Transcendentalism and Democratic Trust in Thyself

Transcendentalism and Democratic Trust in Thyself February 21, 2022

Is there any way to weave together the cultural materials at hand to withstand what our country is becoming? 

This might seem like a new question. It is not. It is not even a new question for Americans, as Robert Gross demonstrates in his recent release, The Transcendentalists and their World.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, that spiritual-intellectual movement was the solution for some influential writers, like Concord’s Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Those big names are less the story here than the community around them, their “world.” Gross has written about this world before. The Concord of Gross’s pathbreaking 1976 history, The Minutemen and their World ,was a place shaped by an altogether different sense of what mattered. The revolution traced in this new Concord story was not merely a continuation of the previous one but a turn in a different direction.

Emerson famously counseled, “Trust thyself.” Following that counsel could be empowering, Gross demonstrates, as “[t]hrough such spiritual journeys, people of all sorts,–women as well as men, Blacks as well as whites, poor as well as rich–could tap their inner genius and build together an original American culture, independent of the errors and injustices of the Old World and true to the ideals of liberty and equality at the heart of the democracy that the break with Britain had left unfulfilled.” 

Transcendentalism was a serviceable response for some, offering adherents a sense of control in the face of transformations swirling around them. Things were changing fast in nineteenth-century America. The “collective ends” that animated the eighteenth-century Revolutionaries sprang out of local experience: “In New England the ideology of civic republicanism merged with Puritan traditions to emphasize the interdependence of individuals and families within a common way of life.” Though Transcendentalists grew up nourished from this rich soil, they shook its dust from their feet: “Emerson’s purpose was to break the hold of ancient traditions and involuntary associations, so that every person could take the journey of self-discovery and be an inspiration to others along the way.” 

The new approach to living tweaked Puritan emphasis on spiritual interiority to meet new currents streaming in from Europe, in Gross’s explanation, “Combining Romantic notions from Europe with the Protestant stress on personal salvation, and infusing these influences with a democratic faith in liberty and equality, Emerson put the individual first and foremost.”

What a disaster that turned out to be.

Gross is far more generous to this development than is my curt conclusion. He is nuanced and deliberate, in part owing to his method. He studies, nay, inhabits Concord to make this argument, attending to families, local news, incremental measures, and quirky personalities to read big change on a small canvas, not in snapshot but in time lapse across decades. This method allows the historian to see what others might miss or misunderstand. Gross’s earlier book used the new social history to understand in new ways the men whose shot was heard round the world. Scholars of the period and its personalities can argue with Gross’s interpretations. I don’t see how any can fail to admire the effort invested in this research and the fruit of it. I envy the way Gross knows Concord.

There are real characters in The Transcendentalists, broadly known ones like Emerson and Thoreau and their families, and the preposterously long-lived minister Ezra Ripley, but less familiar persons also appear three dimensional, persons whose work, thought, struggles, and projects affected their time and deserve our consideration in ours. Here, Gross employs the method that helped illuminate American Revolutionaries to follow their descendants, to explain how challenges posed by the market, technology, and political disputes disrupted the old order. 

What Gross has done for Concord is a dazzling achievement, directed to general readers as well as to academics. How could it be otherwise? A book whose argument depends on taking seriously the way ordinary people shape history should be exactly the kind of book embraced by ordinary people. The author entices us with parallels between our time and the book’s period, remarking that “[t]heirs was an era of globalization, as exhilarating and unsettling as our own,” replete with fake news and conspiracy theories aplenty. Now when, in defense of democracy, fresh calls come for attention to the neglected features of our history, such a book should be celebrated in all its fullness. That the text crests 600 pages and is enhanced with 200-plus pages of footnotes reflects Gross’s generosity to his subjects, scholars, and readers. In these pages we reap his harvest. 

That very generosity makes John Williams, in his New York Times review of the book, seem an ungracious recipient.  Williams quips that the book makes us hanker for great-man history, that now-unfashionable approach circling events around the orbit of a few heroic men. He is disgruntled because he thought the headliners, Emerson and Thoreau, would show up sooner, instead of all these pages spent on little doings of boring people.  Williams regrets that Gross gets “lost in the weeds,” where an historian might be perfectly happy but where others grow weary fast.  Willing to credit the “approach to history that Gross helped bring to prominence,” the reviewer still insists that “it’s not exempt from the laws of aerodynamics.”  To charge that Gross’s book must obey the laws of aerodynamics to justify its price may testify to the failure of Transcendentalism as a means to keep rapacity of markets and modernity at bay. 

The irony is sharp for a periodical touting its reinterpretation of US history re-centering overlooked persons, and for its prestigious Book Review section intent on including more voices.  Either ordinary people’s actions matter to the study of history or they don’t. A charitable way to interpret the review is to conclude that Williams missed this point.  Maybe he missed its conviction that the deeds of regular people reveal something we else would not have discovered. Or might the smug inability to pay attention to regular people be read as profoundly undemocratic, indirect proclamation not only that ordinary people do not deserve to be studied but lack capacity for study?  That the ordinary reader really hankers for  supersized characters who tower over things?

Or is Williams here actually speaking from within Emerson’s echo? The note that lingers after the dictum, “Trust thyself,” might deafen us to knowing or trusting anyone else.

Unlike Williams, I was glad to meet the other people of Concord, having eluded youthful crush on Thoreau and been confirmed by observations that the sage of Walden Pond still went home to eat meals made by womenfolk and have them do his laundry. 

The institutional and intellectual aspects of Transcendentalism reward reflection. Gross sees some elements worthy of regard in the new creed, asserting that, “through their efforts to make sense of a rapidly changing society, the Transcendentalists and their neighbors struggled for ways to reconcile the new freedom of individuals with the older claims of interdependence for the common good. Their legacy rests not in their answers but their attempts.”

The world that was swept away with “Trust thyself” had, in spite of inequalities and injustices, some features lost at high cost.  In Concord before the mid-nineteenth-century changes, “the social web was still binding,” and “none lived alone, independent of established institutions and without obligations to the neighbors.” None lived alone! A fresh way to lay claim to interdependence for the common good would be helpful. 


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