'They called themselves 'the club of the like-minded,' " quipped preacher and abolitionist James Freeman Clarke. "I suppose because no two ... thought alike." Annie Russell Marble, who had once lived as one of their numbers, was rather more tart about the American Transcendentalists. They were, she sniped, "a race who dove into the infinite, soared into the illimitable, and never paid cash."
Today, it's as easy to poke fun at the Transcendentalists as it is to be mystified by them. A basic American education generally includes at least a bit of exposure (Thoreau's "Walden" and Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" show up somewhere while studying the 19th century) but that doesn't necessarily translate into any real understanding of Transcendental thought.
Emerson and Thoreau are revered as great thinkers, but as a whole, what many remember about the group is that their various experiments with communal living floundered and their belief in human progress proved naive.
Into this breach steps Philip Gura, professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, with American Transcendentalism, a solid, informative, and readable history of the movement.
Gura is the first to agree that definitions of Transcendentalism are slippery, particularly as the movement grew up to become such a "many-headed Hydra." At its outset, in the 1830s, Gura says Transcendentalism coalesced around "a way of perceiving the world, centered on individual consciousness, rather than on external fact."
What this led to was an assertion of the rights of the soul of each individual to interpret life in its own way, or, Gura puts it, "another American Revolution, spiritual in nature and remarkably varied in its practical implications." From the start it appealed to some as a profound expression of idealism, while there were others for whom the movement was nothing but an outrageous form of egotism.
Gura does a good job of guiding the reader through the intellectual currents that shaped Transcendentalism (the intense Scriptural studies of the era, meeting up with European thinkers such as Coleridge, Swedenbourg, Fourier, and Goethe) and also of introducing the Transcendentalists themselves. This eclectic cast of characters includes everyone from the radical (Orestes A. Brownson) to the exotic (Margaret Fuller) to the eventually disillusioned (George Ripley) to the out-and-out eccentric (Bronson Alcott.)
The stories of these thinkers are intriguing, and Gura does a good job of conveying a sense of the intellectual electricity of the times. But there is also a current of sadness running through much of the book because, in the end, what Gura is writing is, in many ways, the story of a failure.
For the most part, the Transcendentalists could not live up to their own idealism. Reforming the human race proved a tougher job than they had imagined and the ongoing conflict in the US over slavery in the 1850s was deeply discouraging to many. The movement did live on into a later generation in the 1880s, but by then it had lost much of its spark.
It was also torn in half by a deep ideological rift. There were the Emersonians, who saw Transcendentalism as largely an individual experience, a type of reform that could only be achieved by going deep inside the individual. But for others, this was selfishness. Transcendentalism, was all about the brotherhood of the human family and needed to be expressed in active deeds for others.
For better or for worse, Gura writes, the Emersonians triumphed – perhaps paving the way for the ruthless individualism of America's Gilded Age.
But if the Transcendentalists failed to bring to earth the heaven they believed they had found within, they nonetheless succeeded in sparking a bright chapter of human intellectual history. As Gura writes, "they remain one of the nation's most compelling and influential intellectual coteries, and as well are the source of many ideas that have come to define what is 'American.' "
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to email@example.com.