NBCC Awards Finalist in Nonfiction: Philip F. Gura’s “American Transcendentalism”


This is the eighth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

“American Transcendentalism: A History,” by Philip F. Gura (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

What we know as Transcendentalism has often been considered, at least by the broad public, as a philosophical movement of vague contours that was one of the chief exports of the town of Concord, Massachusetts, in the years preceding the Civil War. What it entailed was anybody’s guess — the capacity for self- illumination, surely, and figuration of the godhead in nature, based on the essays of its prime movers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Here to explode that myth, or rather to complicate it greatly, is Philip F. Gura’s “American Transcendentalism: A History,” an NBCC finalist in nonfiction. Emerson and Thoreau gave the loose movement an enormous boost through their writings, but essentially participated in the fulcrum moment; they were neither the first pillars nor the last, and further, many of the ideas associated with Transcendentalism are not products of these shores but have their roots in European
philosophy, much of it German philosophy.

Although much of the traction for the movement developed out of a salon-like discussion group, it was not an armchair army but included educators and activists intent on effecting real-world social change. The issue of abolitionism—how actively to engage it—was among the major factors leading to fissures among the Transcendentalists. (The T-word carried some stigma in its time; the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher once told Emerson that he had been using Emerson’s ideas for fuel for years but was glad his parishioners did not know it.)

Gura’s book is both an intellectual biography of the ideas embedded in Transcendentalism and a tracing of the arc of the movement, in fine historical detail and nuance, through its rise and decline. Terming it “undeniably seminal to American cultural and intellectual history,” he shows how it began principally as a revolt against practice-as-usual among Unitarian ministers, who were seeking ways to revivify religious practice and took up a clergical battle dating back nearly a half
century: loosely, whether emotional experience or reason alone formed the best basis for faith.

Several young men who were to become prominent in the future intellectual ferment, including George Ripley and Frederick Henry Hedge,studied in Germany, absorbed philosophical ideas in circulation there, and on their return began propagating them in America in the early to mid-1830s. Shortly afterward, a discussion group that included Ripley and Hedge but also Emerson, the educator Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father), the social reformer Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker (a Harvard Divinity School graduate who would later become famous as a fiery preacher and abolitionist), and the early feminist writer Margaret Fuller met for debate for a handful of years, energizing the movement. Early on Emerson wrote that it had “no external organization, no badge, no creed, no name,” and was simply often known as the “New Thought.”

Over time the central ideas—self-intuition, famously—would seep into educational environments and would-be utopian communities, but Transcendentalism was to a great degree a victim of the Civil War and the ensuing Gilded Age. Gura tracks its aftermath, the attenuation and yet incorporation of its sensibilities in the wider society, up to the reaction of philosophers George Santayana and William James (the former skeptically remarked on what he saw as a problematic egotism in the Emersonian world view). “American Transcendentalism,” in addition to its great clarifying effect, leaves us also with an inspiring account of intellectual bravery. Emerson particularly, by speaking his mind, infuriated both the New England clerical establishment and his alma mater, Harvard, which refused to have him back to lecture for decades.Thoreau, by listening to a different drummer, left us in Gura’s estimation with the literary masterpiece of the movement, “Walden.”—Art Winslow

Art Winslow review in the Chicago Tribune.

Michael Dirda review in the Washington Post.

Gura interview on Open Source.