June 17, 2008

Book review: "American Transcendentalism: A History," by Philip Gura

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American Transcendentalism: A History
By Philip Gura
Hill and Wang / ISBN: 978-0-8090-3477-2

The only time before this week that I had ever had experiences with the American Transcendentalist movement of the 1800s had been in high school, experiences that had not gone well at all; I remember something about them all being philosophers, or maybe it was authors or ministers or something, and I remember something about one of them living in the woods for two years, and my lit teacher saying something about them being the original hippies. (Of course, this was the early '80s, so my teacher herself was an aging hippie who meant it as a compliment, while we took it as an insult.). And I remember something about this insanely complicated belief system they had that was utterly incomprehensible even when you tried reading the most well-known of all their work, the Emerson lectures and Thoreau stories and all the rest. And that's a real shame, I've come to realize this week, because in so many ways this group deserves so much more modern respect than they usually get, and had a heavier influence over the modern world as it appears today than many of us realize. They were, after all, the very first group of philosophers in American history, the first to create a philosophy that was truly American; they were the group that coined the phrase 'civil disobedience,' the ones who brought about labor reform and women getting the vote; they were the last group in American history to be deeply religious yet consider themselves intellectuals, a distinction sorely missing from our country these days; and they're a fascinating example of how US history could've gone if not for the Civil War, a progressive and utopian vision that believed in the essential goodness of humanity, a vision collectively lost in the US for over a hundred and fifty years and just now starting to be found again in the 2008 election and the historic campaign of Barack Obama.

American Transcendentalism: A History, by Philip Gura

But there's a reason we have such a strange, fractured way of remembering the Transcendentalists, or so argues professor Philip Gura in his phenomenal new book American Transcendentalism: A History, which is hands-down easily the best nonfiction book I've read in the last year; and that's because the Transcendentalists themselves were a fractured and raucous group, a loose confederation of thinkers who were often at odds with each other over the details of their "movement," a group that finally fell apart precisely because of the Civil War and whose ideas were never picked up in a major way again by the American populace in general (or at least not yet). In many ways they're a historical anomaly, Gura argues, a burp in the usual conservative, free-market theme that pervades most of American history; and it's for that reason that it's so important to study and understand them, he says, precisely because they are a reflection of a time in American history no one had seen before and no one will ever see again (i.e. the "nation-building" years, the era lasting from the War of 1812 to the Civil War of 1860). And furthermore, Gura does this with a clarity that is simply unbelievable, given the complexity of the subject matter; and he does it in an incredibly tight and entertaining 300 pages, too, an astounding feat that you hope will earn him at least his own PBS special or something down the line.

In fact, that's the first thing to understand about Transcendentalism in general, even before picking up the book, is that its roots are mired in complexity to begin with, and with no one at any point in history ever really agreeing on even its general definition. You could say, for example, that the movement mostly grew out of a type of Christian denomination known as Unitarianism; for those unfamiliar with the subtleties of Christianity, it's considered one of the more liberal denominations out there, with their very name for example coming from the fact that they believe Jesus to simply have been a cool guy and important philosopher, but not literally the son of God. (So in other words, unlike other groups who believe in a "trinity" of holy figures at the heart of Christianity [a Father and Son and Holy Ghost], Unitarians believe in a unitary God who rules all by Himself.) It's the Unitarian preachers who are always the first to denounce wars; the ones you always see in the front of peace marches and labor rallies; the ones who have always first embraced things like interracial marriages and gay marriages.

But see, here's where it starts getting complicated, because it was just some of these liberal activist preachers who started rebelling against what was an accepted belief at the time; this being the early 1800s, of course, the very end of the rational Enlightenment years, most educated people still fundamentally believed in doing what these rational philosophers like Descartes and Locke advocated, which is to bring a cold, clinical, scientific eye to every facet of one's life. This resulted, for example, in a Unitarian church in the early 1800s that generally believed in "faith" being something to be externally proven, using scientific methods; in the minds of most church officials at the time, for example, the Bible was to be considered metaphorical only, much like a book of nursery rhymes, with the "truth" of Christianity resting much more on things like archeological digs and better interpretations of the original Aramaic scrolls.

But of course, the beginning of the 1800s was not just the end of the Enlightenment but the beginning of Romanticism; and there were definitely an amount of Unitarian ministers in those years feeling the pull to move in that direction, usually the youngest or most politically radical of the entire church. For example, it started becoming a popular theory among many of these rebels that it's actually one's inner spiritual voice that is the most important aspect of faith; that all of us as Christians are born with a calm, true, steady voice inside us, one that directly communicates with God, and that we don't need stupid archeological digs to tell us how to be good Christians. It's simply a matter of listening to this voice, these radical youthful ministers started arguing from their pulpits; it's a matter of turning inwards, of making faith more spiritual, of "transcending" the surface-level noise that humans and human churches add to the direct relationship all of us have with God. And hence the term "Transcendentalism," which like "beatnik" and "hippie" and "slacker" was actually first coined by the group's critics as an insult against them, before eventually being adopted by the very people the term was supposed to make fun of.

