Author Interview: Robert A. Gross on “The Transcendentalists and Their World”

By Blake Maddux

“Concord was actually surprisingly representative of Massachusetts, New England, and maybe even the North in the 19th century. In learning about Concord, you learn about the making of modern America.”

Historians who enter their field and count on winning the Bancroft Prize set themselves up for disappointment. Awarded by Columbia University, it is the most prestigious recognition bestowed upon works of American history short of the Pulitzer, which more than a dozen Bancroft recipients have also collected. Needless to say, one shouldn’t expect to be so honored before even being granted tenure.

But then there is Robert A. Gross, Draper Professor of Early American History, Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. In 1976, he was granted a Ph.D. from Columbia, began a tenure-track position at Amherst College, and published The Minutemen and Their World, for which he attained the Bancroft Prize the following year.

After teaching for 12 years at Amherst and 15 at the College of William & Mary, Gross arrived at UConn in 2003, which was a bit of a homecoming for the Bridgeport, CT native. He remained there until retiring and moving to Concord, MA in 2015.

This brings us to his new book, The Transcendentalists and Their World, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux published on November 9. Gross describes this magisterial 600-page work as “An intellectual history of Transcendentalism and a social history of Concord,” of which “the key question is, how did Concord become a major center of ideas?”

Professor Gross spoke by phone to The Arts Fuse ahead of upcoming virtual speaking engagements via the Massachusetts Historical Society (December 13), Salem Athenaeum (December 15), and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

The Arts Fuse: How long was this book in the works and what inspired you to commit yourself to such a substantial project?

Robert A. Gross: I signed a contract in 1978 (laughs), and I promised to deliver it by 1983. The Minutemen and Their World was published in 1976. It had done really well, I’d gotten a new faculty position at Amherst College, and my editor and publisher really wanted to sign me up again.

I thought even before I wrote The Minutemen and Their World that I was going to focus on Concord in the era of Emerson and Thoreau. I wanted to do the same kind of canvassing of all the sources in the community; trying to do history from the bottom up and the top down and the middle out.

I published quite a few articles along the way. I never stopped writing. What really changed it was when I realized that all these analytical investigations [of federal and state censuses, records of property ownership, elections, voluntary associations, lectures, etc.] would not produce a narrative. The key was that I needed to focus and create a narrative. So I decided to retire in 2015 and focus full time on the book. Between 2015 and 2020, I produced one full draft of the book and then I had to cut, restructure, and redesign. So the book has its origins in the ’70s, but it really was written from 2015-2020, in the Trump era.

Historian Robert A. Gross. Photo: Janet L. Pritchard.

AF: In what ways does The Transcendentalists and Their World follow the pattern established by The Minutemen and Their World in terms of its focus and priorities?

RG: It follows from The Minutemen in that I conceived it as a study of a whole community: its economic life, its social system of stratification, its political involvement in the wider world. In that sense, I tried to tell the story of Concord as a community among towns in Massachusetts. At the same time, I also am attending to the various characters in town. One answer to the question of “What’s the history of Concord” might be, “Who are the people in Concord?”

In each book, I try and reconstruct figures who can represent the range of experiences in the community and the diversity of points of view, but also figures who are key in making decisions and, simultaneously, people in the lower orders who may have been left out of previous accounts but whose lives experiences matter for their own sake and for their interplay with other people.

Because this is a study of Transcendentalism, it is much more of an intellectual history than The Minutemen and Their World. But you can read the two books together and see the unfolding history of a town that has been consequential in American history. Concord was actually surprisingly representative of Massachusetts, New England, and maybe even the North in the 19th century. In learning about Concord, you learn about the making of modern America. Even though it’s a tiny little place of 2,000-plus people!

AF: Where did your interest in Concord begin, either as a student or a scholar?

RG: When I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania, I took an American Civilization survey in which they posed the question of how Concord, a part of the communal Puritan world, became the home of some of the best-known spokespeople for individualism in America. How could one place be both? So that intrigued me in college and stayed with me.

When I was hired by Amherst College, I taught a course that compared Emily Dickinson’s Amherst with the Transcendentalists’ Concord. That course was wonderfully successful and really got me into Transcendentalism as a way of thinking because it made for great seminar discussions. At every place I’ve taught, William & Mary and especially UConn, I designed or participated in the design of courses on Concord and its landscape, environmentalism, and social history. Its always grabbed the students that I’ve taught. So I would say that The Transcendentalists and Their World is as much the product of pedagogy as it is of research.

Leading Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

AF: To what degree does this book focus on lesser-known individuals or sometimes neglected groups?

RG: You learn a lot in the book about merchants in the town and the manufacturers who played a large role in shaping not only the economic order but the various societies for cultural improvement and religious reform. I also spend a lot of time on the small black community in Concord, which consisted typically of about two to three dozen men and women of color. Although the number was small, maybe 1.5% of the population, that number was the typical proportion of black people in Massachusetts towns. And the several families of color stayed in Concord and were – after the 1820s – clearly a part of the social life of the town.

So in some ways, treating the characters – and this is true of white laborers as well – not only gives you a sense of the lived experience of people, but also of the extent to which people at different points in the social order actually had contact with each other, actually engaged one another.

AF: Let’s return to the Minutemen book. A 25th anniversary edition was published in 2001 and a revised edition of it is slated for publication next year. What will that include?

RG: Yes, we are finishing it up as we speak. There’ll be a new afterword, and I’ve actually corrected a couple of errors and added a bunch of new material that will heighten our appreciation of the extent to which Concord was actually involved in a political struggle over the extent to which they should oppose British policies. We’ll also see Concord’s involvement in the War of Independence in richer ways than I had presented before.

AF: Do you expect that the Transcendentalists volume will enjoy the same success as the Minutemen has?

RG: I hope so! (laughs)

AF: Maybe another Bancroft Prize…?

RG: Nobody can predict those things! I am just happy to have readers and I feel like I learned a lot as a writer in doing the book.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins—Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson—in Salem, MA.

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