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American Transcendentalism: A History

American Transcendentalism: A History

by Philip F. Gura

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The First Comprehensive History of Transcendentalism

American Transcendentalism is a comprehensive narrative history of America's first group of public intellectuals, the men and women who defined American literature and indelibly marked American reform in the decades before and following the America Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces


The First Comprehensive History of Transcendentalism

American Transcendentalism is a comprehensive narrative history of America's first group of public intellectuals, the men and women who defined American literature and indelibly marked American reform in the decades before and following the America Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce local theological debates that, so often first in Massachusetts and eventually throughout America, gave rise to practical, personal, and quixotic attempts to improve, even perfect the world. The transcendentalists would painfully bifurcate over what could be attained and how, one half epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and stressing self-reliant individualism, the other by Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker, emphasizing commitment to the larger social good.

By the 1850s, the uniquely American problem of slavery dissolved differences as transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition. Along with their early inheritance from European Romanticism, America's transcendentalists abandoned their interest in general humanitarian reform. By war's end, transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
On the surface, a history of transcendentalism hardly seems especially electrifying or contemporary. Isn't this a subject for one of those standard and rather tired seminars regularly offered in American studies programs, sometimes with a subtitle like "Emerson, Fuller and Thoreau"? But there's nothing perfunctory or dryly academic about American Transcendentalism. Philip F. Gura writes a lean, impassioned prose, chockablock with anecdote and information. By mixing a dozen brief biographies with sustained narrative—about contemporary religious belief, social commitment, just and unjust wars, the rights and plights of women and African Americans—Gura underscores how much we remain the descendants of these still too little known thinkers and crusaders. Above all, his exciting, even eye-opening book shows us that from 1830 to 1850 a group of New England preachers and intellectuals confronted what has proved to be the great polarizing tension in American history, that between hyperindividualism and the claims of social justice and human brotherhood.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Gura (Jonathan Edwards) has written possibly the best single volume on the Transcendentalists. Though he analyzes the essays and lectures of Emerson, Fuller and the Alcotts, Gura (a professor of literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) also introduces lesser-known figures who were influenced by their thought. These "fellow travelers" help explain how the influence of Transcendentalism eventually spread beyond a handful of Boston intellectuals: businessman William B. Greene translated Transcendentalist values into economic thinking with the production of pamphlets like Mutual Bankingand Equality, and Eliza Thayer Clapp, a Unitarian Sunday school teacher, integrated Transcendentalist ideas into girls' religious instruction. Gura situates Transcendentalism against the backdrop of American Protestantism, showing how the movement emerged in part from early-19th-century debates about how to read the Bible. He also explores Transcendentalists' involvement in all manner of reform movements, including women's rights and, in the 1850s, abolition. When the Civil War won that battle, they turned away from "social engagement" for several decades, and the individualism of Transcendentalism unwittingly underwrote the postbellum political economy of market capitalism. Gura's fresh, penetrating analysis will reshapes our understanding American of intellectual history and the 19th century. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Most people associate transcendentalism with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who played a significant role in its emergence. Gura (American literature & culture, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) introduces readers to other American individuals who also contributed to the movement, including Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker. In 11 chapters, he presents the history and evolution of transcendentalism, which attracted many clergymen and New Englanders. He explains how the movement was influenced by German philosophy and theology, and how, over time, the German influence began to fade and the movement became uniquely American. Readers will learn that fractures between Emerson and others in the movement (e.g., Ripley and Brownson) further changed its focus. By the end of the Civil War, Gura writes, Emerson's stress on individualism and self-reliance had supplanted the earlier transcendentalist ideals of humanitarian reform and egalitarianism. Gura further illustrates transcendentalism's influence on other disciplines. The chapter describing Bronson Alcott's approach to childhood education is particularly compelling and demonstrates transcendentalism's reach at the height of its popularity. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.
—Erica Swenson Danowitz

Kirkus Reviews
Comprehensive history of America's first public intellectual movement. Gura (American and Religious Studies/Univ. of North Carolina; Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical, 2005, etc.) notes that transcendentalism has largely been viewed as a brief phase in the history of ideas in the United States, almost exclusively associated with the poetic essays of Emerson and Thoreau. This tightly written survey of intellectual currents in early-19th-century New England may change that view. Gura reminds us just how influential the movement was and argues that its core ideals remain with us today. The roots of transcendentalism lie in a thorny and seething theological debate among Unitarians. How can the belief in an ordered universe require miracles to sanctify the divinity of Christ? It's a question with no clear rational answer. That's why transcendentalists, fueled by the German Idealist philosophy of Kant and the Romantic poetry of Coleridge, argued against objective understanding of the scriptures and for the emotional experience of faith. This notion of godliness inherent in human consciousness combined with the democratic zeal of the young republic to fuel a regional, then national feeling that it was possible to better the world. The loosely tethered transcendentalists finally divided over the question of precisely how to make things better. In one direction went George Ripley, Orestes Brownson and Theodore Parker, who aimed for social justice, while Emerson and his disciples stressed self-reliance and rugged individualism. Differences were set aside during the Civil War to battle slavery. Afterward, exhausted and eager to embrace a future quickly being shaped by the Gilded Age,transcendentalists became totally in thrall to Emersonian ideals of political libertarianism. Gura's nuanced, dense and illuminating narrative makes a perfect a companion to Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club (2001), as each considers the two dominant and ever-conflicting themes in American intellectual history: idealism and pragmatism.

