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Monday, January 08, 2007

American Bloomsbury

It was Mark Twain, I think, who wrote "I've written a long letter because I didn't have time to write a short one". Susan Cheever has taken the time to write a short letter. She spent six years working on this slim, entertaining book about the "genius cluster" that materialized in Concord, Mass. in the mid-nineteenth century. The lengthy bibliography, chronology, detailed chapter notes and index suggest that it will be a scholarly work. On the contrary, it's highly readable, oddly chatty, hinting at improper liaisons, inserting curious but memorable details (plump Elizabeth Peabody once smothered a litter of kittens by sitting on them, as the anguished mother cat meowed in despair) and contemporary asides (the old wooden Plymouth, New Hampshire Inn where Hawthorne died is no longer there, but was owned by an Indian family who introduced curries to the menu in its final incarnation).

The key characters are Emerson (the "sugar daddy" who financed them all), Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Hawthorne, and the lesser known Margaret Fuller (the model for Hester Prynne). The jacket copy promises that they will be "removed from their dusty pedestals". Yep. That's what happens. Not only do they and their extended families all come to life, but along the way we encounter Melville, John Brown, Franklin Pierce, Longfellow, OW Holmes, the Brownings - even Twain. There's probably not much here that's new, but it's all so well-distilled, and jam-packed with surprising detail. Not entirely without fault (is it really appropriate, for example, to compare HRT to the widespread use of the mercury poison, calomel?) , but it doesn't seem fair to nitpick. I'm delighted that Cheever took the time to write this idiosyncratic but unforgettable short book. And that I happened to notice it on the "new books" shelf at the library.


Blogger SuperMom said...

Ah, a timely post.

As of late last night I have found myself, once again, book-less, finishing the last of my Christmas books.

Only a few months ago I finally got around to reading Little Women and found myself quite interested in Alcott's interesting family.

This sounds like a good one to put on my hold list at the library.

1:41 PM  
Blogger sixty-five said...

Excellent! I think you will really enjoy it. In fact it was a chance invitation to write an introduction to a new edition of Little Women, leading to her own ree-reading of this classic, that inspired Cheever to write this book. With your new understanding (guaranteed!) of this period in history you will undoubtedly generate a further reading list of your own.

2:22 PM  

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