The Political Thought of American Transcendentalism
Daniel S. Malachuk
Since the late eighteenth century the ideals of political democracy and individual flourishing have become so entangled that most people no longer differentiate them. The American Transcendentalists did. Two Cities is the first comprehensive account of the original but still underrated political thought of this movement, especially that of its three major authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau.
For decades, Daniel S. Malachuk contends, readers have misinterpreted the Transcendentalists as worshipping democracy and secularizing personhood. Two Cities proves the opposite. Focusing on their major writings, Malachuk presents the Transcendentalists as wresting apart and thus clarifying democracy as a profane project and individuality as a sacred one. Building upon this basic insight, the book affirms many recent but discrete conclusions about the movement’s various contributions (especially to liberalism, environmentalism, and public religion) and shows that we will understand how these commitments hang together only when we “re-transcendentalize the Transcendentalists.”
“Daniel Malachuk has written a powerful book. Placing the Transcendentalists squarely within the Augustinian tradition, he provides a compelling reading of Fuller, Emerson and Thoreau, demonstrating not only their often-underappreciated originality but also their significant challenge to the main currents of American liberal democratic theory. All students of Transcendentalism, American political thought, and contemporary liberalism will gain from this deeply researched and philosophically provocative study.”
—Bob Pepperman Taylor, author of America’s Bachelor Uncle: Thoreau and the American Polity
“Daniel Malachuk’s Two Cities significantly advances the revisionary trend that has remade Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau into influential political figures in the United States. His perceptive analysis of The Conduct of Life is particularly illuminating in its description of Emerson’s constantly evolving thought, and his reading furthers the ongoing recovery of Emerson’s long-neglected later works. Through Two Cities, we are able to see more distinctly the drama of the Transcendentalists’ struggle with the theory and practice of democracy in the turbulent American nineteenth century.”
—David M. Robinson, author of Emerson and the Conduct of Life
“Daniel Malachuk sets himself against the idea that democracy is the only possible setting for the individualism of moral perfection. He shows how Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller all try to defend the supposedly indispensable role of democracy for nurturing moral perfection, despite their unremitting criticisms of the slavery, greed, and vulgarity of antebellum democracy in America.But the truth comes breaking through in these writers.The morally self-perfectingindividual can emerge only in rare moments, not of solitude, but of friendship and companionship, and in defiance of the surrounding society and its appalling politics and social practices. Thoreau is the true hero of this fascinating, resourceful, and challenging book. It deserves a wide readership.”
—-George Kateb, author of Emerson and Self-Reliance
“Extraordinary, multi-dimensional study of the Transcendentalists’ engagements with American democracy. Malachuk reconstructs in new depth the Augustinian tradition that Fuller, Emerson, and Thoreau were formed by, the ways their individualism intersected with politics, and their responses to each other. By so doing he makes a compelling historical case for the power of idealism.”
—Phyllis Blum Cole, co-editor of Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism
“Two Cities is an original, vigorous, and closely-argued challenge to scholarship that takes religion out of Transcendentalism, and Transcendentalism out of American public life. From Fuller’s “Higher Lawsuit,” to Emerson’s “justice machine,” to Thoreau’s “higher-use ecology,” never has Transcendentalism looked more exciting or more relevant to today’s debates over the nature and future of democracy. A book to be reckoned with.”
—Laura Dassow Walls, University of Notre DameSee fewer reviews...
In five useful chapters—on the two-cities tradition within the history of liberalism, on the rival and subsequently dominant “overlap” theories of Lincoln and others, and on the unique contributions to two-cities thought by each of the major authors—Two Cities reintroduces readers to the Transcendentalists as among the most original and important contributors to American political thought.