American Transcendentalism: A History

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9780809016440: American Transcendentalism: A History

American Transcendentalism is a sweeping narrative history of America's first group of public intellectuals, the men and women who defined American literature and indelibly marked American reform in the decades before and following the American Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce theological debates that, so often first in Massachusetts and eventually throughout America, gave rise to practical, personal, and quixotic attempts to improve, even perfect the world. The transcendentalists would painfully bifurcate over what could be attained and how, one half epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and stressing self-reliant individualism, the other by Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker, emphasizing commitment to the larger social good.

By the 1850s, transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition, and by war's end transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism.

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About the Author:

Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he holds appointments in English, American studies, and religious studies.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

  American Transcendentalism
1 SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES In the late summer of 1812, Harvard students and professors, local clergy, scholars, bibliophiles, and curious onlookers gathered in Boston “at the Mansion-House of the late Rev. Mr. Buckminster” for the sale of the minister’s library, one of the largest in New England. Although he was only thirty-eight when he died, for the previous eighteen years Joseph Stevens Buckminster had presided over Boston’s prestigious Brattle Street Church. A civic, intellectual, and religious leader, he was widely regarded as one of New England’s most influential ministers, a bold and moving pulpit orator as well as a scholar of the first rank; his premature death was much lamented.1 Over two days the auctioneers Whitwell & Bond sold more than eleven hundred volumes from his collection, some titles individually, others in lots grouped by topic, many published in London or on the Continent. Given the recent embargo of European goods attendant on the War of 1812, these volumes were particularly enticing. The auctioneers requested payment in “Cash, Boston-money,” and the quality of the library guaranteed good prices: during the two days the sale brought close to six thousand dollars.2 The bidding was spirited, at no point more so than when the Reverend Moses Stuart, professor of sacred literature at the recently founded Andover Theological Seminary north of Boston, went head-to-head over one set of books with eighteen-year-old Edward Everett, a recent Harvard graduate with clerical aspirations who two years later would be installed over Buckminster’s Brattle Street Church.3 Making this competition seemingly incongruous were the very different religious affiliations of the two bidders. The thirtytwo-year-old Stuart, a Yale graduate, was charged at Andover with defending the strictest form of Calvinist theology, based in the works of Jonathan Edwards and his followers Samuel Hopkins and Joseph Bellamy. Everett, on the other hand, had been raised among Boston’s liberal Christians, in Buckminster’s church, where parishioners were suspicious of overtly emotional religion and were tutored in a rational view of the Bible that revealed a unitary rather than triune God. What in Buckminster’s library could have attracted the interest of two such different men? It was a four-volume work in German, J. G. Eichhorn’s Introduction to the Old Testament, published between 1780 and 1783, the first comprehensive modern treatment of the Old Testament’s books. Years later Stuart still remembered, “with lively and pleasant emotion,” how Everett and he had jousted for it. Stuart had gone to the auction thinking Eichhorn’s work “unknown to our literary community.” Moreover, the set was not even beautifully made or bound—“moderate octavo on coarse hemp paper,” he recalled. Thus, he was surprised at Everett’s aggressive bidding, up to the extraordinary price of six dollars per volume. But the young man stopped when Stuart subsequently bid a quarter more per book. Stuart had to have it, he explained, and he believed it worth the price. The acquisition of that book, he recalled in 1841, spread its influence over his whole life.4 Other attendees were similarly enthralled by the offerings and surprised at the prices fetched, particularly for European theology. The Salem minister William Bentley, for example, was chagrined to be outbid on another of Eichhorn’s works, an edition of his multivolume Universal Library of Biblical Literature (1787-1801). Why were the works of this scholar, a faculty member at the universities in Jena and Göttingen, so prized? Why were so many of the other volumes in the Buckminster sale similarly in German and devoted to scriptural criticism? What was the fascination of such abstruse works, in a language few New Englanders read? And why among bidders at the sale did bitter interdenominational rivalries seem forgotten? As a result of their meeting at the Buckminster auction, for example, Stuart tutored his new friend about other German works and even encouraged Everett to undertake the translation of some. Why was it that during this period, as the Unitarian clergyman Ezra Stiles Gannett recalled, “he who could buy nothing else bought a [J. J.] Griesbach,” that is, the work of another German biblical scholar?5 The answers lie in the crucible in which New England Transcendentalism was formed, a widely prevalent interest in scriptural language and its meaning.
 
  The intellectual genealogy of Transcendentalism began in early-nineteenth-century New England among clergymen caught up in unresolved theological battles initiated more than half a century earlier, specifically between “New Light” supporters of the wide-spread religious revivals known as the Great Awakening and their “Old Light” opponents. The pro-revivalists, epitomized by the great theologian Jonathan Edwards, stressed the necessity of an emotional conversion experience, a change of heart that realigned one’s priorities from selfishness to selflessness. The anti-revivalists, led by Boston clergyman Charles Chauncy, argued for the primacy of reason in religion and found the New Lights’ emphasis on an emotional religious experience—a “New Birth”—an insult to human intelligence. To Chauncy and his supporters, religion was a matter of the head and not of the heart.6 Over the remainder of the eighteenth century, the Old Lights continued to stress reason in religion, a point of view that eventually led some of them—Buckminster, for example—to become what first were termed “liberal Christians” and then, early in the next century, “Unitarians.” That is, they rejected the notion that the Bible described a Trinitarian deity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and argued instead for a unitary God. In this reading, Jesus Christ, rather than being a part of the Godhead, was simply the supreme model for humanity, God’s gift to show that to which all good Christians should aspire.7 Before 1820, those who traveled the full distance to Unitarianism remained few and were vociferously opposed by significant numbers of Trinitarians who controlled the majority of New England’s—indeed, of America’s—pulpits. The warring camps jousted with scholarly—primarily historical and philological—weapons on the fields of scriptural exegesis.8 These clergy fought over language, over what precisely the Bible said with regard to the personality of the deity. They sought to know whether scripture was the direct, unmediated word of God or merely the words of men who interpreted the divine Logos in their own languages and through their own cultural predispositions. To spar in this arena required knowledge of the language and culture of the Bible, information at that time best provided by contemporary German scholars. Thus, Eichhorn, Griesbach, and others had become significant for New England intellectuals. Until the second decade of the nineteenth century, most participants in these battles over scriptural interpretation began from similar premises about the relation of language to meaning, derived from John Locke’s famous discussion of the subject in Book III of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Specifically, they seized upon his declaration of the arbitrariness of language. To Locke, words were merely external stimuli, and the “truth” of language consisted in its utility. The source of meaning, Locke wrote, was simply “rational usage derived from sensory perception.” Words were contrivances designed for human convenience. If they came to be used by men as the “ signs of their ideas,” it was not through any “natural connection, that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain ideas,” but only through “a voluntary imposition, whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of an idea.” The world’s languages thus had no underlying unity, and words in their primary or immediate signification stood only for ideas “in the mind of him that uses them.” Concomitantly, if men employed terms for which they had not experienced sensory analogues, they did not truly know the meaning of what they said. Words could not be universal symbols, for each man to whom the word-idea was expressed had to learn the truth of the idea empirically. 9 Language was thus an artificial construct that rested upon a contract voluntarily entered, or, more precisely, upon a contextual arrangement. As with laws in the political state, neither vocabulary nor syntax had inherent rationale but were created to serve particular needs—in this case, human communication. Words were not gifts from God that stood as ciphers to reality, but only noises with no direct correspondence to what they named. Words had “meanings” that were narrowly cultural, and acts of human communication were only approximations of experience, not magical invocations of it. Language thus had to be interpreted by the intellectual tools that men, as rational creatures, possessed. The stakes in these debates were high when one applied such ideas to the language of the Bible. Was the word of God merely contextual, for example, or did it possess transcendent significance? According to Locke’s logic, if the Bible was the word of God, it was in a vocabulary set down by men in a particular place and at a particular time, and so had been affected by the vagaries of human circumstance. In this light, scripture did not consist of divinely inspired words but rather of a vocabulary that was the result of the time and chance above which no human being, Trinitarian or Unitar...

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Descripción Hill Wang Inc.,U.S., United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. First.. Language: English . Brand New Book. American Transcendentalism is a sweeping narrative history of America s first group of public intellectuals, the men and women who defined American literature and indelibly marked American reform in the decades before and following the American Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce theological debates that, so often first in Massachusetts and eventually throughout America, gave rise to practical, personal, and quixotic attempts to improve, even perfect the world. The transcendentalists would painfully bifurcate over what could be attained and how, one half epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and stressing self-reliant individualism, the other by Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker, emphasizing commitment to the larger social good. By the 1850s, transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition, and by war s end transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780809016440

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Descripción Hill Wang Inc.,U.S., United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. First.. Language: English . Brand New Book. American Transcendentalism is a sweeping narrative history of America s first group of public intellectuals, the men and women who defined American literature and indelibly marked American reform in the decades before and following the American Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce theological debates that, so often first in Massachusetts and eventually throughout America, gave rise to practical, personal, and quixotic attempts to improve, even perfect the world. The transcendentalists would painfully bifurcate over what could be attained and how, one half epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson and stressing self-reliant individualism, the other by Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker, emphasizing commitment to the larger social good. By the 1850s, transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition, and by war s end transcendentalism had become identified exclusively with Emersonian self-reliance, congruent with the national ethos of political liberalism and market capitalism. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780809016440

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