THE TRANSCENDENTALISTS AND THEIR WORLD
By Robert A. Gross
The “great man” theory of history has been deeply out of fashion for some time, but Robert A. Gross’s “The Transcendentalists and Their World” might inspire one to defend it, at least on readerly grounds. In the 1970s, Gross was a young member of the “new social history” movement, studying and recapturing the past through the lives of everyday people, most of whom had been previously neglected in our popular narratives. This requires combing through personal and municipal documents — diaries, letters, tax records — to recreate times and places on a more granular level. The pioneering idea, now a common practice, was to replace (or at least balance) the great man theory with the “thousand little men and women” theory.
Gross has spent a good part of his estimable career as an author and academic studying Concord, Mass., a town (during the time of which he writes) with about 2,000 residents that had far more than its proportional share of historical import. Gross’s first book, “The Minutemen and Their World,” appeared in 1976 and won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for American history. It told the story of the town leading up to the shots fired at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775, which sparked the American Revolution. He has written and edited scholarly things since, but “The Transcendentalists and Their World,” 45 years later, is very much a long-gestating follow-up.
The first half of this book covers the post-Revolution changes that paved the way for the individualism preached by Emerson and Thoreau. “As Concord grew more diversified and differentiated,” Gross writes, “as inhabitants came and went with little attachment to its institutions, as new interests competed with older commitments, the bonds of community frayed still more, and the inherited ideology of interdependence underwent further strain.” Emerson would put one element of that tension succinctly: “No community or institution is so great as a single man.”
In this belief, Emerson was contradicting his step-grandfather, the Concord pastor Ezra Ripley. “In the gospel according to Ripley, the fundamental value was community,” Gross writes. “‘Who could live alone and independent?’ he asked the congregation. ‘Who but some disgusted hermit or half crazy enthusiast will say to society, I have no need of thee; I am under no obligation to my fellow-men?’”