American Transcendentalism “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to from only essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau).
American Transcendentalism was a literary and philosophical movement that emerged in New England around 1836 and flourished for ten years until 1846. This school of thought had a profound influence on American religion, philosophy, politics, literature, and art. The American Transcendentalist rejected this empiricism, asserting that wisdom is inherent in the soul of each human being. The roots of the Transcendentalists’ humanistic philosophy is that which exalts the individual as a reflection and integral part of God’s divine universe. According to critics, American Transcendentalism was driven by the circumstances of nineteenth-century American life.
American Transcendentalism is rooted in the American past. It owes its pervasive morality and the “doctrine of divine light” to such aspects of Puritanism and its concept of nature as a living mystery and not a clockwork universe which is fixed and permanent to the Romanticism age (Reuben 2). The American landscape inspired the Transcendentalists’ reverence for nature, which provided them with much of the sustaining language and metaphor of their philosophy. Among the chief proponents of American Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson is widely regarded as its central figure and catalyzing force. Critics often cite his essay Nature and An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College as touchstones of the movement. His subsequent essays, journals, and poems are credited with giving further shape to its ideals.
Emerson was also an important inspiration to such authors as Walt Whitman, who, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe, were strongly influenced by Transcendentalism (Mullen and Wilson 1). Perhaps the best known and most influential of Emerson’s immediate disciples is Henry David Thoreau, noted for his book Walden; or Life in the Woods, which has been regarded as a nature study, spiritual autobiography, and philosophical abstract, for his “Civil Disobedience”, a seminal essay outlining peaceful social protest. Among American Transcendentalism’s other key figures was Margaret Fuller, editor of the leading Transcendentalist periodical, The Dial, and author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, considered a primary document of American feminism. “The currents of the Universal Being through me; I am part of particle of God.” Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in order to comprehend the divine, God, and the universe, one must transcend or go beyond the physical and emotional descriptions of normal human thought. With that philosophy, Emerson became the leader of philosophers and writers termed Transcendentalist.
His essay Nature, is considered the “gospel” of American Transcendentalism. The major thesis of this essay, in Emerson’s words, is “that we should now enjoy an original relocation to the universe and not become dependent on past experiences of others” (Reuben 2). Emerson separated the universe into two primary categories, nature and soul, and constantly sought to elucidate the interrelations of both. Man’s key to these relations, what Emerson called analogies, was individual intuition, which cannot fail because it is necessarily and originally linked to the universal spirit. Emerson’s Transcendentalism thus proposed a resolution of the duality that defines the human condition through the powers of human intuition.
This dual aspect poses no problem or contradiction for Transcendentalism, which sees a “complementarily harmony of the individual and the universe” (Bousman 1). “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away” (Derleth 14). Henry David Thoreau was one of Emerson’s most noted disciples. Thoreau is renowned for his book, Walden, which is a record of Thoreau’s two year experiment of living at Walden Pond.
Thoreau’s main emphasis is on the simplifications and enjoyment of life now. Thoreau’s other noted work includes the essay “Resistance to Civil government” also known as “Civil Disobedience”. Thoreau was sent to jail for not paying taxes, and this famous and influential essay is the result of that gesture. Its message is simple and daring, he advocates “actions through principles”.
If the demands of a government of a society are contrary to an individual’s conscience, it is his/her duty to reject them. Upholding moral law as opposed to social law “divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine” (Reuben 2). Inspired by Thoreau’s message, Mahatma Gandhi organized a massive resistance of Indians against British occupation of India. Thoreau’s words have also inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., peace marchers. The reputation of Thoreau was best noted by Emerson, who stated, “He was bred to no profession; he never went to church; her never voted; he refused to pay tax to the State; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine; he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun” (Reuben 5).
“What woman needs is not a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely, and unimpeded to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home”. Margaret Fuller was an important female author during the Transcendentalism period. Her major works included Summer on the Lakes and Women in the Nineteenth-Century. Fuller worked as a school teacher, as an editor, held conversations, was active in reform, and went to Europe as a foreign correspondent, were she met her husband and on the trip back would drown. As a writer, she is admired as a literary critic an for her sympathies to the plight for the Indians (Reuben 1).
She has written on such themes as transcendentalism, women’s rights, critical theory, gender roles, and political reform in Europe. The Transcendentalist were a number of young Americans, most of them born into the Unitarianism of New England in the early nineteenth century, who in the 1830’s became excited about the new literature of England, and who thereupon revolted against the rationalism of their fathers (Miller 1). Although they were active for a relatively brief period, they were centered in a narrow geographical area encompassing the New England area, and were reviled in their time as extremists and radicals. Their influence was extraordinarily wide.
In American religion, the movement ushered in a period of unprecedented debate and reform. Philosophically, it crystallized the key ideas of American democracy and religion. The movement is also noted for its significant contribution to social reform. The American Transcendentalist are considered visionaries in their attitudes toward such issues as social protest, equality of the sexes, creative and participatory education for children, and labor reform. The Transcendentalism movement is acknowledged as having infused American literature with its own distinctive character.
The authors of what has been called the Renaissance period, including Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Dickinson, were immensely influenced by American Transcendentalism in style, theme, and thought. They were not the creators they believed themselves, but they were unconscious prophets of a true state of society; one which the tendencies of nature lead unto, one which always establishes itself for the sane soul, though not in that manner in which they paint it; but they were described of that which is really being done. “I have learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Thoreau Works Cited “American Literary Movement: Transcendentalism.” On-line, Internet.22 April 1999 Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics. New York. Viking Penguin, 1996.
Bousman, Kelly. “American Transcendentalism.” On-line, Internet.22 April 1999 Derleth, August. Concord Rebel: A Life of Henry David Thoreau. Philadelphia. Chilton Books, 1962.
Lifton, Frederick. “Henry Thoreau’s Cultivation of Nature: American Landscape and American Self in ‘Ktaadn’ and ‘Walking’.” The American Transcendental Quarterly March 1998: 68. Miller, Perry. “The American Transcendentalists.” On-line, Internet.22 April 1999 Mott, Wesley, ed. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971. Mullen, Janet and Wilson, Robert Thomas, ed. Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism. New York: Gale Research Company, 1989. Myerson, Joel.
“Supplement to ‘Margaret Fuller’: A Descriptive Bibliography.” Studies in theAmerican Renaissance Annual 1996: 187. Reuben, Paul. “Perspectives on American Literature.” On-line, Internet.22 April 1999 Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire.
Los Angles. University of California Press, 1995. Rusk, Ralph. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
New York and London. Columbia University Press, 1949. Scharnhorst, Gary. Henry David Thoreau: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism. New York and London.
Garland Publishing, 1992. Sloan, Gary. “Emerson’s Self-Reliance.” The Explicator Fall 1996: 19-20.