The 19th century Transcendentalists cast a long shadow in American religious culture. Their insistence that the individual is the sole measure of religious truth has greatly affected our law as well, notwithstanding Chief Justice Burger’s famous dismissal of Henry David Thoreau in Wisconsin v. Yoder. And you might say Transcendentalism is having a moment today, with the rise of the Nones, a movement that represents a mainstreaming of many ideas bruited about in Concord parlors in the 1830s and 40s.
A new history from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Transcendentalists and their World, by Robert Gross (University of Connecticut) situates the Transcendentalists in their hometown, showing the ways that their daily interactions influenced their ideas. Looks very interesting. Here is the publisher’s description:
In the year of the nation’s bicentennial, Robert A. Gross published The Minutemen and Their World, a paradigm-shaping study of Concord, Massachusetts, during the American Revolution. It won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and became a perennial bestseller. Forty years later, in this highly anticipated work, Gross returns to Concord and explores the meaning of an equally crucial moment in the American story: the rise of Transcendentalism.
The Transcendentalists and Their World offers a fresh view of the thinkers whose outsize impact on philosophy and literature would spread from tiny Concord to all corners of the earth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Alcotts called this New England town home, and Thoreau drew on its life extensively in his classic Walden. But Concord from the 1820s through the 1840s was no pastoral place fit for poets and philosophers.
The Transcendentalists and their neighbors lived through a transformative epoch of American life. A place of two thousand–plus souls in the antebellum era, Concord was a community in ferment, whose small, ordered society founded by Puritans and defended by Minutemen was dramatically unsettled through the expansive forces of capitalism and democracy and tightly integrated into the wider world. These changes challenged a world of inherited institutions and involuntary associations with a new premium on autonomy and choice. They exposed people to cosmopolitan currents of thought and endowed them with unparalleled opportunities. They fostered uncertainties, raised new hopes, stirred dreams of perfection, and created an audience for new ideas of individual freedom and democratic equality deeply resonant today.
The Transcendentalists and Their World is both an intimate journey into the life of a community and a searching cultural study of major American writers as they plumbed the depths of the universe for spiritual truths and surveyed the rapidly changing contours of their own neighborhoods. It shows us familiar figures in American literature alongside their neighbors at every level of the social order, and it reveals how this common life in Concord entered powerfully into their works. No American community of the nineteenth century has been recovered so richly and with so acute an awareness of its place in the larger American story.