Bringing ‘Transcendentalism’ Home

"American Transcendentalism" - By Philip Gura (Hill & Wang) - Out Now

It would be hard for a student at Harvard—or any resident of Cambridge, for that matter—to dislike a book in which nearly every major event takes place near the Yard and nearly every major personality is a graduate of the University. Philip Gura’s “American Transcendentalism” is full of Harvard references, showing how deeply connected the Transcendental movement was to the University. But though it may be amusing to hear about Harvard’s bicentennial, there is much more to Gura’s complex history of American Transcendentalism. Starting with the Transcendentalists’ European influences, he traces the shifting ideas and proponents of the movement. Rather than try to reduce the multi-faceted phenomenon to one hardened definition, Gura acknowledges the subtleties of the movement and allows the Transcendentalists to speak for themselves. Gura is at his most dynamic when he relates specific philosophical debates, such as the substantial discourse that surrounded Emerson’s speech to the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School on July 15, 1838. As Gura incisively observes, “Emerson’s most radical proposition...was his interpretation of Christ’s mission.” Even more absorbing, however, is Gura’s account of the intellectual “brouhaha” that followed Emerson’s address, which the author describes as “a studied insult to the assembled clergy” that “rubbed salt into the raw wounds from the debate over miracles.” He dramatically unfolds Andrew Norton’s inflamed response, as well as George Ripley’s defense of Emerson’s assertions. But despite Gura’s clear and interesting analysis of such specific academic debates, it is at times easy to lose the thread of his narrative as it jumps from one leader of the movement to another and from European influences to American contemporaries. But such confusion is born from the lack of cohesion of Transcendentalism, itself: As Gura points out at the very beginning of his book, no one Transcendentalist shared the same definition of Transcendentalism with any other. Although his effort to accurately portray each element of the movement forces him to abandon linear narrative, Gura’s careful attention to every detail and variation of thought within the movement gives his work its authority. His vibrant representation of the Transcendental thinkers beautifully characterizes both their philosophies and their personalities. Emerson, he explains, was “not so much imposing as magnetic,” so that “if not all in attendance captured his full meaning, they still believed they were in the presence of genius.” For educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, he follows Thomas Wentworth Higginson in describing her as “desultory, dreamy, but insatiable in her love for knowledge and for helping others to it.” Rather than putting words into the mouths of figures from the past, Gura brings their words to life, surrounding them with his own close analysis and presentation while still showcasing both the eloquence and the ideas of each. It is Gura’s detail that is ultimately his success. While a broader, more generalizing narrative would be easier to follow, Gura chooses wisely to sacrifice simplicity in order to provide a truly nuanced understanding of this pivotal movement—a movement whose influence is still felt in the Cambridge classrooms today.