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A Philosophical Movement in the Social Sense

A Review of Anne Rose's Transcendentalism as a Socialist Movement, 1830-1850

Anne Rose is an Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University. A graduate of Yale and Cornell University, Rose is a notable historian of American culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rose's other books include Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South(2009), Beloved Strangers: Interfaith Families in Nineteenth-Century America (2001), and Victorian America and the Civil War (1992).  

Anna C. Rose's Transcendentalism as a Social Movement 1830-1850 analyzes the Transcendentalists involvement in the social reform life of "antebellum" America.1 In an era saturated with social changes and religious doubt, the Transcendentalists stood out for their elevated principles and superior standing. Various iconic Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronxon Scott, George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, and Elizabeth Peabody embodied the reform movement due to their significant contributions during the social revolution of the early 19th century. Chronologically structured, the book follows the involvement of Transcendentalism in the socialistic sense from Unitarianism roots into the Transcendentalist controversy of 1836-1840 and further along into the several significant reform activities of the 1850s. The successes, failures, personal relationships, and idealistic principles of each famous Transcendentalist- both male and female- are examined and expanded upon.

In the beginning chapter, Rose commences with the Unitarian awakening which provided a "workable value system" for the intellectual people of Boston.2 However with the rise of industrialism, new "religious problems" were created, changing Boston society perpetually.3 The Unitarian revival- part of the Second Great Awakening- demonstrated two basic traits. One is the "emphasis on religious feeling" when preachers aspired to convert the "whole person", meaning the mind as well as the heart.4 The second attribute was the "experimental activity" element where books, magazines, and lectures were utilized to adapt "religion to a society".5 Before industrialism captured the center of Boston the "geographic isolation, kinship ties, and common institutions" kept individuals from different social rankings connected to each other as well as established stability in the city.6 Churches also thoroughly encouraged contact between various classes through established congregations and organizations." Character" was heavily relied by Unitarians who strived hard to sustain peaceful relations between "freethinking" individuals within society.7 However many problems still ended up plaguing the minds of Unitarians. One such was infidelity. With fewer people attending church, society became more indifferent to standard moral principles of the past. Marriage into the higher classes did not promise complete acceptance into the elevated social circles which were heavily guarded by aristocrats. Social mind-sets rather than economical factors affected the state of marriages exceedingly, sometimes even diminishing the reputation of couples as seen in the case of Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott and his wife Abigail May . Unitarians also faced harsh opposition and criticism from the Liberalists of the era. In an effort to reform the people of Boston, " Evangelical" Unitarians played an enormous part in promoting social issues such as "free public education, penal reform, temperance.." 8  Unitarian churches organized themselves into missionary programs such as Benevolent Fraternity of Christian Churches (BFCC) to be more effective in their efforts to help the impoverished of the country as well as to promote their beliefs and gain widespread popularity simultaneously.

Rose then continues onto depicting Transcendentalism as an Intellectual Movement, specifically in the years of 1830-36. Despite many contrary claims, Unitarians identified themselves as Christians due to their strong belief in the words of the Bible which "contained ..the full revelation of saving truth".9 Through rational logic, Unitarians attempted to authenticate Christianity's divine claims. Transcendentalism believed that Unitarians' loyalty to Christianity to be a "positive obstruction to faith". 10 Rose mentions various Transcendentalists whose influence marked the beginning of a new, redefined an era of speculation and changes. Orestes Brownson, who rebelled against the "strict adherence" to the Christian doctrines symbolized the two main themes of Transcendentalism -" the persuasive immediacy of intuition" and the "superiority" of the present generation over the past generations .11 Dissatisfied with Unitarianism, Transcendentalist George Ripley put forward his own method for "modernizing religion" in his work Martineau's Rationale , which challenged Christian principles.12  Ripley's criticism of Christian doctrine eventually lead him to leaving the ministry ,dedicating his life to social reform, and later participating in the unsuccessful Brook Farm utopian communal experiment of the 1840s. Two women- Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller also contributed towards the Transcendentalist movement. Their high education, independent spirit, and religious enthusiasm enabled Peabody and Fuller to take part in the reform movements of the 1800s. The evangelical movement also provided other women the opportunity to express their individual philosophies as well as participate in various religious activities. In this section, Rose additionally mentions Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most famous philosophers of the era to reveal his thoughts on the intellectual aspect of Transcendentalism. Emerson's life contained many moments of doubts as well as ones of enlightenment as he transformed "idealism for a philosophy..of religious postulates" into a holistic religion.13 Emerson's firm denunciation of traditional Christian doctrine lead him to seek spiritual refuge in the supreme laws of nature.

