Emerson Never Practiced the Self-Reliance He Preached

Historians in the News
tags: literature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, New England, American literature, Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalists

Mark Greif teaches English at Stanford and is the author of The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973.

In the lead-up to the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, a graduate student sent a proposal to an editor at a trade publisher in New York. Would he consider taking on a book about the Minutemen and their “shot heard round the world,” set painstakingly in a history of Concord, Massachusetts, the town where the North Bridge fight broke out? In 1977, that book—which was also the student’s dissertation—won a Bancroft Prize, the highest honor in the history profession. The Minutemen and Their World remains a classic, memorable within a wave of “community studies” that sought to explain big turning points—such as the outbreak of the Revolution and the Salem witch trials—at the level of local ties, focusing on loyalties and antipathies among neighbors, families, holders of property and office, laborers and servants.

The author, Robert A. Gross, went on to teach at Amherst, then the College of William and Mary, and finally the University of Connecticut. Rather than abandon his chosen locale of Concord, he has devoted half a century to an encompassing reconstruction of the town’s politics, economy, and society from 1790 to 1850. His databases, begun on “punch cards and mainframe computers,” have become ever-larger repositories, progressing from tapes to floppy disks to CD-ROMs to online storage. He has traced the scraps and details of scandals and human tragedies through newspaper columns, property deeds, tax records, and genealogical trees, detecting whiffs of disappointment and ecstasy in the scattered letters and memoirs of town descendants who were becoming more numerous, itinerant, and verbose as the United States matured. In The Transcendentalists and Their World, Gross has delivered a second harvest of his career-long work. It is a measured, beautiful volume that brings warm life, accuracy, and complexity to local history, swooping between the bird’s-eye view and the tracery of many individual destinies.

After the yeomen with muskets had been memorialized, Concord became famous a second time, in the 1840s, for its writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson, his disciple Henry David Thoreau, the Alcott family, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (whose residence was brief but significant) made the place a byword for the movement called Transcendentalism. Gross uses our devotion to those familiar heroes to interest us in the ordinary story of a tight-knit town turned unusual birthplace. He explores the communal web that supported the emergence of a philosophy steeped in romantic nature worship and dedicated to the lone soul—to the inner growth of the individual, untethered from social convention and tradition. The Revolution, he makes clear, was about community and self-governance, and it unfolded under the leadership of a group bound by ties of duty. How to explain the subsequent emergence of the most celebrated cultural development in 19th-century America, which raised doubts about just such commitments, defying family and propinquity in the name of “man alone”?

Focused primarily on the years 1825 to 1845, Gross’s 600 pages of absorbing narrative, plus 200 more of illuminating notes and documentation, are a refresher course in the birth of a market culture and a mass democracy in the age of Andrew Jackson, followed by the rise of the antislavery cause and stirrings of sectional conflict. Gross gives these grand trends a habitation in 25 square miles of Massachusetts farmland, where he detects a steady erosion of social unity.

For the future Transcendentalist leaders, who proselytized on behalf of the inner spirit empowered by solitary communion with nature, social embeddedness came in many forms. People who have never read Walden know that Thoreau lived alone for two years in his late 20s in a cabin beside Walden Pond, paring life down to the necessities. Almost as many are familiar with a seeming contradiction: Thoreau went home some weekends to his parents’ house. Ardent defenders respond that young Henry was still a good son, assisting in the family pencil factory. This detail of filial loyalty is so unexpected that it usually ends the conversation.

The Transcendentalists and Their World puts Thoreau’s experiment in solitude in context. In early-19th-century Concord, as Gross establishes with evidence from the census, no one lived alone who could help it. In 1837, the year of Thoreau’s return from college, only a dozen people did, out of a town population of 2,000, and nearly all of them were widows in perilous situations. Family support was assumed in every enterprise, whether farming or law or keeping the town jail.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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