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American Transcendentalism: A History by…
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American Transcendentalism: A History (original 2007; edition 2008)

by Philip F. Gura (Author)

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218699,219 (3.83)11
The First Comprehensive History of Transcendentalism "American 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. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce local theological debates that, so often first in Massachusetts and eventually throughout America, gave rise to practical, personal, and quixotic attempts to improve, even perfect the world. The transcendentalists would painfully bifurcate over what could be attained and how, one half epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and stressing self-reliant individualism, the other by Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker, emphasizing commitment to the larger social good. By the 1850s, the uniquely American problem of slavery dissolved differences as transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition. Along with their early inheritance from European Romanticism, America's transcendentalists abandoned their interest in general humanitarian reform. By war's end, transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism.… (more)
Member:LaurenM_W
Title:American Transcendentalism: A History
Authors:Philip F. Gura (Author)
Info:Hill and Wang (2008), Edition: First, 400 pages
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American transcendentalism by Philip F. Gura (2007)

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» See also 11 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
I think that this is an excellent book. I shows an enormous amount of scholarship and discusses dozens of people with very little confusion, and a peek at the index reminds the reader of anyone that they have forgotten. It reads very well, and I was enthralled for most of the book. There was one chapter discussing the relationships among (mostly) German philosophers and the Americans who translated them and made them available to English speakers, which was a bit like wandering in the "begats" of the Bible, but I'm sure that many people appreciate all this precise information, and for me, the book picked up again as soon as I got to the next chapter. I feel that I have gained a great deal of knowledge about an era, and a group of people that I knew only slightly. I like very much that the index has some added information: when the title of a work is referenced, the last name of the author is added in parentheses. If it were up to me, it would also have the dates of the people referenced, but I'm not the one who would have to pay for that kind of indexing, not to mention extra paper. The notes are well done, too. Far too often, the pages of the chapters would have running titles showing the title of the chapter, but the notes would only have the number of the chapter. This has both in the notes, and, in addition, has the pages where the references are running across the top of the page -- very, very helpful and easy to use. There is not a bibliography as such, but there are lots and lots of bibliographical references.

Here I'm getting away from a strict book review to personal thoughts on the subject, if anyone is interested. Don't take it as a personal insult if you don't agree with me. I read this after reading the two excellent double biographies of Louisa May Alcott and her parents: Outcasts from Eden (Bronson) and Marmee and Louisa (Abigail). I have never read seriously about Transcendentalism because so many Transcendentalists strike me as fools. Bronson Alcott has always been and remains Exhibit 1, but I know other people find them very sympathetic. This has introduced me to some Transcendentalists that I can truly admire -- the ones who devoted themselves to social good. I don't know if that is really the result of the Transcendentalism, since many people at the time were striving for the same goals and were not Transcendentalists, while some Transcendentalists couldn't have cared less.

By page 10, I knew that Transcendentalism would never have any meaning for me -- I have no patience with Idealism. The Transcendentalists also seem to be naïve realists in the psychological sense, that is convinced that they are reasonable people of good understanding, and that all reasonable people with naturally agree with them, once they have explained their point of view. I'm also an atheist, so much of the religious thought is meaningless to me. There is one thing that I have noted -- people changing traditional religions, to make them more liberal, more current, etc., never seem to consider that other people might not accept their changes as valid. If religion is evolving, how do we know, who, if anyone is right about the trajectory? I know a New Testament professor whose religious beliefs remind me of the discussions here. I believe that he is reconciling his traditional Christian upbringing (heart) with his studies (head). They are deeply satisfying to him; he believes in an impersonal deity who does not perform miracles, listen to or answer prayers, confer eternal life, etc.; but has a demanding code of behavior that makes Jesus look indulgent, that I find obnoxious. God isn't a being, but Being Itself. Jesus is a wholly human prophet of the Ineffable They. I'm glad he's happy, but I don't think that I would bother worshiping such a deity even if he convinced me that the Ineffable They existed. He clearly wasn't satisfied with conventional religious beliefs, but would everyone who does believe that their deity listens to prayers, loves everyone individually, and grants eternal life think that unresponsive Being Itself is attractive? He certainly wouldn't care to imagine why not; to him, it is obvious that the Ineffable They exists, and he has trouble imagining that this is not obvious to everyone. He knew that I am an atheist, but for all his Greek, he was stunned to learn that I mean that I don't believe in any deities, not that I just don't go to church.

