American Transcendentalism A History

Philip F. Gura

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist 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 following the American Civil War. Philip F. Gura traces their 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. The transcendentalists would painfully bifurcate over what could be attained and how, one half epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and stressing self-reliant individualism, the other by Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker, emphasizing commitment to the larger social good.
By the 1850s, the uniquely American problem of slavery dissolved differences as transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition. Along with their early inheritance from European Romanticism, America’s transcendentalists abandoned their interest in general humanitarian reform. By war’s end, transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism.


Praise for American Transcendentalism

"Gura's book is a close tracing of the philosophical lineage and related theological infighting surrounding what he calls 'one of the nation's most compelling and influential intellectual coteries,' a group 'undeniably seminal to American cultural and intellectual history' . . . Gura's account is finely nuanced from a philosophical point of view, showing the sway that German Idealist thought had on several of the Transcendentalists, some of whom even studied in Germany, and also from a historical standpoint, as it chronicles the rise and decline of the movement . . . One of the best explanatory works on incipient and late Transcendentalism."—Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune
"Into this rich, complex interval of American intellectual history Philip F. Gura is eminently qualified to lead us. The William S. Newman distinguished professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Gura is the compiler, with Joel Myerson, of Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. The present work arrives with prepublication endorsements from Lawrence Buell and Robert D. Richardson, two towering figures in mid-19th-century American studies. And despite its compact form in a text of just over 300 pages, Gura's expert account is comprehensive. It describes the world out of which the movement arose—as a reaction against the aridities of Unitarianism, itself a reaction against the dour 18th-century Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, a biography of whom this same author wrote. Gura examines in detail the European sources of American Transcendentalism and, having described the two crucial mid-century decades, he follows his subject forward into the second generation of thinkers, after the outward-looking form of the movement had been overwhelmed in the slavery issue and while the inward-looking, Emersonian form of Transcendentalism was being distorted to accommodate the robber-baron selfishness of a post-Civil War Gilded Age. Trust thyself indeed."—Philip McFarland, The Boston Globe
"About 50 years after the American Revolution, another revolution, smaller in scale and spiritual in ethos, was afoot in the United States. The movement's call to arms was Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 speech 'The American Scholar,' later famously dubbed 'our intellectual Declaration of Independence,' in which he advocated the intrinsic power of the human mind. This idea became the bedrock of American transcendentalism, which, as Philip Gura demonstrates in his compelling book, American Transcendentalism, had surprisingly radical and far-reaching consequences . . . This book on American transcendentalism, a culmination and extension of his past work, brilliantly synthesizes religious, intellectual and cultural history, providing a rich and essential account of the movement . . . One of the greatest strengths of Gura's book is his well-written and dynamic narrative chronicling the movement's changes from the 1830s to the 1850s and identifying how its various adherents adjusted their visions of transcendentalism to America's shifting social and political realities . . . [in] Gura's excellent work, the movement is shown as a time when spiritual ideals motivated people to action to refine and redirect the imperfect American experiment."—Katherine Marino, San Francisco Chronicle
"Almost anyone who muddled their way through high school has heard of the Transcendentalists. Plenty of people could even name some of them: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau or even, perhaps, Walt Whitman. Some of us might even own a dog-eared paperback of Walden. But only a few of us could tell you what Transcendentalism actually means. We shouldn't feel too bad about this, it turns out, for even in its heyday, from the 1830s through the 1850s, the average American was equally befuddled by the term. 'When a speaker talked so that his audience didn't understand him, and when he said what he didn't understand himself—that was transcendentalism,' as one newspaper reporter joked in 1853. Philip Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sets out to change all that. He has succeeded grandly. In American Transcendentalism, Gura untangles this complex web of ideas and characters and weaves them into a clear, coherent and compelling tale of America's first, and maybe greatest, major intellectual movement . . . Students, scholars and those who are thrilled by the intellectual chase will be grateful to Gura for many years to come."—Debby Applegate, Los Angeles Times
"There's nothing perfunctory or dryly academic about American Transcendentalism. Philip F. Gura writes a lean, impassioned prose, chockablock with anecdote and information. By mixing a dozen brief biographies with sustained narrative—about contemporary religious belief, social commitment, just and unjust wars, the rights and plights of women and African Americans—Gura underscores how much we remain the descendants of these still too little known thinkers and crusaders. Above all, his exciting, even eye-opening book shows us that from 1830 to 1850 a group of New England preachers and intellectuals confronted what has proved to be the great polarizing tension in American history, that between hyperindividualism and the claims of social justice and human brotherhood . . . Gura makes clear that the 1830s and 1840s were as exciting as the 1960s, at once a time of intellectual ferment, social commitment and rousing calls to action . . . Philip F. Gura's American Transcendentalism—the distillation of a lifetime's thought and research—reminds us that this country once honored high ideals of how one might live, both for oneself and for others. Our better natures still call to us—if only we would listen. As Emerson once said, 'Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat, up again old heart!' For there is 'victory yet for all justice.'"—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

