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)


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.


12 Replies to “Book Review: American Bloomsbury”

  1. Excellent review, Susan. I cringed at the ‘topple God’ idea — and I’m glad to hear you did too. I’m interested (very) in the idea of Transcendentalism, but not ig it means replacing God. I very much believe in seeing God through nature. The outside world is where I feel closest to Him.

    This book is on my ‘want to read after my 300’ list. 🙂

    I’m about finished with Hospital Sketches — so good.

    1. Didn’t you find her insights amazing in that book, especially race relations? And that heartrending scene with John’s passing? Really powerful. It’s said that Louisa discovered her true voice in writing this book which was really a series of letters and journal entries. She had a real knack for realistic story telling.

      I’m sure that many people who embraced Transcendentalism did feel that nature “toppled God” but from what I’ve read in Moods so far which is full of Transcendentalist thinking on Louisa’s part, it is not replacing God, but finding Him. As I read about Thoreau in American Bloomsbury, I thought of Richard Francis, the author of the new Fruitlands book – he had referred to the Garden of Eden; and as I listened to “Nature” by Emerson, I thought about the Garden of Eden again – was Emerson and possibly Thoreau too (although he wasn’t a minister) thinking about the harmony that existed in the Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam and Eve – how all the natural world was one with God and in perfect harmony until that relationship was broken? I haven’t read nearly enough of Emerson to know if that’s what he was thinking, but it makes sense given his background. In traditional Christian thinking, it is Christ who restores this perfect harmony of man with God, and thus man with the natural world. The Eastern Christians (Orthodox) especially stress that the Fall of Man was not so much that man committed a crime and God punished him but that Man aspired to be God and broke the perfect relationship of trust and harmony, and Christ’s death and resurrection restored that harmony, although it will only be perfected in the new heaven and new earth that comes at the end of time.

      Cheever’s contention about the “slavery” of Calvinism confirmed a thought I had that religion at that time was presented in a way that was rigid, cold, based on fear rather than love. Louisa writes in Moods about how Sylvia laments that she has no mother to show her God, meaning that she was searching for a loving God.

      I love the outdoors, especially watching birds in the field or laying in my kayak in the summer, running my hand through the water . . . now I will think of Thoreau and his brother John cruising down the Concord and Merrimack rivers in the Musketequid . . . Spring can’t come quickly enough!

    2. Jillian’s comment could have been my own.

      I do love nature and very much believe in the ONE who created it, and created it to help us see HIM.

      Still learning~~~

  2. Surely the God they were trying to “topple” was a concept of God as a harsh, rule-giving judge. God perceived through nature is a much larger idea and more benign.

  3. I was put off by Susan Cheever’s assumption that Jo “turned down the right man.” Yet in a way that is unsurprising.

    Cheever’s life experience is so very different from mine that her analysis of relationships, motivations, or spirituality often reads false or superficial to me. But every biographer, just like every reader, brings him or herself to the table.

  4. I’ve been considering adding this to my overburdened reading list and was looking for a good review. Yours was great. Despite the weaknesses you mentioned, I think you’ve intrigued me enough to bump it up on the list. Thanks!

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