R. Todd Felton, an Amherst, Massachusetts, writer and prize-winning photographer, has faced a formidable challenge in A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England. Not only is he researching and writing about places in mid-19th century New England as diverse as Salem, Amherst and Boston, but he is also investigating authors who have “an original relation to the universe” and not infrequently an original relation to one another. Their “loose affiliation” and idiosyncratic adoption and adaptation of the central tenets of transcendentalism—an intuitive spirituality based on communication with nature, an attack on getting and spending, an electric and eclectic social activism—make it difficult for the author to highlight explicit common denominators. Writers who espouse radical individualism don’t easily fall into “groups” or commingle into a “movement.”
To his credit, Felton does not (with a few exceptions) tamp revolutionary thinkers into any preconceived mold. He reminds a reader on many occasions that the Transcendentalists did not subscribe to any creed or dogma, preferring to let their ideas evolve organically through lyceum lectures, discussion groups, clubs, symposiums and debates. Rather than dogma, he argues that Transcendentalism takes its inspiration from “place”—from specific towns, utopian communities, villages and landscapes, a “fifty-mile half-circle radiating out from Boston, between 1828-1854.” The investigation of this “half-circle” journey is vivified through striking, four-color photographs, archival prints, detailed street maps and succinct biographies. Felton’s narrative style is engaging without being intrusive, offering insights to both native New Englanders and tourists who might use the book as a travel guide.
The book is divided into geographic chapters: Boston, Cambridge, Concord, Walden
Pond, Salem, Amherst and the utopian communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands—focusing, in each instance, on how “place” and “imagination” interact. Felton is particularly adept at creating a context for the heat and light of Emerson’s intellectual combustion, particularly in his incendiary addresses to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837 on the American scholar and to the Harvard Divinity School graduates in 1838 on the state of Christianity. In a deft understatement, he notes quietly that after those lectures, Emerson was barred from speaking at Harvard for 30 years.
He is less successful when painting Nathaniel Hawthorne with the Transcendentalist
brush. While Hawthorne invested in and even worked for a time at the Brook Farm commune, he was also capable of mocking Emerson’s followers as “a variety of queer, strangely-dressed, oddly-behaved mortals, most of whom took upon themselves to be important agents of the world’s destiny, yet were simply bores of a very intense water.” Puritan-haunted Hawthorne seems more often to have his head and heart in the 17th, rather than the 19th, century. To a writer who habitually employed irony to undercut the ego-driven missions of any century, some Transcendental puffery must have presented a tempting target.
Emily Dickinson, who had a genius for ducking affiliations, labels and groups, is even harder to snare. Though Felton claims “Emerson was her Transcendentalist idol,” he concedes that she didn’t walk next door to meet him when he visited Amherst in 1857, staying at her brother Austin’s house, the Evergreens. Her literary models—beyond the Bible—were predominantly British, not American: Shakespeare and Milton, the Brownings, the Brontes. With Dickinson lacking explicit ties to Transcendentalism, Felton must look to her poems, where an emphasis on the imaginative power of nature or a shucking off of the old forms and traditions supplies the Transcendentalist signature. But who can fix and formulate Emily Dickinson—that elusive moth always sailing beyond the reach of any net? What Felton does capture beautifully is the hustle and bustle of mid-19th century New England life in certain pulsating communities, places where commerce included not only manufacturing and trade but also educational innovation and social reform. A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England immerses a reader in a time and place where intellectual debate was every bit as important as the Gross National Product.
This half-history, half-travel book is a bit like a loaf of bread from Whole Foods - tough and chewy, but ultimately good for you. Transcendentalism represented one of the first full-blown philosophy movements in the new United States. Rejecting the strict Calvinist and Unitarian interpretation of the Bible, Transcendentalists looked to nature as justification of God's existence. Salvation and eternity did not exist because a book said so, but because they spoke to your heart.
Transcendentalist writing ranges from the sublime to the unreadable, and with long New England winters that encouraged reflection, hundred-page critiques of sermons were more popular than one might imagine. The most famous writer is Thoreau with his sermon to simple living, Walden. So many hippies and idealists were moved to live off the land because of this book, but a close reading reveals that after about a year of eating beans and swatting mosquitoes, he moved back into cafe society. There's idealism, and then there's good plumbing.
The Transcendentalist movement centered on the Boston area, and its members are a Who’s Who of American letters - Hawthorn, Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson are the biggies. Many of the buildings and locations associated with the movement still exist, and Felton's research not only highlights their location but the details of how they came to be and who owned what over the years. His strength is a detailed review of the movement's underpinnings, and while the buildings are secondary to the movement, they are what we can stand in front of and take pictures.
As a travel book, this is a very specialized item. All the locations are within an hour's drive of Logan airport, and all are well known in the standard tourist world. What you get with this book is a detailed background, with names, dates, romances, and impact. When standing in front of another ancient saltbox with a gift shop, this book can make the place come alive. There isn’t any of the standard "Where to Eat and Sleep" information, but the area is well-stocked with accommodations.
If you're not planning a historical drive through the Boston area, Transcendentalists' New England makes a fine historical reference for the armchair philosopher or a student in need of a term paper. There are only passing allusions to the reality of suburban Boston sprawl and traffic, and if you can put those out of mind, you're back in 1845, trying to change a world that men are just beginning to understand.
Causes Robert Felton Supports
The Sierra Club, Soccer without Borders,