While perusing my shelves recently I came upon a book titled, American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their lives, Their loves, Their work.
Written by Susan Cheever, this collection of tales delves into the private and intimate lives of these well-known authors. Cheever’s writing drew me in from the start, the content revealing so many personal details about the “literary elite” of Concord that reading at times felt like voyeurism. I recommend this book to anyone interested in this intellectual, transcendental, free-thinking, and at times scandalous group of writers. While many have touted the inaccuracies of Cheever’s tales, and her redundancy at times, I have not wanted to put it down. So, as some debate continues as to whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it has no bearing on my reason for this post, and I don’t really care.
There is only one real problem I have with this book. It is scaring the “writer” out of me. I mean, it’s bad enough that… “Cheever’s writing has true resonance.”– The New York Times Book Review says, but just look at the names on the cover. What I wouldn’t give to write half as well as any one of them.
I was introduced to Louisa May Alcott one summer while sitting in the apple tree in my grandparent’s back yard reading Little Women. I sat in that tree surrounded by the heady smell of the blossoms and imagined myself as Jo March, quill in hand, releasing words and stories from my mind like captive butterflies. My writer’s envy had begun. That was the summer I started my first journal.
My passion for writing grew even more as I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden later in life, at a time when I too wished to “live deliberately”. I believe what drew me to these writers and their stories was that the settings were beyond familiar . I knew these places.
I was born at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts, and long before I learned to read and write, or ever heard the name Thoreau, I had literally inhaled and spat Walden pond from my mouth while taking my first swimming lessons. I have been inside the replica of Thoreau’s tiny cabin, and imagined how it was to live in that quiet, peaceful place, with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and write, surrounded by the smells and sounds of nature. Looking out that little window at the pond and surrounding woods made it easy to imagine Thoreau sitting there churning out some of the best words I had ever read.
I’d been fishing, boating, and camping along the Assabet river many times before I ever read about it in Hawthorne’s The Mosses from an Old Manse, “Rowing our boat against the current, between wide meadows, we turn aside into the Assabeth. A more lovely stream than this, for a mile above its junction with the Concord, has never flowed on earth.” I’ve toured “The Old Manse”, a home built for Emerson’s grandfather, where Thoreau, Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott often met to discuss transcendentalism, just steps from the Old North Bridge. I thrill at the thought of the conversations that were held in that house.
I have wandered from room to room in the Alcott’s home “Orchard House”, and have seen the desk where Louisa May Alcott sat and wrote Little Women. I have strolled through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery up to Author’s Ridge, visiting the graves of Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, and the Alcott family, and have lightly touched the etchings on their stones.
Growing up surrounded by such literary genius and history, one can see why I was inspired to become a writer, and why I might also feel somewhat intimidated. I almost feel obligated to be a good writer simply by geographical fate. Do I think that I might become a better writer through osmosis, by swallowing some of the now putrid water of Walden pond some 50 years ago? Of course not. Is it possible that having walked where they walked, touched what they touched, and fished where they fished, that I might somehow have “absorbed” some of their talent? Probably not, but it is a wonderful thought.
As I continue reading American Bloomsbury, and falling more deeply in love with these authors, I will do my best to learn from them. Being surrounded by the history of these men and women doesn’t mean I’ll become a famous author, but maybe…just maybe, a seed was planted when I was born in Concord, and a drop of water from Walden pond will allow me to grow into one.