Laura Miller: Did Emerson and the American transcendentalists transform society or merely sow the seeds of American individualism?

Roundup: Talking About History

Transcendentalism is the best-known American-bred philosophy, despite the fact that most well-educated Americans have no clear idea what it is. This haziness is nothing new -- even in Transcendentalism's heyday in the mid-19th century, people complained that it was hard to get a handle on. Was it even a philosophy at all, or just a crackpot religion? Hard to say, partly because Transcendentalism's leaders were notorious for writing and talking in lofty abstractions; the Boston Post complained that the prose of Bronson Alcott (educational reformer, leading Transcendentalist and father of Louisa May) "resembled a train of 15 railroad cars with one passenger." Then there was the habit among the most prominent Transcendentalists of denying that they were Transcendentalists at all, or that Transcendentalism, per se, existed -- at the same time that other members of the movement quarreled about what the term really meant.

Philip Gura's "American Transcendentalism" is partly an elucidation of what Transcendentalists believed, but mostly it is an explanation of why what they believed is so hard to pin down. According to Gura, the movement was profoundly divided almost as soon as it began, and while he doesn't go so far as to draw the comparison himself, its resemblance to more recent would-be revolutions in the 1960s and '70s is conspicuous. While Transcendentalists agreed that contemporary life as they knew it had to change, they split over whether that transformation should begin deep inside each person's soul or in the drastic reform of the society in which the soul lived. Transcendentalists went back to the land and formed utopian communities. They organized protest marches and worked on themselves. They were filled with a particularly American form of optimism, and subject to a very familiar type of discouragement. Their problems and preoccupations are still with us today.

It all began in the early 1800s with arguments about religion and Rationalism. As Gura points out, "most Transcendentalists were indeed New Englanders, with ties to Harvard College and the Boston area [and] at some point in their lives and almost to a person they had all been associated with Unitarianism." The Unitarians were liberal Christians who stood opposed to the more orthodox Protestants, and at the time were best distinguished as believers in a faith that arose from reason. They embraced the empirical philosophy of the Enlightenment, especially that of John Locke, as opposed to the harsh tenets of Calvinism; they also mistrusted the emotional calling of Puritan revivalists like the charismatic 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards.

Transcendentalism arose among disaffected Unitarians -- theologians and other thinkers who rejected orthodoxy but craved a less coldblooded version of liberal Christianity. The most famous and revered Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a Unitarian minister turned professional lecturer and essayist who countered the "materialist" Enlightenment reliance on "facts, on history, on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of men" with a spirituality rooted in intuition. The Transcendentalist view of truth, Emerson wrote, was founded on "the power of Thought and on Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture," by which he meant the cultivation of the self: "mind is the only reality."...

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