Thursday, February 9, 2012

American Bloomsbury and Woods Burner

I am reviewing two books because they are related, even though only one is fiction and they are by different authors. I first read Bloomsbury three years ago and was intrigued. If you have ever read or quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Louisa May Alcott (and almost all of us have), this book should fascinate you. It’s not an academic treatise, but a fascinating story about their lives, loves and work.
Did you know that these transcendentalist folks lived and were close friends in the small town of Concord, Massachusetts? They also interacted (in many interesting ways) with Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass), Margaret Fuller (known as the best read person in New England) and other famous thinkers and writers, including former presidents. You won’t find, for example, from watching the movie Little Women that Alcott’s father didn’t believe in owning property but had no reservations about living (usually rent-free) in houses owned by others. The Alcott family also lived in a commune for several years where Alcott failed to take on his share of the work. He was dependent on others’ generosity most of his life until Louisa supported him and the rest of the family through her writing.
Did you know that Thoreau sometimes went by another name? That he also was dependent on others (primarily Emerson) most of his life? That he made pencils in his father’s pencil factory?
I enjoy biographies, especially when they are written in compelling narrative. Think David McCullough. But this book is more than a biography of famous folks. Susan Cheever masterfully weaves the relationships of these famous people into a fascinating tale. You will not just read about how brilliant they were, but how vulnerable, sometimes naïve, and yes, sometimes ignorant in certain areas. Cheever neither disparages their weaknesses nor lauds their brilliance; she just tells us about them. I was especially surprised and pleased by the balanced treatment she gave the period leading up to the Civil War, especially since Cheever lives in New York. Did I come away thinking less of these great people? No, I just see them as more human.
Speaking of naïve, did you know that Thoreau accidentally (and probably negligently) set fire to the woods near Concord in 1844? The fire destroyed almost 300 acres of beautiful trees. “I once set fire to the woods . . .  It was a glorious spectacle, and I was the only one there to enjoy it.” –Thoreau’s journal, 1850. John Pipkin takes this true tale and turns it into a very entertaining and informative novel. When I met him at a book fest in Tyler, Texas and heard what his book was about, I thought of American Bloomsbury. After reading Pipkin’s vibrant Woods Burner, I pulled my old friend American Bloomsbury off the shelf and read it again. You won’t be disappointed by either book.

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