A coterie of Transcendentalists


Almost anyone who muddled their way through high school has heard of the Transcendentalists. Plenty of people could even name some of them: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau or even, perhaps, Walt Whitman. Some of us might even own a dog-eared paperback of “Walden.” But only a few of us could tell you what Transcendentalism actually means.

We shouldn’t feel too bad about this, it turns out, for even in its heyday, from the 1830s through the 1850s, the average American was equally befuddled by the term. “When a speaker talked so that his audience didn’t understand him, and when he said what he didn’t understand himself — that was transcendentalism,” as one newspaper reporter joked in 1853.

Philip Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sets out to change all that. He has succeeded grandly. 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.

more from The LA Times here.