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American Transcendentalism: A History

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  175 Ratings  ·  31 Reviews
American Transcendentalism is a sweeping narrative history of America's first group of public intellectuals, the men and women who defined American literature and indelibly marked American reform in the decades before and following the American Civil War. Philip F. Gura masterfully traces their intellectual genealogy to transatlantic religious and philosophical ideas, illu ...more
Paperback, 392 pages
Published September 2nd 2008 by Hill and Wang (first published 2007)
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Nov 23, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
American Transcendentalism
By Philip F. Gura

I read this book, and would probably need to read it several more times (at least) to understand it. My impression now is that when German Idealism and German Biblical scholarship became available in the U.S. in the 1830’s, the new ideas prompted a wash of excitement and of other new ideas. I am reminded of the music of the Beatles coming to the U.S. in the 1960’s. Their music was completely new and exciting, even revolutionary. The subsequent 15 years
Jonathan Hedgpeth
Transcend this dense volume, and read the works by the figures themselves. Granted this book had its moments, but for the most part, it leaves the reader drowning in presumptive prose. This is a history the way that histories of artistic cliques play out, with a lot of gossipy in fighting and ideological feuds.....I guess thats what you pay for though. I found Dr. Gura's treatment of the the Giants namely Emerson and Thoreau rather cursory, and instead he chose to concentrate on decidedly lesser ...more
Mar 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very, interesting book.
Jason Pettus
(My full review of this book is much longer than Goodreads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [].)

The only time before this week that I had ever had experiences with the American Transcendentalist movement of the 1800s had been in high school, experiences that had not gone well at all; I remember something about them all being philosophers, or maybe it was authors or ministers or something, and I remember something a
Dan Gorman
Jun 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thorough and quite brilliant history of Transcendentalism, but it will be a tough read if you don't already have a background in the philosophy of religion. I had to re-read the first 100 pages and take notes to clarify all the intellectual lineages and debates. If you're willing to put in the time, the book will reward you. The text shows how Transcendentalists drew from Unitarian Christianity, Plato, German Idealist philosophers like Kant and Schleiermacher, Emanuel Swedenborg's belief in comm ...more
Lorrie Mckinley
Oct 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Robin Friedman
Mar 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In "American Transcendentalism: A History" Philip Gura, has written a learned and detailed account that is both inspiring and critical of an important movement in American thought. Gura is the William Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Many readers have only a vague notion of what the Transcendentalist movement was about together with a notion that Emerson and Thoreau were at its center. Gura shows that the movemen
Chandra Powers
My review actually echoes some of the other reviews. I see the academic worth of this book, but I felt like it was bogged down with too many references and sometimes Gura didn't make the connections very well. The significance of his research and argument was lost on me, and I was really looking forward to this book because I find the movement so interesting and I teach about it in one of my college classes.
Oct 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
In American Transcendentalism, Gura chronicles the birth, evolution, and ultimate demise of this philosophical, literary, and political movement of the 1800s, including short biographies of its most important participants and contributors.

What is Transcendentalism and where did it come from? As Gura explains, an absolute definition of Transcendentalism is hard to pin down. Even the Transcendentalists themselves eschewed any one definitive description of their varying ideas and beliefs. George Ri
Nathanael Booth
Sep 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gura gives a broad-brush overview of the rise and fall of Transcendentalism as a distinct philosophy. He begins by pointing out the intellectual background that gave rise to the movement: German “higher criticism,” German Idealism, etc. Though Emerson is most often associated with Transcendentalism in the popular mind, Gura shows that he was really somewhat marginal—magnetic, yes, and influential, but far from the only, or even the most interesting, game in town. Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, ...more
Bookmarks Magazine

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 resul

Jeffrey Howard
Although Gura's inclusion of many less than prominent transcendental figures and unnecessary details about them made this book less readable, one certainly cannot criticize him as 'forgetting anybody'. Although it is a somewhat exhaustive history, I would not recommend it as an introductory book to transcendentalism.

Gura sparked me interested in many figures I did not know about. Transcendentalism is so ethereal and includes such diverse strains of thought that it would be difficult to compile i
May 18, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is probably the best you can ask of a single volume history of a movement that was really just a collection of curious and eccentric individuals moving in different theological, ideological, and practical directions who are grouped together mostly because they enjoyed one another's company. Hard to blame them. Revolution is better with a wild-eyed companion riding shotgun.

