From Minutemen to Infinite Men

March 6, 2022   •   By John Hay

The Transcendentalists and Their World

Robert A. Gross

IN THE FALL of 1775, Boston was besieged by Redcoats, and Harvard College temporarily moved its campus from Cambridge to Concord. Earlier that spring, the Revolutionary War began when an American targeted a British soldier and fired “the shot heard round the world.” Ezra Ripley was one of the young collegians to graduate in Concord. Two years later, when the town’s “patriot pastor,” Reverend William Emerson, died while serving as a chaplain in the US Army, Ripley was hired to replace him at the First Parish Church. He shortly thereafter married Emerson’s widow and for over 60 years remained the town’s Congregationalist leader, until his death in 1841. By that time, his step-grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had established Concord as the capital of a new American intellectual movement called “Transcendentalism.”

Emerson’s 1838 “Divinity School Address” — in which he essentially told the graduates that their religious instruction amounted to a mere “penny-wisdom” — barred him from speaking at Harvard for decades. “The true Christianity,” he announced, “a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man, is lost.” In The Transcendentalists and Their World, Robert A. Gross shows that Emerson’s incendiary address in Cambridge drew relatively little attention back in Concord. If noticed at all, it was understood as part of a “family fight” with his step-grandfather, Ezra Ripley. Much more controversial was Emerson’s critical obituary of Ripley for the local newspaper three years later, in which he suggested that Ripley was a relic, “one of the rear-guard of the […] army of the Puritans,” and that now “it was fit that he should depart.” Ripley’s age was over, declared Emerson. A new day was dawning.

Ripley is the bridge that connects Gross’s new book to his old one, The Minutemen and Their World, winner of the Bancroft Award in 1977. That work was a social history of Concord in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, during which the Reverend William Emerson was a key figure. The Transcendentalists and Their World continues the history of this small town by jumping forward 50 years, beginning with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Concord in 1825. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the intellectual Bostonian who returned to the home of his grandfathers, becomes the central figure here.

Gross’s title is perhaps misleading. Aside from Emerson, few authors associated with Transcendentalism receive any sustained attention, and the “world” they inhabit rarely extends beyond Boston. The focus may be narrow, but the stakes are high. How, asks Gross, did this celebrated colonial community turn around, in the 1830s, and become known for the promotion of personal self-expression? How did the Revolutionary patriots, who loved their country more than themselves, give way to the followers of Emerson — who declared in 1837 that “the nation exists for the individual”? How did self-sacrifice get replaced by self-reliance?

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This is a history of Concord. Yet it is a story of discord. Gross’s earlier work had portrayed colonial Concord as a village living up to its name: citizens minded their civic duty, and local leaders extolled the virtues of political consensus and social harmony. But 50 years later, everything had become a partisan dispute. Unitarians fought with Trinitarians, Freemasons fought with Anti-Masons, and Whigs fought with Democrats. A town with one church and one newspaper became a town with two churches and two newspapers (and then three, and then four). Emerson’s Transcendentalist philosophy taught the sons and daughters of local farmers to question social obligations and to cultivate themselves.

The story here is a familiar one. An older generation looks on with sad consternation as the young people abandon their farms, their faith, and their local traditions for the fads and fashions of a new age. Families fall apart, and neighbors don’t know each other anymore. “Social relations grew more fluid and fleeting,” observes Gross. This could be nearly any town at nearly any time. But The Transcendentalists and Their World is especially compelling for two reasons. First, Concord has had an outsize importance in the nation’s political and cultural history. It contains, as one of Gross’s sources remarks, “the entire skeleton of American character,” and it works well as a model community for understanding the local forces that transformed the nation in the 19th century. Second, Gross has given us a magnum opus of scholarly research. A full quarter of this 800-page book consists of detailed endnotes in small font. The amount of archival labor-hours that went into this production is staggering, and the mountain of concrete facts that Gross is able to establish from the historical record provides an impressive background to his accounts of everyday life.

The story of the town is sometimes overwhelmed by the accumulation of information. Do we really need to know that the Hunt family regularly ate baked beans for dinner — twice a week, always served at noon? Or that average annual butter consumption in Concord was 13 pounds per person (1.1 tablespoons a day)? And yet, I was pleased to learn about Nehemiah Ball, a serious, sincere, and successful leather-maker (later a deacon in the First Parish Church), who gave lyceum lectures about ferocious animals. Gross tells us that the Concord teenagers all secretly made fun of this tanner’s public speaking behind his back, mocking his repeated phrase “I apprehend.” That anecdote was more illuminating than a long list of tax returns.

