T. Gregory Garvey

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T. Gregory Garvey

(585) 395-5487
Office: 252 LAB

Teaching and Creative Interests: Nineteenth Century American Literature, Critical Theory, Cultural Studies


Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America

Creating the Culture of Reform

Explaining how early reformers reshaped the public sphere by redefining the norms of public discourse.

In this study, T. Gregory Garvey illustrates how activists and reformers claimed the instruments of mass media to create a freestanding culture of reform that enabled voices disfranchised by church or state to speak as equals in public debates over the nation’s values. Competition among antebellum reformers in religion, women’s rights, and antislavery institutionalized a structure of ideological debate that continues to define popular reform movements.

The foundations of the culture of reform lie, according to Garvey, in the reconstruction of publicity that coincided with the religious-sectarian struggles of the early nineteenth century. To counter challenges to their authority and to retain church members, both conservative and liberal religious factions developed instruments of reform propaganda (newspapers, conventions, circuit riders, revivals) that were adapted by an emerging class of professional secular reformers in the women’s rights and antislavery movements. Garvey argues that debate among the reformers created a mode of “critical conversation” through which reformers of all ideological persuasions collectively forged new conventions of public discourse as they struggled to shape public opinion.

Focusing on debates between Lyman Beecher and William Ellery Channing over religious doctrine, Angelina Grimke and Catharine Beecher over women’s participation in antislavery, and William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass over the ethics of political participation, Garvey argues that “crucible-like sites of public debate” emerged as the core of the culture of reform. To emphasize the redefinition of publicity provoked by antebellum reform movements, Garvey concludes the book with a chapter that presents Emersonian self-reliance as an effort to transform the partisan nature of reform discourse into a model of sincere public speech that affirms both self and community.


"The fundamental argument of Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America is significant and quite original. Garvey explores the nature of reform culture and public discourse in nineteenth-century America, basing his work on a very persuasive demonstration of the close connections between antebellum religious culture and the emerging culture of reform."
—David M. Robinson, author of Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism

"Makes a significant contribution to the field of antebellum cultural studies in the perceptive way it links antislavery and women's rights to religious reform. It will be a good starting point for those interested in the broad and important subject of antebellum reform. Because the book is so clearly written, it will appeal to specialists and generalists alike.”
—Robert S. Levine, author of Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity

The Emerson Dilemma: 
Essays on Emerson and Social Reform

 The Emerson Dilemma

Edited by T. Gregory Garvey

Emerson the Transcendentalist encounters Emerson the reformer.

This gathering of eleven original essays with a substantive introduction brings the traditional image of Emerson the Transcendentalist face-to-face with an emerging image of Emerson the reformer. The Emerson Dilemma highlights the conflict between Emerson’s philosophical attraction to solitary contemplation and the demands of activism compelled by the logic of his own writings.

The essays cover Emerson’s reform thought and activism from his early career as a Unitarian minister through his reaction to the Civil War. In addition to Emerson’s antislavery position, the collection covers his complex relationship to the early women’s rights movement and American Indian removal. Individual essays also compare Emerson’s reform ethics with those of his wife, Lidian Jackson Emerson, his aunt Mary Moody, Henry David Thoreau, John Brown, and Margaret Fuller.

The Emerson who emerges from this volume is one whose Transcendentalism is explicitly politicized; thus, we see him consciously mediating between the opposing forces of the world he “thought” and the world in which he lived.


"A collection of authoritative essays treating a subject that is timely and will spur discussion and lively debate on the nature and extent of Emerson’s reformist impulses."
—Ronald A. Bosco, University at Albany, State University of New York

"The traditional image of Emerson is that of a remote intellectual—an individual drawn to the quiet retreat of his study where he is free to meditate and compose undisturbed by the intrusions of the practical world. This edited collection of eleven original essays challenges that notion. Each essay focuses on the relation between Emerson's writings, sermons, and speeches and the social and political activism they engendered. What emerges is the image of Emerson putting his ideas into action."

American Society:
Essays on American History and Culture

American Society

Published by St. Petersburg University Press in St. Petersburg, Russia, this collection of essays is used in American studies course at Russian Universities. The book grew out of Garvey’s work on interdisciplinary curricula while a Fulbright Senior Fellow in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The book addressed a significant problem in the resources available to college instructors in Russia. High School civics and American History texts provided the kind of detailed specifics needed by students with limited knowledge of American government, history, and culture. But these texts were pitched intellectually below the skills of university students. On the other hand, college-level texts addressed the Russian students on an appropriate intellectual level, but assumed a high level of knowledge about the United States. Garvey’s American Society provides essays on history, politics, popular culture, education, and government that simultaneously provide historical background and make sophisticated arguments about the forces that have shaped the United States.

Recent Awards and Fellowships

American Philosophical Society, Franklin Research Grant, 2012
       “The Antebellum Peace Movement and the Origins of Global Governance”
NEH Summer Stipend, June-July 2011
       “Emerson’s Politics, 1837-1844”
Faculty, Fulbright Summer Institute in the Humanities, Tver, Russia, 2006
       “Henry David Thoreau and the Culture of Reform”
Fulbright Senior Scholar, Moscow State University, 2003-2004
        “American Studies in Interdisciplinary Contexts”
SUNY Senior International Fellow, St. Petersburg, Russia. July 1-16 2004.
       “Traditions of Social Reform in the United States”
SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, 2001

Research Interests

Garvey’s scholarship investigates connections between literature and politics. This interest has led him to study how rhetoric functions in social reform movements and how major American authors have integrated their writing into political debates. His work focuses on the period leading up to the American Civil War and addresses persistent questions about how once marginal ideas like universal equality or human rights took hold and changed societies.

Major Current Project

Emerson and the Politics of Equality

Ralph Waldo Emerson has always been recognized as a major advocate of individual liberty. In this book Garvey argues that he should also be recognized as a major advocate for equality—Emerson, reacting to the rise of industrial exploitation, human chattel slavery, and the early women’s rights movement, argued that liberty becomes a mockery unless it is supported by high standards of economic and political equality, and by universal standards of respect and opportunity.

Courses Recently Introduced

Nationalism, Globalization, and Cosmopolitanism

American Literature: Labor and the ideal of Equality

American Literature and the representation of Human Rights

Last Updated 8/13/18

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