Thursday, November 19, 2009

American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

This is a nonfiction, non-academic work about the relationships that existed between Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau--with some appearances by Herman Melville, Henry James, and other notables. I always like reading about artists' communities and how friends can push each other to heights of success. And it always raises some questions: was it a genius-cluster (something in the water), how did such a thing form... In this case, the link is geography (much preferable to Facebook in my opinion)--these writers all lived in Concord, Mass--but also personality--as in the personality of Emerson. The book suggests it was really Emerson's financial support that allowed Thoreau, the Alcott family, and for a time Hawthorne, to survive. So while networking may also have helped each member of the group professionally, and mentoring and modeling (as in role-modeling) presumably also helped (I imagine especially for Alcott who was younger and got to watch these men build their writing careers), patronage may have mattered the most. The book is an entertaining read if you're interested in such things (I, for one, had no idea Thoreau was Alcott's teacher for awhile; and also knew next to nothing about Margaret Fuller or the Peabody sisters, who all turned out to be fascinating) and for all those who fuss about MFA programs, I can't help but think what we're trying to do formally is exactly what Emerson tried to do informally--provide financial support, mentoring, and community for developing writers.

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