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33-Mar-Apr-2008
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A History

A-American TranscendentalismRalph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, as well as lesser-known figures (such as Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, and Theodore Parker), all star in American Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, a transformative movement that introduced the public intellectual to American culture, was characterized by a call for self-reliance and individualism—values influenced by European Romanticism, religious debate, and German philosophy. Besides providing biographies of many of the key players and analyzing their works, reforms, and beliefs, the author defines the complex, elusive "many-headed Hydra"—much more than a literary phenomenon—that flourished between 1830 and 1850 and spread from New England into varied spheres. It was a time, Gura writes, as fraught with civil upheaval and radical ideas as the 1960s.
Hill and Wang. 365 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0809034778

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This book on American transcendentalism, a culmination and extension of his past work, brilliantly synthesizes religious, intellectual and cultural history, providing a rich and essential account of the movement. … Thanks to Gura’s excellent work, the movement is shown as a time when spiritual ideals motivated people to action to refine and redirect the imperfect American experiment." Katherine Marino

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"There’s nothing perfunctory or dryly academic about American Transcendentalism. … Above all, his exciting, even eye-opening book shows us that from 1830 to 1850 a group of New England preachers and intellectuals confronted what has proved to be the great polarizing tension in American history, that between hyperindividualism and the claims of social justice and human brotherhood." Michael Dirda

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"The stories of these thinkers are intriguing, and Gura does a good job of conveying a sense of the intellectual electricity of the times. But there is also a current of sadness running through much of the book because, in the end, what Gura is writing is, in many ways, the story of a failure." Marjorie Kehe

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In American Transcendentalism: A History, Gura untangles this complex web of ideas and characters and weaves them into a clear, coherent and compelling tale of America’s first, and maybe greatest, major intellectual movement." Debby Applegate

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Many of us are familiar with the names of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But in American Transcendentalism, a new history of generous scope and considerable depth, Philip F. Gura illuminates a much broader panoply of intriguing characters who contributed to this movement." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite its compact form in a text of just over 300 pages, Gura’s expert account is comprehensive. … [The] general reader whom many of us are may long for the simpler, more focused treatment of the subject that this thoroughgoing study never set out to provide." Philip McFarland

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Since American Transcendentalism is a biography of ideas as much as a portrait of those who held them, it is peppered with point-counterpoint exchanges (Is belief in miracles a requisite of faith? for example), whether from Gura’s research of periodicals of the time or the lectures and letters of the principals. As popular writing, what can seem to be minutia slows down his narrative significantly at points." Art Winslow

Critical Summary

Philip F. Gura’s bona fides are impeccable. He is professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina and has written books on transcendentalism, early American history, and the American theologian Jonathan Edwards. Far from being one of those ubiquitous, cleverly packaged academic tomes in sheep’s clothing, Gura’s book breathes life into an important period in American history. Even though Gura limits his study to around 300 pages (plus notes), a strategy that results in a "lean, impassioned prose chockablock with anecdote and information" (Washington Post), a couple of critics still wonder if the lay reader’s interest will hold. What is the best reason for us to read this synthesis? "The deepest scholarship, like the greatest art, not only enriches our lives," The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda reminds us, "but also implicitly asks us to examine them, even to cross-examine them."