A world of genius in a tiny American town

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, January 28, 2007

When Susan Cheever agreed to write an introduction to a new edition of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," she didn't know it would lead her to the most storied crossroads of American literature.

After re-reading "Little Women" and becoming enthralled, she read other books about Alcott, learning that Laurie may have been based on Henry David Thoreau, or maybe even Ralph Waldo Emerson -- both of whom lived in Concord, Mass., when Alcott's family lived there.

The more Cheever learned about the group called the Transcendentalists (19th-century intellectuals and writers who "deified nature and dealt in the kinds of marvels and wonders that sometimes even transcended things like having enough to eat or making a living"), the more obsessed she became with them and more astounded with the fact that they all ended up in Concord, a place where a staggering number of American classics were penned.

"Then I kept reading because what could be better? And the more I read, the more fascinated I got." Cheever said in a recent phone interview. "They say, as a writer, you write the book you want to read, and I couldn't find a book that dealt with this community treating the women the same way the men were treated."

Cheever will be at the New York State Writers Institute at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 1, to read from the book that resulted from this healthy obsession: "American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work" (Simon & Schuster; 200 pages; $26).

Astounding company

"American Bloomsbury" assembles stories about these writers' interactions and the astounding company they kept. They counted among their neighbors Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Horace Mann. Other friends included Herman Melville, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe.

The book also includes some of Cheever's own impressions, like a less than successful yet humorous account of a pilgrimage to Concord with a car loaded with kids and dogs on a hot August day. The kids weren't cooperating and there was a traffic jam.

"I was just so shocked it wasn't 1840," she said. Cheever had been so immersed in books by and about the people who lived there in the mid-19th century that when she went back there after not having been for many years, she half-expected everything to be frozen in time.

Cheever had traveled to Concord as a child with her father, the writer John Cheever. "I remember the trip very vividly -- why he took me, I cannot tell you."

As she visited Concord more and more, she began seeing traces of the 19th century and felt the presence of this group of writers. "I began to see the sepia tones of the Concord of my imagination were still there, hidden under the bright colors of the stores and cars of modern-day Concord," she writes in "American Bloomsbury."

Cheever wondered "what was it about the time and place -- the mid-19th century in a landlocked town west of Boston -- that caused this sudden outbreak of genius?"

A compelling read

"American Bloomsbury" is a delightful romp through the countryside made famous by Thoreau's "Walden." Cheever's sometimes spicy look at the lives of the genius cluster makes for a compelling read: "Standing in the Emerson House guest room where Fuller stayed when she was at the Emersons', it's hard not to notice that Emerson's study is a few feet away from the hall, while the rest of the Emerson family is safely tucked away upstairs," Cheever writes. And later, she describes Emerson coming across Hawthorne and Fuller: "Something snapped that day when he came on Margaret and Hawthorne laughing as they lay on the grass."

Those descriptions will inspire people to not only re-read the classics spawned in Concord, but to head over to the town just outside Boston to see for themselves why it was so special.

"They all loved Concord," Cheever writes. "Hawthorne called it Eden. Emerson wrote that he spent his best days there. Her Concord days were 'the happiest in my life,' Louisa May Alcott said. 'Concord,' wrote Henry James, 'is the biggest little place in America.'

At the helm of the group was Emerson, who bankrolled nearly all of them.

It was on Emerson's land that an impoverished Thoreau built a small hut that became the setting for one of America's greatest books, "Walden."

"Emerson is really the puppet master. He brought them all there and supported them all with tremendous generosity," Cheever said. "You know, I hope I balanced the genius of their work with the genius of their lives. That's what I tried to do."

Amazing stories

What sets this book apart are not just the stories that these great writers composed, but how they lived with each other.

"I love a story," Cheever said. "And there are all these wonderful stories. I mean, the story of how Louisa May Alcott came to write 'Little Women?' What an amazing story that is."

According to "American Bloomsbury," Alcott wrote in her journal that she "never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." However, Alcott was finally persuaded by her publisher to write a story for girls, which ended up pulling her family out of poverty.

Cheever found structuring the book difficult. Several instances are repeated throughout the volume, such as Fuller's dramatic death in 1850. Some of the stories overlap because she wanted to show how the writers' lives intersect.

"I don't think writing a book is ever fun," Cheever explained, "but I just fell in love with these people. That made it fun. In many ways it's the favorite book of mine that I've ever written."

"American Bloomsbury" is Cheever's 13th book, including a memoir about her battle with alcoholism, "Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker" (Simon & Schuster; 1999) and "Home Before Dark" (Houghton Mifflin; 1984), a frank and touching biography of her father, one of America's most brilliant writers.

"Well, these people are just unbelievable," she said of her "American Bloomsbury subjects, "and their work ... I mean, 'The Scarlet Letter?' ... I was just on the subway and I can't believe they're not all reading the 'Scarlet Letter.' Well, it's an amazing book about sex and adultery and secrets and marriage."

Cheever found that she identified with her subjects lifestyle and some of their worries.

"One of the reasons I loved these people is I happen to be a sober vegetarian," she said. "I feel I live quite modestly. ... That's so Thoreau," she said.

"I love the idea that there were a group of writers who didn't drink, who included men and women, who talked a lot, who worried about money. This is my kind of writer."

Special connection

Cheever especially connected with journalist Fuller, who died in a shipwreck on a sandbar just off Long Island, and was the inspiration for Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter." Cheever wrote about traveling to Point O' Woods on Fire Island to mark the anniversary of Fuller's death.

"The beach at night is spooky. It's 3:30 a.m., and my daughter and I, there to observe the moment the Elizabeth hit the sandbar on July 19th, stand at the dune line. We say an improvised prayer for the souls of all those lost at sea."

As they head away from the beach, Cheever is at first moved by all of the people she sees out at that time, but then she quickly realizes the reason they are there.

"And I thought, well, isn't that amazing there are a lot of people who knew Margaret Fuller died on this beach this night, right? But it was the bars had closed. So there you go. ... That's how I knew it was 4 a.m."

Donna Liquori is a freelance writer living in Delmar and a regular contributor to the Times Union.

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Susan Cheever