Michael Dirda

("Henry David Thoreau At Cape Cod, 1857"/Ron Koster/psymon 2005)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 16, 2007


A History

By Philip F. Gura

Hill and Wang. 365 pp. $27.50

Like art, music and literature, works of scholarship matter most when they trouble our minds and spirits right now. Even those perennial perplexities -- about love and religion and the proper government of the self and our role as citizens -- can and should be made relevant to our current confusions and grounded in the present, particular moment. Then, the deepest scholarship, like the greatest art, not only enriches our lives, but also implicitly asks us to examine them, even to cross-examine them.

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.

In essence, transcendentalism may be regarded as an American branch of European romanticism, for its major figures all rejected John Locke's empiricism in favor of German idealist philosophy: The inner life of the spirit mattered more than experience gained through the senses. In particular, the decrees of Calvinists and the dogma of Catholics had nothing to do with true religion, only with the wranglings of theology. In spiritual matters, one needed only to hearken to the innate promptings of the soul, follow one's own intuition. The new "Higher Criticism" of the Bible, much of it originating in Germany but resembling the rationalizing impulse of New England Unitarianism, argued that the scriptures were nothing more than a historical document, written by men, not spoken by God. Biblical texts, therefore, asked for interpretation rather than unthinking idolatry. The immensely learned Theodore Parker even maintained that one needn't believe in miracles, the New Testament or the divinity of Jesus to be a Christian. True, vital, emotionally satisfying Christianity came from within, not from "outward laws or injunctions." Nature, too, might reveal the glory of God: As Thoreau once wrote, "I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows."

Before long, this inward focus, this transcending of the merely sensual, eventually came into conflict with the chief societal aspect of religious practice, the obligation to help others, especially the less fortunate. Emerson, writes Gura, somewhat coolly insisted that one should aim to "purify one's own soul and live with full integrity, becoming a model, rather than a nagging goad, to others." Yet, argued several transcendentalists, if each of us possesses the same innate spiritual impulses, are we not all brothers and sisters? Such a democratic view of our inner selves -- Gura likens it to the political vision upon which this country was founded -- soon led a second branch of the movement into social activism, particularly on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

In Orestes Brownson's hellfire essay "The Laboring Classes" -- Gura calls it "as powerful a piece of economic and social analysis as had appeared in the United States" -- we hear the voice of moral outrage, half Isaiah, half Karl Marx. The working poor were often worse off than slaves, asserted Brownson, because slaves were valuable property, and so housed, clothed and cared for, while laid-off workers were usually left utterly destitute, with absolutely nothing. Brownson directly assails not only rich capitalists but also our elected officials, "shedding crocodile tears over the deplorable condition of the poor laborer," but only truly interested in protecting property or in putting money in their own pockets. In truth, says Brownson, wage labor "is a cunning device of the devil, for the benefit of tender consciences, who would retain all the advantages of the slave system, without the expense, trouble, and odium of being slaveholders." He was hardly alone in his anger and heartache over American callousness. After taking a job at the New-York Tribune, Margaret Fuller crusaded with comparable passion in her reports on the conditions of the impoverished, the imprisoned and those committed to insane asylums.

Given such critiques of the status quo, many transcendentalists were early on attracted to various schemes of social improvement. Bronson Alcott established the Temple School, aimed not at inculcating facts by rote, but at encouraging inner growth and self-fulfillment. His former assistant, Elizabeth Peabody, then opened a bookshop -- devoted principally to foreign scholarship and literature -- that immediately became a center for Boston intellectual life. Here one could find the exhilarating prescriptions of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Emanuel Swedenborg and Charles Fourier--concisely summarized by Gura -- on how humankind could better its spiritual, civic and even sexual life. It was at Peabody's "Foreign Library" that Fuller offered her "Conversations," a series of afternoon courses mainly intended for women. In due course, Fuller would build upon those ideas to produce a landmark volume of American feminism, her classic Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Meanwhile, magazines like the Boston Quarterly Review, the Christian Examiner and the Dial provided forums for speculative thought and visionary argument. Most famously, George Ripley founded Brook Farm, arguably the country's first secular utopia, intended to provide a model for a freer, more fulfilling way of life than any that American competitiveness could offer.

Brook Farm eventually failed, but the ideals upon which it was based have continued to haunt American history. Gura makes clear that the 1830s and 1840s were as exciting as the 1960s, at once a time of intellectual ferment, social commitment and rousing calls to action. When the Mexican War threatened, for instance, Thoreau stood up for civil disobedience; in a sermon against slavery, Parker stressed that the laws of morality and God took precedence over any "statute of an accidental president unintentionally chosen for four years." Today's reader cannot help but pause over this last phrase.

By the 1850s the full horror of slavery took center stage for the transcendentalists, several of whom became eminent abolitionists. Parker, for instance, eventually joined the Secret Six who helped finance John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Following the Civil War, transcendentalist thought and purpose didn't disappear -- Gura devotes a chapter to four latter-day exponents of the movement -- but the Gilded Age favored a grotesque Emersonian individualism rather than any shared social ideal. It was now the era of the robber baron and the plutocratic businessman, those early-modern exemplars of American cupidity, swagger and conspicuous display.

Philip F. Gura's American Transcendentalism -- the distillation of a lifetime's thought and research -- reminds us that this country once honored high ideals of how one might live, both for oneself and for others. Our better natures still call to us -- if only we would listen. As Emerson once said, "Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat, up again old heart!" For there is "victory yet for all justice." *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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