- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006


By Susan Cheever

Simon & Schuster, $26, 223 pages, illus.

There is something abundantly American about Susan Cheever’s romp through and around the lives of five prominent authors — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott — who lived in Concord, Mass., during the middle of the 19th century.

All but Fuller will be easily recognized by most readers, though it is she, the editor (of Emerson’s Dial magazine) who seems to have been for a brief time the one who pulled the others into her beguiling orbit, and who, at the beginning of Ms. Cheever’s narrative, clues readers that the passions of this crowd ran strong and wide.

In Ms. Cheever’s hands, the emotional chaos that seemed to have reigned during the 25 years in which the five writers were neighbors is rendered as something more endearing than not. The principals fell in and out of love with each other, but they also took care of each other — with Emerson paying most of the bills. More to the point, in spite of the tumult of their lives (the gossip about which entertains to this day) they left behind volumes of work (“The Scarlet Letter,” Walden,” “Little Women”) and became what Ms. Cheever calls “the first American literary community.”

Ms. Cheever, herself the author of “My Name is Bill” and “Home Before Dark” and 11 previous fiction and nonfiction works, came to do this book almost by accident. Asked to write an introduction to a new edition of “Little Women,” she found herself re-captivated by the book she remembered from youth and captivated by the Transcendentalists. She writes, “I remembered F.O. Mattiessen’s bold statement that all of American literature had been written between 1850 and 1855. What I hadn’t realized is that most of it was written in the same cluster of three houses.”

This book is not your usual literary history. Breezy, with the narrative jutting here and there to take up all matters of the subjects’ existence: courtship, marriage, scrimping, saving, writing, entertaining the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville — the “bit players” in the drama beyond the three houses — one has the feeling reading this book of a Webcam moving back and forth randomly along the faces of those whom we think we know, adding new nuggets of insight along the way.

Though their literary achievements are noted, what one remembers most is the gossip. Nathaniel Hawthorne was “a rat with women;” Henry David Thoreau, according to Hawthorne was “‘ugly as sin,’ and, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes, had ‘bad table manners’ — Thoreau liked to eat with his fingers.”

The women in the book fare somewhat better. Fuller is given her due as a writer and editor ahead of her time. Ms. Cheever writes, “Fuller had a habit of skewering pretension with wit. She was a Dorothy Parker woman in a Jane Austen world. In fact her acquaintance Edgar Allan Poe divided people into three types: men, women, and Margaret Fuller.” Clearly, Ms. Cheever worships Alcott, who grew from the dark-haired “bad-girl” of her family into the woman who “invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms.”

Concord was an idyllic place — “Eden” as Hawthorne called it — and so it remained until the Civil War intruded. Ms. Cheever is probably at her best describing what happened to the community when it had to confront the writers’ disagreements about how best to end slavery and how to manage the intrusion of the zealot John Brown.

Ms. Cheever writes, “The situation was made worse by Hawthorne’s friendship with former President Franklin Pierce — Hawthorne called him in anagram Princlie Frank. But worst of all was Hawthorne’s attitude toward Concord’s brand-new saint, the reverend John Brown. Unlike Thoreau or Emerson, or the Alcotts, Hawthorne took the trouble to visit Harpers Ferry but it did not change his mind about Brown, whom he called a ‘blood-stained fanatic.’”

It is Hawthorne, in fact, who like some kind of Greek chorus provides throughout the book the most memorable observations. Of the collection of writers who came to Concord and made their lives he observed, “Never was a poor little country village infested with a variety of queer strangely-dressed, oddly behaved mortals, most of whom took themselves to be important agents of the world’s destiny yet were simply bores of a very intense character.”

Nevertheless, throughout, Ms. Cheever breathes new life into them all. Fuller died with her baby and Italian lover in a shipwreck off Fire Island, Emerson developed Alzheimer’s and steadily declined until his death, Thoreau died of pneumonia at the age of 42, Hawthorne moved away and Alcott would suffer from a dreadful illness that caused her to lose her beautiful chestnut hair. But Alcott went on to write “Little Women,” and that returned Ms. Cheever to her own New England roots and this fine and entertaining book.

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