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A History

by Philip F. Gura

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8090-3477-2
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Comprehensive history of America’s first public intellectual movement.

Gura (American and Religious Studies/Univ. of North Carolina; Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical, 2005, etc.) notes that transcendentalism has largely been viewed as a brief phase in the history of ideas in the United States, almost exclusively associated with the poetic essays of Emerson and Thoreau. This tightly written survey of intellectual currents in early-19th-century New England may change that view. Gura reminds us just how influential the movement was and argues that its core ideals remain with us today. The roots of transcendentalism lie in a thorny and seething theological debate among Unitarians. How can the belief in an ordered universe require miracles to sanctify the divinity of Christ? It’s a question with no clear rational answer. That’s why transcendentalists, fueled by the German Idealist philosophy of Kant and the Romantic poetry of Coleridge, argued against objective understanding of the scriptures and for the emotional experience of faith. This notion of godliness inherent in human consciousness combined with the democratic zeal of the young republic to fuel a regional, then national feeling that it was possible to better the world. The loosely tethered transcendentalists finally divided over the question of precisely how to make things better. In one direction went George Ripley, Orestes Brownson and Theodore Parker, who aimed for social justice, while Emerson and his disciples stressed self-reliance and rugged individualism. Differences were set aside during the Civil War to battle slavery. Afterward, exhausted and eager to embrace a future quickly being shaped by the Gilded Age, transcendentalists became totally in thrall to Emersonian ideals of political libertarianism.

Gura’s nuanced, dense and illuminating narrative makes a perfect a companion to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2001), as each considers the two dominant and ever-conflicting themes in American intellectual history: idealism and pragmatism.