Three books on Transcendentalism

Three recent books provide new insights into the nineteenth century Transcendentalist movement.

The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021).

Robert Gross is perhaps best known for his brilliant use of social history techniques in his 1976 book, The Minutemen and Their World. Social history was a mid-twentieth century intellectual movement that, rather than focusing on elite powerful figures, focused on the mass of people in a given historical era. In The Minutemen and Their World Gross and his research assistants pored through historical documents like voting records, deeds, tax rolls, and the like. Using both quantitative techniques, like statistical analysis, and qualitative techniques, he was able to tell a much richer story about the Minutemen of Concord, Massachusetts, and why they decided to take up arms against His Majesty’s troops.

After completing that book, Gross extended his research into nineteenth century Concord. He wanted to figure out why such a small town became the home of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two major Transcendentalist figures. He also wanted to find out more about the social and cultural milieu of Emerson and Thoreau, as a way to better understand their intellectual accomplishments.

As in The Minutemen and Their World, Gross paints a detailed portrait of Concord during a specific time period. And this detailed portrait is helpful in understanding Emerson and Thoreau better. Emerson’s racism, sexism, and classism appear in sharp relief; I liked Emerson less after I finished the book. Thoreau comes across as somewhat less racist, sexist, and classist, but his hatred of institutions appears extreme, almost pathological; as with Emerson, I liked Thoreau the person less after I finished the book. On the other hand, Gross shows how Thoreau’s sharp critiques of mass democracy and capitalism were sharply observed and carefully considered; so I wound up liking Thoreau the thinker better than I had before reading the book.

My big complaint with the book is that it should have been titled “Emerson and Thoreau and Their World.” Gross pretty much ignores the other Transcendentalists. This gives a too-narrow view of Transcendentalism. For example, Gross spends a lot of time telling us about Thoreau’s ideas on education, but he says very little about Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a Transcendentalist who did far more interesting work in educational reform than did Thoreau. And Gross barely mentions Thoreau’s anti-slavery work — the cabin at Walden Pond was not just where Thoreau raised beans, it was also a station on the Underground Railroad.

Obviously, Gross’s research methods force him to narrow his field of view to a rather extreme degree. This is the strength of his method, but this also makes him miss really important things, like the fact that there were Black Transcendentalists in addition to White Transcendentalists. Which brings us to the next book….

Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery by Peter Wirzbicki (Univ. of Penna., 2021)

Historian Peter Wirzbicki begins his book by telling a story of how Frederick Douglass wound up participating in a discussion of Transcendentalism while sitting around the fireside one evening in a multi-racial Utopian community. Thus, from the book’s beginning, Wirzbicki challenges our usual stereotypes about the Transcendentalists:

“Given our popular understanding of antislavery politics and Transcendentalism, it can still be hard to imagine Douglass, America’s greatest abolitionist — a former slave who had wrestled his master to submission, escaped from brutal slavery, and dodged brickbats — serenely talking about airy Transcendentalist abstractions of the ‘oversoul’ around a fireplace in the New England countryside.” (p.2)

Yet Wirzbicki argues that Transcendentalist notions of a “Higher Law,” a law that transcends human law, were grounding concepts for both Black and White abolitionists. Wirzbicki also argues that Transcendentalism has much to offer us today, as we try to challenge the neoliberal consensus that still holds today’s “liberals” and conservatives in thrall:

“As the philosopher Richard Rorty pointed out twenty years ago, leftist academics may have thought they were being radical by ditching the democratic idealism of people such as Emerson, Whitman, and Dewey in favor of the tragic pessimism of Poe or Melville. But the declining fortunes of nineteenth-century Transcendentalists were one small example of the larger victory of a contemporary politics of pseudo-leftist cultural despair, the rise of a ‘spectatorial, mocking left’ that dismissed the Transcendentalists’ optimism, their exuberant humanism, and their celebration of open-ended democratic possibility.” (pp. 11-12)

This is good stuff! Anything showing that many of today’s “liberals” are actually nothing more than pseudo-leftists is going to be worth reading. But Wirzbicki goes further: he also shows that Transcendentalism wasn’t just a White people’s movement. There were Black Transcendentalists, too. This should not surprise us. Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by Thoreau, and King certainly embodied the Transcendentalist concept of Higher Law. Thus we should expect that Black intellectuals of the early and mid-nineteenth century would also embrace Transcendentalist notions of Higher Law, and use those notions to further the work of abolition.

At the end of Robert Gross’s book, I would have given up on Transcendentalism, if I didn’t know that there was much more to the movement than Emersonian anti-institutionalism. By the time I finished Wirzbicki’s book, I was not only proud to be a Transcendentalist myself, I was able to see how Transcendentalism could be a key tool in anyone’s anti-racism toolkit.

Which brings us to the third recent book on Transcendentalism….

Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice by John Buehrens (Boston: Beacon Press, 2020)

At first glance, this might appear to be another book of history. But I’d say it’s really an extended sermon, or more precisely a book of very practical, hands-on theology. John aims to tell us how the Transcendentalists can inspire us to lead more spiritually fulfilling lives.

But John does not offer the usual interpretation of Transcendentalism, that spiritual fulfillment can be found by going off into the wilderness away from other human beings and seeking inspiration in Nature. Instead, the Transcendentalist route to spiritual fulfillment is through the struggle to make the world a better place.

And John chooses a particularly pleasant way to do theology with us: he tells stories. This is a book of historical stories about what the Transcendentalists did with their lives. These stories also provide models of how we might live out our own lives. John invites us to consider how we might join in today’s struggles for justice and goodness, and how that struggle for justice and goodness might (finally) offer us the spiritual fulfillment we’ve been seeking.

This is a book that I know I’ll read again. I don’t feel that I need to read The Transcendentalists and Their World, or Fighting for the Higher Law ever again — I might return to them to look up specific points, but there’s no need to re-read them. By contrast, I know it won’t be long before I need the inspiration that John’s book provides. It’s always easy to succumb to the empty pleasures of consumerism, and I often find I need something to help me escape its clutches. John’s book is one of those books that stiffens your spine, that makes you proud to keep on with the struggle for justice and goodness.

My ratings:

Transcendentalists and Their World: 3-1/2 stars (out of 5). Recommended, but only for those who already know a good deal about Transcendentalism, and who would like to take a deep dive into the lives of two of the better-known Transcendentalists.

Fighting for the Higher Law: 4 stars. Recommended for anyone who’s inspired by the Higher Law ethos, and most especially for those who are serious about tackling racism.

Conflagration: 5 stars. Highly recommended for anyone who’s looking for a solid grounding for either their spiritual life, their activism, or both.

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