My basic knowledge of continental philosophy still had me white-knuckling through the first chapter or two until I got
Jun 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
If there is a unique amd American philosophical movement transcendentalism could easily be that movement. But we hear so little about it any more. Why? I think it is because of its place in history. This short lived movement was a reaction against the Age of Reason (the Enlightment) using German Idealism as a springboard to make proposals as to the nature of reality and man's place in that reality. It was followed by the Civil War and pragmatism. Instead of trying to find out the meaning of life ...more
“As much as Idealist philosophy was central to the movement’s coalescence, Transcendentalism began as a religious demonstration. No American Transcendentalists were ‘philosophers by profession,’...and nearly all of them were clergymen 'of the Unitarian school’...whose habits/feelings/goals were ‘manifestly theological.’ Only later, as they discovered the social implications of their acknowledgement of ‘spontaneous reason’ did they realize that they were prophets of a wholly new secular as well a ...more
Feb 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Pretty amazing book that reveals just how complicated this movement was in American History. What is so surprising is that the group was clearly split. One side, held by Emerson, triumphed the individual spirit; the other, wanted to help those is need around them, which included women, slaves, and the poor. This call to action ultimately got lost as the group confronted strangely enough the battle over slavery and the greed of business.
May 18, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book does a decent job of explaining American Transcendentalism but it is not enough. It is like a skeletal framework of who, what, where, when and why but it doesn't attach much meat to the skeleton. I could always put this book down. It does contain a wealth of important information, however, and it has really piqued my interest in Margaret Fuller for one. Hopefully I can use the bibliography in the back of this book to track down some reading material more to my liking.
Jul 08, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
collective biography of transcendentalists, Gura focuses first on the roots of Transcendental philosophy in German idealism, anti-Lockean etc and then on the way that the splits in Transcendentalism between Emmerson's self-reliance and Brownson (and other's) Christian socialism were exacerbated by the turn away from Europe and toward the US, Mexican War, Slavery
Dec 04, 2008 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I've been studying the abolition movement in the 19th century for many years now and wanted to learn more about the role the Transcendentalists played. I am also very intrigued by Gura's argument that this movement "whose roots were so catholic and universal eventuated in a discourse that promoted an American exceptionalism based on self-interest."
Samuel Brown
Jan 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Marvelous. Well written, well researched, sympathetic to his subjects but able to still see them clearly. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of (a) Unitarianism, (b) Transcendentalism, (c) the rise of "personal" "spirituality" as an alternative to "religion" in American culture.
Feb 02, 2008 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
I am very interested in the New England Transcendentalists and feel a certain kinship to their weave of spirituality and nature. Their views were progressive and applied in important ways in the culture we know today. There aren't many books on the subject, and I am pleased to have a composite history to begin.
Feb 05, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was a great, extremely in-depth look at the people who formed American Transcendentalism. My low rating is simply because I myself didn't possess sufficient interest to appreciate its extensiveness. For me (and my level of interest) it became too detailed.
Mar 17, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall a fascinating read. I wasn't always able to discern what the narrative thread in this history was. It was enlightening and a good starting place to learn about Transcendentalism. Probably time to read some Emerson.
David Anthony Sam
Sep 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An indepth history and analysis of the complex and sometimes contradictory movement known as Transcendentalism. There are many echoes of today, showing the deep and ongoing influence of the thinkers and their thoughts in the politics and culture of our day.
Mar 06, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
"[I]t seemed to him like going to heaven in a swing." (Observer on Transcendental Club conversations, 70)

"When [Jones] Very showed Emerson some verse supposedly written at the Spirit's behest, for example, the Concord sage quipped, but 'cannot the spirit parse & spell?'" (288)
or Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology
Geoffrey Deacon
Oct 17, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good history. Written in a sprightly style. I wish it had gone into more detail of the content of transcendentalist thought, in addition to its primarily historical orientation.
Apr 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent scholarship.
Kim Adamache
Mar 07, 2013 marked it as to-read
Decided to put this on my list after doing a research paper that included American Transcendentalism as an influence.
Oct 05, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent summary of the Transcendental movement. A good explanation of the division between the focus on self-development and on social reform.
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