Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review: The Concord Quartet

Written by Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr.
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006, 246 pp.

Winter Reading Challenge

Although the people who hallowed it were all called away, the village of Concord was – and remains – a shrine to the life of thought.

Samuel Schreiner's The Concord Quartet is a brief portrait of the group of early 19th Century Transcendentalist writers and academics who called Concord, Massachusetts, home during the period of the "American Renaissance" in arts and letters. The book focuses on four major figures: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Schreiner weaves together the individual stories of these four friends and neighbors to produce an interesting look at the intellectual life of the time and place.

This book is a good overview of the subject, not an in-depth examination. I enjoyed it, but its concentration on Emerson left me wanting to know more about the other members of the group. Well, maybe not Thoreau – the picture painted of Henry David makes him seem like a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, but I think that's probably a pretty accurate portrayal (Mark Edmundson was exactly right when he said that "sometimes it appears that Thoreau disapproves of everything, except the drinking of cold water"). Nathaniel Hawthorne gets a bit less attention than the others, but he wasn't really resident in Concord for much of the period covered in the book. Unfortunately, he seems to be the most intriguing of them all.

I have to admit, I chose this book mainly because I'm interested in the women associated with the Concord group. Bronson Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott, one of my early favorites. And Sophia and Elizabeth Peabody were strong influences on the group – Elizabeth published some of their earliest works, and Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne. One of the books I'm determined to read this year is Megan Marshall's rather monumental history, The Peabody Sisters, and I think Quartet should serve as a good lead-in for that work.

Samuel Schreiner was a writer for Reader's Digest, and sometimes The Concord Quartet comes across a little like one of those condensed books put out by the Digest. What's there is interesting, but you keep wishing you could have seen what was left out.

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