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Emerson and Thoreau’s Fanatical Freedom

Why do the Transcendentalists still have an outsize influence on American culture?

On the title page of my paperback copy of Walden, an echo of a former self greets me. My name, written in loopy adolescent script, and the date: August 12, 1993. I was 17 when I bought the Vintage Books/Library of America edition at Waldenbooks in the Bridgewater Commons Mall, using proceeds from a summer job. I dutifully read it in those final weeks of summer, with pen in hand, underlining here, making embarrassing marginal comments there. One late afternoon, I was sitting alone at home, working my way through the book, when my boyfriend stopped by unexpectedly. I couldn’t have planned it better. I had wanted to be seen just so: dim room, puddle of light from a lamp, reading Thoreau.

The Transcendentalists and Their World
by Robert A. Gross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 864 pp., $40.00

So goes a story about the Transcendentalists and my world. Reading Thoreau signaled, for me, the kind of intellectual loftiness I desperately longed for as a child of the uncultured American suburbs. You might have a story like it, whether animated by love, torment, certainty, or ambivalence. The Transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and assorted others) are both a loose collection of white, mid–nineteenth-century New England writers who shared similar beliefs about the self, divinity, and nature and also, together, a generalized idea—about America, about literariness—that continues to have an outsize conceptual, aesthetic, and emotional influence on American culture.

Today, this influence feels stronger than ever. Transcendentalist ideas, once radical and experimental, have long since been stripped of a singular ideological or political orientation. The broad tenets that many of these writers outlined in the nineteenth century—a faith in the sacred divinity of the individual and a generally distrustful stance toward public institutions—continue to animate American life and belief systems. Both libertarian anti-masking advocates and “resistance” liberals might conceivably trace their intellectual and emotional roots to insights articulated by American Transcendentalist writers. Many of us continue to feel moved by an idea that we might learn, as Thoreau put it, how to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” even as those desires have become fully corporatized (#wellness). Transcendentalism tapped into an elemental American stew of naïveté, individualistic self-love, and longing that has never really loosened its grip.

All this talk of individualism, perhaps paradoxically, sprang from a tightly entwined, interdependent group of thinkers, living close by one another in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s this locale that interests the historian Robert A. Gross in his hefty new book, The Transcendentalists and Their World. With his focus on a single town between 1825 and 1850, Gross hopes to show that Emerson’s and Thoreau’s widely disseminated ideas—their calls to “seek inspiration in nature” and view of each person as a divine soul of infinite potential—stemmed somewhat less than has been assumed from each man’s intellectual iconoclasm than they did from Concord’s shifting social values, which were drifting away from communal rituals. In Gross’s telling, this story is about how people in the mid-nineteenth century tried to make sense of a rapidly changing society. It’s also—though less clear from his account—a story about their refusal to make sense of their past.

To start, I should be clear that by “world” Gross means “town.” Both Gross’s first influential book, The Minutemen and Their World, and this new one are detailed microhistories of Concord in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively. The level of detail Gross brings to The Transcendentalists and their World is its most enjoyable and also occasionally its most overwhelming feature. From butter consumption habits, to the formation of Concord’s trendsetting ornamental tree society (“reputedly the first in the region”), to gossip about the time 62-year-old Abiel Heywood abandoned his Colonial-era knee breeches in favor of new, modern trousers, the narrative washes over its reader with wave after wave of minutiae. Here are people—a lot of them—in their full glory, both coming together in a building social spirit and also chafing at the social worlds they cannot escape.

The “Transcendentalists” of the title are, specifically, Emerson and his “disciple and protégé” Thoreau. Thoreau was five years old in 1823, when his father, John Thoreau, moved the family to Concord, to take over his brother-in-law’s floundering pencil manufacturing business. Emerson would settle in 1834, after a peripatetic youth in Boston and Cambridge. His father had died when he was eight, and his mother supported her large family by running a boardinghouse, ferrying the children between rentals in Boston. Emerson entered Harvard at 14 on a scholarship, was ordained as minister of Boston’s Second Church and married at 26, widowed at 27, and famously resigned from the ministry at 29. He was 31 when he moved back to Concord, where his grandfather, the Reverend William Emerson, had been the town minister.

