Emerson Didn’t Practice the Self-Reliance He Preached

How Transcendentalism, the American philosophy that championed the individual, caught on in tight-knit Concord, Massachusetts

Illustration of Emerson with dark hair and scarf; instead of a face there's a picture of blue sky, clouds, river, and birds; background black and white drawing of New England town with factory, clocktower, buildings
Vedran Štimac

In the lead-up to the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, a graduate student sent a proposal to an editor at a trade publisher in New York. Would he consider taking on a book about the Minutemen and their “shot heard round the world,” set painstakingly in a history of Concord, Massachusetts, the town where the North Bridge fight broke out? In 1977, that book—which was also the student’s dissertation—won a Bancroft Prize, the highest honor in the history profession. The Minutemen and Their World remains a classic, memorable within a wave of “community studies” that sought to explain big turning points—such as the outbreak of the Revolution and the Salem witch trials—at the level of local ties, focusing on loyalties and antipathies among neighbors, families, holders of property and office, laborers and servants.

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The author, Robert A. Gross, went on to teach at Amherst, then the College of William and Mary, and finally the University of Connecticut. Rather than abandon his chosen locale of Concord, he has devoted half a century to an encompassing reconstruction of the town’s politics, economy, and society from 1790 to 1850. His databases, begun on “punch cards and mainframe computers,” have become ever-larger repositories, progressing from tapes to floppy disks to CD-ROMs to online storage. He has traced the scraps and details of scandals and human tragedies through newspaper columns, property deeds, tax records, and genealogical trees, detecting whiffs of disappointment and ecstasy in the scattered letters and memoirs of town descendants who were becoming more numerous, itinerant, and verbose as the United States matured. In The Transcendentalists and Their World, Gross has delivered a second harvest of his career-long work. It is a measured, beautiful volume that brings warm life, accuracy, and complexity to local history, swooping between the bird’s-eye view and the tracery of many individual destinies.

After the yeomen with muskets had been memorialized, Concord became famous a second time, in the 1840s, for its writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson, his disciple Henry David Thoreau, the Alcott family, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (whose residence was brief but significant) made the place a byword for the movement called Transcendentalism. Gross uses our devotion to those familiar heroes to interest us in the ordinary story of a tight-knit town turned unusual birthplace. He explores the communal web that supported the emergence of a philosophy steeped in romantic nature worship and dedicated to the lone soul—to the inner growth of the individual, untethered from social convention and tradition. The Revolution, he makes clear, was about community and self-governance, and it unfolded under the leadership of a group bound by ties of duty. How to explain the subsequent emergence of the most celebrated cultural development in 19th-century America, which raised doubts about just such commitments, defying family and propinquity in the name of “man alone”?

Focused primarily on the years 1825 to 1845, Gross’s 600 pages of absorbing narrative, plus 200 more of illuminating notes and documentation, are a refresher course in the birth of a market culture and a mass democracy in the age of Andrew Jackson, followed by the rise of the antislavery cause and stirrings of sectional conflict. Gross gives these grand trends a habitation in 25 square miles of Massachusetts farmland, where he detects a steady erosion of social unity.

For the future Transcendentalist leaders, who proselytized on behalf of the inner spirit empowered by solitary communion with nature, social embeddedness came in many forms. People who have never read Walden know that Thoreau lived alone for two years in his late 20s in a cabin beside Walden Pond, paring life down to the necessities. Almost as many are familiar with a seeming contradiction: Thoreau went home some weekends to his parents’ house. Ardent defenders respond that young Henry was still a good son, assisting in the family pencil factory. This detail of filial loyalty is so unexpected that it usually ends the conversation.

The Transcendentalists and Their World puts Thoreau’s experiment in solitude in context. In early-19th-century Concord, as Gross establishes with evidence from the census, no one lived alone who could help it. In 1837, the year of Thoreau’s return from college, only a dozen people did, out of a town population of 2,000, and nearly all of them were widows in perilous situations. Family support was assumed in every enterprise, whether farming or law or keeping the town jail.

When Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, he had long been enmeshed in common forms of living together that are rarer today. His mother took in boarders throughout his childhood to supplement the family income. Reaching adulthood, he moved into Emerson’s house to be handyman, gardener, and babysitter to Emerson’s two young children. The family pencil manufacture was dependent from the start on contributions from kin and on local know-how. Thoreau’s ne’er-do-well uncle on his mother’s side had stumbled on a lode of “plumbago,” or graphite, on a New Hampshire farm, snapped it up, and drafted his more business-savvy brother-in-law to hold his scheme together with the unemployed cabinetmakers of Concord. This was the small-scale enterprise that helped the family pull itself into the middle class and send Henry to Harvard (with help from a scholarship that required Thoreau to collect rents from the university’s tenants in the town of Chelsea).

Emerson, in contrast, was to the manor born—to “the Old Manse,” to be exact. This was the grandparental home in Concord, residence of the Reverend Ezra Ripley, a figure out of a storybook. Still clad in breeches and hose decades after other men had switched to trousers, he instructed children in their catechism and parents in their duties to the community. Young Emerson occasionally visited from Boston, where he grew up as the scion of six generations of New England ministers—and where he proceeded, after Harvard, to occupy a pulpit at the city’s Second Church. His move to Concord in 1834 has been rightly seen as one in a series of risky breaks with expectations: Following his bride’s death from tuberculosis 17 months after their wedding in 1829, he’d resigned his pulpit and traveled to Europe. Yet Gross describes another man soon well rooted.

In his telling, Emerson’s mother was ensconced in Concord, keeping house for Reverend Ripley, and upon his arrival in town, Emerson was already the ninth-richest taxpayer before starting his career there or acquiring fame, thanks to an enormous inheritance from his first wife’s estate. He was still very much a minister, though one spared daily pastoral responsibilities. His own home front tended by his second wife, Lidian, and assorted hired help, Emerson was free to travel around giving guest sermons—ideally positioned to then do the same on a paid-lecture platform as a popular sage and orator.

Emersonian Transcendentalism, too, had roots in his ancestral world. A current of mild awakening had already coursed through a liberal and generous Congregationalism, which had largely done away with the Puritan belief in inherent sinfulness and predestination. Ministers in Emerson’s circles espoused inborn goodness and a knowledge of God at birth. The “sentiment of religion,” an inner divinity, was to be cultivated through self-improvement and service. Emerson substituted “Nature” for God, proposing that the soul was roused most readily on walks in the woods or on a muddy common, apart from society. And it was Emerson who turned Transcendentalist inner divinity into the secular gospel of “Self-Reliance.” “I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me,” he boasted. (This gave the aged Ripley infinite heartache.)

Emerson’s extreme doctrine of individualism emerges in Gross’s account as an utter contradiction of the visible, practical interdependence of Concord life. In his eagerness to elevate exemplars of his creed, Emerson plucked up young Thoreau, a nature-loving schoolteacher with a gift for classical languages, and encouraged his development as a representative character, “the man of Concord.” He even installed him beside Walden Pond on acreage he had bought on a whim. The extent to which each man perhaps chafed at communal and family constraints, laboring under an unwelcome sense of dependence, isn’t really Gross’s concern. His point is social: Transcendentalist philosophy expressed a profound intuition of changes that were under way in America, in the details of work and the economy, but that had not yet obviously touched the family and the spirit. The movement was so successful because it rechanneled religious rhetoric to address modernizing shocks, otherwise unspoken, and tried to reassert an individual’s control of his fate.

The quest of The Transcendentalists and Their World, as Gross turns from the luminaries to the daily Concord round, is to show that the transformations taking place in communication, travel, capitalism, and national party politics had been subtly diminishing the bonds of local feeling for decades since the Revolution. Emerson and Thoreau proposed that personal will and spiritual renewal could face down an atomization and sense of alienation that were spreading without anyone’s deliberate choice. Gross takes up the challenge of revealing how that erosion and resistance were felt by ordinary people as they navigated their lives in the local community.

