s the link to the article where you can read more and see the grave markers for each family member.

I thought it was very curious (and very cool) that of all the biographies written about the Alcotts, Beyer recommends Madelon Bedell’s book, The Alcotts Biography of a Family. I’d love to know why . . . I left a comment on the post inquiring, hopefully he’ll answer.

Listen to Susan Cheever talk about her biography on Louisa May Alcott and other Concord Writers

Here’s a podcast where you can listen to Susan Cheever talk about her latest book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography, plus another podcast on her fascinating study on the Concord authors. American Bloomsbury. Read about and listen to the podcasts here.

What did I think about her books?

Read my review of Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography

Read my view of American Bloomsbury

Both books have a spot on my personal library shelf.

What makes Orchard House such a compelling historical site?

Here’s a great essay by Klara Stephanie Szlezák where she concludes that staging is critical to the success of an historical homestead. Kudos to Orchard House for the brilliance of its staging which so beautifully captures not just the era Louisa May Alcott lived in, but her home, her family and her classic, Little Women.

The first few paragraphs are here for you to read; there is a link at the end to the rest of the article.

“Welcome to Our Home!”: Staging Practices at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Klara Stephanie Szlezák

1. 399 Lexington Road, Concord, MA: Historic House, Writer’s Abode, Tourist Site1

In March 2009, the popular travel guide series Lonely Planet published a volume called New England Trips providing a broad range of themed itineraries through the six New England states. One of these itineraries is called “Literary New England,” leading the traveler on a three- to four-day trip with stops at libraries, inns and tearooms named for famous writers, as well as at houses where New England writers used to live, thus taking into account the long tradition and central role of literary tourism in New England. One of the writers’ houses that the guide suggests for a stop is the Alcott family’s house in Concord, Massachusetts. With over 50,000 visitors per year (Orchard House Website), the Alcotts’ former house, officially called Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House,2 is one of the most popular and successful literary sites. The Lonely Planet invites the traveler to visit there with the following comment: “Louisa May Alcott wrote her famous semiautobiographical Little Women in her home Orchard House, which is now part of a small estate of historical buildings called Louisa May Alcott Homes” (New England Trips 53). This short note establishes two major facts about Orchard House: one, that it is a house where a famous writer wrote a famous book;3 and two, that it is a historical building and thus of general interest.

What the guidebook text does not say about Orchard House, and what seems much more noteworthy for the purposes of a cultural analysis, is that one of the house’s major functions is that of a stage. When it comes to determining the cultural significance of the house and the ways in which it functions in a twenty-first-century tourist landscape I would argue that both its literary association and its historicity are mere prerequisites and preconditions for the staging of traditions. I argue that the staging of traditions is a central characteristic of the house and lies at the heart of present-day interest in the house and thus its survival in times when many comparable sites struggle severely to stay open.4

Click here to finish the article

An interview with Amy Belding Brown, author of Mr. Emerson’s Wife

1. What inspired you to write a fictional account of Lidian and Waldo Emerson?

It took me a long time to decide to write a nocel about Lidian and Waldo.  At first, I just had a lot of questions about Lidian, especially about why she was relatively absent from so many biographies of her husband, so I did a lot of research just to satisfy my curiosity.  Then I began writing poems about Lidian, and short fictional scenes.  When I finally realized I really wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about Lidian, I discussed my options with my agent, and she was the one who encouraged me to write a fictional account rather than straight biography, because that’s what I most enjoy writing.

2. Is Mr. Emerson’s Wife your first book? What made you decide to take on such a project and how long did it take to research and write it?

Actually I wrote several novels before I wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife. Most of them weren’t very good, but a couple were published as light-weight romances back in the 1980′s when my children were young.  (They’re out of print now.)  Mr. Emerson’s Wife was my first foray into historical fiction and I became totally obsessed with it.  I loved doing the research and weaving it into scenes that made the characters come alive in my head and on the page.  I guess the only reason I took it on was because it was so absorbing and after awhile I beame obsessed with bringing Lidian out of the shadows.  It took me about nine years to research and write and revise – but of course I was doing other things, too, including getting my MFA degree.
3. Does a fictional account require the same level of research that a non-fiction or biographical account requires? How is it different writing a novel versus a biography?

