Notes on Transcendentalism

For the past three winters, late December has only meant one thing: preparing for a trip to Uganda. For the first time since December 2004, I've had the pleasure of hibernating in my parent's house in the DC suburbs and spending a few weeks with family and old friends, doing miraculously little. The first non-academic book I picked up was Philip F. Gura's new American Transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism was one of my first intellectual interests, but I've thought very little about it since moving to New England. Gura's work is a history, and he does an exceptional job showing the movement's two distinct strains of thought. The first, embodied in Emerson and promoted by Thoreau, focuses on self-reliance. The second, represented by George Ripley and the Brook Farm utopian experiment, emphasizes social welfare and equality.

Why is Emerson's work now what the movement is remembered for? While Emerson was the most public of transcendental intellectuals, Gura explains that the North winning the Civil War ushered in the Gilded Age, when focus on self-reliance and capitalism canonized Emerson as a national bard. In a sense this has been America's guiding value ever since.

It seems to me that the struggle between self-reliance and social justice should be the chief public struggle of any modern age, and it’s fascinating to read about how earlier generations of Americans faced the same issues we do.



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