In Concord, his first novel, Zancanella (English, Professor Emeritus, Univ. of New Mexico) imagines the early adult lives of New England’s most celebrated 19th-century writers. We are introduced to a youthful and shy Henry David Thoreau. He and his brother John, aspiring schoolmasters, are both smitten with the same young woman, their childhood friend Ellen Sewall. Meanwhile, in Providence, we find a young Margaret Fuller asking “Who am I? What is my purpose?” Margaret, a conversationalist through-and-through, becomes infatuated, for a time, with Emerson, the married leader of the Transcendentalist Club. In Boston, we follow the adventurous Sophia Peabody. An amateur artist who copies Washington Allston paintings, she secretly pines for more. Others in their overlapping circles include Sophia’s sisters: Mary, betrothed to Horace Mann, and Elizabeth, proprietor of Boston’s “Foreign Circulating Library and Bookstore.” Enter Nathaniel Hawthorne, friend to the Peabodys, who Sophia first remembers only as the reclusive “boy from the house behind them when they lived in Salem before.” But Hawthorne now courts a willing Sophia.
Through these intertwined lives, Zancanella—award-winning author of Western Electric (1996)—introduces us to 19th-century America’s literary life, but also mesmerism, phrenology, abolitionism, and much else, like education methods, journal editing and Brook Farm, even pencil making and camelopards. In unpretentious and matter-of-fact prose, Zancanella plays with themes of originality, religion, equality of the sexes, and death. Eventually, all of our characters are drawn to Concord. Along the way they grapple with the life of the mind, through writing and reading—“Should one really be allowed to make one’s own sense of a book?”, one asks—as they scribble for profits and other goals, foster relationships, and fall in love. In short, a coming-of-age story for Zancanella’s characters and literary America.