A Compelling Intellectual Coterie

American Transcendentalismby By Philip F. GuraHill & Wang. 384p $27.50
Philip F. Gura is one of America’s leading historians, a prolific scholar who has dealt with a wide variety of subjects, from the twang of banjos to the angry God of Jonathan Edwards. His research and writing on the American Transcendentalists—a “club of the like-minded,” as one of them put it, that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau—spans over two decades. If such writers and their ideas are to be trusted to the hands of the historian, surely Professor Gura would be that historian.

The potential problem, however, as Gura acknowledges at the outset, is that Transcendentalism, one of our nation’s most influential, most notoriously diffuse and least understood intellectual movements, resists the positive identification and earnest categorization on which much historical research rests. An epigraph at the very beginning of the book (taken from Orestes Brownson, an important participant in Transcendentalism who later became a Catholic) suggests that historians will have their hands full with the Transcendentalists: “No single term can describe them. Nothing can be more unjust to them, or more likely to mislead the public, than to lump them all together....” Because it comprised diverse interests and manifested itself in myriad ways, American Transcendentalism has been defined variously as a philosophy, a religion, a politics and a type of literature. The differences among practitioners, the several “varieties of Transcendentalism,” the equally diverse character of its influences on American culture and the fact that scholars do not agree on the extent of the movement’s duration—all these traits make it a squirmy subject when asked to pose for a portrait.

One of the dangers of the historical treatment of a vital, definition-resistant, multiform intellectual movement that unfolds over time is that such a history might result in a mere butterfly collection or museum exhibit. If the historian removes the object of study from nature, if the object is dried out and preserved for the sake of academic study, we consequently may be afforded a stable perspective from which to view the now-stationary object—but the object is dead, a mere lifeless curiosity.


American Transcendentalism: A History tries very hard not to kill the movement under study. From its introduction on “Locating the Like-Minded,” the book acknowledges the nebulous shape of Transcendentalism, maintains a diversity of opinion at the core of the movement and proceeds to define its subject without desiccating it.

Although Gura—who teaches American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—provides necessary facts and helpful dates, he does so without resorting to static definitions or hasty lumping. His approach thus resembles and is in sympathy with a church scholar whom he discusses early in the book. Like James Murdock before him, Gura aims to apply thoroughness and lucidity to “so potentially abstruse a topic.” He puts faces to names, familiar and not, and frequently brings his subjects to life for readers.

To offer just one example, Gura vividly depicts the imposing figure of Brownson, whose only vices were “being cantankerous” and “chewing tobacco” and whose efforts to bring the spiritual and the material together were as tireless as his labors on behalf of the poor. The narrative of Brownson’s dramatic transition from serving as a “de facto field general” of emergent Transcendentalism to becoming one of the “chief intellectual voices” of the Catholic Church in America typifies Gura’s engaging style.

Many Transcendentalists parade before us, advocating “new views,” self-reliance, the abolition of slavery, “the import of the natural world,” women’s rights and protesting “politicians’ blatant instigation of armed conflict for their own self-serving ends.” Religious seekers, ardent intellectuals and forthright rebels are brought together with their precursors, followers and critics. The kooky and charismatic, their insights and outrage, their disputes and factions people Gura’s comprehensive history.

Even so, the book is not without its shortcomings. On several occasions, the author shows a tendency to follow some lines of inquiry a step too far. When discussing the rise of Idealism and the importance of the Higher Criticism of the Bible to developing Transcendentalism, for instance, he seems to get a bit lost in Germany. And while the context provided for Transcendentalist works is among the best we have been given, the author’s reading of particular texts (especially Emerson’s) will sometimes smother the spark that is used for kindling. Still, the prose—though a bit plodding at times—is generally lively, clear, readable and often inspired.

At its best, American Transcendentalism captures some of the fervor of the thinkers, their eclectic use of resources and the extent to which those resources may truly be said to have inspired an intellectual and spiritual revolution. During these moments, American Transcenden-talism shakes off the dust of history and becomes a living, breathing movement; and the reader becomes aware of possible connections between then and now—is invited, so to speak, into “The New Club of the Like-Minded.” It is precisely connections that made Transcendentalism radically significant, and perhaps make it still significant. By connecting religion, nature, spirit, social justice, philosophy, poetry, writing and reading, movement and vision, belonging or partaking and observing or seeing, Transcendentalists preached the need for being “unsettled,” as Emerson reminded readers in his essay “Circles.” The writers and their writings can yet unsettle those attracted to Transcendentalist questions.

If the reader is not already drawn to think about American Transcendentalism, this study may not be of interest. But the reader who is so drawn, or drawn to American intellectual and/or religious history, will be amply rewarded.

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