By the time Thoreau and Emerson struck up their friend/mentor relationship in the fall of 1837, Concord was in the throes of an unprecedented transformation. The town had long been a bastion of tradition, where everyone attended the same church. When Emerson’s grandfather died in 1778, his successor, Ezra Ripley, both took on the leadership of the First Parish Church and married the elder Emerson’s widow. At the helm of the church for 63 years, Ripley fashioned himself a “liberal,” who favored calm deliberation. He presided over what Gross describes as a sort of paradox in terms, “a rational, orderly awakening,” in the early 1810s, as the rest of the country experienced passionate, fiery “full-fledged revivals.” Life in Concord at that time often tended toward the complacent. As Gross puts it, between 1796 and 1825, whenever Concordians “were offered the chance to change, they largely stuck with familiar ways.”

But churchgoing changed radically between 1825 and 1850. In 1826, a group of parishioners—featuring Thoreau’s aunts Elizabeth, Jane, and Maria—split off with a group of others to establish the more conservative, orthodox Trinitarian Congregational Church. The dissenters were not merely after stricter principles. Rather, what they wanted—desired, we might even say, with a hot sensuality hard to come by in Concord—was emotional intensity. Ripley couldn’t bring himself to understand this desire: He had a “confidence in free inquiry” and believed that Concord was enjoying “the ‘forward march of intellect’ and the ‘higher cultivation of moral powers’” that he had “always anticipated from the progress of liberal principles.” Ripley’s loosening grip, Gross establishes, is a story of liberalism’s insufficiency, its tendency—despite its claims to clear-sighted rationality—to remain blinkered regarding values and desires it wrongly assumes everyone else shares.

A similar longing for emotional intensity became a generative force of Transcendentalism—a dissatisfied desire for something more. In “The American Scholar,” a Phi Beta Kappa address Emerson delivered in 1837, he expressed his longing to live in an “age of Revolution” in which a man might “plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide.” In the 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson aligns the movement with a kind of religious dissent, “The Transcendentalist … believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” Thoreau himself sought out extreme emotional experience, and some vivid veins of dissent coursed through his family, especially its women. Thoreau treasured being disliked and cultivated the feeling of frisson it created: Writing in his journal, he notes that “there is some advantage in being the humblest, cheapest, least dignified man in the village, so that the very stable boys shall damn you. Methinks I enjoy that advantage to an unusual extent.” Church, or at least First Parish, was not the place where a person in Concord could find this kind of frisson.

While church membership cratered and splintered, Concordians were building other institutions that would uphold the emerging culture. The “collective ends” for which Revolutionary soldiers fought and that had once bound residents of Concord together were gradually being rejected, as values of “greater individual freedom, voluntary association, economic innovation, social mobility” replaced them. The civic energy of this era suggested a town waking up, like Rip Van Winkle, from a decades-long nap. Committees of townspeople formed to plan the founding of a social library, debating club, and lyceum, and to establish new regulations for the town’s common schools (what we’d today call public school). A well-regulated common school education, the committee averred, would “qualify us for the greatest usefulness in the world” and “the greatest possible happiness.” A lyceum would allow community members to learn from one another. The curators of the first season of lyceum talks noted that “there is scarcely a man among us of any intelligence, who is not better acquainted with some one or more subjects than his neighbors.”

At times, The Transcendentalists and Their World reads like an elegy for an era when towns in the United States worked. There is something marvelous in reading about exactly how a town came together to establish not just a social library but also a debating club and lyceum—three totally separate material, civic forums for the sharing of ideas in public! These forums helped to establish Emerson’s and Thoreau’s public identities as writers and honed their sensibilities, even when they bristled against them. The debating club could get discordant, and Thoreau would later mock the stock figure of “the orator” in Walden: The orator, Thoreau asserts, “speaks to the mob before him,” while the writer “speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind.” But Thoreau also presented portions of what would become Walden—an arguably unneighborly text—at the Concord Lyceum in 1847 to very positive reviews from his neighbors (“an uncommonly excellent lecture,” Prudence Ward reported).

