Wednesday, August 15, 2007

It's Not About Breasts, But It's Worthwhile Just the Same

I agree with Ann Althouse that Hillary Clinton's cleavage is a fascinating and significant issue, worth at least several days of debate. But the carnage in Iraq has led me instead to consider something a little darker and, in its own way, more important that political decolletage - the American Civil War.

I've read a lot of history - I'm the type who loves poking around old battlefields and reading obscure war memoirs - but I've never come across a trajectory quite so unusual as the one traced by three books, one old and two quite new.

I read "Little Women" in the fifth grade, crying my way through math class the day Beth died. The novel was no more or less significant to me than it was to lots of other girls my age; we all wanted to be Jo, though most of the time we acted like Amy. The book, for those unlucky people who haven't read it, is set in Concord, Mass., during the Civil War, and the March family's father, who never makes an appearance, is "down South," presumably in the thick of it.

As an adult I visited Fruitlands, the failed Utopian community Louisa May Alcott's father (who was a tiresomely sanctimonious teacher, philosopher and ne'er-do-well ) co-founded. Though it failed after one disastrous winter, the cluster of buildings on the beautiful sloping Massachusetts hills still suggest his family's dogged devotion to him. Paintings of and by the Alcotts still hang in one of the main buildings.

"American Bloomsbury," Susan Cheever's recent book about the Transcendentalists of Concord (Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts and a few others) was a revelation to me: what a slight movement Transcendentalism was! How gauzy it remains. In reality, it apparently was little more than a series of letters and speeches, though it became so important that New Englanders, always contrarian, still embrace it as a homegrown progressive theology.

To cap off all this Civil War-era reading, I just finished "March," Geraldine Brooks' novel-based-on-reality that won the Pultizer Prize last year. This is a truly wonderful and unlikely book: the Alcotts retrofitted into the story of "Little Women," which itself, of course, was originally based upon the Alcotts. It's full of things I didn't know about the Civil War: about northern overseers, for instance, who went to revive nearly destroyed Southern plantations, only to fall prey to the Southern resistance when the Yankee troops pulled out.

The book is violent and poetic, and so fine that anyone interested in the Civil War or religion in America really must read it. Even if you don't care about the Alcotts and their abolitionist/vegetarian/Transcendentalist principles, it's worth reading for the reminder that war, then and now, has always been unimaginably ugly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was so delighted to see American Bloomsbury at the library the other day. For a while I had been wondering if anyone had told this story, and I'm glad that Susan Cheever has capably done so.

It opens as many questions as it answers.
-- cs

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