American Bloomsbury – Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever

They live in separate houses. They have different families. They conduct distinct lives. Yet, they form into a tight-knit group. Over time, their closeness even transcends the gaps of home, family, and daily life. You will see them together and when you see one of them apart, you wonder where the rest of them are.

They are a number of people in your organization, or your neighborhood, or your church, or some other place who have identified themselves as sharing something that joins them together—into a defined, cohesive smaller group within a larger body of people. Our times tend to add the prefix “sub” here. They are a subgroup with a subculture. Maybe you belong to a subgroup.

We can use a bland, generic term like “friends” to describe them. They are more than that, though. They are connected, sharing a particular view of the world and of themselves in the world. They will do things as a whole, taking time away from spending with other people in order that they may be together more.

Team doesn’t fit them either. That’s too confining a word and concept. What I’m referring to is both bigger and smaller than that: bigger in that their bonds reach beyond tasks and work, and smaller in that they are still independent, still individuals, and not organized or arrayed for collective achievement.

A negative term for such a subgroup, especially if it’s in an existing larger group, is clique. I’ll wager that when you see the word “clique” you automatically flash back to high school or some other point in your youth. Jocks and hoods, the nerds and the in-crowd, whatever the labels, cliques are a highly charged sort of subgroup. But that’s not really what I’m after.
Not just friends, not merely teams, not simply cliques.

Let’s go back to the opening paragraph above. There, I buried an irony in one word. Can you find it? Take a moment and re-read the first four lines at the start of this review.

Here is my purposely ironic word: transcends.

Last year I read the book American Bloomsbury – Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever. Brief and full of chatty, chewy personal details, Cheever’s book is about the core members of what American history knows as the “Transcendentalists.”

These five people shared three things. First, from roughly the 1840s to the 1870s, they lived in Concord, Massachusetts, in some cases, barely shouting distance from one another inside this tiny town. Second, they became known—and to a great extent, were so regarded at the time—as intellectuals; writers, social commentators, literary critics, and the like. Third, their writings and musings formed around such ideas as the perfectibility of people; the centrality of the self; the importance of nature; and what they perceived as the disastrous direction of American private and public life. They saw themselves both rebelling against established standards in the arts and forging a set of new humanistic criteria. If you think about it, these four points also describe a wide swath of American opinion—particularly in the arts—in the twenty-first century.

Cheever describes a pair of pursuits throughout the book. One is the expected—the lives of this intriguing quintet. The other is somewhat not as expected but, to me, rather refreshing—her personal pursuit of further knowledge about the five Transcendentalists. She peppers the writing with references to her own trips to Concord in recent years and her attempts to sort out their meaning for herself and for us today.

These five people, I’ll call the Concord Five, spent extensive time together as neighbors, as friends, and as critics of each other’s books, articles, poems, and causes. In more than one instance, they introduced to one another friends and family members who ultimately become lovers or spouses. In a few instances they either conducted extramarital affairs with each other or dreamt of the day when they could do so. They were busy folks for thirty years in the mid-nineteenth century.

Though not mentioned by Cheever, it’s strikes me that the Concord Five is an earlier version of other artistic- and humanistic-based subgroups in the twentieth century, including Greenwich in New York City; Provincetown in Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Height-Ashbury in San Francisco. The point can also be stretched, not that far I should think, to encompass musical centers like Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee (country and rockabilly); Detroit, Michigan (Motown); and Chicago, Illinois (blues).

Cheever depicts the Concord Five in a swift, sharp writing style. Her style extends to her organization; the chapters are short, often three to five pages in length, and they help give the book a quick energy welcomed by most readers (including me). Her gift of organization also includes the wise choice of showing the reader how each of the main figures died, thus closing the circle on both individual and group levels. Like her writing and organizational style, Cheever’s attitude is a positive contribution: she isn’t elitist, pedantic, or condescending, again, traits that I’ve seen not only in too many historical books but specifically in intellectual and literary history. All of these techniques were valuable in a book that might otherwise have plodded along detailing one intellectual and literary point after another. Cheever is a novelist and in the best sense of the term, it shows.

