American Transcendentalism: A History

American Transcendentalism: A History

by Philip F. Gura

The First Comprehensive History of TranscendentalismAmerican 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 America Civil War. Philip F.

By war's end, transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 3.85
  • Pages: 384
  • Publish Date: November 13th 2007 by Hill and Wang
  • Isbn10: 0809034778
  • Isbn13: 9780809034772

What People Think about "American Transcendentalism: A History"

Their music was completely new and exciting, even revolutionary. Similarly, the spread of ideas of German idealism and German Biblical scholarship somehow led to new ideas in theology and philosophy with attendant significant efforts regarding social justice work with the poor, abolitionism, womens rights. From the book: Transcendentalism was linked to disruption of the social as well as of the religious order. The two branches arent completely distinct, as eventually even Emerson (individual consciousness) began lecturing about abolitionism. p. 16 Emerson didnt value work with the poor.

But the publication does indeed leave a lot to be desired and in the end, comes off as a bit of a micro-history. Trying to sex up the narrative with some John Brown near the end, does do it some justice, yet very little about the 'secret six' is even mentioned...and very little of the greater theological community of Boston is addressed.

But there's a reason we have such a strange, fractured way of remembering the Transcendentalists, or so argues professor Philip Gura in his phenomenal new book American Transcendentalism: A History, which is hands-down easily the best nonfiction book I've read in the last year; and that's because the Transcendentalists themselves were a fractured and raucous group, a loose confederation of thinkers who were often at odds with each other over the details of their "movement," a group that finally fell apart precisely because of the Civil War and whose ideas were never picked up in a major way again by the American populace in general (or at least not yet). But see, here's where it starts getting complicated, because it was just some of these liberal activist preachers who started rebelling against what was an accepted belief at the time; this being the early 1800s, of course, the very end of the rational Enlightenment years, most educated people still fundamentally believed in doing what these rational philosophers like Descartes and Locke advocated, which is to bring a cold, clinical, scientific eye to every facet of one's life. It's simply a matter of listening to this voice, these radical youthful ministers started arguing from their pulpits; it's a matter of turning inwards, of making faith more spiritual, of "transcending" the surface-level noise that humans and human churches add to the direct relationship all of us have with God. And hence the term "Transcendentalism," which like "beatnik" and "hippie" and "slacker" was actually first coined by the group's critics as an insult against them, before eventually being adopted by the very people the term was supposed to make fun of. This is part of Transcendentalist history as well, Gura deftly shows in his book; not just the liberal preachers arguing for a more personal and Romantic understanding of God, but poets and editors and philosophers yearning for an entire Romantic artistic community, one that refocuses on nature and feelings and inner emotions, one where mood and atmosphere play a heavy role in the literature itself. But at the same time, Transcendentalism was also about political activism; it was about these ministers, these thinkers, these philanthropists, indeed turning inwards and realizing, "Why, as a good Christian, I should be helping others, and standing up for the meek, and trying to make the world a better place." And it's such a fascinating thing to look back on, I think, precisely because so much of this kind of stuff has literally disappeared in America; the idea of a Christian actually being an intellectual, the idea of a Christian actually being a liberal, the idea of Christians actually embracing experimental projects and radical theories.

Thorough and quite brilliant history of Transcendentalism, but it will be a tough read if you don't already have a background in the philosophy of religion. The text shows how Transcendentalists drew from Unitarian Christianity, Plato, German Idealist philosophers like Kant and Schleiermacher, Emanuel Swedenborg's belief in communicating with spirits, early socialism, and other eclectic ideas to propose a new way to think about God. Instead of finding religion through static institutions and books, people should go into nature and find the divine in everything.

The author trivializes the legacy of Transcendentalism without recognizing or exploring how many of its ideas have been incorporated into modern Unitarianism.

In "American Transcendentalism: A History" Philip Gura, has written a learned and detailed account that is both inspiring and critical of an important movement in American thought. Many readers have only a vague notion of what the Transcendentalist movement was about together with a notion that Emerson and Thoreau were at its center. Gura shows that the movement was, indeed, quite loose, with many people finding many different meanings and goals in Transcendentalism. Gura's book is full of intellectual and spiritual excitement as young unitarian scholars and ministers learned of and translated works of German and other European scholars on the Higher Criticism of the Bible and on philosophical idealism subsequent to Kant. Early Transcendentalists, such as George Ripley, sponsored large-scale projects to translate the work of German thinkers, critics, and poets into English for American readers. Much of Gura's history shows how the Transcendentalists ultimately diverged over issues of social activism.

Even the Transcendentalists themselves eschewed any one definitive description of their varying ideas and beliefs. These are called Transcendentalists,because they believe in an order of truths which transcends the sphere of the external senses.