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The mind's the limit

December 16, 2007|Debby Applegate | Debby Applegate is the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in biography for "The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher."

American Transcendentalism

A History

Philip F. Gura

Hill & Wang: 366 pp., $27.50

The Tao of Emerson The Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching as Found in the Words of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Edited by Richard Grossman Modern Library: 180 pp., $24.95

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Almost anyone who muddled their way through high school has heard of the Transcendentalists. Plenty of people could even name some of them: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau or even, perhaps, Walt Whitman. Some of us might even own a dog-eared paperback of "Walden." But only a few of us could tell you what Transcendentalism actually means.

We shouldn't feel too bad about this, it turns out, for even in its heyday, from the 1830s through the 1850s, the average American was equally befuddled by the term. "When a speaker talked so that his audience didn't understand him, and when he said what he didn't understand himself -- that was transcendentalism," as one newspaper reporter joked in 1853.

Philip Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sets out to change all that. He has succeeded grandly. In "American Transcendentalism: A History," Gura untangles this complex web of ideas and characters and weaves them into a clear, coherent and compelling tale of America's first, and maybe greatest, major intellectual movement.

Perhaps the easiest way into this story for us 21st century dwellers is to compare it to a more familiar period of countercultural revolt: the 1960s (technically, the late 1950s through the early 1970s). The similarities are not coincidental. Thousands of disaffected baby boomers found inspiration and vindication in Margaret Fuller's feminism, Emerson's mystical essay "The Over-Soul" and Thoreau's early environmentalism.

Like in the 1960s, a delicious sense of "Newness," as one contemporary called it, pervaded the 1830s. The average age of the population was 16 in 1830, the result of a baby boom following the War of 1812, and the number of colleges in the United States had more than quintupled, from nine to nearly 50. The Industrial Revolution was making life more comfortable but also more materialistic and market-driven. New ideas were drifting in from Europe, where scientists were demystifying the natural world in fields as diverse as physics and physiology, historians and linguists were upending the notion that the Bible came directly from God's mouth, and the Romantic philosophers and poets were exploring the power and possibilities of human consciousness. Nowhere was this more true than in Boston, the proud "Athens of America."

The movement's original spark was as much spiritual as it was intellectual. Nearly all the key figures began as restless young Unitarians, searching for an approach to religion that could accommodate both rational thought and deep emotion. Inspired by the European philosophers, they began developing a revolutionary new understanding of human consciousness.

In contrast to traditional Christian preaching, which saw a deep divide between a superior supernatural God and a powerless and profane humankind that could be bridged only by grace, works or miracles, the Transcendentalists insisted that divine energy coursed throughout the natural world, and especially the human heart. Some went further, insisting that God, nature and mankind -- the whole universe -- was simply one spiritual entity. (Where traditional Christians found salvation in "atonement," went a quip, Transcendentalists found salvation in "at-one-ment.") We perceive ourselves as alienated from God, truth, happiness and beauty, they argued, only because our minds have been fettered by prejudice, apathy and ignorance and distracted by the false idols of religious dogma, material ambition and social conformity.

In the fall of 1836, four of Boston's most iconoclastic Unitarian ministers, including George Ripley and the newly "self-defrocked" Ralph Waldo Emerson, began meeting to debate these ideas. They dubbed themselves "The Transcendental Club" because they aimed to transcend these fetters and false idols through "self-culture" -- not unlike the "consciousness-raising" of a later generation. They quickly gained members and momentum, led by Emerson, who delivered a seminal series of lectures on the subject, including his legendary Harvard Divinity School Address -- "our intellectual Declaration of Independence," as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. described it.

"They called themselves 'the club of the like-minded,' " as one of them joked ("I suppose because no two of us thought alike"). What they shared was an independent habit of mind, characterized by a thirst for provocative new ideas, a fascination with the way the mind works, a determination to throw off artificial constraints and a belief that strong intuitive feeling brings us closer to truth than does the observation of external facts. The only thing they would not tolerate was intolerance.

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