Cheever, Susan. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
The Transcendentalists defined American thought. Famed Critic Harold Bloom concedes American thought began with the Father of the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The most famous works- life-changing works for we bibliophiles and some American ideological changes too-are Little Women, “The American Scholar,” Walden, and Nature. The movement redefined American cultural mores and broke the restraints of oppressive Puritanical dogma. The depth and poetic lilt of the Transcendentalists’ words have touched generations of school children, students, and adults. Cheever’s American Bloomsbury attempts to capture the fervor of the words that ignited Whitman’s soul a burning…burning…burning, but ultimately fails.
What Cheever succeeds in doing is creating a twisting narrative which jumps back and forth through time, intertwines lives in a complex and non-linear way which confuses the reader, and attempts to weld creative non-fiction with biography. Cheever’s attempts, though, at this brand of creative non-fiction falls short of a successful narrative and turns into an obtrusive, a didactic, and, at times, a caddy authorial voice of interruption. For instance, when describing the home life of Louisa May Alcott when she returns back to Concord from her only European trip, Cheever describes the seen as:
Her mother was sliding into senility, and Louisa took care of her and hired a woman to bathe her and give her massages. Bronson
The interruptions become a nuisance, like these, and Cheever’s use of personal anecdotes and creative forays into the narrative come at inopportune times in the storyline and unexpectedly adding a bit of imbalance to the flow.
As a reader, one can forgive Cheever for the interrupted flow of the narrative and the authorial interjections as quirks of a successful author, but the book has greater challenges than those. Cheever closes with the sentence, “It is my hope that this story will serve as an introduction to [Concord] and that the reader will come to love it as I have” (200). If Cheever is attempting an introduction to the Transcendentalists, as she proposes, she falls well short of helping the reader understand where they fit into the American canonical pantheon and the nature of history that shaped them. In some sections she diverts down long transgressions into American history, but fails to give the reader enough background or detail into the narrative to provide a context to how the surrounding factors would have affected the group. It appears Cheever expects the reader to all ready be an expert in the Civil War and the battles between pro- and anti-slavery factions in the mid-nineteenth century-all without out the benefit of footnotes and a scant three pages of endnotes consisting mostly of bibliographic details of direct quotes from other scholars and thinkers of the time.
American Bloomsbury is not a book to define a generation or genre of writers. It provides no delving scholarship for readers, nor does it offer any new research not readily available in other biographies of the movement. She leaves the reader wishing for more and not providing a fair background for the authors. The narrative is irksome in its construction, and the lack of a cohesive structure or form make this feel as if the prose was thrown together to meet a deadline. Ms. Cheever is a talented authoress, but this is not a crowning achievement and does not represent her at her best.