The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross

Concord, Massachusetts, 20 miles west of Boston, looks too good to be true. Especially in autumn, it offers a “steeped in history” display beloved of calendar-makers and tour-bus operators. Country roads converge among stone walls and furrowed fields. Historic homes of white clapboard cluster near the center of town. Old North Bridge, where in 1775 American militia fired the “shot heard round the world,” spans the Concord River.

Atop a ridge lie the graves of eminent Concordians: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and much of the Alcott family, including the redoubtable Louisa May. On Memorial Day, trumpeters on the ridge and at its foot take turns playing taps, one bar from on high, the next from down below. The history on display in Concord is real, but it is also suspended in time.

The historian Robert A. Gross has twice set out to smash this snow globe. In The Minutemen and Their World, published in 1976, his focus was on Concord at the time of the American Revolution. That book, a classic of modern social history, delved deep into legal documents and relied heavily on statistical analysis; somehow, it was also beautifully written. Teased from the data, forgotten people came back to life.

Gross portrayed Concord not as some prim proto-Utopia with a Yankee Candle bouquet but as a community torn by fierce disputes over religion (the First Great Awakening) and land (there wasn’t enough). Young people left for the frontier. Vagabonds roamed freely. Gripped by “a deepening social and economic malaise,” Concord seethed. When the British imperial overlords threatened the power of Concord’s most cherished institution—the town meeting, where citizens made decisions collectively—a fuse was lit.

Now, almost half a century after writing The Minutemen and Their World, Gross has returned to Concord. The town has aged. In The Transcendentalists and Their World, the focus is on a period two and three generations after the Revolution.

In Concord

Don’t think of Concord in this era as a provincial backwater. The Industrial Revolution has come, and with it an age of disruption; even Concord has factories, making pencils, carriages, furniture, and guns. New England is again roiling with religious fervor—the Second Great Awakening. Politics is becoming more democratic and therefore more fractious, superheated by abolition and other issues. The Concord of this book lies at the heart of the New England Renaissance—still a town with farms but also the country’s literary hub.

And it is the center of the transcendentalist movement, whose influence would be international. The Revolutionary outlook of the Minutemen had been organized around collective action toward a greater good. The emphasis of the transcendentalists was on the opposite: on inner-directed individual improvement and enlightenment. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” Emerson wrote. The transcendentalists had little use for social crusades. “Self-culture” was the key. Progress came about “one soul at a time.”

The two great figures at the heart of The Transcendentalists and Their World are Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson—“Waldo,” as he was known—had left the active ministry for the life of a philosopher, author, and lecturer. In the essay “Nature” and other writings he expanded on the transcendentalist vision.

Emerson also knew how to promote his ideas. The lyceum circuit was the social media of its day, and Emerson traveled widely on that new invention, the railroad. He gave 1,500 lectures in his lifetime, mainly to paying audiences. The property he bought with the substantial profits included a tract near Walden Pond.

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote.

Henry David Thoreau—homely, principled, practical, observant—was Emerson’s protégé (as well as the Emerson family’s babysitter and Mr. Fix-It); early in their friendship, the older man had asked the younger a question that would have immense literary consequences: “Do you keep a journal?” The cabin Thoreau occupied for two years—“where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds”—was on Emerson’s property.

There has been much mythologizing about Thoreau’s time in the Walden woods. He was never out of touch; and, yes, people brought him food and did his laundry. He always had money—that pencil-making business in Concord was his family’s. But Thoreau’s celebration of nature, solitude, and self-discovery is more alive today among American readers than anything written by his mentor.

The Transcendentalists and Their World documents what Gross calls a “profound transition in American life.” The Minutemen generation always had its eye on collective ends—self-government, communal action. The Puritan ethic was still strong; so were the bonds of interdependence. People saw themselves as inseparable from cherished institutions. The transcendentalists saw things differently. Individuals came first. Liberty was all-important. “Trust thyself,” Emerson declared.

In this pair of major books, 45 years apart, Robert Gross has identified two strands that braid through American history. Caricature helps to illustrate: One strand gave us labor unions, Prohibition, Dorothy Day, and the civil-rights movement. The other gave us libertarian politics, Walt Whitman, self-help literature, and periodic calls for spiritual growth and work-life balance.

In the end, one has to wonder about Robert Gross’s own work-life balance. The Transcendentalists and Their World is rich and revealing on every page, but it is also a doorstopper. The ideal place to read it might be a cabin in the New England woods, perhaps near a pond, and maybe over the course of a long winter. And it would help if someone brought you your meals.

Cullen Murphy is the editor at large of The Atlantic and the author of several books, including God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America