"Philip Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (himself a Unitarian Universalist), has produced an excellent new history of this major movement. In American Transcendentalism: A History he not only adroitly explains how such disparate radical behaviors all tie together, but also presents a story with important implications for Unitarian Universalism today . . . After richly detailing the background influences that led to Transcendentalism and its friction with more conservative Unitarianism, Gura traces the different impulses and schools of thought within Transcendentalism. This is one of the areas where American Transcendentalism particularly shines, as Gura deftly puts the tremendous variety within the movement on display. He focuses especially on the split between those for whom Transcendentalism was a philosophy of personal introspection and self-reliance, and those for whom it was an ethic of universal brotherhood and active work to improve society."—Jeff Wilson, Unitarian Universalist 

"Philip Gura has given us the most comprehensive and concise overview of Transcendentalism to appear in fifty years. By carefully re-historicizing the movement, in all its diversity, he provides the term 'Transcendentalistism' with much needed definition. An important book on a subject indispensable for study of the American mind."—John McWilliams, Professor, Middlebury College
"In American Transcendentalism Philip F. Gura makes accessible the fascinating story of two generations of Transcendentalists, men and women whose multifaceted movement profoundly shaped 19th-century American literary and reform culture.  In this remarkably insightful, engaging narrative Gura explains relationships among ideas and people—not only the most prominent and celebrated like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also the lively and creative lesser-known writers, thinkers, and clergymen who were his friends, followers, and adversaries."—Richard D. Brown, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, University of Connecticut 
"Philip Gura's short history of American transcendentalism—its origins, heyday, and decline—deftly defines this nineteenth century movement. The notables (Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Parker, Fuller et. al.) are predictably featured, but they are embedded in the crowd of clergymen, social reformers, and poets who formed a large part of a complex consensus. The strains of American transcendentalism are charted and elucidated in this learned and lively book."—Daniel Aaron, Harvard University
"Philip Gura's American Transcendentalism is not only the perfect starting point for anyone wishing to know something about Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Peabody and company, it is also a fresh, vigorous, and original redefinition of the movement as a fateful conflict between the competing claims of radical individualism and social reform. Gura also shows convincingly how Transcendentalism in America began—and indeed continued—as a profoundly religious phenomenon. This is a superb, vivid, challenging book; it is required reading for understanding how America has become what it has."—Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire
"Philip Gura's book is an essential introduction to this most important of American literary movements.  By tracing its philosophical and religious roots in clear and accessible prose, Gura demystifies its backgrounds, and his sketches of the major participants in both the first and second generations allow us to see Transcendentalism's developing impact on America's social, religious, and intellectual life.  This is a book all students of American literature and especially Transcendentalism should read."—Joel Myerson, editor of Transcendentalism: A Reader
"Philip F. Gura's deep learning and fluent narrative bring vividly to life the memorable personalities, and the still important intellectual challenges, of the Transcendental rebellion."—David M. Robinson, author of Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism
"Concise yet panoramic, this highly readable and provocative history of American Transcendentalism is especially valuable for its charting of the striking variety of positions within a movement whose unfolding was considerably less dominated by the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, its most famous figure, than is generally believed."—Lawrence Buell, Harvard University, author of Literary Transcendentalism, New England Literary Culture, and Emerson

"Gura 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 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."—Kirkus Reviews

“Gura has written possibly the best single volume on the Transcendentalists. Though he analyzes the essays and lectures of Emerson, Fuller and the Alcotts, Gura also introduces lesser-known figures who were influenced by their thought. These ‘fellow travelers’ help explain how the influence of Transcendentalism eventually spread beyond a handful of Boston intellectuals; businessman William B. Greene translated Transcendentalist values into economic thinking with the production of pamphlets like Mutual Banking and Equality, and Eliza Thayer Clapp, a Unitarian Sunday school teacher, integrated Transcendentalist ideas into girls’ religious instruction. Gura situates Transcendentalism against the backdrop of American Protestantism, showing how the movement emerged in part from early-19th-century debates about how to read the Bible. He also explores Transcendentalists’ involvement in all manner of reform movements, including women’s rights and, in the 1850s, abolition. When the Civil War won that battle, they turned away from ‘social engagement’ for several decades, and the individualism of Transcendentalism unwittingly underwrote the postbellum political economy of market capitalism. Gura’s fresh, penetrating analysis will reshape our understanding of American intellectual history and the 19th century.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he holds appointments in English, American studies, and religious studies.
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  • Philip F. Gura

  • Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he holds appointments in English, American studies, and religious studies.
  • Philip F. Gura UNC News Services