Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Transcendentalists and Their World (Robert A. Gross)

The Massachusetts town of Concord has served as the birthplace of two revolutions in America’s history - the first, its war for independence as the second battle of the war occurred in 1775 on the same day as the battle in nearby Lexington. The second was the revolution of thought and literature that developed in the 19th Century from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Throeau, and later Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts. Why was Concord the town where America’s literary and philosophical revolutions arose?  Robert Gross’s The Transcendentalists and Their World dives into that very question.

According to Gross, Concord’s role as a hub for thinking and writing comes about due to a few key factors. One was the establishment and support of community institutions within the town. These institutions encouraged debate and community service to better the community and, as emancipation efforts grew, the wider world. The second factor was the religious diversification as a result of the Second Great Awakening and changes at the state level regarding established religion. New denominations sprouted within the town and created choice for its citizens. The third factor was the technological changes (such as the railroad) that helped integrate the town to the wider world, not just nearby Boston. All of these factors created the perfect incubator for a world that sprouted tremendous writing and innovative technologies for the time. 

Gross’s dive into Concord’s 19th Century life is incredibly detailed, thought out, and balanced. Even with the depth and detail, the book reads quickly, and I found myself immersed in it. The Transcendentalists will open a door to understanding how America grew up and changed through the eyes of one town’s role and contributions to those evolutions.