The Rise of Industry
While critics generally assign Transcendentalism to the ten-year period between 1836 and 1846, the movement was tied to a much larger chunk of the middle part of that century, beginning with the election of Andrew Jackson to the United States presidency in 1829 and extending through the Civil War period (1860–1865). Jackson and his fellow Democrats claimed to represent the common person and fought against large corporations and excesses of wealth. Industry boomed as the nineteenth century began, with many technological innovations coming to fruition. The century saw huge population gains, with an influx of immigrants from Europe and Asia; the expansion of territories westward, which led to the displacement of thousands of Native Americans; improvements to the printing press; the development of hundreds of miles of railroads; and the continual transformation from a nation of farmers to a nation of industry and urbanization. In cities, poverty and crime skyrocketed. Union organizers worked tirelessly against wage slavery, while many Americans made their fortunes. Textile mills were built in the Northeast, sparking controversy about whether they represented a way for women to earn a living or a pathway into wage slavery with no escape.
For a time, the economy seemed to boom, until 1837, when recession set in. The panic of 1837 is, in many ways, comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The recession meant lean times...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Though many transcendentalist writers used the essay form to express their ideas, Whitman used poetry, specifically free verse. Characterized by irregular line length and a lack of rhyme or regular rhythm, free verse breaks conventional rules of poetic rhyme and meter. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass builds its own rhythms with the repetition of words and phrases, sometimes called “cataloging.” Lines, ideas, and images flow freely, unbroken by regular stanzas or set rules. Free verse was suitable for a transcendentalist poet such as Whitman because the content of his poems matched the freedom of the form. The themes Whitman embraced in poems such as “Song of Myself”—a celebration of the soul, of love, desire, sexuality, and pleasure—were better expressed in a more radical style versus a conventional style. Both the form and the content caught critics’ and readers’ attention (some for the better, some for the worse). Whitman’s use of free verse at that time in the nation’s history made him a lasting name in the American literary canon.
An outgrowth of English Romanticism (1789–1832), yet still strong in its own right, American Romanticism is often called the American Renaissance because it marked a rebirth in American literature. Critics identify this period of American rebirth as beginning with the Jacksonian era in 1828 and lasting to the Civil War in 1865. This era produced...
(The entire section is 560 words.)
Transcendentalism extended into many areas of social reform, including the educational system. When Alcott came to Boston in 1828, he had definite ideas about children’s education. An idealist and visionary, he became involved in the transcendentalist movement, with a passion for educating young children. Alcott believed the key to a better society was education—an idea still dominant in the twenty-first century. Alcott’s focus on very young children was ahead of its time in the nineteenth century, when the popular belief was that young children were simply tiny adults.
Alcott developed his educational model using the ideas of Plato. Plato held that before birth, a person’s soul resided in a spiritual realm, together with all of the other souls waiting to be born. When a person was born, his/her soul was “called” to him/her. Hence, Alcott reasoned that children were closest to birth and therefore closest to that preexisting spiritual state. Young children had better intuition, he believed, and their minds were more open and less cluttered than those of adults. Paul F. Boller, in his book American Transcendentalism, 1830–1860, summarizes Alcott’s philosophy thus: “Education, then, should be directed to the very young, and it should be centered on drawing out of them the moral and spiritual truths latent in the intuitive Reason they all possess.” In 1834, Alcott opened a school in the Masonic temple in...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Mid-Nineteenth Century: Black Americans are still held in slavery. Several laws are passed in relation to slavery, which escalate the debate in the United States. Abolitionists in the North actively fight against slavery, while escaped slaves write narratives chronicling their experiences. The nation ultimately goes to war over the issue, resulting in the emancipation of all slaves.
Today: Slavery has been abolished for almost 150 years in America, though African Americans face continuing discrimination and are still fighting for equal access to economic resources.
Mid-Nineteenth Century: The 1830s see the flowering of the American literary tradition. American literature has not been taken seriously abroad before this time. Emerson argues that America needs to develop an intellectual and philosophical tradition of its own in his essay “The American Scholar.”
Today: American literature is a respected discipline in academia, and several authors have won Nobel prizes for their work. The American literary tradition is rich and varied today, including voices from many cultures representing various races, ethnicities, religions, social classes, and sexual orientations.
Mid-Nineteenth Century: America is seeing a wave of technological innovations. Railroads are being built, the steam engine is developed, the printing press is imporved—the world is changing. The country is making the...
(The entire section is 262 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Write an essay discussing the ways in which American democracy played a role in transcendentalist thought. Explain why democracy was important to the transcendentalists.
Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement in many ways. Research the main differences between the theories of philosopher John Locke and the theories of philosopher Immanuel Kant, and write a speech discussing their philosophies and how Kant’s ideas contributed to the transcendentalist ideals.
Transcendentalism was a regional movement, located mostly in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Research the history of New England at the time the transcendentalists were writing. Explain the ways in which transcendentalists reflect New England culture of the time. How did New England culture differ from culture in the South?
(The entire section is 116 words.)
The Blithedale Romance
Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852, came on the heels of the transcendentalist movement. A key American author, Hawthorne was on the periphery of Transcendentalism, but his work was informed by transcendentalist ideals, and he is often grouped with transcendentalist writers. The Blithedale Romance is key to the transcendentalist movement in that it depicts—loosely perhaps—the story of Brook Farm, an experimental socialist community populated by various transcendentalist thinkers and writers. Hawthorne lived only briefly at Brook Farm, but he came away disillusioned. The Blithedale Romance fictionalizes his experiences there, embodied in characters such as intellectual feminist Xenobia (thought to represent Fuller), philanthropist Hollingsworth, and Miles Coverdale (the narrator). Coverdale explains:
It was our purpose . . . to give up whatever we had heretofore attained, for the sake of showing mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles, on which human society has all along been based.
By the end of the novel, however, the Blithedale experiment has failed because of betrayals and complications, and Xenobia ends up drowning (as Fuller drowned in a shipwreck). Critics at the time debated how accurate Hawthorne intended his fictionalized account to be and whether or not Coverdale...
(The entire section is 1527 words.)
Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire, discusses his book and Emerson’s life on CSPAN’s Booknotes series. The interview aired August 13, 1995. For tape, transcript, or real-audio clip, visit http://www.booknotes .org.
Musician Ken Pederson produced a new-age CD entitled Walden, inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Pederson produced it himself and released it in 1997.
Audio Partners Publishing Corporation released Thoreau and Emerson: Nature and Spirit, a double audiocassette, in 1997. The cassettes include passages from the authors’ works relating to nature and spirituality.
The Spiritual Light of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a double audiocassette, was released in 1992 by Audio Literature. The work contains passages from Emerson’s writings.
Voices and Visions: Walt Whitman, released by Winstar in 1999, is a VHS videocassette. It features poets of the twentieth century reading from Whitman’s poems.
Originally produced for PBS in 1998, the VHS videocassette Walt Whitman and the Civil War is available from Monterey Video. It includes Whitman’s poetry set against the backdrop of the Civil War.
(The entire section is 170 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
The nineteenth century offers a rich variety in literature, much of it influenced by transcendentalist writers. The novels of Melville, including what critics have regarded as his greatest, Moby Dick, originally published in 1851, provide an example of transcendentalist influence.
In poetry, Emily Dickinson is an interesting figure for study. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1997) contains all of her poems, which were originally published by Paul Johnson in a three-volume set in 1955. While Dickinson’s short, concise lines stand in sharp contrast to Whitman’s, she was greatly influenced by transcendentalist thought, particularly in her focus on nature and desire.
In terms of British Romanticism, reading the poetry of William Wordsworth can inform any understanding of American Transcendentalism, since the movements are intertwined. His Poems in Two Volumes was originally published in 1807.
Some of the best-selling “sentimental” novels of the day, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (first published serially in 1851 and 1852), provide a contrast to Transcendentalism in both style and content.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (1998), edited by Clayborne Carson, provides an opportunity to trace the trail of “civil disobedience” in America started by Thoreau.
(The entire section is 192 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Boller, Paul F., American Transcendentalism, 1830–1860: An Intellectual Inquiry, Putnam, 1974.
Dickenson, Donna, Margaret Fuller: Writing a Woman’s Life, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Ericson, Edward L., Emerson on Transcendentalism, Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.
Glick, Wendell P., “A Concord Individualist,” in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, edited by Paul Lauter, D.C. Heath and Company, 1994.
Kelley, Mary, The Portable Margaret Fuller, Penguin Books, 1994.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie, “Whitman and the Gay American Ethos,” in A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, edited by David S. Reynolds, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lauter, Paul, ed., Introduction, in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, D.C. Heath and Company, 1994.
Myerson, Joel, Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.
Reynolds, David S., ed., A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, University of California Press, 1995.
Bode, Carl, ed., The Portable Thoreau, The Viking Press, 1965. This work includes Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, eighteen poems, and several essays and journal...
(The entire section is 364 words.)