Well, I haven’t written a straight biography, but I would say that a good work of historical fiction requires nearly as much research as a biography does.  One difference is that, as a novelist, I let my curiosity lead me.  And, of course, I also allowed my imagination to “fill in the cracks” of the historical record.  There’s so much of anyone’s life that’s hidden from public view, and, while the non-fiction historian can speculate, he or she must be very cautious about putting out information that isn’t documented or verified.   I tried to stay within the historical record for the most part, but I allowed myself to fully imagine many details of personal relationships that were never documented.

4. The balance between sticking to the facts and venturing into your imagination must be delicate. What gives you the confidence to take off from the facts into your imagination?

I don’t know if it’s confidence or folly.  :-) Seriously, though, I think it’s simply the novelist’s drive to fully understand the characters – from the inside out.  I think many of us, when we read a biography on someone who interests us, do the same thing, though we may not think of it as fictionalizing.  For example, we may read about the Alcott family moving so often from one place to another and think about the toll that took on Mrs. Alcott – we may imagine how exhausted she must have been, perhaps as we recall our own experiences of moving.  So my “confidence” comes from a belief that the human experience is universal and that we can understand each other (over time and space) by extraoplating from our own experience and empathizing with someone in different circumstances.  In other words,  putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – which is, fundamentally, an act of the imagination.  (And also a spiritual discipline, in my opinion.)
5. Mr. Emerson’s Wife was more than a love story or a story of fancy about famous real-life characters. What other elements did you weave into the story? For example, was it a commentary on marriage?

Yes, I conceived it as the story of a long-term marriage.  A story about how a woman negotiates the disappointments and challenges of marriage over time.  One thing that struck me as I researched and wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife, was that these people – just like us – changed over time.  So evaluative statements about them may only apply to a few years of their lives.  And I believe the same was true of the  Emerson’s marriage – some biographers say it was “happy” – and I think that is basically true of its last two decades.  But it was pretty rocky from about 1837 to 1850.  In fact, I think Lidian and Waldo might likely have separated if they’d lived in another time and place.

The other thing the book is about is Lidian’s inner conflict.  It’s the same fundamental conflict reflected in Little Women (which is why I think Louisa May Alcott’s book is timeless) – the conflict between domesticity and independence, between a woman’s mind and her heart.  I frankly think this is an inner conflict for most women, even today.  I don’t see Lidian as just a victim of her husband’s domination.   (In fact, Emerson was, for his day, unsually respectful of women.)  But I think she struggled with herself – torn between what she felt was her “duty” and what she felt as her “calling.”  Brenda Ueland, in the 1930′s addressed this issue when she wrote (addressing women), “Menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”  But how many of us put aside our creative work to clean the bathtub?  We may have shining tubs, but at what cost?

6. Have you written a new book? What is it about and when can we expect to see it?

I have written a new novel.  It’s set in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War in 1676, and revolves around the story of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity by Native Americans at war with the English settlers and her reentry into Puritan society.  One of the reasons I wanted to write about the Puritans was to explore the mindset the Transcendentalists were rebelling against.  It turned out to be fascinating.  The manuscript is currently with my agent.

Visit Amy’s website at http://amybeldingbrown.com

Rediscovering the late Madelon Bedell, author of The Alcotts Biography of a Family

I just ordered a bunch of new books and needed to rearrange my book shelves to get everything to fit. In the midst of the rearranging, I pulled out my copy of The Alcotts Biography of a Family and discovered a promotional photo of the author, Madelon Bedell, and an interview released by the publisher’s public relations division. Bedell has been on my mind since I found that her papers are now safe at Orchard House. Her biography of the Alcott family was a powerhouse  – a truly scholarly work published in 1980 that revealed at that time, many new and interesting facts and insights about the family. And yet this work is largely ignored by the public and is out of print (though fortunately available on the internet). Those in the ‘know’ appreciate its worth (and cite her work in theirs); I wanted to introduce you to Ms. Bedell in hopes that some of you will think about reading her book.

It’s tantalizing to think of those papers stored at Orchard House, including the only known interview with May’s daughter, Lulu Nieriker Rasim. Will someone perhaps take those papers and finish the work that Bedell was unable to do? I’d love to see it done . . .

Meanwhile, meet Madelon Bedell.

