A religious, philosophical and literary movement, Transcendentalism arose in New England in the middle of the nineteenth century. Critics generally cite 1836 to 1846 as the years when the movement flourished, although its influence continued to be felt in later decades, with some works considered part of the movement not being published until the 1850s. Transcendentalism began as a religious concept rooted in the ideas of American democracy. When a group of Boston ministers, one of whom was Ralph Waldo Emerson, decided that the Unitarian Church had become too conservative, they espoused a new religious philosophy, one which privileged the inherent wisdom in the human soul over church doctrine and law.
Among Transcendentalism’s followers were writers Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman; educator Bronson Alcott; and social theorists and reformers Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing. Authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe also felt the influence of Transcendentalism. Important works from the movement include Emerson’s Nature, “The American Scholar,” and “Self Reliance”; Thoreau’s Walden; Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century; and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Novels such as Melville’s Moby Dick and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance also had transcendentalist leanings.
It is no coincidence that this movement took off just as the American literary tradition was beginning to blossom. Transcendentalism—though inspired by German and British Romanticism—was a distinctly American movement in that it was tied into notions of American individualism. In addition to the theme of American democracy, transcendentalist literature also promotes the idea of nature as divine and the human soul as inherently wise. Transcendentalism also had a political dimension, and writers such as Thoreau put their transcendentalist beliefs into action through acts of civil disobedience to the government. The nineteenth century was a volatile one, beginning with the hope and promise of democracy and the development of an American identity and moving towards mass devastation and division by the middle of the century. Slavery and the Civil War, women’s rights, growing industrialism and class division— all of these events were influential and each had a role to play in the transcendentalist movement.
Quite simply, Transcendentalism is based on the belief that human beings have self-wisdom and may gain this knowledge or wisdom by tuning in to the ebb and flow of nature. Transcendentalism revolves around the self, specifically the betterment of the self. Where Emerson and his followers differed from earlier philosophical and religious beliefs was in the idea that human beings had innate knowledge and could connect with God directly rather than through an institution such as organized religion. Transcendentalism celebrated the self, an important step in the construction of American identity, better understood as the notion of American individualism—one of the cornerstones of American democracy.
Different writers conceived of the search for self-knowledge in different ways. Whitman’s response was a grand celebration of the self in all its complexity and beauty and contradictions. He begins the poem “Song of Myself” with the bold line, “I celebrate myself.” He offers up to his readers, “I loafe and invite my Soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease . . . observing a spear of summer grass.” Leaves of Grass is filled with such celebration.
Thoreau took a slightly different path toward self-knowledge. Walden is a study of solitude. He says, “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. . . . I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” For him, self-discovery comes as the result of intense reflection. Self-knowledge has political implications as well. Once the individual has established a moral code, it becomes his or her duty to peacefully protest and engage in civil disobedience against the government should governmental policies violate that code. Thoreau’s opposition to slavery led to his refusal to pay a poll tax supporting the Mexican War, an act that landed him in jail for a night. For Thoreau, self-discovery was not simply an intangible concept, it was a way of living.
Nature and Its Meaning
Nature is the focal point for much transcendentalist thought and writing. As a theme, it is so central to the movement that Emerson’s cornerstone essay is entitled Nature and serves as an investigation into nature and its relationship to the soul. For transcendentalists, nature and the soul were inextricably linked. In the rhythms and seasons of the natural world, transcendentalists found comfort and divinity. In the increasingly...
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