Book Review: American Transcendentalism by Philip F. Gura

Posted December 7, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 11 Comments

Book Review: American Transcendentalism by Philip F. GuraAmerican Transcendentalism: A History by Philip F. Gura
Published by Hill and Wang on September 2008
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Source: my shelves

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American Transcendentalism is a comprehensive narrative history of America's first group of public intellectuals, the men and women who defined American literature and indelibly marked American reform in the decades before and after the Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces the Transcendentalists' intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce local theological debates that so often, first in Massachusetts and eventually throughout America, gave rise to practical, personal, and quixotic attempts to improve, even perfect, the world. Following the movement from its initial influences in the early 1800s through the war and into the 1880s, Gura's sweeping work of intellectual history explains and contextualizes the movement's philosophy as well as the myriad voices that espoused it.

(from the back cover)

In American Transcendentalism, Gura chronicles the birth, evolution, and ultimate demise of this philosophical, literary, and political movement of the 1800s, including short biographies of its most important participants and contributors.

What is Transcendentalism and where did it come from? As Gura explains, an absolute definition of Transcendentalism is hard to pin down. Even the Transcendentalists themselves eschewed any one definitive description of their varying ideas and beliefs. George Ripley, himself a Transcendentalist, described it this way:

There is a class of persons who desire a reform in the prevailing philosophy of the day. These are called Transcendentalists,–because they believe in an order of truths which transcends the sphere of the external senses. Their leading idea is the supremacy of mind over matter. Hence they maintain that the truth of religion does not depend on tradition, or on historical facts, but has an unerring witness in the soul. There is a light, they believe, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into  the world; there is a faculty in all, the most degraded, the most ignorant, the most obscure, to perceive spiritual truth, when distinctly repented; and the ultimate appeal, on all moral questions, is not to a jury of scholars, a hierarchy of divines, or the prescriptions of a creed, but to the common sense of the race.

In other words, people are born with an innate goodness that allows them to discern right from wrong without having to be told by any religious dogma. This idea was a direct rejection of orthodox Calvinism’s idea of innate depravity and its strict religious tenets. The Transcendentalists looked to the philosophy of the German Idealists and French Socialists for inspiration, and the movement really owed its existence to those great thinkers. Gura’s book includes pretty detailed information about the German and French philosophers and their ideas, while explaining how and why the Transcendentalists appropriated those ideas for their own use.

In addition, Gura writes about the Transcendentalists’ dissatisfaction with the way the Industrial Revolution was affecting society, and about their involvement in the abolition of slavery. He explains the differences between the two groups that formed within the Transcendentalist movement: those who believed that self-reliance and self-culture would fix social ills, and those who believed that in order to change the systemic problems within the country, people needed to speak out and take action. When the Anti-Slavery Movement began in earnest, they mostly dropped their other social work and came together as abolitionists to fight the biggest social evil of them all–a fight which left them burnt out, scattered, and with no real focus after the end of the Civil War. As Gura writes at the end of the Preface:

Transcendentalism thus was another in a long line of attempts to redirect the still incomplete American experiment, in this case by anchoring it in the sanctity of each individual’s heart. The Transcendentalists’ unique position in, as well as their final contributions to, the cultural life of the new nation resided in their attempts to reenergize and redirect what they increasingly regarded as the country’s misguided and faltering democratic experiment. This book records the story of how these early-nineteenth-century Americans awakened to the possibility of a fully egalitarian brotherhood, encouraged it, and then, under the pressure of insular politics, finally lost their battle to maintain its relevance to the meaning of America. It answers the question of how a movement whose roots were so catholic and universal eventuated in a discourse that promoted an American exceptionalism based on self-interest.

I have so many of my own thoughts about Transcendentalism. There are parts of the philosophy that I agree with wholeheartedly and other parts that I flat-out reject. I marked so many passages and made so many notes in the margins of this book. This was a broad overview of Transcendentalism’s history, though, and to try to explain my thoughts here would mean trying to explain everything this book encompassed, and ultimately writing a book of my own. The books and essays I have yet to read for this project–Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott–are more specialized, though, and will enable me to respond directly to specific ideas.

I thought I knew quite a bit about Transcendentalism before I started reading this, but I learned so much from this book. If you’re interested in learning more about Transcendentalism, its origins, and the people who were central to the movement, I highly recommend Gura’s American Transcendentalism–it’s well written, it’s interesting, and it’s packed with good information.


(Click here to learn more about Philip Gura.)

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