The First Comprehensive History of Transcendentalism
American Transcendentalism is a comprehensive 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 America Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illustrating how these informed the fierce local 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, the uniquely American problem of slavery dissolved differences as transcendentalists turned ever more exclusively to abolition. Along with their early inheritance from European Romanticism, America's transcendentalists abandoned their interest in general humanitarian reform. 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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Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he holds appointments in English, American studies, and religious studies.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURESIn 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.2The 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.4Other 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.6Over 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.7Before 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. 9Language 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 Unitarian, could rise.Settling the matter of what precisely the Bible said—and what it meant for subsequent generations of Christians—became the work of scriptural exegetes like Eichhorn, Griesbach, and a host of other European and American scholars who pioneered the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, a term that Eichhorn coined.10 Higher Critics enlisted the rational, critical tools of modern inquiry to discover the deeper truths of Christianity. In general terms, they focused on historical documents and tried to establish their authorship, date, and place of composition, as opposed to the Lower Critics, who worked primarily on the language and grammar of biblical texts. In particular, Higher Critics challenged the idea that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, positing several different sources for the book of Genesis alone, and they urged the study of the Bible as a literary artifact rather than as divinely inspired text. To them, it was a book like any other, to be interpreted through immersion in the cultures and languages of its various authors. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, advanced scholars in this discipline transformed the debates about biblical and, by implication, figurative language.
American scholars’ interest in the Higher Criticism also coincided with their discovery of Germany’s rich religious and artistic culture. At first they got their information secondhand, particularly from the widely circulated Germany (1810), by Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, the baroness of Staël-Holstein (better known as Madame de Staël), which was available in French and, after 1813, in English translation. In addition to providing a road map to the “manners,” literature, and arts of the nation, de Staël devoted many pages to a discussion of the country’s philosophical and religious thinkers, particularly Kant, and demonstrated the richly symbiotic relationship between their thought and national culture. Here American readers encountered for the first time a lengthy discussion of philosophical Idealism. For those who chafed under the rationalism and materialism to which Locke’s empiricism led, an introduction to German Idealism and its ethical implications was both liberating and exhilarating.De Staël also touted the superiority of the German educational system; and with the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the reopening of safe travel to Europe, Americans began to visit the Continent and to study at German universities. Among the most prominent of these pioneers were George Ticknor, Edward Everett, George Bancroft, and Frederic Henry Hedge, all of whom eventually carved out positions of intellectual leadership in New England and led efforts to disseminate German language and thought.By the time Ticknor was nineteen, and a Dartmouth graduate, for example, he had read in de Staël of the great university at Göttingen and was determined to sample its educational resources. He knew little German, however, and turned to his friend Edward Everett for guidance. Everett provided him with a German-French dictionary, with which he began his tutorial. Eventually, in 1815 he, Everett, and two others sailed for Europe and made their way to Germany’s cultural centers. At Göttingen, Ticknor took classes with, among others, Eichhorn himself, whom he found “lively, gay, full of vigour, though not young, and interested in everything.” The young Bostonian luxuriated in this intellectual hothouse.During his European sojourn Ticknor met other prominent intellectuals, including at Weimar the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and in Paris the philosophers A. W. von Schlegel and Alexander von Humboldt. He continued his introductions in London, where he greeted the American author Washington Irving and the English writers William Hazlitt, William Godwin, and Charles Lamb, among others. Upon his return to the United States in 1819 Ticknor assumed the position of Smith Professor of French and Spanish Languages and Literature at Harvard, which had been held for him while he studied abroad. Although he was not responsible for teaching the German language per se, his experience abroad made him attentive to students’ needs, and in 1825 he convinced Harvard to hire Karl Follen (1796–1840), a German expatriate whom he had met in Switzerland, to teach the language.Upon his arrival at Göttingen, Ticknor’s traveling companion Everett, similarly promised a chair (in Greek) at Harvard upon his return, took private classes with Eichhorn in Hebrew and Arabic and engaged him as well for a tutorial in German literature. In addition, Everett pursued advanced studies in Greek to fulfill his obligation to Harvard, and in 1817 he received a doctorate in philosophy, the first such awarded an American from a German university. After his and Ticknor’s audience with Goethe in 1816, Everett prepared an essay on him, published in 1817 in the North American Review, the first important notice of this writer to appear in the United States.11 The following winter Everett continued his travels. In Paris he met the German naturalist and explorer Wilhelm von Humboldt, the philosopher Benjamin Constant, and de Staël herself. He returned to the United States the same year as Ticknor to assume his duties at Harvard. From that position he influenced countless students, many of whom sought him out to learn more of German language and thought. Years later Emerson testified to this professor’s large influence, observing that “the genius of Everett” was “almost comparable to that of Pericles in Athens,” as even “the rudest undergraduate found a new morning open to him” in Everett’s lecture hall.12In the summer of 1818 eighteen-year-old George Bancroft, later a prominent Democratic politician and one of the country’s most distinguished historians, followed in Ticknor’s and Everett’s footsteps for study at Göttingen, with Frederic Henry Hedge, the twelve-year-old son of Harvard professor of logic Levi Hedge (with whom Bancroft had boarded), in tow. Everett had convinced Harvard’s president Kirkland to provid...
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