(This interview was part of a promotional package released by Clarkson N. Potter Inc./distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.)

1.    How did you develop the idea of doing a biography of the Alcotts? And why did you choose to do a family biography instead of concentrating on only one member – Louisa May Alcott, or her father, Bronson Alcott, for instance?

My original idea was to do a series of critical essays on the image of women in the fiction of certain great women authors. I had in mind, Collette, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, and Louisa May Alcott. I decided to start with Alcott because I felt she would be the easiest to handle.

I found her life to be so fascinating that I decided to do a biography of her instead. As part of my research, I began also to study her father, Bronson Alcott. I found him so fascinating that I changed my mind again, and decided to do a dual, father-daughter biography. I worked on this project for some time, but I found it impossible to keep my spotlight focused on these two and their relationship with each other. The other Alcotts kept crowding in. Especially Abby Alcott, the mother, who would not stay in the minor role I had assigned to her, but insisted on intruding herself at nearly every point, sometimes overwhelming the action. After about two years of this kind of struggle, I gave in and decided to do the entire family.

2.    In your prologue, you state: “To find oneself in the lives of other people, long dead, why is this so entrancing an idea? It is the same for both reader and writer of biography, I am convinced: the need for self-validation . . .” If this means that biography explains ourselves to ourselves, how does the Alcott family explain the modern American family?

First of all in many specific ways. There are Bronson’s “infant diaries,” those astonishing records of his pioneering practices in child rearing, which forecast those of today. There’s the marriage of Bronson and Abby, both powerful personalities, a union of peers, in every way; unique then, still unusual today. And the all-female family with its ideals of feminism and independence for the daughters, all that is very modern.

But beyond that, the history of the Alcotts – which turns at every point, on the struggle to maintain the family unity against an inimical society – explains the ideal by which we measure our own families: the American family as a “haven in a heartless world.” Many of our strictures against the contemporary family stem from our disappointment in its failures to meet that ideal, I believe.

Moreover, the basic theme of the book – Bronson Alcott’s struggle against his family – his individualism versus their communalism – is a very modern one. The desire of each member for personal fulfillment meets up with and often must contend with the needs of the family as a whole – don’t we all face this problem, parents and children alike?

3.    The Alcott family history is supposed to be the true story behind the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Exactly how close is the book to real life?

Astoundingly so. The cast of characters is the same. Just substitute Bronson and Abby Alcott and their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and Abbie May, for the Reverend and Mrs. March and their four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. There’s hardly an incident in Little Women that doesn’t recall or explain an event in the Alcott family.

What’s more interesting, perhaps, are the points where the novel departs from the real life story. There’s a lot of sentimentalization. The Marches aren’t as poor as the Alcotts – they employ a maid, for example. Nor are they are radical in their social views. The crisis in the family life, which occurred when the Englishman, Charles Lane, tried to separate Bronson from his family, is never referred to.

But I think the most important departure from reality is the departure of the father from the book. The figure of Bronson Alcott dominated the Alcott family scene in real life. In the book, the Reverend March is a pale imitation, who isn’t even present most of the time. When Louisa wrote up the family legend, she turned the family into an all-female society headed by a matriarch, thus removing the riveting sexual tensions which permeated the real scene. In Little Women, for all its realism, you have a fantasy – an adolescent fantasy where women never have to deal with the politics and passions of sex as the Alcott women did.

4.    The Alcotts has been cited as a work of unusual scholarship, filled with new material and fresh insights on this family and the nineteenth century in general. What is this new material and how and were did you find it?

All over the place! Basically, however, it’s material on the characters of Bronson and Abby Alcott which throws a new light on their marriage. I found them both to be much larger personalities than had been supposed. Previous biographers, inspired no doubt by Little Women and its (false) relation to the genteel tradition, had cast them as sexless, passive idealists, who weren’t very interesting.

But I found Bronson to be a driven person, obsessed by sex, who sometimes wrote erotic poetry and conceived a passion in middle age for a woman half his age, Ednah Littlehale; and before that may have had a homosexual attraction toward his English follower, Charles Lane, which, incidentally, his wife was aware of. And Abby herself, her feminism, her radical social theories, her drive for power, her unusual gift for love, all that is exposed for the first time, too.

