The Capital of Self-Reliance

How a backwater became a philosophical powerhouse

Ralph Waldo Emerson delivers a speech to a rapt audience at the Concord School of Philosophy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson delivers a speech to a rapt audience at the Concord School of Philosophy.

The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 864 pp. $40

“I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world,” Henry Thoreau told his journal in 1856, “—& in the very nick of time, too.”

The citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, have hyped their home for centuries: first town to rout the British, transcendentalist mecca, birthplace of the Concord grape, America’s perfect village. They may have overdone it (Thoreau’s old house on Main Street is now valued at $2.6 million), but the paper trail is extraordinary, and reconstructing Concord between 1760 and 1850 has been the life’s work of Robert A. Gross, emeritus professor of history at the University of Connecticut.

Back when Gross was a Columbia graduate student, Newsweek writer, and Vietnam War opponent, he lived in Concord, hunting a dissertation topic. Thoreau’s Walden drew him—but so, unexpectedly, did the town’s patriotic past. At dusk on Memorial Day 1973, watching local Revolutionary reenactors drill to fife and drum, the young historian could find no good answer to a simple question: Why Concord? What about this place made it risk all for independence, then harbor philosophers bent on liberating the spirit?

The practice of history in the 1970s was also a battleground, as strange new specialties struggled for acceptance—women’s history, Black history, environmental history. Gross applied social science methods with an investigative reporter’s zeal to tell Concord’s story from below, teasing pattern and meaning from neglected sources like property deeds, tax rolls, and church rosters. His 1976 book, The Minutemen and Their World, made systematic quantitative analysis alluring, won the Bancroft Prize, and taught a generation of historians to respect the underdog field of community studies.

Hire obsessives and get out of their way, a wise university dean once advised, and Gross’s new book, The Transcendentalists and Their World, is a monument to the freedoms of tenure, where no one can tell you what to study or when to stop. Gross is an archival lion, bent on leaving no ort, scrap, or fragment behind. The prose is understated and shapely, the footnotes Homeric. Social detail accretes like a coral reef. Gross is especially good at recovering moments that deliver a short, sharp shock to postmodern sensibilities, from the stark politics of 18th-century premarital sex to the annual town bird hunt led by small boys with large guns to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s opening his first wife’s coffin to contemplate her decay.

Minutemen had a terrific core tale—small town faces down world’s greatest army to save its way of life. Transcendentalists is torn between two story lines, adjoining but not fully integrated. Both are scene-setting prologue to the good stuff, which comes largely after 1850, when the book cuts off. We never see Margaret Fuller’s terrible death, the split between Emerson and Thoreau, the bloody passions of abolition, the full effect of Irish immigration, the house divided.

As Gross explains, Concord in the second quarter of the 19th century was a backwater, and knew it. The rest of America was crossing the plains, battling Mexico, building railroads, sending telegrams, reforming society. Concord dozed. Gross works hard to make this long lull attractive by clarifying generational splits and theological struggles, then tracking a welter of antebellum Concord lives: poetasters, minor divines, anti-Masons, cotton mill girls, second cousins, in-laws, ex-roommates. He shows us, exactly, the social and intellectual contours of the town as it becomes a literary lair for the Big Five—Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller—and their friends and relations.

In Boston and in Concord, the transcendentalists of these years were reasonably sober Yankees with little cohesion as a school of thought, yet obsessed with the question of how to build a new world when the old one is insufficient. What makes for a moral life in a cruel, conformist, money-mad society? How can America grow more just? Should you reform yourself, or change the world? Think, or act?

Gross makes us understand but doesn’t always make us care; we miss the movement’s souls-at-white-heat quality that can still startle and disturb. His focus on Emerson and Thoreau keeps any true group portrait as elusive as Hawthorne, who went the other way around the block whenever he saw Alcott coming. And Fuller, who taught Thoreau how to write and could outtalk even Emerson, is here a bit player at best.

Gross is good on the ways that Concord as literary Parnassus is part mirage, part wishful thinking. The town is mainly associated with top-rank transcendentalism because of Emerson’s decision to choose the “lukewarm milky dog-days of common village life” in an ancestral spot he barely knew. Fuller never lived there. The Alcotts wandered in and out. Hawthorne fled after three years.

Only Thoreau is a true local, embedded in all of Concord’s communities, human and natural—and even he had to leave town to confront the ultimate, flat on his face on a lightning-blasted Maine mountainside: “made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe … The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”

Pandemic has given new force to Concord’s contradictory watchwords: community and self-reliance. The transcendentalists are never more American than when questioning authority, and their legacy, Gross concludes, lies not in their answers but in their attempts. By “seeing how they lived and struggled in their daily lives,” he hopes “we can come to recognize them as people like ourselves.”

Any follow-up to a celebrated early book means roads not taken. Humanities students might yearn for a curated website of Transcendentalists, with ongoing emendation and discussion. Busy general readers may mourn the fleeter, neater study that could have been. But the Concord duology unquestionably bookends a leading history career, and a generous one.

Minutemen was a solo project, upstart and innovative, cousin to ’70s narrative journalism, opening the way for the riveting microhistories of the 1980s and after, such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (1990) and Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town (1995). Transcendentalists is a symphony, a data-driven meditation on American place assembled with teams of researchers, coders, indexers, database managers, and apprentice scholars over four decades.

It’s hard to imagine a third volume. Future historiographers may gape, astonished, at Gross’s early, heroic index cards and floppy disks, should his brand of supernal ironpants community history go the way of the passenger pigeon. Thoreau’s challenge, though, remains: “With all your science can you tell me how it is— & whence it is, that light comes into the soul?”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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