Rose continues on to the famous Transcendentalist Controversy which is portrayed as a debatable issue between highly opposed parties. The attack  on Transcendentalism came in the form of conservative efforts to retain power and order in the scattered society. During this time, the economy was in a deep recession with high unemployment rates and prevalent bankruptcies. These dark economic times called for answers to this sudden lapse in social disorder, leading many to target social reform leaders. One iconic event during the period from 1836-1840 was the Kneeland trials- a significant rallying point for conservatives. Kneeland 's secular ideals were "tried in the name of Liberal Christianity".14 The contentious case received high coverage from prominent reporters from several influential newspapers such as Nathan Hale from the Boston Daily Advertiser and Joseph Buckingham from the Boston Courier. Transcendentalists'' controversial religious ideas and social thoughts made them the target of conservative- loaded attacks . Bronson Alcott's Conservations with Children on Gospels  especially generated controversy due to its revelation of young children's candid views on "temperance, politics, slavery ..religion" .15 This literary piece confused readers with the introduction to an unexamined perspective of the aspects of the world through naive children's eyes. Reporters Hale and Buckingham criticized Alcott for threatening the stability of society by publishing the views of children, thus bringing additional public attention and criticism to Alcott's work. Rose discusses about 26 year old Francis Bowen, a well- known individual who represented the younger generation of the Transcendentalist critics. Bowen is known to the first to define Transcendentalism as a  "school of philosophy", portraying Transcendentalism as a dangerous movement where all basic Christian principles were questioned .16  Though Bowen's adequately backed statements against Transcendentalist beliefs  lead to debate and dispute, they also brought a new light to the identity of Transcendentalists as well as the various beliefs they held regarding religion.

The most important result of the controversy was the Transcendentalists' sudden interest in social reform " by collective mans". 17 Transcendentalist experiments such as Henry Thoreau's experience at Walden Pond, inspired Transcendentalists to work towards bringing their vision of "a moral economy" alive in the competitive industrial world.18 Alcott's Fruitlands and George Ripley's Brook Farms- Transcendentalist communities moved in the spirit of the economics of anarchy as they attempted to overthrown the established economic system of the real world while building one of "self- renunciation and obedience".19  These agrarian communities also worked in conforming the "reform principles" which ,originated from evangelical Christianity. 20 Despite the attempts to sustain an ideal, utopian society, the communities eventually disbanded as Transcendentalists discovered the many flaws of this theoretically- based model communes. Class divisions as well as financial difficulties lead to the end of the social experiments. The goal of social perfection was unattainable without any practicable alternative to the modern capitalistic system.  Transcendentalists also attempted to enhance domestic relations through involving all members of a family- including women- in the decision making process. Women moved beyond traditional roles as they become more involved in social movement as seen in the lives of Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller. Rose moves on to closely analyzes the personal and social lives of Emerson and Alcott and how their beliefs and involvement in social reform dramatically affected their personal relationships. Rose comprehensively discusses the marriage of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lydia Jackson, Lidian Emerson's friendship with her sister Lucy Brown, Elizabeth Peabody's relationship with sibling Mary Peabody, and Margaret Fuller's friendships with Caroline Sturgis, Waldo Emerson, Anna Baker, and Samuel Ward. The conclusion of the book describes how Transcendentalists were "powerful individuals" of their times and even though many failed in bringing their visions to life and in practice, they influenced every aspect of the world- the economy, familial relationships, religion,  and most importantly social issues.21   

Rose wrote the book to break the" superior..aloof"22 image many have of Transcendentalists. In a realistic fashion, Rose explores into the private lives of Transcendentalists, including their personalities, personal relationships, and critics. Transcendentalism- usually linked to the pursuit of elevated ideals- is thoroughly examined in all influences it has had on social movement from . Rose mentions unique facts concerning Transcendentalists, including their successes and failures in their individual fields in the social aspect. Rose also exquisitely examines each Transcendentalist as a father, son, husband, wife, sister, and friend. Evidently, Rose places several first- handed accounts from an impressive array iconic Transcendentalists such as Elizabeth Peabody , George Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abigail Alcott,  Theodore Parker, and several others to capture the essence of their philosophy effectively.  

Currently a Professor of History and Religious Studies at the prestigious Pennsylvania State University, Rose was influenced to write a book concerning the Transcendentalist movement due to her passionate interest in American history. Rose graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in American Studies which probably encouraged her interest in the philosophical movement. Rose also must have been influenced to write on this topic due to the recent renewed interest in Transcendentalist philosophy and its effects on the ideologies of the present modern world.  A historian of American cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries, Rose describes her researching and teaching to specifically "focus on the challenges modern society poses to religious belief and scientific thinking".23 Rose has written a quite a dynamic set of books that examine and cover various issues including racial inequality, public tolerance, and social justice. Written in 1981, the updated, modern perspective of the Transcendentalist movement certainly has impacted the author's perception of the 1830- 1850 time period. With more available historical resources, including first-hand, in-depth, descriptions from Transcendentalists themselves and reliable eye- witness accounts, Rose is able to place additional accurate information on Transcendentalists' lives and beliefs.

