American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism

By Rose, Anne C. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview
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American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism


Rose, Anne C., The Catholic Historical Review


American American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. By Dean Grodzins. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2002. Pp. xv, 632. $39.95.)

Among American religious movements, Transcendentalism stirs nearly continual scholarly interest. Intellectualism is part of the Transcendentalists' appeal. Literate and literary, they left an extensive and elegant record. More profoundly, they enacted an American theological drama by taking the Protestant reformers' mind-set to a logical conclusion: if both Church and Bible are flawed authorities, might not individuals better turn to private intuition as the guide for moral perfection? Dean Grodzins' portrait of Theodore Parker (1810-1860) as an "American heretic" amplifies our understanding of these thinkers' struggles with history, self, and salvation. As the first full modern biography of Parker, a towering and controversial figure in his time, Grodzins' book impressively matches Parker's own erudition. For readers unfamiliar with the Transcendentalists, this life is an excellent Introduction to the group. Grodzins' originality, however, lies in his intimate view of Parker's personality and intellectual transformation.

How ordinary a man Parker was surprised me the most. Grodzins' depiction connects Parker with-put crudely-other young men cm the make in a vigorous society offering prizes of professional and emotional self-fulfillment. Although the author does not mean to deflate, Parker emerges as a bourgeois. He had so little money that he could not attend Harvard College after passing the qualifying examinations and so later entered Harvard Divinity School as an autodidact schoolteacher. He chafed at the obscurity of his rural church, dreamed of being heard as a prophet, and shed tears of hurt and incredulity when fellow ministers turned away on account of his radical views. In marriage, he made a surprisingly good match in the prominent Cabot family. Early disappointment in relations with his wife, Lydia, however, led to sad, encoded journal entries, serious flirtation with a congregant, and letters of solace from an unlikely adviser, the spinster Elizabeth Peabody. Do Parker's traits of ambition and sentimentalism make him anomalous among the Transcendentalists or, rather, typical of them?

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