Emerson and Thoreau led a second independence movement – this time of thought

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau led the charge against Old World ideas in "The Transcendentalists and Their World," by Robert A. Gross.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In 1976, Robert A. Gross published “The Minutemen and Their World,” a groundbreaking piece of scholarship about the origins of the American Revolution. Rather than telling the story through accounts of a few Founding Fathers, Gross dramatically broadened his narrative to include rank-and-file colonists, “recovering,” writes Gross, “the thoughts and actions of common folk.” This kind of social history, a revolution of its own when “The Minutemen” appeared, is now a part of the literary mainstream.

Gross is up to something similar in “The Transcendentalists and Their World,” a kind of sequel to his landmark work. While “The Minutemen” documented the battle for political independence among 18th-century residents of Concord, Massachusetts, “The Transcendentalists” follows a corresponding struggle among that community’s 19th-century townsfolk for intellectual independence.

At the center of the story are Ralph Waldo Emerson and his protégé, Henry David Thoreau, who championed transcendentalism as a way to break with dogmas of the Old World so that Americans would be empowered to think for themselves. Though difficult to define, transcendentalist philosophy promotes a direct relation with nature for spiritual enlightenment rather than the central authority of organized religion.

Gross, who’s been working on this book for decades, follows recent studies of the period by Jeffrey S. Cramer, whose 2019 “Solid Seasons” provides an account of the Emerson-Thoreau friendship, and Laura Dassow Walls, who wrote the masterwork 2017 biography “Henry David Thoreau.” 

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that American literature’s preeminent transcendentalists have a renewed profile these days. Mainline church attendance is down, and during the pandemic, many householders reconnected with backyard nature. In such a climate, Emerson and Thoreau’s brand of do-it-yourself spirituality might be getting a lift.

But not everyone is a fan. In their writings and lectures, both men tended not so much to argue their positions as to proclaim them, embracing a certitude that sometimes comes off as smug, even arrogant. Both Concord sages had a weakness for sounding above it all.

Even so, the abiding contribution of “The Transcendentalists” is its reminder that Concord, for all its reputation nearly two centuries ago as an idyll of reflection, was far from immune from the hurly-burly of a rapidly growing country. “Although its population numbered little more than two thousand souls,” Gross tells readers, “the town was as profoundly affected by the upheavals of the age as any booming metropolis. It was a community in ferment, whose small, ordered society, founded by Puritans and defended by Minutemen, was dramatically unsettled by the expansive forces of capitalism and democracy.”  

Gross’ book positions Emerson and Thoreau as a part of, not apart from, this messy transition. As in “The Minutemen,” he expands his story to include a wide cast of supporting characters who have typically been overlooked. Paraphrasing an iconic line from “Walden,” for example, Gross mentions that before Thoreau memorialized that now-famous stretch of trees, “no one went to the woods in order to live deliberately.” Instead, the area where Thoreau would build his cabin was once a neighborhood for social outcasts, including marginalized African Americans. By the time Thoreau came along, few “traces of their presence remained on the landscape, except for the cellar holes Thoreau investigated with so much curiosity during his sojourn at Walden.” 

The role of women

Women also figure into “The Transcendentalists,” which discusses the contributions of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, and others to the movement. Peabody, Gross notes, was a transcendentalist long before Emerson, and she was keen to temper its principles with a social conscience. The “more man has learned of his nature,” she observed, “the more he has felt there is no solitary enjoyment.” Fuller, a prominent journalist and book reviewer, edited The Dial, a seminal newsletter of transcendentalist thought. She participated in the lively discussions held at Emerson’s home, and he called her “an extraordinary person for ... her acquisitions [of knowledge], and her power of conversation.”

Aside from Peabody and Fuller’s roles, women’s lives in the period were greatly circumscribed by law and social convention, which called into question Emerson’s ideas about the primacy of the individual in charting a personal destiny. “It was a challenge he largely ignored,” Gross writes of Emerson. “During his formative years as a lecturer, Emerson had little to say about women’s lives. And when he did offer comments, it was to highlight the pettiness of female concerns and to decry their impact on men.” 

Still, women were drawn to Emerson’s ideas and they flocked to hear him speak. “Despite all the unflattering remarks, the gender stereotypes, and the uncongenial philosophy, Emerson attracted a female audience,” Gross writes. “It would have been surprising had he not. Women had long dominated the membership of the Congregationalist churches.”

Gross continues, “From the scattered letters and diaries that survive, it is evident that the young women of Concord were in search of a message that spoke to their idealism, their intellects, and their souls and that offered an escape from lifelong domestic drudgery. Whether and how Emerson answered that need are matters of speculation.”

Emerson and Thoreau’s legacy

Emerson’s ideals and those of Thoreau continue to resonate, even if those principles were never fully realized in practice. They point to questions that are as old as the republic, yet as topical as today’s headlines. How is the drive for individual contentment reconciled with the kind of collective action needed for social change? How do we seek personal independence while still loving our neighbor? At what point does solitude become a form of alienation?

Though Emerson, Thoreau, and their followers didn’t resolve those questions, Gross argues that they’re still worth reading. “Their legacy,” he writes, “resides not in their answers but in their attempts.”

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