Critic Michael Fellman describes the book as a "refreshing" piece of literature since it portrays Transcendentalists as people who "lived in a particular time and place". 24   Carefully constructed, the book includes " a very detailed research" with many first- hand accounts. 25 Although Transcendentalism as a Social Movement doesn't have too much information on non- Transcendentalist reforms, the first half of the book is identified as a "very astute analysis" for following the Transcendentalists for their Unitarian stage.26 Although Rose is persuasive in her argument that Transcendentalists has their individual social views, Fellman feels that characterizing Transcendentalist experiments as a "social movement" is essentially overly "grandiose" in every manner. 27 Fellman also mentions that Rose is "ambivalent about her subjects" and suggests that she could have worked out her own "mixed feelings" in a "richer..framework"28. In the ending of his review, Fellman excessively praises Rose for her "down- to- earth sense" of depicting  Transcendentalists as real people.29  In Lawrence Buell's critique, he applauds Rose for her efforts in attempting to write a full-scale history of Transcendentalism but then he continues on to defining it as "inevitably even".30 Buell points out the two major limitations of the book to be the "superficial[ity]" as well as the "restrictive conception" of Transcendentalist reform, evident in the first half of the book .31 These limitations restrict the overview of the whole Transcendentalism reform movement. Despite the presence of these restrictions,  Buell views Rose to be highly effective in examining the two reforms, one being utopian socialism with the other being family relationships.

In Transcendentalism as a Social Movement 1830-1850,  Rose does an excellent job of describing all the characteristics of the many social movements that were influenced by Transcendentalists of the great era. The book's sequential order makes it easier to read and follow each time period. Though Rose includes several important and relevant facts in her book, some chapters digress in depth into the lives of Transcendentalists, deviating from the main point of the chapter. These digressions cause a bit of confusion however they do give some unique additional insight into the lives of Transcendentalists. The book is able to effectively demonstrate how Transcendentalist' eventual  "philosophical awakenings" were often products of failed social experiments and significant doubt held in traditional beliefs of the past.32 The author realistically captures the difficulties and criticisms the philosophers were forced to endure as they tried to put their developed theories into practice in real word situations.   Though Rose provides more information on some aspects of the social movement  than other aspects ; she is able to effectively emphasize the most significant traits of Transcendentalism more. At the end of each individual chapter, Rose conveys a complete, holistic overview of the whole chapter and how it ties  in with the 19th century Transcendentalism social movement , substantially helping  the reader understand the profound influence of Transcendentalist . Though there are some slight inconsistencies in the book, the book overall accurately contains all the attributes of the diverse social movements many Transcendentalists participated in during the first half of the 19th century.  

Rose's Transcendentalism as a Social Movement 1830-1850 serves as a valuable contribution to the field of Transcendentalism, defined as the primary "intellectual movement" in the whole nation.33 Rose thoroughly covers all the influences of the philosophical movement on social reform through individual examples. Although Transcendentalists did not accomplish all they set out to do, their contributions undoubtedly made a huge mark on the ideology of Americans.
1. Rose, Anne C. Transcendentalism as a Social Movement: 1830-1850 / Anne C. Rose. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981. 1.
2. Rose, Anne C. 1.
3. Rose, Anne C. 1.   
4. Rose, Anne C. 2.
5. Rose, Anne C. 2.
6. Rose, Anne C. 9.
7. Rose, Anne C. 12.
8. Rose, Anne C. 29.
9. Rose, Anne C. 39.
10. Rose, Anne C. 42.
11. Rose, Anne C. 53.
12. Rose, Anne C. 65.
13. Rose, Anne C. 69.
14. Rose, Anne C. 74.
15. Rose, Anne C. 80.
16. Rose, Anne C. 86.
17. Rose, Anne C.89.
18. Rose, Anne C. 118.
19. Rose, Anne C.131.
20. Rose, Anne C. 180.
21. Rose, Anne C. 220.
22. Rose, Anne C. 1
23. "Anne C. Rose." Anne C. Rose  Richards Center. Web. 09 June 2012.<>.
24. Fellman,Michael .Reviews in American History , Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar., 1983), pp. 66-71 .Published by: The John Hopkins University Press.
25. Fellman, Micahel. 67.
26. Fellman, Michael, 68.
27. Fellman, Michael, 69.
28. Fellman, Michael, 70.
29. Fellman, Michael, 70.
30. Buell, Lawrence. American Literature , Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec., 1982), pp. 611-612 .Published by: Duke University Press.
31. Buell, Lawrence. 612.
32. Rose, Anne C. 203
33. Rose, Anne C. 39