American Bloomsbury

One of the most profound observations about writing I’ve ever read came from Ann Berthoff. She’s the author of a number of intriguing books about composition theory, including The Making of Meaning.

I love that title. Astonishing, isn’t it: Just two words sum up the most important principle behind effective writing.

“Making meaning” came to mind this week while I was reading a book I absolutely adore – Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury. It’s a book I did not expect to enjoy. It’s about the Transcendentalists (doesn’t that sound dull already?). A point in the book’s favor is that Louisa May Alcott (who’s long fascinated me) is prominently featured – but I’ve read all her major biographies, so there didn’t seem to be much point in reading this book.

Despite my wariness, I was hooked before I got to page 1. Here are two sentences from the Preface:

“I remembered F. O. Matthiessen’s bold statement that all of American literature had been written between 1850 and 1855. What I hadn’t realized is that most of it was written in the same cluster of three houses.”

I’ve been to Concord, Massachusetts (the setting for the book), and I already knew that Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott had moved around in that neighborhood. But I’d never thought about American literature in terms of those three houses.

And that’s what “making meaning” is all about: tying things together and making them significant. It doesn’t even matter that I disagree with Matthiessen about “all of American literature” (what about Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby?).

What’s wonderful is that Susan Cheever gave me something interesting to think about. Even better, she fulfilled her purpose in a wonderfully readable book. I finished it today, and I’m feeling kind of lonely. I began to see some familiar writers in a new way, and I find that I’m missing them.

You can’t ask for much more from a book, in my opinion.

American Bloomsbury

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