All Roads Lead to Concord

One strange synchronicity is enough to make me say “hmm, wow” to myself; another involving the same subject is enough to make me write about it. Although my past pattern has been to devote years of concentrated effort to a single subject, and move on to another only after publication, lately I’ve been juggling multiple projects involving three publishers as a chapter author or co-editor rather than as sole author. The advantage of this situation is that I never get bored; the disadvantage is that I stay perpetually disoriented and confused. But sometimes a connection among multiple projects appears which tends to reduce the confusion and help me see them all as part of a larger whole.

Two weeks ago I finished revision of a chapter on the Bengal Renaissance for a forthcoming collection. At nine in the morning I thought to myself, “At last I have the free time to read something for pleasure; surely there must be a new biography of some Transcendentalist to enjoy.” So I went to Amazon and looked around a bit, but didn’t see anything that jumped out at me. At eleven, I heard a thunk and went to the front door where I found a box from a Church of Light friend in California with a letter enclosed along with several books she “thought I might enjoy.” Including, to my pleased consternation, The Lives of Margaret Fuller by John Matteson, whose previous joint biography of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott had given me great pleasure a few years ago. (No more or less than Eve LaPlante’s subsequent joint bio of Louisa and her mother Abigail May Alcott, which was also subject of a previous blog post.) Like many readers and as noted in Matteson’s introduction, most of what I knew about Fuller involved her tragic death. Now halfway through the biography, I find it as absorbing as his previous book, and even more enlightening about possible role models for Sarah Stanley Grimke who was born the year that Fuller died, 1850.

Synchronicity number two occurred this morning as I got in my car after hiking at the lovely Lauren Mountain Preserve in Bassett, Virginia. Just as I was leaving, on the radio Scott Simon of Weekend Edition welcomed author A.J. Jacobs, who electrified me with the opening line “My favorite teacher is Bronson Alcott.” Jacobs went on to joke that Alcott was really his children’s favorite teacher, and then discussed other pedagogical subjects. One reason I was intrigued by this line was that Fuller’s first real job was as a teacher in Alcott’s short-lived, ill-fated, but fascinating Temple School in Boston. But in addition to tying into my current reading, Alcott also figures in three different writing projects in which I’m involved. He was an acquaintance of both Sarah Stanley Grimke and Mary Baker Eddy, and hence figured in my research last year in Boston for a future reprint of Grimke’s Esoteric Lessons. But more immediately, he was a major influence on both Thomas Moore Johnson and Alexander Wilder. The first volume of Johnson’s incoming correspondence is now in the hands of the publisher and represents 48 authors who wrote to Johnson in the 1880s; the second volume is almost entirely letters to Johnson from Wilder and the editorial team has at least a year ahead of us working on annotations, introductions, appendices, etc. But we just finished the first arduous round of transcriptions, a relief because Wilder’s handwriting was more inscrutable than any of the 48 correspondents of volume I.

Johnson was inspired to create his journal The Platonist by acquaintance with Alcott during one of his “Western tours” and traveled to Concord to pursue the relationship and meet other Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wilder was one of the lecturers at Alcott’s Concord School of Philosophy, to which he regularly refers in his letters. The Bengal Renaissance chapter I just finished also ended up with a focus on Boston during the twilight of Transcendentalism, due to the connection between the Brahmo Samaj and Unitarians.

When I read about  Spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science, or New Thought my enthusiasm is purely that of a historical researcher. Duty rather than pleasure calls me to pursue those branches of literature. But the Transcendentalists, to my reading tastes, transcend the bounds of time and space and speak with voices as fresh today as in the mid-19th century. Not just their words, but biographies about them, inspire me with a sentiment akin to what Alfred North Whitehead said about Plato. If the history of Western philosophy is a “succession of footnotes to Plato”—which Wilder and Johnson would surely applaud—then the history of late-19th century American spiritual movements is a succession of footnotes to Transcendentalism.

The legacy of the Transcendentalists is apparent in New Thought, Theosophy, Christian Science, and of course Unitarian Universalism. But the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and its modern heir The Church of Light are arguably even more profoundly indebted to this movement—which I hope to explain further in future blog posts. (post edited, 9/11/15.)

Photo of Hillside Chapel, Concord, Massachusetts, from Wikipedia