The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 565-566
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American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. By Dean Grodzins. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2002. Pp. xv, 632. $39.95.)
Among American religious movements, Transcendentalism stirs nearly continual scholarly interest. Intellectualism is part of the Transcendentalists' appeal. Literate and literary, they left an extensive and elegant record. More profoundly, they enacted an American theological drama by taking the Protestant reformers' mind-set to a logical conclusion: if both Church and Bible are flawed authorities, might not individuals better turn to private intuition as the guide for moral perfection? Dean Grodzins' portrait of Theodore Parker (1810-1860) as an "American heretic" amplifies our understanding of these thinkers' struggles with history, self, and salvation. As the first full modern biography of Parker, a towering and controversial figure in his time, Grodzins' book impressively matches Parker's own erudition. For readers unfamiliar with the Transcendentalists, this life is an excellent introduction to the group. Grodzins' originality, however, lies in his intimate view of Parker's personality and intellectual transformation.
How ordinary a man Parker was surprised me the most. Grodzins' depiction connects Parker with—put crudely—other young men on the make in a vigorous society offering prizes of professional and emotional self-fulfillment. Although the author does not mean to deflate, Parker emerges as a bourgeois. He had so little money that he could not attend Harvard College after passing the qualifying examinations and so later entered Harvard Divinity School as an autodidact schoolteacher. He chafed at the obscurity of his rural church, dreamed of being heard as a prophet, and shed tears of hurt and incredulity when fellow ministers turned away on account of his radical views. In marriage, he made a surprisingly good match in the prominent Cabot family. Early disappointment in relations with his wife, Lydia, however, led to sad, encoded journal entries, serious flirtation with a congregant, and letters of solace from an unlikely adviser, the spinster Elizabeth Peabody. Do Parker's traits of ambition and sentimentalism make him anomalous among the Transcendentalists or, rather, typical of them? Probably a little of both. Others left the prestige of the ministry more easily behind them and dabbled in utopianism; but none gave up a foundational respectability that preserved a genteel tone.
This picture of a middle-class Parker makes his theological odyssey all the more astounding. The intellectual collapse of supernatural and natural realms [End Page 565] into an authoritative self did not occur in the mind of a wild-eyed radical, but a socially commonplace man. Indeed, Parker seemed only modestly aware that he subverted the Christian tradition as historically conceived. Grodzins' patient and painstaking use of Parker's eight hundred manuscript sermons lets us see how this preacher slowly tested ideas in his country parish—and in his own heart as well. Was the Old Testament true? What about the New Testament? Could Jesus be trusted? These were hard questions for a pious man. But, without crisis, he slipped over the edge. After Parker preached in Boston one Thursday in 1840, a senior colleague took him aside to say, as Parker paraphrased in his journal: "I read ye & like ye—but when you talk about 'future christs,' I can't beâr ye" (p. 184). Surprised, Parker fled in tears. It is his slim consciousness of his heterodoxy that is most arresting, and Grodzins provides plentiful evidence for us to reflect on how—week in and week out in still-provincial America—the Transcendentalist "heresy" grew.
Whether contemporaries loved Parker or hated him, they were profoundly affected, Grodzins explains, by "the force of his complex personality" and "the strength of his ideas and the appeal of his life story" (p. x). Parker's magnetism seems part and parcel of his typicality in this expansive and thoughtful age. Grodzins plans a second volume to trace Parker's evolving understanding of democracy from 1846, when this book ends, until his death on the eve of the Civil War. It will be a welcome completion to a masterly...