Robert A. Gross is the author of the new book The Transcendentalists and Their World. His other books include The Minutemen and Their World. He is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut.
Q: You initially signed a contract to write this book in 1978, and it's coming out this year. What was involved in researching and writing The Transcendentalists and Their World?
A: Thanks for asking this question so politely. You might well have posed a more critical query: how could it take more than four decades to research and write the history of a small community in Massachusetts that had just under 1,600 inhabitants in 1790 and peaked at some 2,250 people in the two decades before the Civil War?
Concord, founded in 1635 as the first inland town in Massachusetts beyond tidewater, never even met the census bureau’s definition of an urban place (one with 2,500 inhabitants) during the entire scope of my study. As I’ve asked myself over the years, what took you so long?
The answer to this question may also take longer than you anticipated – fittingly, given the nature of the problem.
I originally conceived The Transcendentalists and Their World as a continuation of the journey I had begun with The Minutemen and Their World, first published in 1976 and re-issued in a 25th anniversary edition in 2001. (A new, revised edition will appear in 2022 to mark the sestercentennial of the American Revolution.)
Minutemen spotlighted Concord, the site of the first clash of arms between Patriots and Redcoats, “the shot heard round the world” at the old North Bridge on April 19, 1775. Why Concord?
Many historians had rehearsed the history of the British imperial policies that had alienated the colonists and spurred popular resistance, ultimately escalating into the War of Independence.
But no one had ever asked how this chain of events entered into the ongoing life of Concord as a community, how the response to royal policies was influenced by internal tensions, divisions, and conflicts within the town, and how, in turn, participation in revolution and war altered local life, from who held power and dominated society to the conduct of the economy and the involvement of the townspeople in the wider world.
This perspective was what a rising generation of historians dubbed “the new social history” or “history from the bottom up.” I was an enthusiast of this approach and included the stories of women, people of color (enslaved and free), mechanics, common farmers, and day laborers in my account, along with those of the more famous leaders of town, church, and militia, whose names stand out in the familiar narratives of the Concord Fight.
As I worked on Minutemen for my doctoral dissertation between 1972 and 1976, I began to envision The Transcendentalists and Their World as the sequel.
For Concord gained fame as the center of two revolutions: the first on April 19, 1775, which launched the American Revolution, and a second, from the mid-1830s to the late 1840s, that was the crucible for the intellectual movement known as Transcendentalism and closely associated with Concord’s notable writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
The first revolution had a collective goal: defending and securing the right of self-government.
The second revolution aimed to extend the liberty won by the Revolutionary generation and to liberate the power of individuals to think their own thoughts, draw on their experiences, and free themselves from the tyrannies of custom and hierarchy to form a culture and society in keeping with the grandeur of nature in the New World and with the unique ideals of equality and democracy.
The intellectual revolution, known as Transcendentalism, was centered in the Boston area; it drew a wide range of reform-minded Unitarian clergy and Harvard graduates at the start; and it was often identified with Concord and its resident sage Emerson.
In Henry Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854, the Transcendentalist literary vision shapes the author’s recounting of “life in the woods,” and along the way we acquire a critical view of local ways from farmers’ fields and village stores to meetinghouses, schools, lecture halls, libraries, and parlors of the elite. Thoreau had taken the measure of his neighbors’ long before the new social historians came around.
As a social historian, I aimed to reconstruct the social and economic order from sources that would take in much of the population.
Assessors’ lists recorded the possessions of taxpayers (or lack thereof): the amounts of land they held in different uses (tillage, meadows, pasture, wood lots), the shops and stores they operated and the inventories of goods therein, the financial investments they made (money at interest, on loan to neighbors; shares of stock in banks, manufacturing companies, and railroads).
As the economy developed, property-holdings diversified. What was the average size of a farm (answer: 60 acres)? How intensively was the land cultivated? How equally was wealth distributed? (Not so much and increasingly unequal over time.) How many adult men had no access to land (30 percent in 1749, 70 percent in 1850)?
The answers to these questions could be obtained, once I took the information in the assessors’ records and, with the paid help of student assistants, coded the details in databases for aggregate analysis.
