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by Susan Cheever
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $26

American Bloomsbury

Once upon a time, in a small, pretty town in Massachusetts, three houses by a crossroads were home, over a 40-year period, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Here, the Transcendentalists, inspired by Emerson's genius and kept from penury by his wife's family fortune, set out to fling open the doors of American thought. Among them they invented the national literature: Walden, The Scarlet Letter, and Little Women all came out of the intellectual crucible of Concord. Sharing ideas, sharing love affairs, Emerson and his acolytes turned their backs on the authority of church and state, denounced slavery, challenged the sexual straitjacket in which men bound women, and communed ecstatically with the natural world. The Transcendentalists were nothing if not comprehensive.

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For that reason, the title of Susan Cheever's latest book, American Bloomsbury, may actually do its subject an injustice. London's Bloomsbury group had nothing like the lasting impact on British and European thought that the Transcendentalists had on American culture and values. The key to the Concord revolution, Cheever writes, was that it "gently toppled God off his throne and replaced him with nature, with the glory of the physical world." While the similarities between the two groups are certainly real enough -- the idealization of the life of the mind, the rejection of established authorities and mores -- that vital ingredient was missing from Bloomsbury.

Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and the rest of the gang may have liked nothing better than to spend talkative and sometimes sexy weekends in their country cottages, looking out over a nice English hillside, but it's a stretch to think of any of them as being driven by a passion for nature and the environment. For the Concord group, nature was at the core of things. And that's the great lesson that echoes from Emerson down through the past 150 years -- that the exaltation of the natural world is inseparable from a whole interconnected set of standards to live by, from Margaret Fuller's protofeminism to the Alcott family's militant support for the Underground Railroad. The same principle applies, needless to say, to the modern strain of environmentalism, with feminism, civil rights, and antiwar sentiment having played a comparable role.

Thoreau, of course, was the presiding genius of the idea of nature as church. The author of Walden, in all his uncompromising homespun crankiness, comes nicely to life in American Bloomsbury, if only for frustratingly brief moments. Part of the problem here is the peculiar structure that Cheever has chosen for her book, hopping around herky-jerky from character to character -- 256 pages, 49 chapters, none longer than five pages and some as short as a page. Given the centrality of Thoreau's views to the larger thinking of the group, it seems strange that Cheever makes only a one-line mention of his three journeys from Concord to the Maine woods in the 1840s and 1850s, which inspired the most impassioned of all his writings, like the awestruck outburst at the summit of Mount Katahdin as he contemplated his smallness in the face of "vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature."

Cheever's Thoreau is of a more bucolic bent, strolling a mile or two from his Concord home to paddle the quiet waters of the Sudbury and Assabet rivers rather than the wind-whipped swells of Moosehead Lake in Maine. Even so, some of the vignettes linger. Floating on Walden Pond, Thoreau showed Louisa May Alcott, in Cheever's elegant phrases, "how the bluebird seemed to be carrying the sky on its back and how the scarlet tanager looked to be about to set fire to the leaves." Alcott was entranced, inspired by the possibilities of seeing the world in a new way, and so, in our better moments, are we.
-- George Black

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The End of the Line
American Bloomsbury

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OnEarth. Winter 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council