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American Transcendentalism

By Philip F. Gura Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC Copyright © 2007 Philip F. Gura
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8090-3477-2

Introduction In 1869, Louisa May Alcott, under the cognomen Tribulation Periwinkle, submitted to the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican a tongue-in-cheek letter with the "Latest News from Concord," Massachusetts. The town had long been associated with such residents as Ralph Waldo Emerson; her father, Bronson Alcott; and other representatives of the Transcendentalist movement that had flourished in New England thirty years before. "No gossip concerning this immortal town seems to be considered too trivial for the public," she observed, and thus she thought it her duty to add "the last rumor afloat."

Her humorous report was filled with jokes and puns today accessible mainly to scholars but in her time in common circulation. A new hotel was about to be established, she reported, called the Sphinx's Head, where "pilgrims to this modern Mecca" would be entertained in the most hospitable and appropriate style. "Walden water, aesthetic tea, and 'wine that never grew in the belly of the grape'" would be on tap for the refreshment of thirsty guests. "Wild apples by the bushel, orphic acorns by the peck, and Hawthorne's pumpkins, in the shape of pies," could be had "at philosophic prices." The accommodations themselves were special, for the inn would be furnished "with Alcott's rustic furniture, the beds made of Thoreau's pine boughs, and the sacred fires fed from the Emersonian woodpile." Moreover, the thoughtful proprietors would provide telescopes for those who wished "to watch the soarings of the Oversoul, when visible." The innkeeper would supply, gratis, samples of "Autumn Tints, Mosses from the Manse, Rhodora, and herbs from the Garden," as well as "photographs of the faces divine which have conferred immortality upon one of the dullest little towns in Massachusetts."

Most important to those eager to catch a glimpse of the community's famous residents (who by this time included Alcott herself), the hotel also would provide a daily bulletin to announce "the most favorable hours for beholding the various lions" who still roamed Concord's landscape. It would look something like this:

Emerson will walk at 4 p.m. Alcott will converse from 8 a.m. till 11 p.m. Channing may be seen with the naked eye at sunset. The new Hermit will grind his meal at noon, precisely. The ladies of Concord will not be exhibited on Sundays.

The need for such an establishment, Periwinkle concluded, had been long and deeply felt, especially because each spring brought "with the robins, a flock of reporters" who, like the inquisitive birds, "roost upon Concordian fences, chirp on Concordian door-steps, and hop over Concordian fields and hills, scratching vigorously, as if hoping to unearth a new specimen from what is popularly believed to be the hot-bed of genius."

Obviously, by 1869 Transcendentalism was part of the nation's popular mythology. But as much as Concord and its environs had become shorthand for this important and well-known group of thinkers, writers, and social activists, precisely who they were, beyond those whom Alcott specifically named, has always been a vexed question. There was no central creed that signaled membership in the Transcendentalist coterie nor any roll that certifiably recorded participants. Definition and boundaries are further vexed by the fact that, as with the word "Puritan" in seventeenth-century England, at first the movement's detractors most commonly used "Transcendentalism" as an epithet. Not until the 1840s were some advocates of what was known as the "New Thought" comfortable describing their beliefs with the label Transcendentalist.

One of Ralph Waldo Emerson's earliest biographers, James Elliot Cabot, went to the heart of the matter. He observed that the movement's supporters comprised an ever-shifting and open-ended group. The Transcendental Club (so named, he claimed, by "the public" and not by its participants) comprised "the occasional meetings of a changing body of liberal thinkers, agreeing in nothing but their liberality," a statement he qualified by quoting his friend the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, a Unitarian clergyman and one of the group's original members. Clarke had wittily noted that "they called themselves 'the club of the likeminded,'" primarily because "no two ... thought alike." Frederic Henry Hedge, another Unitarian minister and a herald of the group's interests in German philosophy, agreed. "There was no club in any strict sense," he wrote, "only occasional meetings of like-minded men and women."