The files migrated over the decades from punch cards and tapes on main-frame computers to floppy disks on desktops and laptops. Since I was interested in social and economic change, no single year would suffice. I inspected the town at key intervals: 1801, 1826, 1840, 1850.
Then again, who were the people of Concord? The vital records of births, marriages, and deaths allowed me to reconstruct families and follow them over time – to see who married whom, at what ages (typically, 25-26 for men, 21-22 for women), how many children they had (6 or 7, on average), how often they suffered the deaths of the young, when the unions came to an end.
Following individuals from one census to another (and verifying their identities with those vital records), I could gauge the mobility of the townspeople – how often did native sons and daughters move away to start new lives, how frequently did newcomers arrive and stay for good.
By such measures, I could see that Concord was remarkably fluid, with people coming and going all the time. In 1835, when the town celebrated its 200th anniversary, only a third of the residents had deep roots in the community, descending from colonial-era settlers.
Nor was the town all-white. From the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, some two to three dozen people of color resided in the town, initially held in slavery, but after 1790 forming free families, determined to earn their livelihoods and make a place for themselves in the town, even if on its margins.
The records are voluminous, and I kept compiling databases in a quest – unrealistic to be sure – to write a “total history.”
Who held political power and at what levels of government? Town meeting records listed the outcome of most elections, and with the rise of political parties, I could track not only who won at the polls but with what allegiances. Did a small oligarchy run the town, or did many men share in the responsibilities of self-rule?
How regularly did the male citizens go to the polls? (In 1840, with the choice between the Democrat Van Buren and the Whigs “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,” just about every registered voter turned out.)
Religion mattered crucially in New England towns, and at the start of my investigation, the Congregationalist church was still “established” – its minister hired and paid by the town, the meetinghouse a civic structure, built and maintained at public expense.
How many inhabitants were formally admitted to the church year by year and over time, and who filled the pews on the Sabbath? (Answer: 70 to 75 percent were women.)
From politics and religion, I moved on to the various voluntary associations that sprang up during the first half of the 19th century: a Masonic lodge, private libraries, an agricultural society, a debating club and lyceum (for lectures), temperance associations, and anti-slavery societies. Each had its membership lists, its roster of officers, and its records of meetings.
And finally, as mass politics took shape in Jacksonian America, and as petition campaigns were organized to pressure Congress and state legislatures to take up measures against slavery, restrict the consumption of alcohol, promote equal rights among all citizens, and curb the activities of Freemasons, yet more documents demanded attention.
So, I created databases for the petitioners, matched the names with those on the tax lists, church membership lists, and the records of other civic enterprises, and was able to profile who embraced the cause of reform and who held back.
In this age of cultural improvement and social reform, Concord played a prominent part, but not all of the townspeople, as Emerson and Thoreau were well-aware.
Many a summer and academic leave were spent on this pursuit of data, and the views of Concord life the records opened up enabled me to write a good many essays along the way. But not The Transcendentalists and Their World.
For, as I came to realize, “total history” is an illusion. The patterns and trends I reconstructed from all those databases provided only the scaffolding of a community history. A narrative was lacking, and that would not come from a retrospective view of social change, assembled by a latter-day historian.
I wanted to tell the story of Concord and the Transcendentalists from the perspective of the participants up and down the social order. Their choices and decisions, their ideas and values would drive my account.
I intended to explore how these laborers, farmers, merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, doctors, and ministers did business and conducted their daily lives; likewise, for their mothers, sisters, and daughters.
So, I pored over their account books, itemizing credits and debts; I followed them into court, as they sued one another for defaulting on obligations; and I read their memories of commercial success and failure. I read the town meeting minutes and the weekly newspapers to understand the key initiatives of the men in power and the issues dividing the townspeople.
And how could one grasp the changing role of religion in the town without coming to terms with the Congregationalist minister, Ezra Ripley, the step-grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson?
Ripley presided over the Concord pulpit from 1778 to 1841, keeping the congregation united down to 1825, when a “little band” of dissenters, led by Thoreau’s aunts, withdrew from the communion and started their own church.
Rev. Ripley was a towering figure in the town, who intruded into everyone’s lives, and he left behind some 1,500 sermons, stored in a barrel in the attic of the Old Manse, which Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, somewhat to his horror.