The old self-sufficiency that had anchored New England farm life entailed steady family labor and collaboration with other farmers to fulfill quite modest tastes, wants, and expectations of life. “Dinners followed a regular round,” Gross writes: “baked beans one day, boiled dish another, and a roast next, in strict succession.” He documents that, as transport improved, “progressive” agriculture switched to intensive crops for market, and tastes turned to regional imports, bought with cash. “Why raise flax and wool in the fields and devote endless hours to the spinning wheel and loom when machine-made fabrics and ready-made clothes were available?” In the “new agricultural capitalism,”

the ties that once bound together the rural community frayed, and new lines of division separated a successful minority of progressive agriculturalists, attuned to the latest science and responsive to markets, from struggling neighbors hanging on by traditional means and from a transient class of landless laborers arriving from elsewhere.

A familiar story, but one etched with especial vividness here, as Gross introduces his dramatis personae in one generation, and we watch their children wrestle with the changes their parents have made. When the book opens, in the politically quietist “era of good feelings” of the 1820s, two lawyers, Samuel Hoar and John Keyes, have spun their legal practices into wealth and political dominance, vaulting to positions in the state legislature and in local offices. Rival store owners Daniel Shattuck and Samuel Burr control the merchant money. The cast is filled out by an aged physician, Isaac Hurd, and the jailkeeper, Abel Moore, both fierce speculators in real estate, aided by special access to knowledge of who is dying or being foreclosed on. Reverend Ripley is their long-lived Greek chorus, showing up on any occasion to croak a benediction upon tradition.

The members of the town establishment meet in the Freemasons’ Hall and in the Social Circle (a club for the rich male elite), and on their own initiative decide to undertake urban redevelopment in the town center. They set restrictions to force out “any blacksmith shop … or building in which any filthy or offensive business shall be carried on,” including carpenters and wagonmakers, the old mainstays of village life; they make way for retail and brand-new banks and insurance companies, to which these rich men supply the chief capital.

In the decades to follow, we witness a variety of insurgencies against this elite: an anti-Masonic movement that accuses the secretive Freemasons of dark homicidal conspiracies, as well as upsurges of partisan democracy in the Jacksonian era. These national trends and movements are given flesh and spirit in Concord, in alternately comic and terrifying chronicles of individual and group conflicts.

Equally illuminating are the struggles of sons and daughters who are expected to sustain their parents’ projects but have inclinations of their own. John Shepard Keyes, a son of the politician, is among the most poignant figures. “Young Keyes loved the outdoors as much as anyone of his class in Concord except for Thoreau”; high-spirited and mischievous, he just couldn’t please his dad. Plus he had bad luck. Teasing another boy one afternoon, he earned a rock thrown in his face, breaking his teeth and plunging him into excruciating pain:

The treatment—an application of nitric oxide—deadened the nerves but “killed” the teeth, which ultimately had to be removed, in an age before novocaine, with “old-fashioned twisters.” Not only was Keyes without his two front teeth, but he also had to endure a lifetime of dental misery, from which he obtained relief only by smoking cigars.

He wished to join the Army or embark on some other kind of physical adventure. Instead, he was sent to Harvard, where his father paid surprise visits and once snooped in his desk and read his diary. Even as a graduate, he could get no freedom from surveillance: “My ‘foolish abominable infernal habits’ … were blasted and why? Because I drank a mug of flip at the ball.”

Gross’s fascinating revelation is that boys like Keyes came under the spell of Emerson. Rereading a lecture of Emerson’s 50 years after he had heard it in person, “Keyes, a man in his seventies, felt once more ‘the stir to … life and spirit’ evoked by the orator’s ‘power and eloquence.’ ” George Moore, a son of the jailkeeper, followed Emerson’s lectures devoutly if obtusely: “What I understood … I liked very much, but there was a good deal I could not understand.” Gross observes that “Emerson highlighted the distinctive dilemmas faced by youth coming of age”—impatience with established ways, spiritual yearnings, longing to make a mark—and as their attendance grew, his “lectures targeted the young … as his special constituency.”

