Six years ago, while reading up on the history of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Susan Cheever, now63, was surprised to learn that Jo March’s childhood friendship with Laurie was based on Alcott’s own friendship with Henry David Thoreau in the 1860s. After her discovery, Cheever burned to know more about Alcott’s friends. The irresistible result of that passion is American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work (Simon & Schuster).
Q. So, you had a famous, charismatic, sometimes difficult literary father, John Cheever, and Louisa May Alcott had a famous, charismatic, sometimes difficult philosopher father, Bronson Alcott.A. I identify so much with Louisa — her father had severe problems but was revered in his community, while she was not taken seriously.
Q. You’ve written the story of this great intellectual flowering in America not through the famous men, but through the women. How does that change things?A. When you consider the women, you get a story about community and connection. The men are often characterized as isolated geniuses toiling in their attics, but when you put the women into the story, it’s much more obvious that these people were talking all the time and sharing ideas about everything.
Q. What do their lives teach us about intellectual freedom and happiness?A. Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller were brilliant women, but no one was going to marry either of them. And the inspiring thing is that they refused to compromise. They didn’t think, "Well, I might as well just wear pretty dresses and marry a farmer." They insisted on being who they were, as socially difficult as that may have been. And that’s incredibly brave.
Q. Who do you insist on being?A. My life is blessed. I’m one of those people who had a miserable childhood, and that’s a big advantage because life just gets better. And I live in a world where women have great freedom. I never dreamed I would have a career. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, it was a whole lot closer to the 1860s than to 2006. I thought I would get married and learn to cook chicken baked in sour cream and have children, and that would be that. Luck doesn’t even cover what happened to my generation.
Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2007.