But see, the story of Transcendentalism is even more complicated than that; because frankly, there were lots of people taking up the mantle at the same time not primarily for religious reasons at all, but rather artistic and philosophical ones. Because it's important to remember what exactly was going on in America at the time, and what a strange and new period of our history it was; the first time in our history, in fact, when the question of whether the country even officially existed was finally answered by the rest of the world for good, the first time we could officially stop worrying about falling apart and instead concentrate on what exactly we were going to be. What was the US going to be, actually, now that it had fought and won its initial wars for independence and respect, now that it could start devoting insane amount of resources simply into building an infrastructure and identity? Many of the country's smartest thinkers, for example, were calling for the US to finally establish an artistic and philosophical community for the first time -- to start really beefing up our school and university systems, stop automatically shipping off all our children to Europe in order to get a decent education, actually publish literary magazines and hold discussion salons and all the other things that at the time you literally had to sail all the way to London or Paris to find.

This is part of Transcendentalist history as well, Gura deftly shows in his book; not just the liberal preachers arguing for a more personal and Romantic understanding of God, but poets and editors and philosophers yearning for an entire Romantic artistic community, one that refocuses on nature and feelings and inner emotions, one where mood and atmosphere play a heavy role in the literature itself. But at the same time, Transcendentalism was also about political activism; it was about these ministers, these thinkers, these philanthropists, indeed turning inwards and realizing, "Why, as a good Christian, I should be helping others, and standing up for the meek, and trying to make the world a better place." And it's such a fascinating thing to look back on, I think, precisely because so much of this kind of stuff has literally disappeared in America; the idea of a Christian actually being an intellectual, the idea of a Christian actually being a liberal, the idea of Christians actually embracing experimental projects and radical theories. The people who identified themselves as Transcendentalists in these years were not just thinkers but doers; they were the ones setting up alternative schools, founding homeless shelters and soup kitchens, leading abolitionist marches, financing bizarre rural utopian societies*.

And like I said, a big part of this finally being a fascinating story to me for the first time is because of the insane skills of Gura, a professor of literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; he does no less, in fact, than take nearly 75 major characters, half a century of history, and a story that doesn't even agree with itself and never did from the start, and somehow manages to make it a coherent, even thrilling story, albeit a story you need to pay very close attention to while reading, and also know a fair amount of general 19th-century history before starting (and by "fair amount," I mean "a Saturday afternoon spent at Wikipedia"). Ultimately, Gura gets why this would make for such an important and interesting book in these times, and gears the entire storyline precisely in that direction; because among other things, Transcendentalism was about maintaining an optimistic, almost utopian look at the world, even in the face of some terrible, terrible things that were happening on a daily basis. It's that same kind of restless yearning that is fueling so much of these Last Days Of Bush here in the US, that has made so many people go so crazy over something like Barack Obama's presidential campaign this year; that after a decade of evil, of being ashamed to be an American, of a runaway unchecked administration that no one could stop, we are all desperate to believe that better days are coming, now that the neocon madness will almost definitely be put to an end here in about six months.

The liberals, the philosophers of America in the early 1800s were feeling the same thing, faced with an early Industrial Age marked mostly by greed, abuse and squalor; these Transcendentalists held on to their optimism and utopian vision, believed in it with a passion that made it actually happen, and along the way permanently changed the way this country works, with things like labor unions and civil-rights laws literally not existing if it hadn't been for them. It's a great message to be reminded of these days, which is partly why Gura's book is so welcome right now; not to mention that it finally gives you a clear picture of an infinitely complex time in US history, plus is simply a page-turning yarn that would make for a fine hipster high-def PBS documentary with plaintive indie-pop soundtrack (psst -- I hear Wilco's free). This is a great book, a must-read, one that will undoubtedly make CCLaP's Best of 2008 list at the end of the year; it comes highly recommended today.

Out of 10: 9.8

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*And of course, it's only fair to point out (as Gura also does) that the Transcendentalists were also mercilessly made fun of in those years as well, and especially when it came to these radical rural utopian societies they kept trying to set up, almost all of which ended in comical disaster. In fact, one of the books coming up later this year in the "CCLaP 100" series of "classics" essays is Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 The Blithedale Romance, a blistering satire of such high-minded utopian disasters inspired by his own time spent hanging around with Transcendentalists in those years.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:04 PM, June 17, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |