American Transcendentalism: A History

In This Review

American Transcendentalism: A History

By Philip F. Gura
Hill and Wang, 2007
384 pp. $28.00
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What the Great Awakening was for evangelical America, the transcendentalist movement was for liberal Protestants and even secular Americans. An outburst of emotional passion and conviction transformed the ideas, values, and practices of liberal Christians and post-Christians alike. In Gura's valuable American Transcendentalism, the transcendentalist movement comes alive. Gura shows how the idealistic and romantic works of men such as Goethe, Carlyle, and Coleridge intersected with the upheavals in German philosophy and biblical studies in the early nineteenth century to set people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry James, Sr. (father of the philosopher William and the novelist Henry, Jr.) along the path to careers of intellectual, spiritual, and (sometimes) political experimentation. Relations between the sexes, capitalist individuality and social solidarity, science and religion: debates on these and other topics among early transcendentalists opened discussions that still engage us today. By highlighting the split between radical individualism and engaged social activism that divided the movement from an early date, Gura also helps illuminate some of the tensions in U.S. intellectual life that still persist. At a time when so much emphasis has been laid on the Christian right, this helpful book reminds one of the complex roots and vital role of liberal Christianity and its many offshoots.