'They called themselves 'the club of the like-minded,' " quipped preacher and abolitionist James Freeman Clarke. "I suppose because no two ... thought alike." Annie Russell Marble, who had once lived as one of their numbers, was rather more tart about the American Transcendentalists. They were, she sniped, "a race who dove into the infinite, soared into the illimitable, and never paid cash."
Today, it's as easy to poke fun at the Transcendentalists as it is to be mystified by them. A basic American education generally includes at least a bit of exposure (Thoreau's "Walden" and Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" show up somewhere while studying the 19th century) but that doesn't necessarily translate into any real understanding of Transcendental thought.
Emerson and Thoreau are revered as great thinkers, but as a whole, what many remember about the group is that their various experiments with communal living floundered and their belief in human progress proved naive.
Into this breach steps Philip Gura, professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, with American Transcendentalism, a solid, informative, and readable history of the movement.
Gura is the first to agree that definitions of Transcendentalism are slippery, particularly as the movement grew up to become such a "many-headed Hydra." At its outset, in the 1830s, Gura says Transcendentalism coalesced around "a way of perceiving the world, centered on individual consciousness, rather than on external fact."
What this led to was an assertion of the rights of the soul of each individual to interpret life in its own way, or, Gura puts it, "another American Revolution, spiritual in nature and remarkably varied in its practical implications." From the start it appealed to some as a profound expression of idealism, while there were others for whom the movement was nothing but an outrageous form of egotism.
Gura does a good job of guiding the reader through the intellectual currents that shaped Transcendentalism (the intense Scriptural studies of the era, meeting up with European thinkers such as Coleridge, Swedenbourg, Fourier, and Goethe) and also of introducing the Transcendentalists themselves. …