There are flaws. For one, Cheever has a tendency to toss off major points in a casual turn of phrase (“the people of Salem had had quite enough of examining such things”) without a fact, story, or quote to explain. For another, she decided against including details about the group’s neighborhood, town, or state set against the larger world. She discusses the wider context in literary terms but in little else. I suspect vital pieces to the story thus go undiscovered.

I’ll move on to an application that I think you’ll be interested in, but for a moment indulge me slightly more on the flaws. For me, the biggest gaps in the book were in mishandling two questions (one specific and historical, the other more general and contemporary). Cheever falls completely short in delving into the group’s connection to the fanatic John Brown, the abolitionist who hacked several people to death in Kansas. Brown relied on New England sponsors for much of his financial and material support. With Brown, Cheever flees to the comments of another scholar without using her own obvious imagination and creativity in discussing the Concord Five’s endorsement of Brown and their silence on his butchery.

Bigger than that, however, is the other failing, which takes us to your application. Cheever never really answers why these five people stayed together as a group. What fundamentally united them? Was it their affinity for the written word? For the ideas themselves? For geographical and cultural reasons? Just as importantly, what held them together over time, over such cataclysmic tides as the Civil War and industrialism? Not much is said here.
As the reader, I think I have a potential answer. The Concord Five needed three things. First, they required a shared conviction and bent of mind. Second, they had to have a person take an active role in bringing them together. Third, they and that active organizer in particular, absolutely depended on having a specific place for gathering, for spending time, and perhaps most importantly of all, for existing in their minds as a mutually-held point of return.

And this brings me to the point that I think holds greatest meaning for you. The Concord Five points to the power of people who share an affinity, a mindset, or some other fundamental aspect of who they think they were, are, or want to be. Their talents did not depend on each other; in some ways I think they would have done what they did in at least some fashion if they had never met. Still, there is a clear, powerful, and yet undefined sense that their individual work was affected—energized—by forming a honeycomb of like-spirited people. Testing and nurturing, arguing and reinforcing, this subgroup stood apart and thoroughly relished their separateness from the rest of the world. It’s quite possible that they didn’t realize how much they owed to one another.

Two leadership points occur to me. First, regardless of the subgroup’s overall equality, a leader will emerge from within. Someone acts as a key organizer, a source of resources, and is in a special position as claiming a wide circle of trust among fellow members. Changes in that person’s place and role will have a disproportionally high impact on the overall subgroup.

Second, if the subgroup exists within an already sharply defined organization, the larger group’s leader will have an additional responsibility to keep the subgroup aligned to the rest of the organization. This will be a source of many headaches for the overall leader. This leader will be sorely tried as he or she seeks to connect the efforts of the subgroup to the overall organization’s work, avoiding both stifling the outcome of the small group and the build-up of resentment from those outside their tight knot.

Cheever’s book holds clues to these points. She wrote that Ralph Waldo Emerson was essentially the leader of the subgroup. When his presence weakened, the Concord Five faltered. Without a successor, formal or informal, the subgroup slowly melted away. More than that, though, even the presence of a successor might not have guaranteed continuance. The subgroup needed to see and sense a connection between their commonly held views and the broader world. Even though a gap did exist between the two, a connection was visibly evident. When the world around them changed and thus moved on to other ideas to either support or oppose, the subgroup had to change with it or risk a withering irrelevance. Both a successor and an evolving connection to the larger world were vital to survival.

Unwittingly, Cheever also shows us how to respond to the issue of harmony between a subgroup and larger organization. I say “unwittingly” because Cheever doesn’t address the point and likely wouldn’t have considered it important. Nevertheless, I think we can find an answer. The effort to do so, to attend the harmony between the part and the whole, may well be worth it because of creativity that can spark from an active, involved, and functioning subgroup. An overall leader should nurture proper subgroups as a way of promoting creativity.

And certainly, we would be the poorer today without the collective work of the Concord Five.