American Transcendentalism: A History
Philip F. Gura
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American Transcendentalism is a sweeping 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 American Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce 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, transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition, and by war's end transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism.
and J. H. Kimball’s Emancipation in the West Indies, works that contained graphic descriptions of slave owners’ abuses. He particularly admired England for voluntarily abolishing the peculiar institution on the grounds of reason, despite the considerable economic interests involved. Like the United States, England ended the slave trade in 1807. Realizing that this had done little to aid the plight of those already enslaved, however, they continued to debate the matter until the populace saw that
already undertaken in the new territory—by all accounts, Brown was nothing if not spellbinding and convincing—Sanborn consented to help and thereupon introduced him to Samuel Gridley Howe as well as to Parker, who hosted a reception for him. Garrison and Wendell Phillips were both skeptical of Brown’s Old Testament demeanor and eagerness to resort to violence. Howe and Parker, however, were won over. Also present was the wealthy Medford, Massachusetts, merchant, George Luther Stearns (1809-1867),
Bartol insisted on the interpenetration of the worlds of matter and spirit, even as he strenuously resisted capitulation to materialism alone. Other, younger members of Bartol’s religious circle met the challenge of Positivism in various ways, some by returning for more draughts at the sources of philosophical Idealism. Among these was Thoreau’s classmate John Weiss (1818-1879), who graduated from the Divinity School in 1843 and spent several months at the University of Heidelberg. From
ideas spinning through his mind, Ripley anxiously awaited Emerson’s reply to his overture. Finally, on December 15, a month after Emerson had received Ripley’s long missive, he wrote his friend that he could not join in the admittedly “noble & humane” enterprise. The ground of his decision, he told Ripley, was “almost purely personal.” He was content with his home, the neighborhood, and the institutions in Concord around which he had built his career. More tellingly, he explained that it seemed
arrangements, and he added, cryptically, “How many things are there not, my dear friend, which dear friends cannot say to each other.” 51 Sturgis’s frank reply was remarkable, for she playfully chastised him. “Still seizing everything in the claws of morality, dear Waldo?” “Why may we not live like grasshoppers? Must we be so good?” “Why not wish Fourier to make the finest arrangements possible!” she continued, for as “we must eat our dinners every day, why not eat them in the best way?” She