We can’t remember the last time we enjoyed popular history as much as American Bloomsbury (out 12/19), Susan Cheever’s smart, dishy romp through the intersecting personal lives of a cluster of geniuses who all lived in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800s.
Cheever focuses on three houses that were, at various times, home to a mind-boggling range of bohemian literary bigs — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller — while also working in bits about the neighbors (Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes) and the larger circle of friends (Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe).
The Concord gang transformed not only American literature and culture, but each other, seducing one another both intellectually and physically. For starters, Alcott was in love with both older man Thoreau and then much older man Emerson, while Emerson exchanged love letters with Fuller, though handsome Hawthorne (“a rat with women,” according to Cheever) also enthralled her.
All of these characters have, of course, been subject to countless biographies. But Cheever’s deft chronicling of their interwoven lives and her heavy quotation of overheated excerpts from private writings (“On his lips is the perfumed honey of Hymettus,” Fuller wrote of Emerson, “but we can only sip”) make this slim volume an unexpected delight.
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