Likewise, Emerson was a persistent and present voice around town—at the Lyceum (where he was one of its most regular speakers) and also at various town commemorative celebrations. Emerson often addressed young people—he was a regular on the commencement address beat—and Gross digs up a number of gems capturing the often impassive reactions of the youth Emerson was so keen to kindle: Teenage Caroline Healey (who would go on to become a writer and chronicler of Transcendentalism) heard him speak often and found him “incomprehensible,” “extravagant and unsafe,” exhibiting a “selfish abstraction from society,” while a young John Shepard Keyes, later a Massachusetts state senator, went from finding Emerson’s language “the most beautiful illustration” to despairing of what he’d heard. Emerson’s 1841 lecture “The Poet,” Keyes wrote, “disappointed me excessively, and made me feel so utterly and completely untranscendental.”

Emerson may not have landed with all the youth of Concord, but he did with Thoreau. Emerson, 14 years older than Thoreau, called the younger man “my protestor,” welcomed him into the Transcendental Club—whose members included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Theodore Parker, and which met at Emerson’s home—and encouraged Thoreau to submit work to The Dial, in the magazine’s short-lived Transcendentalist forum. Emerson saw in Thoreau—in his antisociality and disobedience—a living example of his ideals of self-reliance. The year after his 1841 essay “Self Reliance” was published, Emerson wrote to Margaret Fuller: “I am sorry that you, & the world after you, do not like my brave Henry any better … I admire this perennial threatening attitude, just as we like to go under an overhanging precipice.” Thoreau found in Emerson a type of solid, soothing presence that enabled his prickly oppositional reflex.

Their creative and emotional dependence on each other, Gross argues, was ironic, given both men’s “fierce insistence upon independence and self-reliance.” A similar kind of ironic discord, however, echoed across the town in this era for anyone attuned to the peculiarly American wavelength of wishful thinking, and to how very much the Transcendentalists engaged in it. By some accounts (notably Emerson’s own), the Transcendentalists’ inspiring principles of individual freedom and progress were sweeping away the webs of the past. Yet, the past continued to haunt Concord and its residents, unwilling as they were to face the cracked foundation of the American experiment they were eagerly pushing forward as Emersonian “fanatics in freedom.” 

Half a century after the American Revolution, Concord was still shrouded in this event’s overdetermined expression of “freedom.” For Concordians, freedom was something they had won in battle and aimed to defend, rather than a partially and unequally realized promise. While Concordians were hemming and hawing over an event to commemorate the heroism of the Revolutionary War, nearby Bostonian David Walker was composing and figuring out how to secretly distribute his insurgent 1829 pamphlet David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which powerfully exposed the racist hypocrisies baked into the U.S. experiment by close reading and repurposing its founding documents. Likewise, indigenous dispossession was ongoing in the region and time under study. In 1835, William Apess, a Pequot minister and writer, published Indian Nullification, an account of the 1833 Mashpee revolt against white settlers in Cape Cod.

One can see the weight of the town’s self-image, and its power to occlude insight, in “A Historical Discourse,” the 1835 speech Emerson gave on the occasion of Concord’s bicentennial. In it, Emerson provides a sweeping view of his town’s history to celebrate the triumph of “open democracy,” representing the Puritan errand into the wilderness as divine and beautiful, and romanticizing the brutal practices of indigenous dispossession that were not even remotely in the past: “The red man may destroy here and there a straggler, as a wild beast may; he may fire a farm-house, or a village; but the association of the white men and their arts of war give them an overwhelming advantage, and in the first blast of their trumpet we already hear the flourish of victory. I confess what chiefly interests me, in the annals of [King Philip’s War] is the grandeur of spirit exhibited by a few of the Indian chiefs.”

