Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Book Review: "American Bloomsbury"

Novelist and memoirist Susan Cheever's new American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work is a glimpse into one of America's most influential literary communities, that which flourished in and around Concord, Massacusetts from the late 1830s into the early 1860s. Cheever's title characters form the core relationships, but other greats of American literature make cameo appearances: Longfellow, Melville, Oliver Wendell Holmes are among them.

This is not a particularly serious book; it is full of glib colloquialisms (Emerson as the "sugar daddy" of the group, Fuller as "bitchy" just for example), odd throwaway paragraphs, unwarranted speculations, and long passages of description which may or may not be entirely fabricated (it's hard to say, since none of them are cited in the sparse citations which, typically for Simon & Schuster, go unmarked in the text). Cheever's habit of occasionally jumping into the narrative with a short personal interjection is both unwelcome and unnecessary, and I found her wistful, whiny final chapter on Concord today entirely ridiculous. Also, a line on p. 150 regarding the presidential election of 1852 is off somehow - Van Buren was decidedly not the incumbent in that election.

The most troubling aspect of Cheever's writing was a narrative style in which she jumps about relentlessly, resulting in what she herself (p. xiii) calls "a series of overlapping scenes in which some incidents are repeated, sometimes more than once." Keeping a sense of chronology is nearly impossible, and at several points (chapters 30 and 31, also p. 178) the sequence of things is quite unclear. Including a few more referential dates here and there would have been very helpful in this regard, but a less schizophrenic structure would have improved the book in a more significant way.

Cheever's subjects are fascinating people, and their interactions with each other form an amazing story. I only wish that this author had worked harder at telling it well.