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Saturday, November 17, 2007

'American Transcendentalism' watch: Early reviews.

I enjoyed meeting Philip Gura at Harvard Divinity School on Wednesday, where he delivered a lecture based on his new book, American Transcendentalism: A History. (He said he'll be speaking at the UUA General Assembly in June; he's a UU himself.) The book, which was released last week, is starting to generate some coverage.

Adam Kirsch reviews Gura's "welcome and informative new history" at length for the New York Sun. "The first chapters of Mr. Gura's book are devoted to a dry but rewarding analysis of the theological ideas that caused a ferment in Boston Unitarian circles in the early 1830s," he writes. (I'm not finding them all that dry, since I'm squarely in the book's target audience — what, with my English degree and interest in the history of theology and American culture — which makes me think I'm going to get a kick out of the later chapters.) Kirsch highlights Gura's emphasis on figures other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who usually dominates studies of the Transcendentalist movement:

[T]he central argument of Mr. Gura's book is that Emerson's sovereign egotism represented only one side of Transcendentalism, and not the most admirable one. To Mr. Gura, Emerson's unremitting focus on the individual — his insistence that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind" — shades all too easily into mere selfishness. . . .

[He] insists on the tension in Transcendentalism between "those who remained primarily interested in theological and social reform, and others who gravitated toward belles lettres." By using the slighting term "belles lettres" for the work of Emerson and Thoreau, Mr. Gura makes clear which side of the divide he is on. In place of the literary Transcendentalism of Concord, he elevates the political Transcendentalism of Boston, where radical reformers like Parker and Brownson came to grips with poverty and slavery.

Kirsch thinks Gura gives the Transcendentalist reformers too much credit, however. "His admiration for Brook Farm, in fact, is a perfect example of his readiness to credit the Transcendentalists' good intentions while forgiving their bad results. . . . [T]he self-admiring dilettantism of Brook Farm did absolutely nothing to help the Boston poor."

Rich Barlow's religion column in Boston Globe, meanwhile, offers a Q&A with Gura this morning that highlights the Transcendentalists' Unitarian connection.

("Band of outsiders," Adam Kirsch, New York Sun 11.14.07; "Studying the Transcendentalists' legacy," Rich Barlow, Boston Globe 11.17.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 17 November 2007 at 11:57 AM

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