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,...
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