Robert A. Gross is Emeritus Draper Professor of Early American History at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on his new book, The Transcendentalists and Their World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).
JF: What led you to write The Transcendentalists and Their World?
RG: I wanted to explore the shift from community to individualism in American life and thought from the dawn of the republic to the eve of the Civil War, and what better place to do so than in Concord, Massachusetts, home of the Minutemen, who “fired the shot heard round the world” on April 19, 1775, in defense of the collective right of self-rule and a traditional way of life, and then, from the mid-1830s to the late 1840s, the residence of the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and epicenter of the Transcendentalist movement, which urged the liberation of the individual from inherited institutions and social and economic constraints.
By locating the careers and works of Emerson and Thoreau in the unfolding life of the town in which they lived and wrote, I aimed to ground intellectual history in everyday experience — to explore the influence of people and events in Concord on the Transcendentalists’ visions and to examine in turn the impact of the writers on their neighbors.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Transcendentalists and Their World?
RG: In the two decades following the War of 1812, the inhabitants of Concord pulled away from the inclusive institutions and cooperative practices of the eighteenth century and put a new premium on individual self-interest, voluntary association, and the pursuit of progress. But they continued to uphold an ethic of interdependence at odds with the growing individualism, and it was to resolve this contradiction that the Transcendentalists set forth a vision of the single person as the foundation of the social order, in whose education and development America could realize the highest possibilities of liberty and democracy.
JF: Why do we need to read The Transcendentalists and Their World?
RG: The Transcendentalists and Their World presents an inclusive picture of a community in change, whose history was made by a varied cast of characters at all levels of the social order, from landed gentlemen and wealthy merchants to skilled craftsmen, hardscrabble farmers, and landless laborers; from patriarchs of ancient families to sojourners for a season or two; from white men of privilege to subordinate but restive women and aspiring free people of color on the margins. In the microcosm of Concord, we can see all these groups interacting to deal with the forces that ushered in a modern world of global capitalism, technological progress, popular democracy, religious pluralism, racial diversity, and social reform. For many, the far-ranging transformation was deeply unsettling, and the tensions and conflicts it engendered will seem familiar to readers today, in a society struggling to make sense of and to order dramatic change. And perhaps we may find inspiration in the efforts of Concordians to overcome their divides, sustain an ethic of neighborliness, and balance the new premium on the individual with concern for community.
JF: Why and when did you become an American historian?
RG: As an undergraduate major in American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1966), I studied with several inspiring professors, notably, Lee Benson and Mike Zuckerman. It was Benson who urged me to become a historian and Zuckerman who provided a model of how much fun an academic life could be. My choices at the time were between journalism and history. After a stint at Newsweek, history won.
JF: What is your next project?
RG: I have recently revised and updated The Minutemen and Their World for a new edition to be published by Picador, a paperback arm of Macmillan, in 2022. As the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution approaches, I expect to write about how previous generations, as divided as we are today, struggled to commemorate their red-letter days. Can we build a future without a shared past?
JF: Thanks, Robert!