cover image The Transcendentalists and Their World

The Transcendentalists and Their World

Robert A. Gross. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40 (864p) ISBN 978-0-374-27932-5

Historian Gross (The Minutemen and Their World) provides a rich and immersive portrait of 19th-century Concord, Mass., and the Transcendentalist movement that originated there. Aiming to place Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists “in the context of the town in which they lived and wrote,” Gross documents the “promises and pitfalls” of Thoreau’s pencil-making father, John Thoreau, and other businessmen due to the region’s expanding economy (“Trade curses every thing it handles,” Thoreau would later write in Walden). Gross also delves into the subscription libraries, debating societies, and lecture series that connected community members to the wider world, and details how Emerson’s “call for self-reliance” was a bridge too far for many would-be Transcendentalists in Concord who still believed in the “ancient social ethic of New England.” Thoreau, however, was “drawn apart from his townsmen” and toward Emerson, as the two men “struggled for ways to reconcile the new freedom of individuals with the older claims of interdependence for the common good.” Seamlessly integrating a wealth of primary and secondary sources into his narrative, Gross brings 19th-century New England to vivid life and portrays the personal dynamics between Transcendentalism’s leading figures with insight. This sweeping study brilliantly illuminates a crucial period in American history. (Nov.)