The Transcendentalists and Their World
by robert a. gross
farrar, straus and giroux, 864 pages, $40
Why concord? That’s the question historian Robert Gross asks at the beginning of this weighty study of the hottest setting of literary-philosophical thought in antebellum America. (Weighty, indeed—the volume in my hand has 608 pages of text, 178 pages of footnotes, and fifteen pages of acknowledgments.) It’s a good question. Why should this unexceptional town twenty miles west of Boston with no natural sublimity or intellectual history, no great universities or popular theaters or bustling coffeehouses, no patrons or publishers, have produced such a lasting body of writing in so brief a time, the first real cultural movement in America that counted in the world’s eyes?
True, Harvard wasn’t so far away, but it would be many decades before that institution matched the intellectual quality of Europe’s aged campuses. Concord then (and now) was quaint, yes, and Walden Pond is a lovely spot, but it’s nothing like the Lake District, which inspired Wordsworth, or Shelley’s Alps, or the ancient ruins that touched Byron’s heroes. Emerson’s house still stands, but nothing about it suggests the fiery mind of the man who lived inside.
True, too, that when the Transcendentalists were there, the town had a proud historical claim as the site of “the shot heard round the world”—an episode at the center of Gross’s previous book, The Minutemen and Their World (which won the Bancroft Prize for 1976). But that was sixty years before the publication of Nature, Emerson’s first major effort and a founding statement of Transcendentalism. Nothing in the intervening years anticipated that curious volume, or “Self-Reliance” and “The American Scholar,” The Scarlet Letter and Walden, and certainly not the Alcotts and the leading abolitionists who regularly met in Concord to plot and argue.
The Transcendentalists and Their World will correct that view, Gross promises in the preface. Concord was no modest hamlet before or after Emerson settled there. Rather, it was a “community in ferment . . . dramatically unsettled by the expansive forces of capitalism and democracy.” Jacksonian America was an era of canals and railroads, the opening of new territories and the closing of the Founding mood, with a new class awareness, vicious party politics, and rising anti-slavery sentiment, and Concord “stood in the mainstream of . . . [this] society undergoing rapid change.” It had bitter election fights, feisty debates in the town Lyceum, financial crashes and bank panics, religious heretics passing through, and lots of rum (farmers gave their workers two breaks for grog and toddy each day). It is Gross’s task to fill out the historical record and find the sources of Transcendentalism not just in the genius of Emerson & Co., but in the political and economic life of the town as well.
This is, of course, a standard scholarly impulse, and has been for a long time. Since the mid-twentieth century, social history and cultural studies have explicitly renounced “Great Man” models of the past and aimed to track the course of things “from the bottom up,” that is, through the real lives of regular people, their jobs and finances, social habits and consumer goods, leisure preferences and sexual mores. This approach was supposed to give us a more accurate and less mythical knowledge of the past, a better historiography. The turn downward had a political side, too. Talk of Great Men and Great Books was for right-wing characters such as Thomas Carlyle (On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History) and Ezra Pound, who wrote, in The Spirit of Romance, “The history of an art is the history of masterwork, not of failures, or of mediocrity. . . . The study of literature is hero-worship.” It favored white men, it was said, ignored the materialist grounds of social affairs, and made a fetish of superiority. Better to document the tools in the kitchen of a Virginia farmstead than to spend any more time on what Madison thought of Locke and religious toleration.
Gross, however, has no desire to pull down the monuments and underrate Emerson’s and Thoreau’s greatness. On the contrary, he seeks to explore them more fully. That’s the point: to regard the vatic pronouncements of Nature, legendary events such as Thoreau setting out for the woods on the Fourth of July, 1845, and other Transcendentalist phenomena that occupy a high place in the canon of American expression as part of a “collective life” that includes lesser-known individuals, ministers, lawyers, politicians, mothers, and businessmen, who added their voice and experience to the spirit of the age.