Soon enough the catchphrase entered the public domain. The Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist William Henry Channing observed that "the brotherhood of the 'Like-Minded'" was a "nickname" used by outsiders as well as his friends in the group, "on the ground that no two were of the same opinion." This characterization of the group as amorphous was common even outside Boston, where the Transcendentalists were centered. In New York City, for example, one wit, writing in the fledgling literary journal Arcturus in 1841, observed that those in "the new Boston school of philosophy" held "no very precise doctrines," did not have "any one bond of union," and "unite to differ." Transcendentalists agreed. "No single term can describe them," said erstwhile member Orestes Brownson, and "nothing can be more unjust to them, or more likely to mislead the public than to lump them all together, and predicate the same things of them all." Liberality was the group's hallmark, another noted. Among them "the only guest not tolerated was intolerance."

Such statements are maddeningly vague but were common among these "like-minded." Some contemporaries, however, thought that they knew how to characterize them. First, most Transcendentalists were indeed New Englanders, with ties to Harvard College and the Boston area. Second, at some point in their lives, almost to a person, they had been associated with Unitarianism and thus were considered "liberal Christians" whose reading of scripture made them reject Calvinism's harsh and, to them, unreasonable tenets. Finally, although a loosely knit group of thinkers and activists, they had a distinct philosophical bent toward German Idealism rather than British Empiricism, that is, toward the revolution wrought by Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and others who championed the inherent powers of the human mind, against the philosophy of John Locke and his followers, who believed that external circumstances primarily formed man's consciousness. Noah Porter, a conservative Trinitarian minister at the Andover Theological Seminary, early on acknowledged this profile. The Transcendentalists, he opined, were alike in "their intellectual and moral predispositions, their favorite philosophical and literary sympathies," and they possessed a "strong family likeness of their modes of thought and expression." The conservative Unitarian Francis Bowen was not as polite. He had no sympathy, he wrote, "with that ill-regulated admiration, which seeks to transplant German roots to an English soil,-to cultivate a hot-bed, where plants shall be forced to lose their native character." Indeed, the only result he had seen thus far was an "insufferable arrogance" among young people so inclined.

Writing pseudonymously, the Transcendentalist Theodore Parker humorously parodied such caricatures and in so doing provided an index to the fears the group engendered in the general populace. In The Christian Register he offered a fictional account of a Boston layman who encountered the word "Transcendentalism" in the daily press and wondered what it meant. "I thought of Trans-sylvanian, and Trans-substantiation," the fellow explained, "but found no light." Neither could he find the novel term in any standard dictionary. Then he turned to a pamphlet recently published by some conservative clergy at Princeton who had weighed in on New England's recent religious turmoil, from which he learned the truth. "Trans-cendentalism," he said, is "a very naughty thing." Indeed, what he read so upset him that he subsequently had a frightening dream in which all the Transcendentalists "and countless others" were thrown together "in the greatest confusion, without regard to age, opinion or character." The outcome was frightening.

Alas for churches in New England! We be all dead men, for the Transcendentalists have come! They say there is no Christ; no God; no soul; only "an absolute nothing," and Hegel is the Holy Ghost. Our churches will be pulled down; there will be no Sabbath; our wives will wear the breeches, and the Transcendentalists will ride over us rough shod.

Who precisely were these shadowy figures associated with all things German? A large number were Unitarian clergymen-Cyrus Bartol, Charles Timothy Brooks, Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Christopher Cranch, John Sullivan Dwight, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Convers Francis, William Henry Furness, William B. Greene, Frederic Henry Hedge, Sylvester Judd, Samuel Osgood, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, Samuel Robbins, Caleb Stetson, and Thomas T. Stone the most prominent. Some remained in the ministry as Unitarians; others redefined the nature of the churches they led-Clarke and Parker, the most notable examples; while still others left the church altogether. Brownson became an editor and social reformer, for example; Dwight became the nation's foremost music critic; Cranch a poet and painter; and Emerson a lecturer and writer.

There also were many in the cohort-among them, prominent women-who found the path to Transcendentalism in other ways, often through association with one or more of the above-named individuals. Such was the case with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who served as amanuensis to the great Unitarian clergyman William Ellery Channing before joining the educational reformer Bronson Alcott as a teacher in his primary school, which was based on Transcendentalist principles. George Ripley's wife, Sophia, was at his side when he decided to begin a socialist commune; she oversaw its well-regarded school. Margaret Fuller's closest teenage friend was James Freeman Clarke, with whom she studied German and prepared herself for a career as a writer and women's rights advocate. In turn, she influenced such younger women as Caroline Healey Dall, Caroline and Ellen Sturgis, and Anna Ward, all of whom gravitated in the Transcendentalist orbit. Still other fellow travelers were Emerson's protégés, Henry David Thoreau, the most famous, and younger aspiring writers such as Jones Very, Charles King Newcomb, and Charles Stearns Wheeler also taking inspiration from him. The poet William Ellery Channing, nephew of the Unitarian clergyman of the same name, owed much to his association with Thoreau.

