Whereas Europe, the Old World, had a breadth and depth of cultural sophistication, based on ancient precedent, the all-too-recently founded United States (mid-1800s), in terms of arts and letters, featured a more materialist, mercantile sensibility.
Although Benjamin Franklin, for example, an honored pioneer of the domestic civic infrastructure, was celebrated for his "emphasis on the humanistic values," as would befit a prominent American representative of the Enlightenment, an emerging class of writers and intellectuals condemned him for being too old-school. Romantic poet John Keats commented that Franklin was "full of mean and thrifty maxims." He was perceived as a "hick," with "few passions and no imagination," to quote a Scottish newspaper of the day.
What these critics were craving was an American art form and thus an identity of their own, free from derivations of the hidebound European influence. Added to that cultural urge was a backlash against the Enlightenment, in which Romanticism, with it' admiration of "deep emotion," the symbolic, and the mystical (as often thematically expressed by Man and Nature, or Man and His Nature), as opposed to appeals to reason and intellect.
The formal Transcendentalist movement arose from a Boston meetinghouse club in 1836. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a clergyman, gave a speech during a gathering, declaring a new age: the end of "our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close." This philosophy advocated lifestyles and literature that acknowledged human divinity, and the evolution of a native cultural and spiritual framework to support such a cultural discussion.