Philip Gura’s American Transcendentalism

Emersonians, awake!

Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn

You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle

We’re wallowing in the transcendent mystery of things with Philip Gura, the author of American Transcendentalism: A History. Gura is an eminent professor of literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, but he’s also “one of us,” avid in the non-dogmatic, non-exclusive pursuit of the ecstatic, the invisible, the divine.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gura here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

Toward the end of this conversation, Philip Gura explains how it began for him, 44 years ago. He was a child in Ware, Massachusetts, the son of immigrant mill folk, when he came upon a nest of “huge, garrulous, yellow birds eating choke cherries.” When he wrote to the American Museum of Natural History for help identifying his find, the great ornithologist Dean Amadon wrote him directly to say the birds had to be evening grosbeaks, cousins of the goldfinch.

Naturalist and Prophet: HDT

Birds and New England nature led to Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau led to the genius moment and the genius cluster of the American renaissance in Concord — writers, thinkers, social consciences that to this day “represent something about our past that we want to be part of” and a key that perhaps hasn’t been turned all the way in the door of American life.

The insistent voice of Mary McGrath asks, as always: “Okay, Chris, what’s the question for listeners?”

Okay, Mary, here it is: Do the mostly sectarian, literalist and Fundamentalist questions around our politics of 2008 prove that transcendentalist impulses thrive — or expired long ago? Does the tempest that Mitt Romney, for example, has stirred around himself and his Mormonism mark a dismal falling-off — or rather an amazing continuity — of the old transcendentalist passion about faith, spirit and the religious underpinnings of this nation’s life. Extra points for apt Emersonian quotes. And extra-extra points for apt quotes from other than Emerson.

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