The Emersonian vision of mental power and refusal of constraints affected young women too—teenagers who thrilled to his call but knew too well, as his brother’s fiancée, Elizabeth Hoar, told Emerson directly, that “no ‘idealizing girl’ in her experience had ever fulfilled her early promise after coming of age and marrying.” The fate of Martha Hunt—a brilliant young woman sent to Groton to study by her sacrificing farmer parents—was emblematic. “Emerson … encouraged her ambitions and lent her books,” Gross writes, but prospects remained limited. The only paid role commensurate to talents like hers was that of teacher—a job that approximately 20 percent of white women in antebellum Massachusetts held at some point. But “managing sixty children in a cramped schoolhouse” as a summer schoolmistress was demoralizing, and Hunt’s thwarted interests left her “a strange girl,” according to a contemporary, “not content to milk cows and churn butter, and fry pork, without further hope or thought.” At 19, she drowned herself in the river. Nathaniel Hawthorne helped fish out the body.

Gross also shows that most of those who were galvanized by Emerson moved on from him. The few women who truly opted for an independent, risky life—plunging, as Margaret Fuller did, into authorship, feminism, reform efforts—“accused him of settling for a placid suburban existence.” Other townsfolk, like Keyes, settled into family expectations, marriage, and continuity themselves, and remembered the Transcendentalist inspiration fondly but vaguely.

The Transcendentalists and Their World emphasizes throughout that individualism helped dissolve organic community. No doubt this was the long-term trend. Citizens aspired to self-reliance and spiritualized egotism, and the many revolutions of the period facilitated the shift. And yet in the detailed life stories with which this book swells, Gross reveals, over and over, Concord’s residents returning to family, tradition, responsibility, and the demands of neighborhood.

One of Gross’s own quieter formulations captures this truth: “Community was not so much declining as shifting forms.” The contours of this shift are discernible in the rise of ardent moral reforms with wider geographic range, such as abolitionism, the defense of the Cherokees, and women’s participation in the petitioning of Congress. It was as if earlier moral policing in one’s own parish—monitoring sin in oneself and in neighbors, creating tight but short-range bonds—split along two tracks. One led to individual self-improvement and self-realization, and the other to reform of “the nation” or “the people,” each mission cosmic rather than local, yet both with a communal thrust.

Quite subtly, the book fuels a certain suspicion of Emerson as an enthusiast and inspirer, a figure more capable of expansion than depth, impressed more by the “manly power” of merchants and capitalists than by the circumspection of scholars. He joined the Social Circle with the other nabobs of the town. Though a powerful spokesman once roused, he lagged behind his abolitionist neighbors and family members. Emerson’s racial attitudes were not admirable.

Meanwhile, a surprising hero emerges in his one truly unwavering and stubborn young follower. By the end of Gross’s story, a new vision of Thoreau has taken shape. He is the townsman who turned his withdrawal into a conspicuously individual performance—“his well-built house” by Walden Pond “readily visible to passersby on the carriage road”—in order to take his neighbors and family along on his journey. Thoreau and his family were ardent abolitionists (his sister Helen was a friend of Frederick Douglass’s), and he continued to hide enslaved people on their flight to Canada even while living at the pond.

The famous early chapters of Walden—which seem so brutally insulting toward greedy, wasteful, acquisitive farmers and townsfolk—turn out to have been delivered, face-to-face, as lectures to his neighbors in the Concord Lyceum in 1847, by a self-revealing Thoreau under the title “History of Himself.” Such chastisement was in the old New England spirit of calls to the congregation. “Thoreau never sloughed off the heritage of Ezra Ripley and the message of community,” Gross writes. “In his mind he was never alone. The community came with him.”

This article appears in the December 2021 print edition with the headline “How Self-Reliant Was Emerson?”