The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism

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The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism offers an ecclectic, comprehensive interdisciplinary approach to the immense cultural impact of the movement that encompassed literature, art, architecture, science, and politics.
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About the author

Joel Myerson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor at the University of South Carolina. An authority on transcendentalism and textual and bibliographical studies, Professor Myerson has written, edited, co-authored, or co-edited some fifty books. Laura Dassow Walls is John H. Bennett, Jr. Chair of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. Her most recent book is The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Sandra Harbert Petrulionis is Professor of English and American Studies at Penn State--Altoona. She is the author of To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord (Cornell, 2006).
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Additional Information

Publisher
Oxford University Press
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Published on
Apr 16, 2010
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Pages
800
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ISBN
9780199716128
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / General
Literary Criticism / Reference
Philosophy / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Walden is one of the most frequently assigned texts in literature classes across the country, and it might seem that little new could be said about such a popular book. But these essays demonstrate that scholarship on Henry David Thoreau continues to break new ground. Emerging new voices join senior scholars in exploring a range of topics: Walden's climb to fame; modes of representation in the text; the relationship between fact and truth; Thoreau and violence; Thoreau and evolutionary theory; the working community created by Thoreau's reading and labor; how women read Walden; and the relationship between politics, nature writing, and the science of ecology. The volume closes with an afterword suggesting directions for future research.

Thoreau asserted that the leaves of the earth's strata were not page upon page to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, "but living poetry like the leaves of a tree." The continuing vitality of Walden shows that it, too, is not a fossil but a living book, still putting out green leaves of insight.

Each decade since Walden was published in 1854 has seen the world grow more crowded and less "simple." What, in our consumerist, speed-of-light, hypermediated world would Thoreau have found worth pursuing? How would he structure his life so as to shut out the phones ringing, the cars honking, the litter trashing his beloved haunts? Readers still seek answers to such questions by picking up their dog-eared copy of Walden and immersing themselves yet again in its pages. Students convince us that this book still holds the power to change lives. These essays are written with the expectation that Thoreau in the new century can help us realize that there are more lives to live and more day to dawn -- that "the sun is but a morning star."

Contributors include Nina Baym, Robert Cummings, Robert Oscar López, Lance Newman, H. Daniel Peck, Dana Phillips, Larry J. Reynolds, David M. Robinson, William Rossi, Robert Sattelmeyer, Sarah Ann Wider, and Michael G. Ziser.

“Walden. Yesterday I came here to live.” That entry from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and the intellectual journey it began, would by themselves be enough to place Thoreau in the American pantheon. His attempt to “live deliberately” in a small woods at the edge of his hometown of Concord has been a touchstone for individualists and seekers since the publication of Walden in 1854.

But there was much more to Thoreau than his brief experiment in living at Walden Pond. A member of the vibrant intellectual circle centered on his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was also an ardent naturalist, a manual laborer and inventor, a radical political activist, and more. Many books have taken up various aspects of Thoreau’s character and achievements, but, as Laura Dassow Walls writes, “Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided.” Two hundred years after his birth, and two generations after the last full-scale biography, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity.

Walls traces the full arc of Thoreau’s life, from his early days in the intellectual hothouse of Concord, when the American experiment still felt fresh and precarious, and “America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next.” By the time he died in 1862, at only forty-four years of age, Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. What did that portend for the contemplative individual and abundant, wild nature that Thoreau celebrated?

Drawing on Thoreau’s copious writings, published and unpublished, Walls presents a Thoreau vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions: the young man shattered by the sudden death of his brother; the ambitious Harvard College student; the ecstatic visionary who closed Walden with an account of the regenerative power of the Cosmos. We meet the man whose belief in human freedom and the value of labor made him an uncompromising abolitionist; the solitary walker who found society in nature, but also found his own nature in the society of which he was a deeply interwoven part. And, running through it all, Thoreau the passionate naturalist, who, long before the age of environmentalism, saw tragedy for future generations in the human heedlessness around him.

“The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, so I wrote this one,” says Walls. The result is a Thoreau unlike any seen since he walked the streets of Concord, a Thoreau for our time and all time.
Explorer, scientist, writer, and humanist, Alexander von Humboldt was the most famous intellectual of the age that began with Napoleon and ended with Darwin. With Cosmos, the book that crowned his career, Humboldt offered to the world his vision of humans and nature as integrated halves of a single whole. In it, Humboldt espoused the idea that, while the universe of nature exists apart from human purpose, its beauty and order, the very idea of the whole it composes, are human achievements: cosmos comes into being in the dance of world and mind, subject and object, science and poetry.

