One of The Wall Street Journal's 10 best books of 2021
One of Air Mail's 10 best books of 2021
Winner of the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize
In the year of the nation’s bicentennial, Robert A. Gross published The Minutemen and Their World, a paradigm-shaping study of Concord, Massachusetts, during the American Revolution. It won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and became a perennial bestseller. Forty years later, in this highly anticipated work, Gross returns to Concord and explores the meaning of an equally crucial moment in the American story: the rise of Transcendentalism.
The Transcendentalists and Their World offers a fresh view of the thinkers whose outsize impact on philosophy and literature would spread from tiny Concord to all corners of the earth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Alcotts called this New England town home, and Thoreau drew on its life extensively in his classic Walden. But Concord from the 1820s through the 1840s was no pastoral place fit for poets and philosophers.
The Transcendentalists and their neighbors lived through a transformative epoch of American life. A place of two thousand–plus souls in the antebellum era, Concord was a community in ferment, whose small, ordered society founded by Puritans and defended by Minutemen was dramatically unsettled through the expansive forces of capitalism and democracy and tightly integrated into the wider world. These changes challenged a world of inherited institutions and involuntary associations with a new premium on autonomy and choice. They exposed people to cosmopolitan currents of thought and endowed them with unparalleled opportunities. They fostered uncertainties, raised new hopes, stirred dreams of perfection, and created an audience for new ideas of individual freedom and democratic equality deeply resonant today.
The Transcendentalists and Their World is both an intimate journey into the life of a community and a searching cultural study of major American writers as they plumbed the depths of the universe for spiritual truths and surveyed the rapidly changing contours of their own neighborhoods. It shows us familiar figures in American literature alongside their neighbors at every level of the social order, and it reveals how this common life in Concord entered powerfully into their works. No American community of the nineteenth century has been recovered so richly and with so acute an awareness of its place in the larger American story.
Historian Gross (The Minutemen and Their World) provides a rich and immersive portrait of 19th-century Concord, Mass., and the Transcendentalist movement that originated there. Aiming to place Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists "in the context of the town in which they lived and wrote," Gross documents the "promises and pitfalls" of Thoreau's pencil-making father, John Thoreau, and other businessmen due to the region's expanding economy ("Trade curses every thing it handles," Thoreau would later write in Walden). Gross also delves into the subscription libraries, debating societies, and lecture series that connected community members to the wider world, and details how Emerson's "call for self-reliance" was a bridge too far for many would-be Transcendentalists in Concord who still believed in the "ancient social ethic of New England." Thoreau, however, was "drawn apart from his townsmen" and toward Emerson, as the two men "struggled for ways to reconcile the new freedom of individuals with the older claims of interdependence for the common good." Seamlessly integrating a wealth of primary and secondary sources into his narrative, Gross brings 19th-century New England to vivid life and portrays the personal dynamics between Transcendentalism's leading figures with insight. This sweeping study brilliantly illuminates a crucial period in American history.