Transcendental Blues


Back in '99 I saw Steve Earle premier his song "Transcendental Blues" at a concert in NYC. His solo man-and-guitar version was great; the full-band CD version didn't appeal to me as much, so it faded a bit from consciousness.

But this week it's been running through my head again -- thankfully, not like some Celine Dion bombast that was haunting me after I pulled out the inevitable cheap-joke "Titanic" reference in class to graduate students a few weeks ago; in the short term it induced a little mirthless laughter, but God then punished me (for a few weeks), as Celine Dion tunes started inhabiting my inner ear like what's-her-name in Jane Eyre inhabited the attic. See, even thinking about Dion makes you dumb and dumber.

Thankfully she's been replaced (for now) by Earle, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger, who came to me this week as I started reading Scott Gac's Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Antebellum Reform, a history of the antebellum musical northern Baptist family who "sang for freedom" in the anti-slavery movement of the 1840s, becoming "stars" in the process. Like all good bands, they made some great music, counted their box-office take, slept around, quarreled, broke up, had some ill-advised solo engagements (at one of which Lincoln slumbered), and then had an endless string of reunions. At the end of the day, though, they were troopers for the most important social movement of American history, which is a hell of a lot more than I've ever done, or ever will do. I'll be writing a review of this fine work for Books and Culture -- a positive one, to be sure, but I'm waiting for a decently interesting idea to descend, or emerge, such that the review becomes something more than "good book, here's the synopsis, read it," the scholarly equivalent of "it's got a good beat, you can dance to it." More on this later.

Still waiting for that inner light, I came across (thanks to Ralph Luker) this review of Philip Gura's new book American Transcendentalism: A History. I've never researched or written or even taught very much (particularly) about these figures from the American Renaissance, but I can't seem to get enough of them, and the review captures some of the reason why:

Like art, music and literature, works of scholarship matter most when they trouble our minds and spirits right now. Even those perennial perplexities -- about love and religion and the proper government of the self and our role as citizens -- can and should be made relevant to our current confusions and grounded in the present, particular moment. Then, the deepest scholarship, like the greatest art, not only enriches our lives, but also implicitly asks us to examine them, even to cross-examine them.

On the surface, a history of transcendentalism hardly seems especially electrifying or contemporary. Isn't this a subject for one of those standard and rather tired seminars regularly offered in American studies programs, sometimes with a subtitle like "Emerson, Fuller and Thoreau"? But there's nothing perfunctory or dryly academic about American Transcendentalism. Philip F. Gura writes a lean, impassioned prose, chockablock with anecdote and information. By mixing a dozen brief biographies with sustained narrative -- about contemporary religious belief, social commitment, just and unjust wars, the rights and plights of women and African Americans -- Gura underscores how much we remain the descendants of these still too little known thinkers and crusaders. Above all, his exciting, even eye-opening book shows us that from 1830 to 1850 a group of
New England preachers and intellectuals confronted what has proved to be the great polarizing tension in American history, that between hyperindividualism and the claims of social justice and human brotherhood.

For more, see The Web of American Transcendentalism, which might even chase away some blues.


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