American Bloomsbury: Book Review

I picked up American Bloomsbury at a library sale for 50 cents. As far as books go that is not much of a commitment. I was intrigued less by the subject matter and more by the author. Susan Cheever teaches at Sarah Lawrence and although I never attended any of her classes I have heard and read a lot of great things about her ability to write.

The book is a non fiction account of  the intersecting lives of Nathanial Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Margret Fuller, Ralph Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott. The book largely takes place in Concord, MA, where they all lived for a while. The book is a little uneven in terms of pacing and also in terms of style. Cheever alternates between the individual she is focusing on, often overlapping the same period of time. There is a disclaimer concerning this in the front of the book, but I don’t feel like the technique is entirely justified by the content.

Still I found the book riveting. The facts it contained were largely new to me. I did not realize that Emerson was financially responsible for supporting so many important writers and individuals. That Thoreau helped get Hawthornes house ready for the arrival of his family. I did not realize that Thoreau taught Louisa.

There were many more revelations but it was not just the content but the style of Cheevers writing that made the book so engaging. The words she chose helped maintain a clear and compelling plot, but they also allowed the individuals to seem relate-able in a way that felt honest. In some non fiction books I find myself repeatedly questioning the authors statements. How do the know what anyone is thinking, never mind someone who died over a hundred years ago. I rarely asked myself that question during this book.

Even though the book was very thoughtful in its approach to the individuals involved it was sometimes overwhelmed by the shear numbers. Not only are there five main characters but most of them are married or related to a number of other people Cheever must explain. It sometimes causes confusion.

Occasionally Cheever inserts herself into the narrative, I did not find that helpful at all, but it was easy to ignore.

I think the book is very much worth reading not just because of the facts it contains but because it is engaging and thoughtful, insightful not just about the individuals that are discussed but about the movement and the town that they were a part of. As a writer I found the whole story particularly interesting because of the insights it gave me into the writing lives of Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne. As well as the way it discussed the interaction of culture and the written word.

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