I also wondered about the analysis of the Bible: Gura tells us that Joseph Buckminster observed '"to understand the unconnected writings of any person, written in a remote period, and in a foreign language,' [one had to consider] 'the character of the writer, the opinions that prevailed in his time, his object in writing, and every circumstance peculiar to his situation.'" I won't argue with that, but how does one get that information, especially for an unknown writer of an undated work? A Jane Austen scholar told her audience of Janeites that much as we all enjoyed her works, we can never fully understand all of her references to things peculiar to her time, and we have originals from only two hundred years ago. One often does not have an original manuscript, but a copy, possibly of a copy, (of a copy, of a copy) that may have been created centuries later with emendations, interpolations, and mistakes. Even if changes were made in good faith, did the copyist(s) have all the above information that Buckminster requires?

Then there's James Marsh, who wanted to interpret ancient writings "intuitively" and "imaginatively." It also seems to me, and certainly is true of the professor that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, believers of all stripes have always done that, focusing on the parts of their scriptures that they like and ignoring or reinterpreting those that they don't , even if they offer no scholarly reason for the difference. I suppose that is why people like Emerson believed in internal proofs, but I don't, given their variations, or rely on the "general sense" of the scriptures, as if interpretations of that were consistent.

It is still an important piece of American history, and I am very glad that I read this. I highly recommend it to anyone with any interest in the subject. ( )
  PuddinTame | Aug 11, 2021 |
An indepth history and analysis of the complex and sometimes contradictory movement known as Transcendentalism. There are many echoes of today, showing the deep and ongoing influence of the thinkers and their thoughts in the politics and culture of our day. ( )
  dasam | Jun 21, 2018 |
In past decades I have read Emerson and about Emerson, about the Concord crowd, and about the early transendentalists. I haven't been reading much in that area recently, but I have tried to keep my faith alive by active participation in my local Unitarian Universalist church. The confluence of continued interest in the area and some alienating internal political changes in the church led me back to Philip F. Gura's American Transcendentalism. This is reading in American intellectual history, not scripture, and it seemed to me to serve admirably.

I had read that Emerson had come late to supporting the abolitionists. This book admirably distinguished the two transcendentalist factions, those seeking internal satisfaction and those seeking social satisfaction. I have long, in talking with myself at least, held, like Tolstoy and James Luther Adams, that religion is how we relate to the universe or to what is important and ultimate, and so it is comprehensible to me that one could spiritually spend one's time gazing at one's navel and equally one could spiritually spend one's time feeding the hungry. Now I know much more how the transcendentalists saw this distinction and where Emerson fit in. I am, however, not sure yet how finding deep within oneself the need to support one's neighbor rides on a scale like this.

I have, at the suggestion of a Unitarian Universalist minister, taken faith to be a matter more of commitment than of belief. I don't spend a whole lot of time on whether God exists. The book quoted Samuel Johnson (This is not Dr. Johnson but in LibraryThing terms is Samuel Johnson 7. This is a link to the Wikipedia article on the man) describing the 'natural religion' he preached asanother name for truth, freedom, piety, righteousness, [and ] loveI have heard God described as Love, but I don't have a handle on it as a universal principal. The book did a good job of describing these people who held such notions, but the philosophy didn't run deep.

Even so I am very glad that I read this history, and it opens new perspective in my continued reading.

