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by Robert A. Gross

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-374-27932-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The history of a flourishing 19th-century village that gave rise to transformative thought.

Conceived as a sequel of sorts to Gross’ acclaimed The Minutemen and Their World (1976), this book is a deeply researched inquiry into the idea of individualism as expressed and grappled with by the two most famous transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, among many others in 19th-century New England. Drawing on prodigious scholarly and archival sources, Gross creates a vibrant portrait of Concord, Massachusetts, as a thriving village that, from the 1820s to the 1840s, confronted evolving intellectual, economic, social, political, and spiritual pressures as well as contentious issues that drove townspeople “into mutually suspicious enclaves,” frayed bonds of community, and undermined an “ideology of interdependence” inherited from the Puritans. In the 1820s and ’30s, Concord prospered, with factories producing cloth from cotton picked by Southern slaves; a pencil factory, owned by Thoreau’s family; a circulating library, debating club, and lyceum; bustling shops; and, notably, the exclusive, influential Social Circle, “a self-selecting club of the local elite,” open only by nomination (Emerson proudly joined in 1839). Gross’ large, colorful cast of characters includes conflicting religious leaders, such as Congregationalist Ezra Ripley and Calvinist Lyman Beecher; African American artisans, Irish immigrants, and local farmers; and reform-minded women who energetically took up the cause of abolition, to which Emerson—unlike Thoreau—came late. Thoreau, Gross writes, “captured the driving forces of the day,” including the invasive “iron horse” (Emerson, unlike Thoreau, was an early supporter of the railroad and bought railroad stock), modern communications, the need for better schools, and “the moral and spiritual failures of church and state, the problematic programs of the reformers, and the loss of wildness in nature.” Gross incisively examines Emerson’s “masculine version of individualism,” which was offensive to his wife; Thoreau’s apparent retreat from social life; and both men’s changing conception of the individual within a matrix of social obligations and sustaining community.

A vigorous, compelling American history.