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Review: 'The Transcendentalists and their World,' by Robert Gross

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"The Transcendentalists and Their World" by Robert A. Gross; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (864 pages, $40)

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Ralph Waldo Emerson relocated to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1834 to live with the Rev. Ezra Ripley, his step-grandfather. On July 4, 1837, at the dedication of a monument to the Battle of Concord, a chorus sang Emerson's "Concord Hymn." During these years, Harvard students lampooned Henry David Thoreau, their classmate, for a "Concord conceit" and a pledge: "If I forget thee, O Concord, let my right hand forget her cunning."

In "The Transcendentalists and Their World," Robert Gross (emeritus professor of history at the University of Connecticut, and author of "The Minutemen and Their World") examines how unsettling changes in the town between 1800 and 1850 influenced its most famous residents.

Gross' extraordinarily comprehensive, penetrating and intimate community study demonstrates that Concord was not a sleepy, static pastoral place. Like so many other American towns in this era, we learn, Concord's residents experienced the "ascendancy of a new order of things": factories and commercialized agriculture; railroads; an influx of Irish immigrants; educational reform; conflicts between Unitarians, Trinitarians and Universalists; battles between Democrats and Whigs, Mason and Anti-Masons; temperance and anti-slavery agitation.

Concord, Gross points out, provided the context and, at times, cast of characters, for Emerson and Thoreau. In "Walden," Thoreau declared that George Minott realized for him "the poetry of the farmer's life." The Rev. Barzillai Frost, Ezra Ripley's successor, served as Emerson's (unnamed) example of uninspired preaching in his Harvard Divinity School Address.

Gross is less successful in addressing the relationship between his Transcendentalists' social and political views, which, not surprisingly, reflected the ferment in Concord (and much of the rest of the nation) and the fundamental precepts of their often abstract philosophy. Although he doesn't discuss the impact of Emerson's Harvard education or his experiences as a minister on his ideas, Gross acknowledges that Emerson embraced Transcendentalism before he relocated to Concord.

When Emerson lectured on the significance of his Concord heritage, Gross indicates, Transcendentalism "receded ... though it still set an ideal standard by which to judge the shortcomings of his countrymen." And Concord's residents didn't understand, appreciate or accept "self-reliance" or "the ideal of the soul," key tenets of Emerson's Transcendentalism.

Thoreau's eight-month "experiment" in agriculture near Walden Pond was, in part, a response to powerful forces threatening the individual in Concord — and lots of other villages, towns and cities. Nonetheless, Thoreau maintained, the problem ran deeper than those forces; it was a perspective he later called "quiet desperation," embedded in human consciousness, in which most people believe they have no alternative to an acceptance of the status quo.

In its newfound commitment to racial equality in 1844, Gross claims, Emerson's Transcendentalism became "a Concord-centric blueprint of a republic based on free soil, free labor and free men." And Thoreau's "Walden" was a "quintessential Concord-American book."

Along with immense respect for Gross' mastery of Concord's history, I wonder if he's giving the town too much credit — and blame.

 

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