"Don't reduce literature to gossip," John Cheever once loftily told his daughter, after she said he'd written a story "about this girl who was like me in every way, but then she gets killed in a ski tow—what's up with that?"

So it's more than a little ironic, Susan Cheever says, laughing, that her new book, American Bloomsbury (Reviews, Sept. 25), investigates the connections between life and art. Cheever looks into the work of the transcendentalists, a group of American writers around Concord, Mass., during the middle decades of the 19th century whose personal and financial affairs were intimately intertwined. Among the juicy tidbits Cheever reveals in her vivid, up-close-and-personal text, which Simon & Schuster will publish in January, is that Louisa May Alcott was in love with Henry David Thoreau and used him as the basis for the character of Jo March's beloved friend Laurie in Little Women. And that Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter was Nathaniel Hawthorne's tribute to Margaret Fuller, a pioneering female intellectual who had intense, though probably platonic, relationships with both Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"My father must be spinning in his grave," says Cheever, and she's not entirely kidding. But she's also not apologizing. "This book was a huge departure for me, because I've always been very fierce about the conflation of life and art. It's a very personal issue for me, because of my father's stories; I did not want people reading those stories and thinking that the daughter was me. So it's taken me a long time to feel that talking about literature in the context of writers' lives is not reducing it to gossip, but giving it a new dimension. I went back to Little Women, The Scarlet Letter and Walden with a new passion and a new understanding, knowing what I know now about their authors' lives. I don't think it diminishes the work, I think it expands it."

Cheever has consistently expanded her own horizons over the course of three decades as a writer, embracing new genres and new ways of telling stories as different subjects compelled her attention. She published three loosely autobiographical novels (Looking for Work, A Handsome Man and The Cage) before her father's struggle with cancer prompted her to write the poignant memoir Home Before Dark (1984). Long before the current explosion of confessional memoirs, her book sparked controversy, as well as considerable praise, with its honest discussion of John Cheever's homosexuality and alcoholism. Fifteen years later, she was far more brutally frank about her own drinking and personal problems in Note Found in a Bottle—though she's chagrined that "the only thing anybody noticed about that book is that I slept with three men in one day." Recovering from alcoholism led Cheever to another form of nonfiction in My Name Is Bill (2004), a biography of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. She confides that she didn't know a thing about documentation when she began her research: "I said to my daughter, Sarah, who's a Princeton graduate and a real academic, 'So, you go and read all this stuff, and then what? You keep a list?' Sarah went white: three men in one day was nothing compared to finding out that I hadn't taken any notes!"

Cheever is a veteran journalist —she was an editor at Newsweek, a columnist at New York Newsday and is currently writing an article for Esquire—and while younger brother Benjamin may be the comic novelist in the family, Susan has an equally lively sense of humor, especially about herself. How many authors would admit that they'd dug up several of their interviewer's previous profiles, "just to see if you'd be nice to me"? She can make a mini-drama out of choosing the right variety of tea, and she moans in mock dismay when her dachshund, Cutey, licks a visitor's ankles in the living room of her Upper East Side apartment. Extending her arm, Cheever displays the dents in a thick silver bracelet "where my kids teethed on it." Sarah is now in law school; her son, Quad, as Warren Hinckle IV is known, is in 11th grade.

At 63, with three divorces and her drinking days behind her, Cheever doesn't seem to feel the need to trot out a carefully polished persona for public consumption. Nor does she spend a lot of time plotting out the direction of her career. American Bloomsbury, she says, muscled its way into a crowded work schedule after she was asked to write a new introduction to Little Women; she started reading biographies of Louisa May Alcott and became so fascinated by Alcott's connections with the Concord literary set that soon she was boning up on Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson and Fuller as well. "I got obsessed and started talking about them to everyone; I'm sort of the Ancient Mariner of the literary world. I was already writing two books, a memoir about raising my kids [As Good As I Could Be, 2001] and My Name Is Bill: the last thing anyone at Simon & Schuster wanted to hear was that I wanted to write a third book at the same time."

Cheever persevered, because she felt that something was missing from the large shelf of books about New England transcendentalism. "All of these great men who had written about it—F.O. Matthiessen, Lawrence Buell, Robert Richardson, Van Wyck Brooks—they didn't factor in the women, and if you leave them out you leave out what most interests me, which is people's intimate connections with each other. Adding Ellen Tucker [Emerson's first wife] and Lidian Emerson [his second] and Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller and Sophia Peabody [who married Hawthorne after he dumped her sister Elizabeth] into the mix made it a completely different set of stories." Cheever says she particularly identified with Fuller "because of her inability to be feminine in a way that meant stupidity and weakness. Louisa also struggled to reconcile intelligence with femininity, and this is a big problem for me, too. I always was a failure as a girl, and I still am: I can never get it together with the right suit and the right hairdo. So I am thrilled to find that a woman in 1849 could go through the same things that I'm going through—and it was much worse to fail as a girl in 1849 than it is now."

She'd love to write a biography of Alcott, noting that Martha Saxton's "wonderful" 1995 portrait "is really a women's studies treatment." But she'd also like to get back to fiction, having reluctantly put it aside in 1989, the year Elizabeth Cole was published and her son was born. "When I write novels I have to live in another world, and I found that with two children I just couldn't do it. You can come and go more with nonfiction." Cheever is drawn to the idea of another memoir as well. "I believe that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century: it's an amazing form that we haven't even begun to tap. People are just beginning to think about writing a memoir of five minutes or a memoir of everyone you've ever met with blue eyes—I mean, Timothy Garton Ash wrote a memoir out of his Stasi file! There are a couple of people who've tried weird things, but it's a huge form and we're just getting started figuring out what the rules are." Referring to the flap over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, she comments, "I feel that you can do anything as long as you tell the reader. Every writer has a contract with readers that had better be honored. If you let them think that it really happened, then it damn well better have really happened. If you call your book The Liars' Club, then you can do what you want."

Cheever sums it up with her characteristic, expansive enthusiasm: "I want to write more memoirs, I want to write more biographies, I want to write more novels—it's all good!"

Author Information
Smith, a longtime contributor to PW, is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931—1940.