American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau—Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work

 By Susan Cheever, Simon & Schuster, 2006

Concord, Massachusetts, is one of America’s most historic places. At Concord’s North Bridge on April 19, 1775, British soldiers clashed with American militia on the first day of the Revolutionary War. Just as Concord would be a birthplace of American political independence, this small town west of Boston would also be the cradle of American cultural independence. “Our day of dependence,” wrote Concord’s own Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837, “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close….We will walk on our own feet.”

Susan Cheever explores the friendships and close connections between five Concord-based writers who defined antebellum American literature. Cheever examines how the personal lives of these writers, all living in a small town of 2,000 residents, helped fuel their greatest books, from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

At the center of it all was the brilliant and almost absurdly generous Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had the financial security and business connections to help the other Concord literary giants. Emerson let Thoreau live rent-free in his home, and later allowed Thoreau to build a cabin on land near Walden Pond, which Emerson owned. There would have been no Walden, the classic memoir that inspired the American conservation movement, without Emerson’s backing. Emerson also found Concord houses for both the reclusive Hawthorne and education reformer Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s unconventional father. He made pioneering feminist author Margaret Fuller the editor of The Dial, a magazine he financed.

These writers were also highly political. Hawthorne was a close friend of Democratic President Franklin Pierce, who won election in 1852. Pierce appointed Hawthorne to be the U.S. consul in Liverpool, England. The friendship created consternation among Concord writers, most of whom were abolitionists who hated Pierce for his accommodating attitudes toward Southern slavery. Indeed, when abolitionist John Brown was captured after his failed 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., Hawthorne denounced Brown as a lunatic. Thoreau and Emerson, however, called Brown a hero and a martyr willing to die for his antislavery principles.

Cheever has painted a delightfully vivid portrait of these writers and their fascinating relationships. (She isn’t quite sure, for example, if Thoreau was a prophet or a shameless moocher, though he was likely both.) For those interested in American cultural history, Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury will provide both insight and pure, gossipy fun.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here