“Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in:” American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

January 28, 2008 at 3:38 am (Book review, books, History)

Susan Cheever has penned an eminently readable whirlwind tour of early 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. The subtitle of the book is “Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.”

In my post on Suzanne Berne’s novel Ghost at the Table, I talked about the Concord luminaries. bridge1.jpg In my several pilgrimages to that still-lovely town, I’ve been interested primarily in Thoreau and Hawthorne. Susan Cheever’s interest in this group of worthies was sparked by a re-reading of Little Women: “The book amazed me. Far from being the string of bromides I dimly recalled, it was an elegantly written family story of great poignance and skill.” I guess I”ll have to break down and read it – finally! littlewomen.jpg

I consider myself reasonably well read where the lives and works of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau are concerned. Somewhat to my surprise, Cheever depicts a variety amorous rivalries in this famous community. First there’s Ellen Sewall, beloved by both Henry and John Thoreau and won by neither of them. Then there was Margaret Fuller. As Cheever tells it, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne were all in love with her to some extent, particularly Hawthorne. nathaniel_hawthorne.jpgNow this really perplexed me. From my prior reading, I had gathered that he and Sophia were utterly devoted to each other.

At any rate, Margaret Fuller decamped for Europe before she could irretrievably damage any marriages. In the late 1840’s she fetched up in Rome, where she took an Italian lover by whom she had a son. The story of how Fuller and her family perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island is one of the more harrowing things I’ve read lately – and I’ve read some pretty harrowing things lately. margaret_fuller_400.jpg

Aside from Margaret Fuller’s ill-fated adventures, the Concord writers led what on the surface appear to be provincial, conventional lives. Not so: if the life of the mind is valued at all, their lives were filled with riches. And speaking of riches, Thoreau and Hawthorne subsisted largely on a kind of continuous grant supplied by the incredibly generous Emerson. His first wife, Ellen Tucker, had been wealthy. When she died, tragically at the age of twenty, he inherited her fortune. He was he was brokenhearted, though, and would have much preferred to keep Ellen with him.

Emerson remarried, but one senses that Ellen Tucker remained in his memory as the great love of his life. He and his second wife Lidian started a family, but tragedy struck again when Waldo, age five, succumbed to scarlet fever. Emerson wrote to Margaret Fuller: “Shall I ever dare to love anything again. Farewell and farewell, O my Boy!” Earlier that month – January of 1842 – John Thoreau had also died. He had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus.

ralphwaldoemersongrandsonralphemersonforbes.jpg     [Ralph Waldo Emerson and his grandson Ralph Emerson Forbes]

The people of the early 19th century had virtually no defense against these kinds of opportunistic infections. To make matters worse, the medical treatment of the day was often more injurious than the illness it was supposed to mitigate. A medication called calomel, liberally prescribed at the time for everything from headaches to typhoid fever, consisted basically of a solution of mercury. When Louisa Alcott contracted typhoid, she was heavily dosed with calomel and as a result suffered permanent neurological impairment.

henry_david_thoreau.jpg The death of Henry David Thoreau provides the single most moving moment in this book. Cheever calls Emerson’s eulogy “…one of the most extraordinary essays ever written by one friend about another.” The closing lines are heartbreaking in their eloquence:

“‘His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world. Wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.'”

At the time of his death, Thoreau was forty-four years old.

thoreau-gravesite.jpg     [The Thoreau family gravesite in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord]


  1. The art of biography: life stories, and more « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Some of the best nonfiction I’ve read in recent years falls into this category: American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever and Katie Roiphe’s deliciously gossipy Uncommon Arrangements are two […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Art Theft – Ulirch Boser The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography – Graham Robb American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David […]

  3. Ermanno Bartoli said,

    I am an italian writer, sorry but I not speack and not write in correctly english language.

    I love mr Emerson and the trascendental writer.

    My poem for this greats spirits.

    Thank you
    Best Regards

    Ermanno Bartoli


    Zio Walt *
    Ralph, Emily
    e tu David…
    dove siete stati tutto questo tempo?
    Tra poco il grande circo chiude,
    e si ritorna a casa…
    cortei di volti allucinati per le strade.

    I lunghi gemiti
    cui l’uomo si sottopose
    per anni…
    quale colossale beffa!
    Ma per coloro i quali non cedettero mai
    alla lusinga nera
    di portare a spasso la propria bara
    si sta preparando un luogo.

    Oggi, animi bambini
    si riversano nei colori dell’estate;
    il tempo dei ciliegi in fiore,
    delle gemme appese ai rami,
    sta per tornare.
    Non è più, ormai, tempo di mostri.

    Ieri, Robert m’ha portato
    al cratere della formica
    entro il quale un giorno abbassò
    lo sguardo felice.
    Zio Walt
    Ralph, Emily
    e tu David…
    dove siete stati tutto questo tempo?
    Fatevi avanti, che noi vi si possa vedere!
    Saltate fuori dall’incosciente gioco di specchi
    col quale,
    uomini che non vi rassomigliano
    nemmeno per l’unghia del dito mignolo,
    hanno preteso di tenervi nascosti
    tutti questi anni.

    Questo è soltanto l’inizio
    di un’era da tanto attesa;
    uscite dagli scaffali della dimenticanza
    e venite tra noi
    per parlarci, come sapete,
    dell’uomo che lentamente si va ricostruendo.

    Io verrò poi…
    E porterò,
    umilmente spero,
    il mio canto senza limiti
    alla generazione cui appartengo.

    (Marzo -1992)

    * a
    Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862)
    Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Robert L. Frost (1874-1963)
    e… a Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
    …questo canto

    (e. b.)

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Mr. Bartoli,

      Thank you so much for your poem. I have a friend who speaks Italian; she can help me translate it.

      I share your reverence for Thoreau, Emerson and company. You called them “great spirits;” that’s just what they are.

      I was in Italy last year, after an absence of 40 years. I fell in love all over again with your wonderful country & its gorgeous language, which I so wish I could speak! I very much hope tp gp back – and soon.

      Again, thank you.

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