Transcendentalism was a philosophical and spiritual movement originating in the 1820s and 1830s, primarily centered on New England. It was founded by a group including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederic Henry Hedge, and it also attracted such notable writers and thinkers as Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement itself was originally an offshoot of the Unitarian Church, but it had a greater focus on the individual and a more all-encompassing rejection of clericalism. Transcendentalists believed the Unitarian Church was developing precisely the same sort of bureaucratic and hierarchical structure that it rejected in other denominations. Transcendentalism was also influenced by Indian religions, the key texts of which had become newly available in English and German translations, beginning in the late eighteenth century.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Nature" was an inspiration for Thoreau and led him to explore transcendentalism as a philosophy. Both Emerson and Thoreau believed that every individual must find his own authentic relationship to the natural and spiritual worlds, independent of established institutions and conventional beliefs. Both were involved in social and personal experiments intended to discover ways of living more authentically in small rural communities. Thoreau differed philosophically from Emerson, though, in seeing nature not as a symbol or a path to transcendence but rather transcendence as inhering in nature. He was less of a philosophical and epistemological idealist than some of the other Transcendentalists, placing greater value on the senses and the embodied self.
Margaret Fuller was an important figure in the movement, and a member of the Transcendental Club, founded in 1836. She edited The Dial, the leading Transcendentalist journal, from 1840 to 1842. She differed from Thoreau and the other leading Transcendentalists in being a woman fighting for respect against a patriarchal society. Although she approved of the Transcendentalists' rejection of convention and emphasis on individualism, she was more focused on social activism and women's rights. She shared with the group a notion that for individuals to realize their potential, society must change, but while their focus was more on individual flourishing, Fuller saw many social problems not as philosophical but as more grounded in issues of gender and social justice. Rather than focusing on inward life, she became a successful journalist and was deeply concerned with political and social critique.
Both Fuller and Thoreau wrote of the American landscape and, in their explorations of nature, discovered elements of how to reform society through rejecting artifice and returning to a mode of individualism that combined self-knowledge with spiritual transcendence. Both saw Native Americans as "Noble Savages" whose lives in harmony with nature could offer important lessons for Americans. Thoreau's individualism and opposition to convention led him to be an Abolitionist. Fuller used her writings about nature and Native Americans to argue for equal rights and sexual freedoms for women. While Thoreau favored social reform, he was more of a mystic than Fuller, focused on spiritual self-development, while Fuller was more of a pragmatist, seeing individualism as a path to gender equality and social justice.
While both Thoreau and Fuller were deeply influenced by such German thinkers as Goethe and Hegel, Fuller was more actively engaged with German philosophy. Thoreau was more deeply engaged with Sanskrit and mystical literature than Fuller. Writing from a position of male privilege, Thoreau, although supporting social justice, was most strongly focused on individual self-realization, while Fuller anticipated much of later feminist theory in her innovative arguments about the need to break down barriers between the domestic and the public sphere and for women to have a public voice as a path to self-realization. Fuller's philosophy of self-realization is more dialogic than Thoreau's, seeing women as freeing themselves from patriarchy in conversation with other women.