As for the material behind this – it’s all in their diaries and letters, some 200 volumes of them, stored all these years at Harvard University. You can’t just skim these, unfortunately, but must turn yourself over to them, become the person yourself as you read him or her, and live with them, as they were in their times.

But, then must discard about 90% of all that wonderful material you have discovered, push aside those note cards – keeping them only for reference – and write the story as if it had come from your own mind, fresh and new. To be able to do that is the real challenge of biography.

5.    Your book deals with the various social movements of the nineteenth century of New England – feminism, health reform, the advent of child psychology and the cult of the child, Transcendentalism, the anti-slavery movement, utopian socialism, progressive education. What among these has survived today?

You’ve just named them all. The first half of the nineteenth century was the time when American liberal ideology was formulated. All these movements and the ideas of human growth and liberation, which they represent, were born then.

Our history goes in cycles and so these ideas are apt to go underground for a while and then surge forward again. The 1960’s were almost a repeat of the 1840’s, for example. The movement against the Vietnam War was characterized by the same moral fervor as was the anti-slavery movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The scene at the end of The Alcotts when Bronson Alcott takes part in the storming of the state house to rescue a runaway slave might well have taken place in the 1960’s – just substitute a draft register for a slave and the action and all the tumultuous feelings surrounding it are the same.

Or take such ideas as the current interest in holistic medicine. Except in its details it might be a replay of the health reform movement of the 1800’s in which the Alcotts were active. So, too, with feminism (Abby Alcott headed up a petition for women’s suffrage) and of course utopian socialism. Bronson Alcott’s commune at Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, was a forerunner of similar groups that exist today.

6.    This is the first volume of your biography of the Alcotts. What will the second book be, and how will you approach it?

This first book deals primarily with the marriage of Bronson and Abby Alcott, and the childhood of the four daughters. The father is the central character (although the mother is the hero), and the theme is the founding of a family – the creation of a legend.

The next volume will deal with the adult lives of the four daughters, and focus on Louisa. The first book was also a social history of the antebellum – pre-Civil War – period in New England. The next one will be a similar account of the postwar period, showing how all those reform movements we talked about in the previous question, were overcome in the baronial capitalism of the Gilded  Age: how Bronson Alcott’s spiritual transcendentalism evolved into his daughter Louisa’s quite material, albeit enlightened capitalism.

7.    Which member of the Alcott family is your favorite?

If I had one, I would never tell anyone, not even myself. A biographer is like a parent. He/she must never play favorites, or the goal – the lives to be nourished and developed – will be lost.

The Alcotts Biography of a Family in hardcover was 416 pages in length and sold for $15.95. I wonder what the price would have been today . . .

Meeting Amy Belding Brown, author of “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

I had the privilege yesterday of meeting author Amy Belding Brown who as you know, wrote the historical novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife , based upon the lives of Waldo and Lidian Emerson and their relationships with Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and other famous Transcendentalists.

Sharing lattes together at a local cafe/country store, Amy and I found we have a lot of interests in common, among them being the history of religion in New England. She has researched this subject extensively (specifically Puritanism, aka Calvinism, now the United Church of Christ, or the Congregational Church, and Unitarianism) so naturally I was an eager listener. I’ve blogged several times about wishing to discover more about Transcendentalism and why it had such an impact, given that it is pretty hard to nail down. Learning about what religion was like in earlier times is critical to that understanding.

Receiving her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts in 2002, Amy work for a few years at Orchard House, thus being privy to its many treasures. She now teaches writing to freshmen students at Worcester and Fitchburg State Universities. I appreciated her remarks in this regard, that she felt she could make more a difference in the lives of students from state universities rather than teach at more prestigious private schools. That’s the true heart of a teacher.

She also teaches at the Worcester Institute for Senior Education, and writes in her spare time, having  just finished a book on King Philip’s War (find out more about King Philip’s War here).

I had to ask Amy if she favored Thoreau in some way as I felt he came off better in than Emerson did in Mr. Emerson’s Wife; she wouldn’t admit to “liking” Thoreau better (which was what I asked) but admitted that his writings were easier to relate to. I agree.

We discussed how Mr. Emerson’s Wife was far more than a potentially tragic love story between two people who could never get together; it was really a commentary on marriage, both in the 19th century, and now. There are many truths in the married life of Waldo and Lidian that apply to married couples today. This, I believe, is the true and more universal appeal of the book (although the love story is very compelling).

