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  • Emerson’s World: Concord and Discord
  • C. Diane Scharper (bio)
The Transcendentalists and Their World, by Robert Gross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) 864 pp.

Ralph Waldo Emerson found Concord, Massachusetts so inspiring that he wrote in his journal, “If God gave [me] my choice of the whole planet or my little farm, I should take my farm.”

Still, as a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, he disdained the town’s lack of spiritual awareness and its superficial sense of religion. Emerson lectured the town about the error of its ways. As the lectures became essays and then books, Emerson’s views exacerbated the many conflicts that had brewed in the town since its founding in 1635.

In that year, Simon Willard and Reverend Peter Bulkeley bought a six-mile square of land from the Pennacock Indian tribe, paying in white shell beads, hatchets, bows, knives, cotton cloth, and shirts for the area which would become the first Massachusetts Bay inland settlement.

According to one tradition, the deal was made under Jethro’s oak tree on Concord square beside the Middlesex hotel. Another tradition, however, says the bargain occurred on Lowell Road at Peter Bulkeley’s house. Each site has an historical marker attesting to the veracity of its history.

The conflicting versions point to the many disputes that mark the history of Concord, Massachusetts. They affected almost every aspect of the town from its inception and include its newspapers, politics, educational methods, farming techniques, principles regarding abolition, beliefs about Freemasons, and the role of women in society.

Situated at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet rivers, the town was originally called “Musketaquid,” meaning “grassy plain.” Impressed with the peaceful landscape, the early settlers changed the name to Concord, although from its history, it seems that Discord would have been a better name.

The settlers had problems early on, starting with the cold weather, which was not conducive to growing crops. The bitter weather took a toll on both the farmers and their livestock. They considered abandoning the town and consulted with their ministers who advised them to wait for God’s help. After they waited a few years, the settlers petitioned the court saying that God hadn’t helped and that they were nearly consumed by the poverty and [End Page 138] meanness of the place. But they pressed on, eventually making Concord home to one of America’s most brilliant minds.

Arguably, the bright spot in the settlement was its propinquity to Harvard College, set up in 1636. Situated about 16 miles from Cambridge, Concord became home to numerous Harvard graduates who found work there as teachers, lawyers, and preachers, and whose ideas changed the course of history—not just of Concord, but of the world.

One such Harvard graduate was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Considered the Sage of Concord, Emerson was a celebrated American essayist, poet, lecturer, and the thought-leader of Transcendentalism, which writer Henry Adams called “Concord’s Church.” In Nature, Emerson depicts the transcendental experience poetically: “[M]y head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space. . . . I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”


Robert Gross’s social history of Concord, The Transcendentalists and Their World, portrays Transcendentalism more pragmatically, as a blend of romantic, religious, poetic, and philosophical beliefs asserting that people have an intuitive realization of, and relationship with, nature and God: “It urged self-direction. . . . spurned authority and established institutions . . . [and] measured success by the loftiness of aims and the originality of results.”

Focusing on the years 1825 to 1850, this history zigzags in time, showing how Concord changed from forest areas to farmlands, then to a mill center, and later a manufacturing and business community, gradually becoming a cultural, educational, political, literary, and religious hub.

Emeritus Professor Gross went to Concord in 1972 planning to write his dissertation. He intended to use the town as a case study in his broader research of community in the social and economic processes of New England during the first half of the nation. The dissertation evolved into The Minutemen and Their...