Robert ( )
  Mr.Durick | Feb 21, 2014 |
American History, Transcendentalism, New England, UU, Unitarianism
  UUChurch | Jun 15, 2012 |
An interesting and well-researched look at the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century. ( )
  tdfangirl | Mar 26, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Philip F. Guraprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lippincott, Jonathan D.Designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Middleworth, B.Cover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
They called themselves "the club of the like-minded"; I suppose because no two . . . thought alike.
--James Freeman Clarke

No single term can describe them. Nothing can be more unjust to them, or more likely to mislead the public, than to lump them all together, and predicate the same things of them all.
--Orestes Browson

Thus, by mere attraction of affinity, grew together the brotherhood of the "like-minded," as they were pleasantly nicknamed by outsiders, and by themselves, on the ground that no two were of the same opinion.
--William Henry Channing

The new Boston school of philosophy (hold) no very precise doctrines, and (are) without any one band of union . . . they comprise an independency of opinion. They unite to differ.
--"J"

Transcendentalism is the practical philosophy of belief and conduct. Every man is a transcendentalist; and all true faith, the motives of all past action, are transcendental.
--J. A. Saxton
Dedication
For
Bob Richardson, always a guide on these trails
First words
Most educated Americans identify Transcendentalism as a nineteenth-century intellectual movement that spawned Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. (Preface)
In 1869, Louisa May Alcott, under the cognomen Tribulation Periwinkle, submitted to the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican a tongue-in-cheek letter with the "Latest News from Concord" Massachusetts. (Introduction: "Locating the 'Like-Minded'." )
In the late summer of 1812, Harvard students and professors, clergymen, scholars, bibliophiles, and curious onlookers gathered in Boston "at the Mansion-House of the late Rev. Mr. Buckminster" for the sale of the minister's library, one of the largest in New England.
Quotations
Parker's central point in this sermon was that, "transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as religion." For centuries, he noted, men had argued over theology and ecclesiology, and in doing so had forgotten the Christianity of Christ. Their theology stood betwenn them and God. [. . .]

[. . .] Parker also contended that current notions respecting the infallible inspiration of the Bible had no foundation in scripture. Similarly, many religions made Christianity stand on the personal example of Christ, rather than on his truths, even though it was "hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid or Archimedes." In Parker's view, even if one proved that Jesus never lived, Christianity would still exist because of its inherent truth. (Chapter 5: "Centripetal Forces and Centrifugal Motion," p.145 (Hill & Wang, 2007))
"I do not know what their scheme will ripen to," she wrote a friend, for "it is only a little better way than others." "I doubt," she concluded, "that they will get free from all they deprecate in society." [Margaret Fuller, concerning George Ripley and the proposed Brook Farm.] (Chapter 6: "Heaven on Earth," p. 152, (Hill & Wang, 2007))
Not only is [Elizabeth Thayer Clapp's] Studies in Religion one of the few extended Transcendentalist texts, by a woman, it provides a superb understanding of how the Unitarian rank and file received, understood, and recycled the high intellectual philosophizing of Emerson and the other prominent Transcendentalists.

A letter of Clapp's from 1884 clarifies her earlier beliefs. "Mr. Emerson's method," she wrote, explaining her one time predisposition to it, "as translated into practice by its ordinary disciples, was to seek the presence and authority of spiritual law in one's own consciousness," and to "consider the innermost facts of the consciousness as one in nature with God and consequently divine in essence and infallible in its moral guidance." [. . .] In retrospect she grew to understand the danger of such reliance on those ill-suited to practice it. (Chapter 7: "Varieties of Transcendentalism," p. 190, (Hill & Wang, 2007))
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The First Comprehensive History of Transcendentalism "American 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. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce local theological debates that, so often first in Massachusetts and eventually throughout America, gave rise to practical, personal, and quixotic attempts to improve, even perfect the world. The transcendentalists would painfully bifurcate over what could be attained and how, one half epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and stressing self-reliant individualism, the other by Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker, emphasizing commitment to the larger social good. By the 1850s, the uniquely American problem of slavery dissolved differences as transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition. Along with their early inheritance from European Romanticism, America's transcendentalists abandoned their interest in general humanitarian reform. By war's end, transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism.

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