We spoke too about the lost writings of Madelon Bedell who wrote an outstanding scholarly biography called The Alcotts Biography of a Family back in 1980 (I was lucky enough to get a promo copy from the newspaper office I worked for :-)). This was the first of a two volume work; unfortunately she died of cancer before the second book was completed. Harriet Reisen was able to track down Bedell’s papers, specifically the last known interview with the then 96 year-old Lulu Nieriker (the only living person to have known Louisa May Alcott personally) shortly before she died in 1975 (see her grave here). That interview is documented in Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women.

At a later date, I am going to interview Amy more specifically about Mr. Emerson’s Wife; she is buried with school work right now so we’ll have wait until after exams in May.

One of the main reasons why I started this blog was to meet other enthusiasts and this has come true in ways I could never have imagined. After only 9 months on the web, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion has introduced me to many fascinating people and the richness of the written word which I had lost after my childhood. This venture has brought me more joy than I could have dreamed of and we’re just beginning!

Final Thoughts on “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Reading the last few words, I slowly closed Mr. Emerson’s Wife and felt a welling up inside of emotion. I was so tied to the character of Lidian Jackson Emerson that I felt they were her emotions too.

This is how Amy Belding Brown’s book hit me. I lived inside of Mr. Emerson’s Wife for the last couple of weeks, crawling inside the head, the skin and the heart of Lidian Jackson Emerson. I loved Mr. Emerson as she loved him, felt the bitter disappointment and anger of promises not kept, and swooned over Henry David Thoreau, sensing the touching of souls as he and Lidian grew closer to each other.

A growing appreciation for words

There are times when I am so grateful I am a slow reader! Although this book could be read very quickly, it shouldn’t be. I savored every line, for the first time really appreciating the art of writing and how beautifully words could express thoughts, feelings and actions.

The value of words has been on my mind a lot lately. In my spiritual reading, I read how Jesus Christ is known in the gospel of John as The Word. In a book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, the Orthodox priest writes about idle talk and how words can be as equally life affirming and devastating, and how we as humans are the only creatures gifted with the ability to make words. It’s an awesome gift that carries a solemn responsibility.

Books like Mr. Emerson’s Wife fill me with desire to savor more words, and to commit more words to paper (and computer). I am eternally grateful to Meg North who suggested on her blog that aspiring writers should have their trusty notebook and favorite pen with them at all times. I do (in fact I have separate notebooks for different things I’m researching, and each has its own favorite pen). I love composing on the computer but there’s something very organic and cool about writing with a pen and getting the smudged ink on my fingers.

But I digress. I’d like to offer some final thoughts on Lidian Jackson Emerson and her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as imagined by Amy Belding Brown (with a lot of historical facts to back up her theories).

Among my top favorite books

Mr. Emerson’s Wife is the most emotionally engaging book I’ve ever read and ranks right up there with my other top 3: Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Little Women. Gone With the Wind was a sweeping epic with fascinating characters and a take on the South by a true southerner which challenged some of my perceptions about the pre and post Civil War South. It was the most fun I’d ever had reading. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the right book at the right time as my children were the same age as Harry, Hermione and Ron (and my Stephen is like Harry). That synchronicity will unfortunately never happen again. And I reveled in the domestic spirituality, sisterhood and semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women.

An honest commentary on marriage

Mr. Emerson’s Wife moved me so because Brown made Lidian, Waldo and Henry leap off the pages straight into my mind and heart. They truly were flesh and blood people to me, navigating the complexities of marriage, friendship, life, death and love in Victorian New England. Brown wrote an honest and balanced commentary on marriage which not only applied then, but applies today. Despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed an unusually happy marriage for the last 32 years, I could still keenly identify with some of the trials that Lidian went through with Mr. Emerson (as she called him). The world still revolves around the man on occasion in this ‘enlightened’ age. Yet, because of this book, I felt compelled to remark to my husband  how truly lucky I was to have him as my lifelong companion; I came to appreciate our marriage even more.

