Dr. Grieve-Carlson Examines Transcendentalism and Thoreau

Beauty shot of lake

 Dr. Gary Grieve-Carlson, professor of English and director of general education, spent two weeks at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute researching the modern application of “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller.”

Twenty-five participants were chosen from undergraduate faculty all across the United States and United Kingdom to attend the institute. Interested professionals had to explain in an extensive application process why they wished to attend the institute, what research projects they were interested in pursuing while there, and how their participation would affect their teaching. 

“The Institute brought 25 college teachers together, and we shared teaching strategies and became good friends over the course of the two weeks,” reflects Grieve-Carlson.

Held at the historic Colonial Inn in Concord, Mass., individuals listened to presentations by experts in the field, took excursions to nearby historical sites, and worked in key historical archives.

“I held in my hands the survey-chart of Walden Pond that Thoreau made (it was covered in plastic, of course), as well as a letter that John Brown wrote to his family shortly after his capture at Harpers Ferry,” recalls Grieve-Carlson. “I walked through the houses where Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote, and stood in the pulpit of the African Meeting House in Boston where Frederick Douglass stood and spoke.”

The main focus of the program was a series of presentations by experts in the field. The panel of 12 senior scholars included notables such as Megan Marshall and John Matteson, two Pulitzer-Prize winners; Robert Goss, a Bancroft Prize winner; and Joel Myerson, Laura Dassow Walls, and Sandy Petrulionis, three editors of The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism.  

“My favorite sessions were the presentation on the anti-slavery movement in Concord by Dr. Sandra Petrulionis, and our informal evening session on the abolitionist John Brown. I am currently working on an essay on Thoreau and John Brown, and these sessions helped me to revise my thinking on that topic,” details Grieve-Carlson. 

These presentations spoke to the central theme of the retreat: antislavery and women’s rights and their connection to the historical and religious themes of transcendentalism’s reformist nature. According to the Institute, the antebellum transcendentalists sought to correct the inequalities of America’s education and religious institutions, their transatlantic relationships with reformers across the ocean, their dawning awareness of an environmental consciousness, and their capacity for merging the intellectual transformation in 19th-century science with their reform ethic.

Something that these discussions made clear to Grieve-Carlson: “By focusing so strongly on slavery, but not on racism, we ignored the significance of racism, with the result that African Americans continued to struggle long after the abolition of slavery (the issues that W.E.B. DuBois takes up at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk). This is an issue that our nation continues to struggle with—we can pass a law abolishing slavery, but we can’t pass a law that stops people from thinking and feeling like racists.”

Grieve-Carlson’s experience also clarified the connection between the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, and the major role that women played in the anti-slavery movement. 

“The issues, questions, and arguments between the women’s rights issue in the 1850s and today are startlingly similar,” he explained. 

The professor has been working on his essay about Thoreau and John Brown for the past six months and plans to submit it for publication in the fall. Before his time at the NEH Institute, Grieve-Carlson says that his only experience with the work of the transcendentalists, anti-slavery, or women’s rights was through teaching his “Survey of American Literature I” and “American Thought and Culture” courses.

He plans to highlight these themes in his upcoming first-year experience course and American literature survey, where he will teach a historical novel on John Brown and the transcendentalist movement, respectively. 

Of all that he learned, one of the coolest things for Grieve-Carlson was the history of the Thoreau Institute, a research center near Walden Pond: “In the 1990s, developers were buying up all of the land and forest around Walden Pond and planning to build on it. Don Henley, the drummer for the Eagles, was a college English major who loved Thoreau and when he heard about this, he held a series of concerts to raise money to buy the land himself. All of that land is now preserved, and in the middle of it is this beautiful research facility, the Thoreau Institute, where scholars from all over the world come to work.”