Humboldt’s science laid the foundations for ecology and inspired the theories of his most important scientific disciple, Charles Darwin. In the United States, his ideas shaped the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Whitman. They helped spark the American environmental movement through followers like John Muir and George Perkins Marsh. And they even bolstered efforts to free the slaves and honor the rights of Indians.

Laura Dassow Walls here traces Humboldt’s ideas for Cosmos to his 1799 journey to the Americas, where he first experienced the diversity of nature and of the world’s peoples—and envisioned a new cosmopolitanism that would link ideas, disciplines, and nations into a global web of knowledge and cultures. In reclaiming Humboldt’s transcultural and transdisciplinary project, Walls situates America in a lively and contested field of ideas, actions, and interests, and reaches beyond to a new worldview that integrates the natural and social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

To the end of his life, Humboldt called himself “half an American,” but ironically his legacy has largely faded in the United States. The Passage to Cosmos will reintroduce this seminal thinker to a new audience and return America to its rightful place in the story of his life, work, and enduring legacy.

“Walden. Yesterday I came here to live.” That entry from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and the intellectual journey it began, would by themselves be enough to place Thoreau in the American pantheon. His attempt to “live deliberately” in a small woods at the edge of his hometown of Concord has been a touchstone for individualists and seekers since the publication of Walden in 1854.

But there was much more to Thoreau than his brief experiment in living at Walden Pond. A member of the vibrant intellectual circle centered on his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was also an ardent naturalist, a manual laborer and inventor, a radical political activist, and more. Many books have taken up various aspects of Thoreau’s character and achievements, but, as Laura Dassow Walls writes, “Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided.” Two hundred years after his birth, and two generations after the last full-scale biography, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity.

Walls traces the full arc of Thoreau’s life, from his early days in the intellectual hothouse of Concord, when the American experiment still felt fresh and precarious, and “America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next.” By the time he died in 1862, at only forty-four years of age, Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. What did that portend for the contemplative individual and abundant, wild nature that Thoreau celebrated?

Drawing on Thoreau’s copious writings, published and unpublished, Walls presents a Thoreau vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions: the young man shattered by the sudden death of his brother; the ambitious Harvard College student; the ecstatic visionary who closed Walden with an account of the regenerative power of the Cosmos. We meet the man whose belief in human freedom and the value of labor made him an uncompromising abolitionist; the solitary walker who found society in nature, but also found his own nature in the society of which he was a deeply interwoven part. And, running through it all, Thoreau the passionate naturalist, who, long before the age of environmentalism, saw tragedy for future generations in the human heedlessness around him.

“The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, so I wrote this one,” says Walls. The result is a Thoreau unlike any seen since he walked the streets of Concord, a Thoreau for our time and all time.
More than any other Transcendentalist of his time, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) embodied the full complement of the movement’s ideals and vocations: author, advocate for self-reform, stern critic of society, abolitionist, philosopher, and naturalist. The Thoreau of our time—valorized anarchist, founding environmentalist, and fervid advocate of civil disobedience—did not exist in the nineteenth century. In this rich and appealing collection, Sandra Harbert Petrulionis untangles Thoreau’s multiple identities by offering a wide range of nineteenth-century commentary as the opinions of those who knew him evolved over time.

The forty-nine recollections gathered in Thoreau in His Own Time demonstrate that it was those who knew him personally, rather than his contemporary literati, who most prized Thoreau’s message, but even those who disparaged him respected his unabashed example of an unconventional life. Included are comments by Ralph Waldo Emerson—friend, mentor, Walden landlord, and progenitor of the spin on Thoreau’s posthumous reputation; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who could not compliment Thoreau without simultaneously denigrating him; and John Weiss, whose extended commentary on Thoreau’s spirituality reflects unusual tolerance. Selections from the correspondence of Caroline Healey Dall, Maria Thoreau, Sophia Hawthorne, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, and Amanda Mather amplify our understanding of the ways in which nineteenth-century women viewed Thoreau. An excerpt by John Burroughs, who alternately honored and condemned Thoreau, asserts his view that Thoreau was ever searching for the unattainable.

The dozens of primary sources in this crisply edited collection illustrate the complexity of Thoreau’s iconoclastic singularity in a way that no one biographer could. Each entry is introduced by a headnote that places the selection in historical and cultural context. Petrulionis’s comprehensive introduction and her detailed chronology of personal and literary events in Thoreau’s life provide a lively and informative gateway to the entries themselves. The collaborative biography that Petrulionis creates in Thoreau in His Own Time contextualizes the strikingly divergent views held by his contemporaries and highlights the reasons behind his profound legacy.

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