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....

Emerson steadfastly resisted [George] Ripley's efforts to lure him to [the utopian community] Brook Farm, politely demurring that he could not"put on your community the task for my emancipation which I ought to undertake myself." Gura attributes this choice to Emerson's general obliviousness with regard to the"plight of labor" and other social issues -- that is, to the injustices that had inspired Ripley to try to start over from scratch."To allow household domestics to dine with the family, as Emerson now did, would not cure Boston's social ills," Gura drily observes. On the other hand, neither did Brook Farm, and despite the fire and the poor soil on which its agricultural failures were blamed, there's not much reason to think it ever would have.

This was the puzzle that the Transcendentalists faced: It is hard to remake a human being without also changing the society around him, but it is even harder to change a society when the human beings in it remain their old, recalcitrant selves. (I might also add that the sort of people attracted to utopian social experiments -- rebellious, quixotic and independent -- make the worst possible candidates for schemes that require a lot of cooperation and compromise.) Emerson, and his erstwhile protégé Thoreau (who Gura regards as"an apprentice in the movement," rather than a full-fledged Transcendentalist) preferred to step away from society. Thoreau found a way to make a cause out of this withdrawal, refusing to pay taxes that might go to support the Mexican War and writing his famous essay"Civil Disobedience." The more ambitious Ripley, no doubt with the weary exasperation common in ex-utopians, wound up abandoning both pulpit and farm to work for Greeley's New York Tribune, settling for the lowly fate of professional book reviewer.

We have not solved this riddle yet, and Gura quietly mourns the"other half of the Transcendentalist's dream, of a common humanity committed to social justice." Instead, he writes,"individualism" has triumphed,"in the Gilded Age and beyond." Some of us have even managed to convince ourselves that individualism is the only viable route to social justice, sharing Emerson's faith in self-reliance as the consummate virtue. Whether they are as mistaken in that belief as George Ripley was in his, remains to be seen; here's hoping it results in nothing worse than a bankrupt farm.

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