Gross remarks that, in his 1835 speech, “Emerson’s ideal of local democracy was a fantasy about the past.” Though Emerson was well aware of Concord’s entanglement in a system of violence and oppression, he excluded those facts from his narrative. He preferred not to dwell on “the oppression of native people during King Philip’s War” 160 years earlier and, as Gross puts it, “ignored slavery in New England altogether, despite … the presence of Black faces in the crowd.” Emerson’s idea of transcendence depended on imagining a consenting, self-determined man finding expression in what he describes as “the pleasing features of the American forest,” a landscape whose time of contestation was past and healed, the way forward clear for new feeling. A year later, he published “Nature,” with its lofty and beautiful immateriality: “The world is emblematic.… the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.” “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?” that essay asks. Why, indeed.

Thoreau’s evasions of the past are just as determined. Thoreau wrote about his stay in the Walden Woods as if he were venturing into new territory—both in physical space and within himself. But between the late 1770s and 1822, the Walden Woods was home to multiple free Black households (scholar Elise Lemire tells many of their stories in her excellent 2009 book, Black Walden), and somewhat later a number of Irish laborers lived there. The land Thoreau took up residence on was no pristine wilderness; it was still marked by the presence of these people—their cellar stones, wells, and the lilacs and strawberries they’d cultivated.

When Thoreau encounters these features in the landscape, he is mystified. In the chapter of Walden titled “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” Thoreau, quoting John Milton, imagines the discussions on “fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute” that these previous villagers likely had but that had been lost to time. He wonders: “this small village, germ of something more, why did it fail while Concord keeps its ground?” It’s a strangely ingenuous question: Did Thoreau really have no idea of the differences between the impoverished and marginalized people who had lived in the wood and himself? He writes like someone pretending to see no difference between eking out an existence in the woods of necessity, and someone freely choosing to travel there (and famously sending his laundry home).

Thoreau’s desire to “live deliberately” is a part of the long American history of what scholar Philip Deloria has termed “playing Indian.” Nathaniel Hawthorne recognized this in their time, describing how Thoreau was “inclined to live a sort of Indian life among civilized men,” casting “Indian” as an idealized metaphor for a more authentic experience of life. The end of the famous second chapter of Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived for,” is both moving and disquieting, as Thoreau frames his experiment quite literally as one of possessive extraction from land stolen several times over: “My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.” Thoreau lays claim not just to the land itself but to the ideas about the land that have driven white American thought and politics for generations.

Though Gross offers critiques of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s evasions, The Transcendentalists and Their World does not capture the extent of the mid–nineteenth-century Black or indigenous experience that the Transcendentalists excluded from their thinking. Gross attends carefully to how the white residents of the town came to support abolition, in part due to the activism of the members of Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, and provides probably the most detailed account to date of Emerson’s excruciatingly slow windup, between issuing his first tepid public anti-slavery statement in 1837 and the stronger, more moving public commitment to the abolitionist cause he makes in his 1844 address “... on the Anniversary of the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies.” But a reader of The Transcendentalists and Their World can go through this entire book and come away with little idea that the era, and region under study, was abounding with Black- and indigenous-led resistance to the practices of enslavement, unequal treatment, and settler violence.

Without these voices present in the book, it is hard for readers to fully grasp how, in their attempts to transcend the past rather than face it, both Emerson and Thoreau fit into a long tradition of American disavowal of that past. Transcendentalism’s longing individualism did more than just upend communal traditions: It soothed the very people who were enacting the harm and served as cover for this harm’s ongoing existence.

In a 2019 poem titled “Inhabitants and Visitors,” poet Robin Coste Lewis uses Thoreau’s own language to suggest the existence of different histories, different stories still waiting to be told. The poem is an erasure poem, created by taking the text of Thoreau’s “Former Inhabitants” chapter and blacking out some of its lines and phrases. Paring back Thoreau’s presence, Lewis brings Black Walden to the fore:

Civil speech carmine,
  curled up by use—
     The last symbol a dim garden over-run
         With Roman beggar-ticks.

My dent in the earth,
    This site
      These dwellings:
        buried cellar stones—

The place where a select few have always been able to “live deliberately” is also “a dim garden over-run.” As inventive and inspiring as Emerson and Thoreau often were, their zeal for “individual freedom” has curdled into a socially destructive force. As Lewis does in her poem, perhaps it’s time to take what is salvageable from the Transcendentalists and their world, and leave the rest.