Friday, May 11, 2007

Book Report/American Bloomsbury


Reading American Bloomsbury felt very much like sitting in my kitchen with Susan Cheever, listening to her tell me stories of all these talented people in Massachusetts in the 1800s. I could "hear" her voice, and I occasionally wanted to respond or ask a question. It was a unique reading experience for me. She wrote about a group of people, rather than one person. There are many shortish chapters devoted to one author or personality, but others always creep in. The reader learns about an incident in Emerson's chapter, and gets a different slant on the same incident in Alcott's chapter. There isn't chronology as such, and surprisingly this didn't bother me. I could go to the back of the book, and look it up if I really needed to know the year, but mostly the narrative simply flowed around about these amazing people. They are presented, warts and all. No one is "perfect", and not a few are selfish or self-absorbed or poor husbands (or all three at once). But we also see their goodness, at least the good they tried to do, and quite often failed. Hawthorne living for years in his family home, writing away upstairs, hardly seeing anyone after the death of his father. Bronson Alcott, really the most irritating of them all. A terrible husband, father, provider, but still we see the idealist, the man who hates slavery, who can never get it just right when it comes to living a life. Thoreau who was so very ahead of his time that no one really understood him.

Each of them produced extraordinary works which are still revered today. Among these folks, there was genius after genius. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau. And they all wanted to change the world as it was. They tore against the bonds of propriety, Puritanism, and slavery. Some promoted the abolition of slavery, some promoted women's rights, some promoted nature over societal mores. Some had money, some had no money. They were all different yet were all entangled with one another, some romantically, some intellectually, some philosophically.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow often dropped by the Emerson House from his house in nearby Sudbury for a cigar and some brandy, and Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne and his friend Melville talked a lot about who would write the story of Evangeline - they decided that Longfellow was the one.


The book's energy comes from a fierce yearning, a longing to have had the fictional experience instead of the real one. Little Women, as many great books do, hovers in the gap between art and life- just alive enough so that we can recognize ourselves in its pages, just artistic enough so that we can find the lives we read about completely satisfying.

My feeling is this book will serve as an introduction to all these authors, and any reader who is interested will go on to read more about the individuals and/or to read their books. It was a very pleasant and enjoyable reading experience for me. I knew very, very little about the Alcotts, Hawthorne, and Fuller, and just a bit about Thoreau, so it was a book-lover's delight to read about their lives and their books. I definitely recommend it, even if you don't care for some of the authors.

9 comments:

  1. Nan ~ Thank you for telling us about this book. It's now on my "to read" list. I've always loved the Concord writers and I'm sure I'd enjoy the book. I always pull a few books by these writers from my shelves when we're going on one of our trips back east. I love reading them when I'm back there and able to wander around the area, visit the "Author's Ridge" area of the cemetery in Concord, and visit their homes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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  2. Great review Nan!!! I now want to read this book and it was not even on my radar previously!!!

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  3. I know very little about these writers, so that looks like a fascinating read.

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  4. Thanks for this review, this book sounds very interesting and I hadn't known anything about it previously.

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  5. Thanks to each of you for stopping in. This was one of those books that even while I was reading, I would stop and think to myself how very much I was enjoying it. When I finished I had a real sense of who they all were.

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  6. Thanks for the book report. It sounds like a good read. It's a wonder to me how these writers were acquaintances. I love the part where you describe four great writers deciding who was going to write Evangeline. There's a line in your review which compels me to read the book, "The book's energy comes from a fierce yearning, a longing to have had the fictional experience instead of the real one." It's
    revealing that writers want that experience when writing their stories as well as their readers do.

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  7. Gosh, Catherine Mary, I hope it was clear that both those passages came from the book itself - the Evangeline and the Little Women part. Maybe I need to have my italics in a different color!

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  8. Nan, It's my fault, I didn't catch that. Your italics are fine. While I was writing my comment, I had the "original post" (as shown on this comment page) open and the italics aren't shown. I should have known better! I'm sorry for any confusion to you or your readers.

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  9. Oh, good, Catherine Mary. I was afraid the italics weren't coming through. I still might try using a different color another time.

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