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American Transcendentalism: A History Hardcover – November 13, 2007

4.0 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Gura (Jonathan Edwards) has written possibly the best single volume on the Transcendentalists. Though he analyzes the essays and lectures of Emerson, Fuller and the Alcotts, Gura (a professor of literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) also introduces lesser-known figures who were influenced by their thought. These fellow travelers help explain how the influence of Transcendentalism eventually spread beyond a handful of Boston intellectuals: businessman William B. Greene translated Transcendentalist values into economic thinking with the production of pamphlets like Mutual Banking and Equality, and Eliza Thayer Clapp, a Unitarian Sunday school teacher, integrated Transcendentalist ideas into girls' religious instruction. Gura situates Transcendentalism against the backdrop of American Protestantism, showing how the movement emerged in part from early–19th-century debates about how to read the Bible. He also explores Transcendentalists' involvement in all manner of reform movements, including women's rights and, in the 1850s, abolition. When the Civil War won that battle, they turned away from social engagement for several decades, and the individualism of Transcendentalism unwittingly underwrote the postbellum political economy of market capitalism. Gura's fresh, penetrating analysis will reshapes our understanding American of intellectual history and the 19th century. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Nov.)
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From 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 results in a "lean, impassioned prose chockablock with anecdote and information" (Washington Post), a couple of critics still wonder if the lay reader’s interest will hold. What is the best reason for us to read this synthesis? "The deepest scholarship, like the greatest art, not only enriches our lives," The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda reminds us, "but also implicitly asks us to examine them, even to cross-examine them."
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (November 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809034778
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809034772
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.4 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #788,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Corinne H. Smith VINE VOICE on December 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
It's the question that you dread to be asked, if you're a follower of Emerson or Thoreau: "What the heck IS transcendentalism, anyway? Where did it come from?" You stutter and you stammer and you explain what the concept means to you, which is probably not what someone else would say. And you hope that if the inquirer was merely being polite, you won't have to launch into any further details about the influence of German, French, and English writers and philosophers on New England Unitarians in the 1830s. If you're lucky, you'll be able to steer the conversation toward a safer topic. Like the contemporary political scene. Or the war in Iraq.

Phil Gura has made our lives much easier by publishing this history of the American transcendentalist movement. Now all the loose ends are tied up in this one, valuable volume. He traces those European ideas back to their sources, then shows how they surfaced in America. Those were the days when folks read pieces of literature and philosophy in their original languages, and aspiring scholars took the time to translate those works into English. Those were the days when religious debate was a common occurrence, and men of the cloth published opinionated pamphlets that others vocally supported or viciously denigrated in the popular press or in their own esoteric periodicals. American religions were still in a period of evolution and transition, and the Transcendentalists emerged as a result. You'll have to read this book to find out how that happened.

And while you're poring over it, you should also have one of the published compendiums by your side: either Lawrence Buell's "The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings" or Joel Myerson's "Transcendentalism: A Reader.
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Format: Hardcover
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 movement was, indeed, quite loose, with many people finding many different meanings and goals in Transcendentalism. He also shows that Emerson was, at least initially, not at the center of the movement and that he differed from many of his fellow Transcendentalists in key ways. The movement flourished from the 1830s to the 1850s, was basically subsumed by the Civil War, and then reappeared in several modified forms in post-War American. Ultimately, it was largely replaced (or modified) as the paradigmatic American philosophy by William James and his fellow pragmatists.

Transcendentalism was a form of philosophical idealism which stressed the immediacy of individual consciousness as a means of understanding what was valuable in experience. In addition to its subjectivism, transcendentalism had a strong universalist component as it found that every person would share essentially the same intuitions of value and meaning if they looked inside themselves. Transcendentalists opposed the empiricism of John Locke, which they found despiritualized people and reality, and they opposed as well conservative Calvinist theology. Broadly speaking, the movement sought a spirituality not tied to the teachings of a specific organized religion or to a claimed revelation.
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This book is a history of the American Transcendental Movement that focuses on those individuals who either participated in the movement or were otherwise associated with it. Professor Gura is rather less interested in the ideas and social context of the movement. This is strangely appropriate since the one constant among American transcendentalists was their belief in individualism. Unfortunately the reader is then left with the task of sorting out just what transcendentalism was and the social context in which it developed.

The American Transcendentalist Movement was quite small. It was limited almost entirely to a handful of liberal Unitarian clergyman. But the movement also included a couple of remarkable women, Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody. Geographically it was principally confined to Massachusetts and to a lesser extent New England. Its most active period was from the early 1830's through 1850. Finally it was a religious not a philosophical movement. Its core premise was perhaps best expressed by George Ripley (1802-1880) when he argued that: man was..."conscious of an inward nature, which is the source of more important and comprehensive ideas than any which the external senses suggest." As applied to religion this concept give individual conscious precedence over everything else in matters of religion. This individualism gave the transcendentalist movement its unique character, but also prevented it from becoming a cohesive philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson its most famous member also presented the most radical ideas on the importance of the individual and inward revelation.

It has been argued by some scholars that the American Transcendental Movement was founded on a third hand misunderstanding of German idealism. This does not do justice to the movement.
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