The premise of Transcendentalism was that social improvement and moral elevation were an individual matter. In Gross’s words, “the route to reform ran through individual consciousness, one soul at a time.” Utopian schemes such as Brook Farm were idealistic, but doomed. The most benign and well-intentioned institutions, the Transcendentalists believed, inevitably slipped into corruption and all-too-human conflict, and that included churches. When Thoreau’s sisters urged him to attend a state abolitionist convention and sign on to its statements, the man refused in spite of his ferocious opposition to slavery (he later would defend John Brown). No group action for him. To the Transcendentalist, society itself was a threat to personal integrity. “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” Emerson famously pronounced in “Self-Reliance,” an assertion that doesn’t allow for exceptions. In the Divinity School Address, he complained that the Christian church had taken a divine insight—Christ’s “faith . . . in the infinitude of man”—and made a stifling dogma of it, a “revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead” (if that last phrase sounds familiar, it’s worth noting that Nietzsche was a big fan). But Jesus came not to make people submit, Emerson insists. He came to inspire, saying, “Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think,” and that means giving each individual just as legitimate a claim to be the Son of the Father as Jesus possessed.
This blatant denial of the special divinity of Christ shocked the Divinity School and Christian clerics all around Boston, Unitarians included. Andrews Norton, a just-retired faculty member who sat through the Address, termed it “the latest form of infidelity.” The affair is a familiar story, but to the mountains of existing commentary on the episode Gross adds a “community” context that does give Emerson’s provocation a fresh edge. As Gross shows, the history of religious reform in Concord prepared Emerson for the episode. A half-century earlier, Emerson’s step-grandfather Ezra Ripley had assumed the pulpit of Concord’s First Parish Church and set about overcoming a sore schism that dated back to the Great Awakening of the 1740s. “Rather than draw a sharp line between saints and society,” Gross explains, “the church should invite all sincere believers to participate in its collective life.” Ripley made every child eligible for baptism and he welcomed every attendee to the communion table, not just “the elect.” No longer would aspiring members be inspected for their “moral and spiritual fitness” before gaining admission. The relaxation of rules extended beyond doctrine, Gross adds: “Demands for intellectual and moral conformity were relaxed as well.”
The liberalization worked. “The Concord church experienced a rational, orderly awakening” in the second decade of the century, a growth achieved without fire and brimstone. As Gross’s account proceeds, one senses in Ripley’s inclusiveness a wellspring of Transcendentalist universalism, the indifference to “forms.” But, it should be noted, Ripley was no simple latitudinarian. “In this town,” he once stated, “I am placed a watchman and a monitor,” and he voiced his moral judgment of wayward souls bluntly, visiting their homes, catechizing the kids, and marking births and deaths. Gross tells one story of a mother stopping by the parsonage with her roguish child, letting the boy scamper and bustle until Ripley dragged him outside for a hearty whipping—“The back of the body was made to whip,” he believed. That’s the kind of control Ripley exerted without hesitation. In Gross’s account, in fact, it appears that the success of the parish lay more in Ripley’s personality than in his theology. He concludes the section, “With good reason, the Church in Christ in Concord came to be known as ‘Doctor Ripley’s church.’”
Here, we can infer, lay another seed of Emerson’s Transcendentalism, his faith in towering individuals, as in the line from “Self-Reliance”: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” If a man has force, he attracts followers. When his force wanes, people drift away, no matter how wise and good he is. What happened afterward proves the point. In 1825, Ripley was in the fifth decade of his ministry, and things were slipping. He interpreted Christianity as “a system of doctrines and morals, of articles of faith and practical duties”—not a very urgent message for wavering believers. Ripley thought that the minister’s job was mainly ethical, to urge “the moral duties of men,” Gross says, and “the fundamental value was community.” Again, a little tepid, but as long as Ripley had the imposing character to enforce those beliefs, they would prevail.
By the third decade of the nineteenth century, he was getting “old and uninteresting,” according to one observer at the time. In late 1825, a small group of dissenters formed, three of them women in Thoreau’s family. They craved a more fervent worship and a tighter doctrine, and soon withdrew from Ripley’s church. The story didn’t end there. When word of the split reached Boston, Calvinists in the city, including Lyman Beecher, saw an opportunity to undercut the liberal Ripley. “Concord, in their estimation,” Gross writes, “would be a prize catch, and its accession into the orthodox ranks had to be done carefully.” They advised the locals to hire a new charismatic preacher, build their own house of worship, and lure business and political leaders to their cause with promises that the new church would make Concord more prosperous and popular. If Concordians let Bostonians take charge, Boston money would pay for everything.
Compliance, though, had a cost. No women would be allowed into closed meetings, and full secrecy would be maintained, not to mention total control given to the outsiders. Meanwhile, as if that weren’t enough, Ripley’s church hadn’t even granted permission yet for the Thoreau women and their comrades to leave.