With similar trepidation, I reached into that barrel – well, the folders in which the sermons were kept at several archives – and made my way, if not through the whole, then through several hundred. There went another summer or two of research.
And so the years passed by.
In an age of cultural improvement, Concord was enthusiastic about the lyceum movement, in which visiting lecturers and locals presented talks about a vast array of subjects, usually with a message to jettison tradition and embrace the latest advances of the day, all in the interest of progress.
Who gave those lectures? Who participated in the debates? And what did the speakers actually say? Some lecturers, visitors and residents alike, put their talks into print or preserved drafts in their journals. We know about other talks from the notes that members of the audience took and recorded in their diaries.
In like manner, I investigated the other voluntary associations, such as the Concord Female Charitable Society, founded in 1814 as the first women’s organization in the town and one of the earliest in the Bay State.
Some of these groups led long lives, the lyceum carrying on for a century, the female charity enduring into the mid-20th century (and in a different guise still assisting families in need today).
Such rich materials were the stuff of local history, and I was determined to master them all in a compelling narrative. But year after year, my day job as a professor of history kept getting in the way.
I loved teaching and advising, and happily, in every academic post I held (Amherst College, the College of William and Mary, the University of Connecticut), I was able to teach courses on Transcendentalists and reform in 19th century America.
But writing a narrative required concentration, from day to day, so I retired in 2015, and by the end of 2017, the manuscript was complete. Alas, it also totaled some 374,000 words, too long for publication.
Worse still, I had written an exhaustive history of Concord, but not a full-scale account of The Transcendentalists and Their World! Yes, Emerson and Thoreau were in the story, sometimes prominently, but their presence was intermittent and not sufficiently integrated into the life of the town.
And that was a challenge. For the story of social change in Concord takes off in the 1820s and 1830s, most of it before Emerson ever settled in town, and before Thoreau had finished college and entered adulthood. By the time these intellectuals came on stage, the play was well into the second act.
So, I returned to the manuscript with a determination not merely to reduce the length but to reshape and restructure the book in two major ways.
First and most importantly, I would integrate the lives and careers of Emerson and Thoreau, along with their families, into the unfolding narrative. But what to do with the long stretch of time when the Transcendentalists were not on the scene?
I divided the book into two parts. The first presents “A Community in Change” from the 1820s to the mid-1830s, and it frames the chapters from the viewpoint of the Thoreau family and that of Emerson’s grandfather, Ripley.
Part Two introduces the writers into the scene and, while it continues to relate the history of the town, it shifts emphasis and explores in depths “The Transcendentalists and Their World.”
The profound transformation that Concord experienced, with its inhabitants acting in ways at odds with their received understandings of social existence, created a profound intellectual and cultural crisis. The old connections between families and neighbors unraveled; hierarchy and deference to authority no longer held.
An assertive popular democracy came into being and toppled longstanding “fathers” of the town. The individual now enjoyed greater freedom and experienced greater insecurity than ever. What would replace the older ways of thinking and acting? How would the community hold together?
The careers and writings of Emerson and Thoreau would come to the fore in my narrative as ways of addressing fundamental problems experienced by the writers and their fellow citizens, even as their answers did not satisfy all.
In sharp contrast to his grandfather, Emerson put the individual at the center of the new, democratic society. “The former men acted and spoke under the thought that a shining social prosperity was the aim of men, and compromised ever the individuals to the nation,” Emerson declared in December 1837. “The modern mind teaches (in extremes) that the nation exists for the individual; for the guardianship and education of every man.”
Following the Transcendentalists through Part Two required a deep immersion in the diaries, letters, lectures, and published writings of Emerson and Thoreau. It also required broadening the stage to tell the broader story of the Transcendentalist movement.
And crucially, in the last major change in the work, I broke out of my Concord-centric view and sought to place the town in a wider framework.
The community was famous as a “hot-house” of abolitionism. Was that correct? How enthusiastic were the townspeople for temperance? Were the women of Concord early or late to the cause of charitable reform?
Time and again I widened the view and in the process came to see that in Concord and its writers, I could tell the story not just of one town but of Massachusetts, New England, and, arguably, the North as a whole.
And thereby Concord’s story became an American one and its writers quintessential figures of our culture.
In the end, though the research stretched over four decades, the real writing and rewriting of the book took five years from 2015 to 2020, unexpectedly, when the civic culture I portray came under the most profound strain it had experienced since the Civil War.
Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?
A: When Transcendentalism emerged as an intellectual movement in the Boston area during the mid-1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson gained prominence as its spokesman, thanks to his manifesto, Nature, published in 1836, and to his address on “The American Scholar,” delivered at Harvard College the following year.
Born in 1803, Emerson had graduated from Harvard in 1821, trained for the Unitarian ministry, held a pulpit at the prestigious Second Church of Boston, and then resigned his ministerial office to pursue a career as a freelance writer, lecturer, and preacher.
A native Bostonian who had been constantly on the move in childhood and youth, he chose Concord as his permanent home in 1835. There his grandfather, Rev. William Emerson, had been the Patriot preacher of the town during the Revolution, and there his own minister-father had been raised in the dwelling that came to be known, after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sojourn in the 1840s, as “the Old Manse.”
Emerson embraced his return to the ancestral ground. “Hail to the quiet fields of my fathers,” he exclaimed, even as he prepared to urge his fellow citizens to cast off the yoke of the past and build a new world on their own insights and experiences.
Among Emerson’s new neighbors was Henry David Thoreau, the only native son among Concord’s celebrated writers.
Born in 1817, 14 years Emerson’s junior, Thoreau was a Harvard sophomore, living in his Cambridge dormitory and daydreaming about the woods and rivers of Concord, when Waldo was settling with his wife, Lydia Jackson, into the gentleman’s country seat they would call “Bush,” at the head of the Cambridge turnpike into the intellectual and political capitals of the Bay State.
The two men would not meet until the fall of 1837, following the younger’s graduation from college and short-lived tenure as master of the village grammar school. But Thoreau was already an enthusiast of Transcendentalism and an admirer of Nature, which he had read in his senior year and whose influence was already evident in his writing.
There lay the rub. The two men formed a friendship that is rare among literary figures, in which the protégé ultimately supersedes the mentor and now claims greater esteem on the world stage as nature writer, environmentalist, political dissident, non-conformist, and philosopher of solitude.
But in their own time the standings were just the opposite. At the start of the connection, Emerson relished “my good Henry Thoreau,” welcomed the youth into his study, hiked with him to Walden woods, and celebrated the irreverence and independence of “the boy” who “makes merry with society” in his every utterance, “though nothing could be graver than his meaning.”
Thoreau made Emerson’s Transcendentalist doctrine of self-reliance his own and promised greatness as an American original. He was, in his sponsor’s estimate, “the man of Concord.”
The disciple returned the compliments with an absorption of the master’s manner, tone, and style of expression so thoroughgoing that when one visitor closed his eyes, he could not tell “with certainty” who was speaking. The jibe that he was an Emerson wannabe, stealing apples from his neighbor’s orchard, followed Thoreau throughout his career.
Dependence on Emerson was a mixed blessing. The patron promoted the client at every turn. He welcomed him to “Bush,” where Thoreau resided for extended stays, earning his keep as handyman and child-minder, and taking advantage of the immense library of his host and of the avant-garde thinkers, such as Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who frequented the parlor.
Emerson handed off literary projects and encouraged the aspiring writer’s contributions to the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. When Emerson took the editorial helm, he recruited Thoreau as his deputy. But the younger man longed to be out from under the older one’s shadow.
Ironically, it was Emerson who provided the escape route, time and again. In 1843, he arranged for Thoreau to take up a position on Staten Island, as tutor in the household of William Emerson, the lawyer-brother of Concord’s sage. From that base, Thoreau would have the opportunity to seek out the leading editors and publishers of Gotham, fast rising to the literary capital of the republic.
The experiment proved a bust; there was limited demand for Thoreau’s work, and the writer, in turn, hated Manhattan – “the pigs in the street are the most respectable portion of the population,” he groused – almost as much as he disliked his conventional hosts on Staten Island. Six months later, he returned from exile, with little to show for his time.
Even his most enduring act of independence, the sojourn at Walden, was indebted to Emerson’s benevolence. The generous landlord bought the lot in the woods, by the shore of the pond, made it available rent free, and required nothing of his literary-minded tenant, except to leave behind whatever improvements he made.
