Robert A. Gross is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. His widely regarded book, The Minutemen and Their World won the Bancroft Prize.
The following interview revolves around Gross’s new book, The Transcendentalist and Their World. The Transcendentalists and Their World: Gross, Robert A.: 9780395279328: Amazon.com: Books
For over two decades, I’ve had a keen interest in 19th century America. That interest led me to read a lot about the transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, and Fuller. I have done some writing on Emerson. One of those pieces can be found here: Where’s Waldo? (thegospelcoalition.org).
I was eager to do this interview since Professor Gross is considered the leading expert on Concord. Having made a few treks myself to Concord, I was anticipating a rewarding read. I was not disappointed.
Moore: This book was quite an undertaking. With endnotes almost reaching two hundred pages and text of six hundred pages, your love for all things Concord shines through. When did you decide to tackle such a massive topic? Did you ever have any serious doubts about whether it was a good idea?
Gross: I never anticipated that I would spend four decades researching this book, nor that I would produce a manuscript of such length. But the documentation of Concord as a town and of the many people who lived there is so extensive that I was drawn into exploring what now seems like every nook and cranny of the local history. I loved the challenge of writing a community study, which would show how the large-scale forces reshaping American life played out in the setting of a small town of some two thousand people. But not any small town: Concord has exercised an outsized influence on American history. It was the site of the opening battle of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775 (“the shot heard round the world”), and sixty years later it became the epicenter of Transcendentalism, the first major intellectual movement in American history, associated, most notably, with the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In 1775 the Minutemen fought for local self-rule against British taxes and “tyranny.” Theirs was a collective effort, in contrast to the individualism for which the Transcendentalists spoke.
How could Concord stand for such opposing tendencies? Did it experience of a social and cultural transformation whose meanings Emerson and Thoreau crystallized in their writings? I set out to address these questions and to do so in a narrative that would foreground the people of Concord at all levels of the social order, examine their personal choices and collective decisions, and set forth their lived experiences of social change. That took a lot of time and space.
Moore: In light of my previous question, and one I have asked of many writers, is how you capture your research. Are you old school with notecards or more of a computer guy? Do you put marginalia in physical books? Do you write early drafts by hand or start typing right away? I could ask about several other related matters but will stop there!
Gross: All of the above. I started out taking notes on 5” x 8” inch index cards – excellent discipline, since I was obliged to summarize concisely the salient facts and quotations I encountered in the sources. I migrated to word processors, then to laptop computers, which tempt the researcher to spend more time transcribing than thinking. (Another temptation I mostly resisted was to request pages and pages of photocopies from research libraries – materials that would later sit unread.) Simultaneously, I was also drawn to quantitative history, which would enable the study of whole populations and the reconstruction of social, economic, and political trends – e.g., what percentage of the taxpayers owned land, and how equally was property distributed? Or who held the top offices in local government and from what ranks in the class system did they come? So, I have built up a vast collection of databases on all aspects of Concord life. The biggest challenge was then to take all this material and put it into a readable narrative.
Moore: The first things that come to mind for many with respect to Concord are the American Revolution and the wonderful grape jelly. How did a group of thinkers, visionaries, and writers transform the town into a mecca of innovative ideas?
Gross: Concord did not turn Emerson or Thoreau into Transcendentalists. That intellectual movement had its origins across the Atlantic, among German Romantics and British idealists (such as Coleridge and Carlyle), and it appealed initially to reform-minded Unitarians in the Boston area, at the very moment that the Congregationalist religious establishment in Massachusetts was on the verge of extinction. Transcendentalism provided a strategy for liberal Protestants to compete for followers in a dawning age of religious pluralism. But in the hands of Emerson and others, the movement had a broader cultural force. Joined to the rising currents of democracy and equality, it celebrated the common person and put the individual, endowed with a divine Soul, at the foundation of the social order. Each of us, Emerson preached, is something new under the sun, and it is the mission of government and society to cultivate our inner potential for its own sake and for the benefit of all.