Gross’s meticulous reconstruction of the controversy reveals the tense Concord background of Emerson’s religious opinions. (Ripley would welcome a new citizen of Concord in 1828 with “You have come to a stormy part of the world.”) The memory of it all would have been strong in 1836, as Emerson and his wife lived for a time in Ripley’s home, The Manse (Hawthorne would occupy it later, writing stories and commentaries in the same room in which Emerson wrote Nature). So would the broader moral of what individuals undergo when they try to buck the system. When Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance,” “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure,” the splinter group of fifteen years earlier could have served as ample proof.
Gross identifies still another concrete Concord factor in Emerson’s Divinity School heresy, one that the Sage witnessed up close all the time. In 1837, Barzillai Frost was appointed to the Concord pulpit (Ripley had retired a few years before), a Harvard man who pledged to avoid controversy and espouse the simple moral truths of the Gospels. Gross describes him as a “liberal clergyman,” a man of reason and principle who idolized John Locke and followed the morality of Scottish Common Sense thinkers. He was also a pedant, a “plodder in the pulpit,” dutiful and devoted, yes, but clumsy with people. When Harvard senior James Russell Lowell broke a campus rule and was sent to live and study with Frost for the summer, this future editor of the Atlantic Monthly couldn’t stand the mix of cliché and vanity (“The man’s cardinal fault is that he delights to hear the sound of his own voice”).
Emerson endured Frost’s tiresome sermons every Sunday when he wasn’t out of town delivering his own at other churches. The performances were “loud & hollow,” Emerson remarked in his journals, the doctrine conventional and dispiriting. He wasn’t alone in thinking so. From 1836 to 1838, Gross notes, membership in the First Parish fell by about 45 percent. Two months before delivering his Address, Emerson encountered Frost making his rounds to parishioners’ houses and recorded another dismal impression in his journals, finding “nothing fresh about him, no vitality at all” (this is Gross’s paraphrase). He proceeds to imagine what he would say to Frost in the way of advice: Drop the “civil” demeanor and “let him when he meets one of these men or women be to them a divine man . . . be to them thought and virtue.”
The dissatisfaction had a formative influence on Emerson’s infamous remarks on the Church as a dead institution, Gross contends. His frustration with the pale individual following in the footsteps of his step-grandfather explains the outrageous “infidelity” he displayed not long after on that July day. For only an impatient and disgusted man, one who has had immediate contact with the disappointments and vices highlighted in the Address, would so tweak and offend his hosts. To the half-dozen graduates and their happy parents and teachers he implied, “Your training is all wrong—the institution you have joined is exhausted—here at the Divinity School you have wasted your time.” It was his personal experience of conventional liberal Christianity through the persona of its nearby representative that roused Emerson to provocation.
This is but one of many contextualizations in the book. It locates Emerson’s complaint in religious upheavals; other sections of the book turn to party politics, trade, abolition, farming, schooling, newspapers, railroads, immigration, and manufacturing. Lots of information—did you know that Concord was the pencil-making capital of America, one of the firms named J. Thoreau & Co.?—and many affecting anecdotes, too. Late one night in July 1845, the poet Ellery Channing knocked at Hawthorne’s door and asked to use his boat to search the river for a missing girl, a nineteen-year-old schoolmistress. The men coursed downstream with poles, scraping the bottom until they touched a soft, heavy object, “the body of the young woman, her arms fixed and hands clenched in the act of struggling against an inescapable fate,” Gross writes before recording Hawthorne’s reactions.
Little in Gross’s discussion of the works themselves, the things that made the Transcendentalists famous, is original or surprising to someone who has read previous scholarship and criticism, but that isn’t the point. Rather, the goal is to explain, for instance, Thoreau’s contempt for the economizing practices of his townsmen by recounting the rivalries, plots, deceptions, lawsuits, profits and losses, and price fluctuations that characterized the pencil industry in Concord on which the Thoreau family depended, all of it described at length in the chapter “The Curse of Trade.” Not only does the background deepen Thoreau’s reference to his neighbors who are “always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt . . . still living, and dying, and buried by this other’s brass; always promising to pay, promising to pay, to-morrow, and dying to-day, insolvent . . .” It’s also a good story in itself.
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.