Lidian Emerson was the wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose life is chronicled in Susan Cheever’s delightful book, American Bloomsbury along with Concord friends, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Cheever writes about their jealousies, passions, hurts, and joys. It’s a fascinating picture of mid-nineteenth century Concord, and the lives of these families who populated its now historical houses; a sweet glimpse into the real lives of these larger-than-life people.
There are lovely moments such as when we see Louisa, a student at Thoreau’s school, floating down the Concord River with Henry — falling in love with a silent schoolgirl crush. We learn of Emerson’s admiration and love for Margaret Fuller, much to the consternation of Lidian, as well as the jealous fury of Hawthorne, who was also in love with Margaret, and modeled his strong women protagonists after Margaret Fuller, not his own wife, Sophia, a talented painter, but whose health was uncertain, the result of mercury administered as treatment for severe headaches when she was a teenager.
The Hawthornes came and went from Concord. They were chased out of Salem after the publication of the ‘scandalous’ book, The Scarlet Letter; and they had to leave the Berkshires for ‘stealing’ the landlord’s apples. But they always returned to Concord, and always with Emerson’s help. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the kingpin of the community — and he financially supported just about everyone, especially the Alcotts who always needed money. Bronson Alcott’s efforts to support his family were often fruitless, (like his experiment in intentional living, Fruitlands).
In Cheever’s portrayal of Concord Bloomsbury, we witness a circle of friends struggling with their health and the daily necessities of life, while at the same time devoted to their art and to each other. What we now call The Transcendentalist Movement can be seen as a medley of casual interactions. No transcending; only a certain self-reliance, a belief in the individual, and a grounding in the reality of everyday life —bird calls, wildflowers, and rent to pay. Some of the friends would go to Europe, or to Washington, but they always came home to Concord. Except Margaret Fuller. After several years in Europe, the first woman foreign correspondent for The New York Tribune, she was sailing on the boat, Elizabeth, to return to her New England roots with an Italian count husband and infant son, when their boat hit a sandbar and sank off of Fire Island, New York. The Concord Bloomsbury group had suffered death and illness before. Waldo, Ralph Waldo and Lidian’s beloved young son died, and the Alcott’s lost their youngest sister; but this was a big shock to the community — the loss of the unstoppable, trailblazing Margaret Fuller.
Thoreau wrote his experimental paean to nature, Walden, as well as the many volumes of writing we treasure today. Sophie Hawthorne and Lidian Emerson put their own artistic and intellectual pursuits aside to take on the more traditional family roles. Louisa May Alcott taught and wrote because it was the one way she could earn money to help feed her family. Apparently, she never wanted to write intimately about her family life, but her father and his publisher friend demanded it — thus we have Little Women.
With hindsight we can see that Louisa May Alcott’s writing about the everyday thoughts and occupations of women was revolutionary. She made this unseen domestic world of women as important as the world of politics and philosophy. In fact, along with Thoreau, she ignited the popularity of the genre we now call ‘memoir.’ They both made everyday moments significant, and through them revealed transcendent truths.
When it came to politics they were sometimes wrong — praising the likes of John Brown who, with his sons, murdered in cold blood to further their cause against slavery, mistaking the end and the means. They were human, frail, vulnerable, and passionate. I can only cheer and thank them for the legacy they left behind. And apples, oh yes, there are apples sprinkled here and there. Cheever writes, the day of “Hawthorne’s funeral at the end of May back in Concord was white with apple blossoms . . . .”
Before Emerson left for a long tour in Europe, at Lidian’s request, he asked Thoreau to leave his cabin near Walden Pond and stay at their home to help Lidian with running the house, and taking care of the children and grounds. Thoreau obliged, and Lidian and Henry David found solace with each other. He was still mourning the tragic loss of his brother a few years earlier to lockjaw from a small cut. When Emerson returned, Thoreau moved out, and the two men’s relationship became distant. Thoreau turned all his attention to his meticulous study and writing about nature, publishing his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and five years later, Walden. Thoreau died of Tuberculosis, a disease he first contracted when he was a teenager. Thoreau’s funeral was on May ninth. As with Hawthorne’s, the apple trees may have been in bloom. Emerson, in his eulogy said, “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.” I imagine Lidian must have been truly saddened by his death. With Thoreau, she shared her sharp wit, intelligence, and passionate, liberal views.
The original wood for my tribute sculpture, Lidian’s Harp, came from a pile of felled trees in Walden Woods destined for firewood, a gift from the caretaker of the property. He knew I was on the lookout for tree harps, the name for these spiral shapes formed by trees.
I always credited Thoreau with the term, however, when I looked through Thoreau’s writing for the reference, it didn’t exist. After discussion with the director of the Thoreau library, I finally accepted that I must have been thinking of Thoreau’s love for the ‘Aeolian harp,’ the harp that plays music when you put your ear to a telegraph pole and listen to the sounds made by the wind playing the wires. Tree Harp, I guess, is my own invention, but it feels more like the mystical influence of the Concord Bloomsbury.