Bancroft Prize-winning historian Gross returns to Concord, Mass., this time to explore the rise of transcendentalist thought that arose there among residents Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcotts and their community of friends and fellow thinkers.
... easily the most comprehensive work ever written about the town’s social history during the transcendentalist era ... Mr. Gross’s historiography is patient, thorough, cumulative ... One of the most fascinating chapters in Mr. Gross’s account examines a number of young men and women of the village who fell under the spell of Emerson’s thought ... Mr. Gross’s richly detailed account shows us how such a surprising conjunction of place and thought could occur.
Gross ably depicts how Concord shaped these two writers, and how they also departed from town norms. Yet his narrative of town life too often becomes an end in itself and overwhelms any relation to the transcendentalists. This is especially true with regard to politics ... So why all the detail from the amity-filled Era of Good Feelings to the pitched battles between Masons and Anti-Masons, and the decades of clashes in between? More than 600 pages of text, conveyed in very small type, this tome requires the most patient and indulgent of readers. Trimming down the excess surely would have sharpened a focus on the relationship of Concord to its favorite sons ... Still, it’s hard not to respect this labor of a lifetime. His scholarship, based on research in many other libraries as well, is impeccable. In balance...an essential work on these towering figures of American literature.
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 ... Gross uses our devotion to those familiar heroes to interest us in the ordinary story of a tight-knit town turned unusual birthplace ... 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 ... puts Thoreau’s experiment in solitude in context ... Gross’s fascinating revelation is that boys like Keyes came under the spell of Emerson.