Finally, there were important second-generation representatives who carried the Transcendentalist standard into the Gilded Age. Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Unitarian minister and the movement's first historian, was among these, as were fellow clergy David Wasson, John Weiss, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Longfellow (younger brother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), and Moncure Conway. Thomas Wentworth Higginson began his career as a clergyman but achieved most fame as editor of The Atlantic Monthly and of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Franklin Sanborn, abolitionist, social reformer, and biographer of many individuals in the movement, rounds out these important late-nineteenth-century representatives.

Before 1830, however, there was no cohesive or identifiable movement, simply "like-minded" people who for different reasons were critical of contemporary religious and philosophical thought and had discovered in a novel body of European ideas a way to address this dissatisfaction. In these years Transcendentalism is best considered as a way of perceiving the world, centered on individual consciousness rather than on external fact. This hallmark persisted for five decades, even as adherents quarreled among themselves as to the implication of such an epistemology. Evident among a remarkably varied group of thinkers, more than anything else this emphasis on the primacy of self-consciousness defined American Transcendentalism.

Beginning in the 1830s, there were points of convergence or intersection when certain thinkers recognized common interests and concerns, times that Herman Melville, speaking of his chance encounter with Nathaniel Hawthorne's works that changed his life, memorably termed "shock[s] of recognition." Such moments of heightened self-awareness-when adherents, supporters, and critics alike came to use the term "Transcendentalism" in full confidence that it had an identifiable, if not fully agreed on, meaning-are crucial to the group's history. The year 1836 in particular saw the appearance of several books and pamphlets that exemplified the religious and philosophical interests of the group but also considerably confused the public as to the term's precise meaning. By the early 1840s, however, participants and observers began to publish detailed analyses that now provide convenient benchmarks for understanding how the general public perceived Transcendentalism. In particular, in 1842 the movement's identity came into sharp focus.

This year was important in the lives of several key Transcendentalists. Tragedy struck both the Emerson and Thoreau families, with the losses of the Emerson's five-year-old son, Waldo, to scarlet fever, an event that marked a decisive shift in this thinker's philosophy, and of Thoreau's older brother John, who succumbed to painful death from lockjaw. That same year, Theodore Parker published A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion, his magnum opus of comparative religion, and Orestes Brownson his Mediatorial Life of Jesus, a pamphlet that marked an important turning point in his journey from Transcendentalism to Roman Catholicism.

Adding to the heightened self-consciousness such events engendered, two years earlier the first issue of The Dial, a quarterly periodical first edited by Margaret Fuller and devoted to the intellectual and social interests of the group, had appeared, and by 1842 its reputation as the chief organ of the New Thought was well established. At around the same time, on West Street in Boston, Elizabeth Peabody opened a foreign-language bookstore and lending library, making available a remarkable range of journals and books from France, Germany, and England. In 1841 George Ripley had resigned his pulpit at Boston's Purchase Street Church to found the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, the period's most famous utopian experiment; and Horace Greeley assumed editorship of the daily New-York Tribune, in which he touted his reformist agenda (and any who supported it, particularly the Transcendentalists).

By 1842, then, Transcendentalism was squarely in the public eye, and Americans wanted to know more about it. Serendipitously, three important assessments of it, one by an insider, the other two by more objective observers, appeared. In December 1841 Emerson himself, never wholly comfortable with the Transcendentalist label but now more frequently acknowledged as one of the movement's chief representatives, delivered a lecture in Boston on "The Transcendentalist" in a series called "Signs of the Times." The following month he published the piece in The Dial, then under his editorship. Charles Mayo Ellis, a Massachusetts attorney active in the antislavery movement, anonymously provided a book-length account in his Essay on Transcendentalism. Finally, James Murdock, who had recently been a professor at the Andover Theological Seminary, brought forward a third assessment in his Sketches of Modern Philosophy, a lengthy analysis of the rise of German Idealism that concludes in a discussion of its American incarnations. What did these three say of the radical philosophical and religious principles that most identified Transcendentalist thought and united such varied individuals?

Ellis is the most helpful because he is analytic. Having in mind the public's great discomfort with Transcendentalism, vague and threatening as it seemed, he tried to calm such fears. Simply put, he said, Transcendentalism maintains "that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses, or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world."


Excerpted from American Transcendentalism by Philip F. Gura Copyright © 2007 by Philip F. Gura. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he holds appointments in English, American studies, and religious studies.

Philip F. Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of American Transcendentalism: A History, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction, among many other books on American cultural history.

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