The book is divided into 17 chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of town life: agriculture, education, religion, etc. In each case, the spirit of progressive reform exhibited the rhetoric of community but in fact led to greater individualism. Gross’s reflections on the temperance movement offer a key example. Alcohol had been, as ever, a social lubricant in Concord; “to shun the tavern was to cut oneself off from a vital hub of community and news.” But a moral crusade in the 1830s characterized the “drunkard” as “the ultimate outcast,” an antisocial loner who drinks himself to death. Suddenly, to decline a dram was to be a good citizen. Liquor laws got stricter — and drinking, once a public interaction, became a private vice.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson is the gravitational center of the book. Placing him squarely within this hometown context reveals that he was not quite the controversial iconoclast he is often characterized as having been. Emerson’s company was welcomed by the local elites, and there were plenty of other sowers of discord to attract public attention. His lectures and essays were no more provocative than the speeches and editorials of his neighbors.

Consider Herman Atwill, an Anti-Mason who edited the local newspaper, the Yeoman Gazette, from 1826 to 1834. Atwill exposed the bankruptcy of the “combative butcher” and Freemason Orville Tyler. Upon publication, Tyler burst into the Gazette’s office and exclaimed, “** you,” at the editor. “If you have said anything about me in your paper, I’ll slap your * chops.” Atwill, for his part, let it be known that he was packing heat. Gross finds his own precursors in both Atwill and Lemuel Shattuck, two archivists of early Concord. Atwill was a strong believer in an informed citizenry: “Information — information — information,” he editorialized. “Nothing else is needed.” Shattuck, who authored the state’s first ever school committee report in 1830, “had the soul of a school superintendent.” He later assembled and published a 400-page History of Concord (1835) that contained “the bedrock of data on which all later historians of Concord gratefully depend.”

Gross’s cast of Concordians is a treat, yet a modern reader can’t help but notice that it consists overwhelmingly of white men. I, for one, would have liked to learn more about Susan Garrison, daughter and wife of enslaved men. When not doing laundry for the Emersons, she served as the only woman of color in the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Association. Susan sent her daughter, Ellen, to the Concord Grammar School — and hesitated to let Ellen march with her classmates in the 1835 Concord Bicentennial parade for fear that she would be subject to racist taunts from her white neighbors.

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The Transcendentalists and Their World ends with Emerson’s local acolyte, Henry David Thoreau, moving a mile away from Main Street into a cabin at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, where he would begin a manuscript registering his dissatisfactions with the modernizing trends in Concord society. Unlike Emerson, Thoreau was Concord born and bred, the son of a pencil manufacturer and an active abolitionist. He was so strongly tied to the town that he rarely left, traveling little beyond the local outskirts. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, observed that Thoreau was “Concord itself in one man.” Later critics often targeted this insularity. “He was worse than provincial,” carped Henry James, “he was parochial.”

Thoreau may have been regarded by some as a hermit, but in Walden he “provided a compelling reflection on the transformation of an entire way of life.” Gross is at his strongest when he describes the arrival of the Fitchburg Railroad, built in 1843 and running trains past Thoreau’s Walden residence two years later. This railroad was chiefly responsible for turning a small town into a suburb — and for allowing a literary community to flourish there. Writers like Emerson could live close to nature and still get to Boston in an hour, and they had easy access to a lucrative lecture circuit. These attractions would briefly make Concord into a hipster haven — the Brooklyn of antebellum America.

Before it was celebrated as “American Transcendentalism,” a national philosophical and aesthetic movement, it was known as “New England Transcendentalism,” a narrower regional intellectualism associated with Harvard-educated ministers. Gross has given us the local version, what he calls “Concord Transcendentalism.” Building on Laura Dassow Walls’s celebrated 2017 biography of Thoreau, which portrayed him as an eminent Concordian, Gross gives us the entire town, laid out as a model community for students of American history.

Gross has written a remarkably detailed and accurate account of social and cultural life in a single small town in a 20-year period. Yet, in an important sense, this career-capping book transcends its small-town subject. It is a tremendous work of American history.

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John Hay is an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of Postapocalyptic Fantasies in Antebellum American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2017).