This vision of individual perfectibility spoke to many in Concord, who had been chafing against the constraints and customs of the eighteenth-century social order. Emerson presented his ideas to the neighbors in numerous lectures at the Concord Lyceum, a forum for adult education, which promoted science and intellectual innovation, and he helped choose the books for circulation at the Concord Social Library, which lent out books at a low fee. He also became a magnet for thinkers and iconoclasts of all sorts. He hosted meetings of the Transcendental Club at his home; he welcomed Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Concord; Margaret Fuller was his frequent guest. And he edited the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, with Thoreau’s editorial assistance. As Emerson’s fame grew, Concord came to be identified with the intellectual movement for which he spoke.
But the affinity between town and Transcendentalism was overstated. Most residents welcomed the new importance of the individual, but still clung to the social ethic on which they had been raised. That ethic – what I call the ideology of interdependence – was preached by Emerson’s step-grandfather, Rev. Ezra Ripley, from the Concord pulpit from 1778 to 1841. It stressed the obligation of every person to foster the common good – a duty of service to society, rather than to the self (as Emerson would maintain).
Moore: You give much attention to the social history of Concord. What are a few factors that made this town viable even during challenging financial times?
Gross: In New England, the first half-century of the new republic was an age of villages, when small towns thrived on crafts and commerce and surrounding farms could benefit from expanding markets. Concord was home to one of the earliest cotton textile mills in Massachusetts, and it was the birthplace of the pencil industry (the business of the Thoreau family). The townspeople, especially, the local economic and political elite, were confident that they could ride the tide of change and prosper. They welcomed new ideas and promoted scientific innovations on the farm, in schools, and in the press. For a time, this “village Enlightenment” flourished amid political consensus. But the unity dissolved, just as Emerson was moving to town. A populist movement overturned the village elite and brought Jacksonian democracy to town. Temperance reformers, demanding an end to drinking, strained older modes of sociability. Anti-slavery activists insisted that everyone speak out against slavery and work for its immediate abolition. These national movements in economics, politics, and reform enlisted Concord people at the grass roots and eroded local autonomy. The coming of the railroad in 1844 accelerated the process. Concord, once an independent town, gradually became harnessed to the city as a suburb of Boston.
Moore: Emerson believed the individual person could and should determine one’s destiny. Traditions and institutions should hold no sway over the individual’s conscience. How did Emerson and his friends balance this kind of independence while still maintaining some semblance of communal life together in Concord?
Gross: Let’s note, first, that few people in Concord embraced radical individualism. The legacy of Ezra Ripley, emphasizing that each of us belongs to the community and that we fulfill ourselves in service to our fellow men, could not be easily shed. But by the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a far greater latitude was accorded to the individual than ever before. The town schools, for example, took as their mission the cultivation of “all the powers and faculties of our natures to the highest perfection of which they are capable,” so that every graduate could enjoy “the greatest possible happiness” and “elevate their minds … to the love, worship, and favor of God.” Emerson, by contrast, valued individuals for their own sake. In his ideal scheme, the state would wither away, as “wise” men and women emerged from its schools, capable of being laws unto themselves.
Yet, far from turning his back on community, Emerson was an engaged citizen. He served briefly on the school committee, was active as an officer of the lyceum and the social library, voted in town meeting, and participated in the anti-slavery petition campaigns launched by his neighbors. (He and wife Lydia even allowed their signatures to head a petition calling for a constitutional amendment to end slavery.) His lectures at the lyceum were delivered at no charge. At times, the locals called on him to speak on their behalf, such as issuing a public protest against the dispossession of the Cherokee Indians, and to address the meaning of contemporary events, such as the Fugitive Slave Law. The club of the local elite, the Social Circle, elected him to membership. And Emerson was ever-attentive to the language and activities of the townspeople, which served to inform and illustrate his lectures. Individual freedom and civic service went hand in hand, if not in principle, then in practice.
Moore: In what way if any was Tocqueville’s understanding of the individual different than Emerson’s? Whose view of the individual would you say has captured the American imagination today?
Gross: In the view of both Emerson and Tocqueville, both writing in the 1830s, the individual – actually, the white male citizen — is the foundation of a democratic society. Each is equal to his neighbor in status and rights, and each possesses the freedom to pursue his own interests. Such individual action serves as the mainspring of political and social life, as people come together in voluntary associations to pursue common ends.
But here Tocqueville and Emerson diverge. Tocqueville’s individual is on his own, a single unit in a mass of men just like himself. To escape isolation, he must join with others, often at the expense of his own opinions. The pressures to conform can be irresistible; hence, democracies are prone to impose a “tyranny of the majority.” Emerson, too, was concerned about freedom of thought, and he loathed the sight of men in the mass, assembled in political rallies and in social crusades. But he had a religious faith in the potential of the individual that the French thinker lacked. As Emerson saw it, each person has a divine Soul, inﬁnite in possibility. It is the highest calling in life to dive into this “inner ocean” and give it expression. No other duty takes precedence, not the demands of elders, not the claims of church or state, not the obligation to be useful to society. A democracy built on such a faith would surely end slavery immediately and respect the equal rights of all. Emerson’s Transcendentalist religion thus imbued him with an idealism that Tocqueville lacked.
Moore: Some had high hopes that the Unitarian faith would become the leading religion in America. That has never come to fruition. Why is that the case?
Gross: The Unitarians might have gained a larger following in the 1830s and 1840s, had they embraced the Transcendentalist conviction that we all share a common divinity, which we can intuit as readily in nature as from a sacred text. Here was a religion centered on the individual, requiring no dogma, no rituals, no discipline, no hierarchy – only a sense that the divine in palpable in everyday life. It might well have appealed to American optimism. But the Unitarian establishment could not abandon the New Testament nor Jesus’s miracles as the warrant of faith. Without authoritative texts, there would be no foundation for organized Christianity. But without a change of doctrine, the Unitarians struggled to hold their own. In 1825, when orthodox Calvinists withdrew from Ezra Ripley’s congregation, some 85 percent of Concord taxpayers supported the First Parish. A quarter-century later, that figure was the reverse: 85 percent now supported a church of another denomination or none at all.
Unitarianism persisted, a liberal outlook with no evangelical thrust. It became a family faith among middle- and upper-class New Englanders and their sons and daughters scattered across the republic. In time, many Unitarians gravitated to Emerson’s position, rejected the New Testament as the sole ground of faith, and welcomed all testimonies to the divine spirit within their ranks. If, as Emerson argued, all religions shared, at bottom, a recognition of the divine in nature, why set any tests for admission?
Emerson, one can argue, won out in the end. His universalism regarding “religious sentiment” is now widely held. And so is his perfectionist vision of every child as a unique soul, awaiting the development of its divine potential. That conviction, cutting across religious denominations, is surely an American faith.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope readers take from reading your book?
Gross: First, that ideas don’t develop in a social vacuum, but grow out of and address the experiences and needs of everyday life.
Second, that history in a democratic society must encompass the ideas and lives of people at every rung of the social order, set them in relationship to one another, and recognize that each of us makes choices within the opportunities and constraints set by larger forces, some visible at the time, others known only in retrospect.
Third, that the ideal of interdependence, articulated by Concord’s Ezra Ripley, can still inspire an ethic of citizenship in the contemporary United States. But where it once assumed that society would be both hierarchical and homogeneous, we now face the challenge of forging bonds among people who are democratic and diverse. Can we build a sense of mutual obligation among citizens lacking common histories and set apart by stark inequalities of status and wealth? Politics today does not encourage confidence. Still, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, with their infinite potential, we need to try.