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American Transcendentalism: A History    by Philip F. Gura order for
American Transcendentalism
by Philip F. Gura
Order:  USA  Can
Hill & Wang, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

During several decades leading up to the middle of America's 19th century, arguably one of the most dynamic and pivotal periods of America's brief history, an eclectic group of Americans (principally in New England) joined forces in a remarkable social, political, and religious experiment: Transcendentalism.

Professor Philip R. Gura's important new narrative history now gives readers in the 21st century a fresh, vigorous, and provocative look at that singular movement - its long list of adherents and detractors - and its long-lasting spiritual, cultural, and international impact.

With the principal players - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody, Orestes Brownson, George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, Caroline Healey Dall, Theodore Parker, and Bronson Alcott - at the center of his informative narrative, Gura looks also at the larger group of clergymen, social reformers, writers, and the other men and women who constituted two generations in the unique group ultimately known as Transcendentalists (a term first used derisively against the participants, and initially rejected though later embraced by them).

American Transcendentalism traces the unusual movement's European (especially German) and American roots, and clearly shows the ways in which a complex and diverse group of American intellectuals, liberals, and progressives during the 1830s through the 1850s had such a profound impact on America's social philosophy, religious thought, intellectual life, the abolition movement, women's rights, and political attitudes in subsequent years.

Gura's book is most highly recommended for all serious students of American literature and history. The author is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and his lucid analysis in American Transcendentalism is perhaps the most accessible and comprehensive presentation on the subject in more than half a dozen decades.

Concise yet thorough, highly readable and lively, American Transcendentalism is a must-read look at the multifaceted period of American intellectual history that has been so often misunderstood but has so profoundly influenced this country's literary, spiritual, philosophical, social, and political heritage. If you can read only one book about Transcendentalism, this should be the one.

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