Just outside Boston, Robert A. Gross has laid to claim to his very own Yoknapatawpha of the North. Just as that fictional county fired Faulkner’s imagination over a lifetime, the real Massachusetts town of Concord has long been the launching pad for Gross’ historical investigations. “The Minutemen and Their World” earned him a coveted Bancroft Prize. Now he offers “The Transcendentalists and Their World” as the capstone of his career.
The transcendentalists, in this case, are just two, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The former was born and raised in the village and rarely strayed. The latter returned there to his ancestral roots as a young man in 1834. Other figures in this cultural-literary school, such as Margaret Fuller, visited often but did not make it their home.
Transcendentalists blended European Romantic idealism and the Protestant emphasis on personal salvation with democratic faith in liberty and equality. The result was an unprecedented emphasis on individualism. One’s highest duty was to journey toward self-discovery, regardless of the claims of tradition, church or state. Within the self lay divinity itself.
Contrary to the myths that later enshrined the Concord of this era (1825-1850) as a provincial country town, Gross portrays a “community in ferment … a cosmopolitan outpost of the intellectual world of Cambridge and Boston.” That this milieu helped foster an American Renaissance was no accident.
Concord in this era boasted not only a public grammar school before other Massachusetts towns but a private academy that prepped students for Harvard, two libraries (one heavy on theology and English literature, the other open to new currents of thought), a debating society, and a lyceum that sponsored lectures by visiting thinkers of every sort.
Not that everyone approved of change. Gross focuses on the Rev. Ezra Ripley as the bulwark of tradition, the town’s champion of community over the individual, intellectual conformity, and benevolent rule by the elite. His Congregationalist (later Unitarian) Church was the established church, supported by taxes until 1834. As newcomers, Emerson and his wife, Lidian, initially boarded with the Ripleys, but soon went their own way, out of their household and congregation.
Even Ripley dared not resist the commercial tides that swept over the town. Nearby farmers turned to more scientific techniques for expanding production and began growing cash crops for market elsewhere. Ephraim Bull perfected the Concord grape. Merchants began to sell mass-produced clothing and exotic goods imported from abroad. Thoreau’s father, John, manufactured pencils that ended up on desks in New York. Despite the harrumphs of the younger Thoreau, most townspeople welcomed the arrival of the Fitchburg Railroad in 1844. Now they could dart into Boston in one hour instead of four by coach.
Thoreau, who could discern worlds in a grain of sand, had no desire to travel. As for Emerson, he lectured at the local lyceum before speaking to larger audiences at Boston’s Masonic Temple. For this former Unitarian minister, the lectern became his secular pulpit and meal ticket. Still, he remained a largely regional figure until publication of “Nature” (1836) and “Self-Reliance” (1841) catapulted him to national prominence as an oracular philosopher and individualist unbound.
Like some other transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau held reform movements at arm’s length. While the philosopher was a latecomer to anti-slavery, his wife and many other local women were early enthusiasts. He expressed far more outrage at the removal of the Cherokee from their homelands. Thoreau had no trouble befriending the handful of Black people who lived near him in the woods, but shied away from movement involvement.
Gross’s longtime attention to a single town, he acknowledges, grew out of the new social history that took hold in the late 1960s. The idea was to study the past “from the bottom up,” observing the lives of common folk, relying heavily on statistics gleaned from government, immigration, religious and economic records, and the like. History wasn’t merely about the triumphs of great men.
Gross ably depicts how Concord shaped these two writers, and how they also departed from town norms. Yet his narrative of town life too often becomes an end in itself and overwhelms any relation to the transcendentalists. This is especially true with regard to politics. All the while, the historian notes Emerson’s disdain for politicians and their penchant for demagoguery. And elsewhere, he writes: “If Thoreau had any reaction to these [political] controversies, he left no record.”
So why all the detail from the amity-filled Era of Good Feelings to the pitched battles between Masons and Anti-Masons, and the decades of clashes in between?
More than 600 pages of text, conveyed in very small type, this tome requires the most patient and indulgent of readers. Trimming down the excess surely would have sharpened a focus on the relationship of Concord to its favorite sons. As it is, one can’t help noticing this innocent admission among the acknowledgments. Of his hours spent in the substantial archives of the Concord Free Public Library, Gross writes, “I could and did get lost in the abundance of materials.”
Still, it’s hard not to respect this labor of a lifetime. His scholarship, based on research in many other libraries as well, is impeccable. In balance, “The Transcendentalists and Their World” stands with Robert D. Richardson Jr’s biographies of Emerson and Thoreau and Philip F. Gura’s “American Transcendentalism” as an essential work on these towering figures of American literature.
THE TRANSCENDENTALISTS AND THEIR WORLD
By Robert A. Gross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 836 pages, $40
Dan Cryer, who holds a PhD in American social-intellectual history, is author of the biography “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.”