Emerson could readily afford the act of goodwill. Enjoying a substantial legacy from his first wife’s estate, he was also prospering as a lecturer to audiences beyond the Boston area and as far south as Baltimore and Philadelphia, and his works were gaining favorable notice in England.
Under these circumstances, is it surprising that the Emerson-Thoreau friendship was fraught with tensions? Subtle forms of hierarchy and dependence linked the two men in ways that neither could acknowledge, given their fierce insistence on independence and self-reliance.
If it was hard to be a man of letters with the exorbitant ambitions of Thoreau, it was even worse to compromise your standards and write merely for pay, but it was worst of all to have a Transcendentalist patron for your work.
Meanwhile, Emerson became impatient with Thoreau’s failure to realize his promise. The gentleman whose home had “a city air” never fully appreciated his protégé’s extended stay in the woods. “My dear Henry,” he once wrote in exasperation, “A frog was made to live in a swamp,” but not a man. He kept those sentiments to himself.
The irritation was mutual. Thoreau acknowledged the alienation in his journal. “I had tenderly cherished the flower of our friendship till one day my friend treated it as a weed. It did not survive the shock.”
As Emerson was lionized as “the Concord Sage,” as he attained a national profile in the fight against slavery and the preservation of the Union, he overshadowed his young friend well into the 20th century.
But now, in an age of escalating crises – climate change, pandemic disease, racial reckoning – Thoreau’s militant voice claims a worldwide audience to whom his message of simplicity, conscience, and trust in nature speaks more powerfully than ever.
Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "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." Can you say more about what led Concord to become the center of the Transcendentalist movement?
A: There are actually several ways to address this question.
The first gets a fairly straightforward response. Concord became known for Transcendentalism primarily because of Emerson. He settled there in 1835 because he had no place else to go. And here were, in his words, “the fields of my fathers.” In their ancestral home he would make his place.
And he was determined to draw others there as well, in hopes of creating a community of thinkers and writers. He tried time and again to recruit his Scottish friend, Thomas Carlyle, to cross the Atlantic and settle in Concord, with no success.
As Emerson’s fame grew, he drew fans into his orbit. The Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott entered the neighborhood; the poet Ellery Channing followed suit. Emerson helped to arrange Nathaniel Hawthorne’s rental of the Old Manse. Thoreau was, of course, a native son.
Other notables in the Transcendentalist movement visited Concord for long periods, such as Margaret Fuller, or appeared on its lecture platform (such as Orestes Brownson).
And as Concord hosted this gallery of iconoclasts, the press of the day seized on their presence and equated Transcendentalism with the town, though, in fact, Boston merits that identity even more. And so we have inherited the linkage ever since.
But the larger answer to the question is that through its experiences of social change and its quest for new ways to form and think about the individual and community, Concord was an ideal place for Emerson to settle.
Despite its small size, the town proved to be surprisingly representative of the New England and the North: economically dynamic, religiously diverse, racially heterogeneous, politically divided, and receptive to social and political reforms. It stood in the mainstream of Jacksonian America with an excellent vantage on a society undergoing rapid change.
What better place for Emerson to observe and experience the fundamental challenges of the age? In the lived experiences of his neighbors he could draw the raw materials of his lectures and essays, as I discovered in tracking the entries in his journals and watching him revise them for generalizations about America at large.
Thoreau grew up with the changes and took many of them for granted as characteristics of the modern age, at once to cut down to size but also employed to the advantage of individual and town.
Q: What do you see as the legacy of the Transcendentalists?
A: The Transcendentalists affirmed a democratic faith in the infinite perfectibility of every individual soul.
In their minds we all share a common divinity, whose expression cannot be dictated by anyone else but must be discovered and experienced in our own striving and experience. Every child is something new under the sun, and it is the duty of schools and all our institutions to foster the growth of each person.
Only as individuals discover their genius and find their purpose will they come to know in what ways they can best serve the community as a whole. Social duty comes after – or in tandem – with individual self-expression. This set of beliefs has come to be an American democratic creed.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Stay tuned.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Read Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Thoreau, and rediscover the intellectual excitement of their visions of what equality, democracy, and individual freedom could really mean.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb