Author Susan Cheever on Transcendentalists

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Long ago and not so far away, just a stroll from the opening landmarks of America's revolution for independence, was born another revolution: the revolution in philosophy and literature of the transcendentalists.

In the middle of the 19th century, in a leafy corner of New England, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and more remade the country's understanding of itself and its possibilities.

In "The Scarlett Letter" and "Walden," brilliant essays and "Little Women," they broke with the Puritans and Calvin and pointed to the divinity of humanity and nature. They were giants, and they were very human neighbors, friends, and lovers.

This hour On Point: Susan Cheever talks about the private lives of the transcendentalists.

Quotes from the Show:

"I went down this path for two reasons. One was an accident — I was asked to write an introduction to 'Little Women.' I thought I had read 'Little Women.' I had read it a long time ago, I had seen the movie, and when I reread 'Little Women,' I was just astonished. It is not a book for teenage girls. It is a book for the ages. ... So then I turned to the biographies of Louisa May Alcott to find, according to one biographer, that Laurie in 'Little Women' was based on Henry David Thoreau." Susan Cheever

"[The Transcendentalists] were originals and their voices were original. No one ever wrote like Thoreau before, no one ever wrote like Melville after or before, and no voice in literature can come close to the Delphic, unforced brilliance of Emerson. So this was the American voice at its inaugural moment." Jack Beatty

"To my mind, these people came up with the kind of humanism and the kind of ability to get solace from nature that is very prevalent today. And they were the first people to have the relationship to nature and to animals that we're just coming around to with Peter Singer and people like that." Susan Cheever


Susan Cheever, author of "American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work" and twelve other books.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst and senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

This program aired on January 24, 2007.


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