Awakened feminism

This book awoke in me a renewed care and concern for women and their place in the world. The political nature of feminism today long ago turned me off to women’s issues (particularly the obsession with Pro Life/Pro Choice – I am Pro Life). When I was a young mother, I felt left behind by feminists, feeling undervalued as a mother and wife. While reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, I sensed that my eyes were opening, seeing things around me (even in my own family) that told me the battle for women’s rights (particularly in the area of health) is far from over. I feel a much stronger obligation to guide my 22 year old daughter in the right direction, making sure that she is tending to her education and her development. Fortunately she already has a strong sense of herself and does not base her entire existence upon having a man in her life (even though she is in a serious relationship with a wonderful young man).

Lidian’s struggles

Lidian struggled with a brilliant and revered husband who was often cold and indifferent (and yet entertained the vivacious Margaret Fuller on regular occasions, inviting her to live in their home, and taking long walks at night with her, both lost in discussion). She competed with the memory of a young, beautiful and saintly first wife whom Emerson spoke of frequently in a voice filled with grief and loss. Her own excellent mind and creative energies were subjugated to her husband’s whims and demands with little regard to her needs. Suffering much injustice, her frustration at times was very high (especially when she had to hold her tongue) and I felt that frustration keenly. A successful marriage, of course, does take two and Brown subsequently, does not place all the blame on Emerson as Lidian could wield a sharp tongue and could be demanding and unforgiving in her own way. She also made the mistake of being lost in her children at the expense of her husband. Marriage is, if anything, a delicate balance.

Lidian and Waldo experienced several devastating losses in their married life, beginning with the death of Waldo’s younger brother Charles, Henry’s brother John, and culminating with the loss of their first-born son Waldo at the tender age of 5. Grief can sometimes bring couples together but in this case, it drove them apart. Emerson’s reaction to grief was to shut down and shut out the world, losing himself in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, while Lidian needed to express her feelings. This along with other things caused her to turn to Henry David Thoreau for consolation and friendship.

Thoreau came across as a much warmer man than I had imagined even though he was also equally brilliant, complex and contradictory. I had always thought of him as so solitary that he never formed really close relationships but he obviously did. And rather than give away too much of the story, I leave you to find out for yourself by reading this wonderful book.

Ready to read more

I am not ready yet to leave the world of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller and plan on reading more about each of them. I am intrigued by Emerson’s motivations for abandoning traditional Christianity and the ministry in favor of developing his own way (which did not necessarily lead to God). And I’m getting more and more interested in Thoreau and what makes him tick. I am grateful to any book that deepens my desire to learn.

Finally, as I continue to read Louisa May Alcott’s Moods, I am struck by the irony of how that book is also about one woman loving two men (men based on Emerson and Thoreau). Unfortunately Moods now rings a little hollow as the characters are not so deeply developed and the writing is strained and over-thought. I will still finish Moods but I don’t expect it to affect me in the same way. I only wish Louisa had discovered her realistic writing style when she wrote this story.

Be sure and visit Amy Belding Brown’s website – she details how she wrote the book and shares stories about the many influential (and unsung) heroines of Transcendental Concord.

and p.s. I may get the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown over the weekend for coffee and conversation, stay tuned . . .

Book Review: American Bloomsbury

I know I said I would not finish American Bloomsbury but I really do enjoy Susan Cheever’s writing style despite the problems her books pose. This is the second non-fiction book I’ve read by Cheever and it’s frustrating that her work is so uneven. She is either utterly brilliant or totally inane. Despite several factual errors (that apparently have been corrected in a newly revised version) and a very disjointed story, I am still really glad I read this book.

First, the problems . . .

Let’s begin with the problems (for there were less problems than strengths in my opinion). The storyline jumped all over the place and Cheever spent way too much time focusing on issues that were titillating (sometimes based on assumptions rather than hard facts) but ultimately not that important. As an example, she spent so much time on Margaret Fuller’s “romances” with Hawthorne and Emerson (neither of which were consummated) that I kept asking myself, “What was Fuller’s real contribution to this literary renaissance? Was it only fantasized sex?”

