An oddly hyperventilating chronicle of “America’s first literary community” in mid-19th-century Concord, which novelist/biographer Cheever (My Name Is Bill, 2004, etc.) sees as a forerunner of 1960s radicalism.
The de facto adult and banker of the Massachusetts literary colony was Emerson, who not only edited (with Fuller) the Transcendental movement’s flagship publication, The Dial, but also lured the others to Concord by offering them money or the use of a home. The achievements of the group that gathered around him, as outlined by Cheever, represent the foundations of American literature: a classic memoir (Thoreau’s Walden), a novel of domesticity (Alcott’s Little Women) and fiction detailing the dark side of Puritanism (anything by Hawthorne). Cheever’s lush descriptions of the New England locale will make readers want to drive up there immediately. Shrewd about the group’s penchant for self-reinvention (Alcott’s father was originally surnamed Alcox, for example), the author is also quick to note the hilarity of their contradictions (Thoreau once accidentally set fire to 300 acres of woodland and pastures). She likens the Transcendentalists to hippies: interested in nature, questioning about religion, unorthodox in child-raising habits and vegetarian. Above all, in her view, the group flouted marital mores. That’s where the narrative goes awry. To be sure, Hawthorne dumped fiancée Elizabeth Peabody for her younger sister, Sophia. But despite Cheever’s assertions, surviving documentation shows that Hawthorne’s relationship with Fuller was less ardent than ambivalent, and there’s no indication that Emerson consummated his relationship with Fuller either. It’s also hard to take seriously the arguments of someone who writes so sloppily: Cheever labels John Brown a “violent murderer,” and favors us with such overripe passages as a bodice-ripping evocation of “the madness that envelops lovers on hot summer nights.”
Despite the best intentions, this literary portrait does a disservice to the intellects it seeks to honor.