. . . then the Brilliance

But then Cheever would turn to Henry David Thoreau (an obvious favorite of hers) and get brilliant. She obviously appreciates the outdoors (as I do) and I found her descriptions of nature so lovely. I love Thoreau and I loved him more after reading this book. Her writing became passionate and authentic – at one point while working out at the gym and reading the section on Thoreau, I became breathless, and it wasn’t because of the workout! :-)

She writes the following about his efforts to get Walden published:

“Because it took so long to get Walden published, Thoreau had time to rewrite two years of his journals into one of the most magnificent books in English. Two years of notes became one year; digressions were reworked. There was something heroic and obsessive about the way Thoreau went about making his manuscript of Walden perfect. He seemed to know how important it was . . .” (page 131, American Bloomsbury)

Cheever goes on to describe what made Walden a masterpiece (and Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter too):

“What creates a masterpiece? In the case of The Scarlet Letter and Walden, both arguably the finest works of two men whom we now regard as great writers, the impetus seems to have come from a sharp despair. Both men felt, as they began to write, that they had nothing more to lose. Hawthorne had lost his job, his mother, his hometown; Thoreau had lost his brother and the prospect of anyplace to live besides a homemade hut on borrowed land. There is a fearlessness about both these books, an honesty about the human heart, with its petty angers and dreadful fears, that neither writer found again.”  (Ibid)

I downloaded The Scarlet Letter for my Nook after reading this section; I’ll be listening to my audio book of Walden again as well. If a book such as American Bloomsbury can inspired me to read the authors that it writes about, that book has done its job.

Other Transcendentalist Authors

Her treatment of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne was helpful in my understand of what made them tick. Her exploration of Emerson was cool and analytical, showing him to more complicated than I had imagined and she helped me understand him better. I had known that Hawthorne was a very solitary character but had no idea how complex he was (he sounded like a very difficult person to deal with). I had heard that his marriage to Sophia had been a good one but it was hard to tell from Cheever’s descriptions and the constant intrusion of Margaret Fuller. Marriages like life, ebb and flow, and it sounded like the flow began in the later years of their marriage.

Cheever is at her best writing about death – the accounts of Fuller and her family drowning in a shipwreck, Emerson slowly fading away due to Alzheimer’s (or dementia), Thoreau’s passing, and Alcott’s time as a Civil War nurse were very moving.

Analysis of Little Women

I also thought she nailed it in her analysis of Little Women (at least nailed it as to why I loved that book). Describing her personal connection to the story Cheever writes:

“Jo March offered me a different kind of image, a new definition of what it meant to be a girl. Instead of a graceful young lady who always minded her manners and knew that her future lay in loving the right man, she was an outspoken, clumsy girl who turned down the right man even though he loved her.

Reading Little Women again, now, I can see how profoundly the book influenced me – as a woman, but even more than that as a writer. Without intending to, Louisa May Alcott invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms. She made literature out of the kind of conversations women have while doing the dishes together or taking care of their children. It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman’s life – cooking, the trimming of a dress or hat, quiet talk – can be just as important a subject as a great whale or a scarlet letter. Little Women gave my generation of women permission to write about our daily lives; in many ways, even though it’s a novel, in tone and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir – the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet. In fact, the foundation of the American memoir can be found in Alcott’s masterpiece and in that of her friend Henry David Thoreau. Alcott’s greatest work was so powerful because it was about ordinary things – I think that’s why it felt ordinary even as she wrote it. She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature. Without even meaning to, Alcott exalted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.” (Ibid, pages 191-192)

Amen.

A quick understanding of Transcendentalism

I appreciated Cheever’s summary of the effects of Transcendentalism (though I didn’t totally agree with it):

“The intellectual revolution had taken longer, but, paid for by Emerson, and amused by [Bronson] Alcott, it had come as certainly as the glorious days of 1776. It was a revolution that gently toppled God off his throne and replaced him with nature, with the glory of the physical world, and with the best things in the human heart. It freed men and women from the slavery of Calvinism. It blossomed in Thoreau’s ideas and in his beautiful portrait of nature and in Hawthorne’s brilliantly etched portraits of society, and finally with a Louisa May Alcott novel that memorialized the whole fabulous time.” (Ibid, page 164)

(I didn’t agree that the intent of Transcendentalism was to “topple God from his throne and replace him with nature” but rather, to use the natural world to find and connect to  God. )

American Bloomsbury gave me what I wanted – an overview. It was messy, it jumped all over the place, but in the end, I did get what I wanted. After all, life is almost never neat and clean.

Again, I finish a book, and part with a friend.