Historical Context

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New England Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism took root in New England in the mid-1830s in reaction against the rationalism (emphasis on intellectual understanding) of the Unitarian Church. The philosophy centered around the premise that divine truth is present in all created things and that truth is known through intuition, not through the rational mind. From this core proceeded the belief that all of nature, including all humans, is one with God, whom the transcendentalists sometimes called the Over-Soul. In an essay with that title, Emerson defined God as "that great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other.’’

The term transcendental was borrowed from German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who wrote in his well-known work Critique of Practical Reason, "I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori'' (meaning, independent of sensory experience). American transcendentalism was thus clearly linked to similar philosophies that existed in Europe, and it also shared important ideas with Eastern philosophies and religions, including Hinduism. The New England transcendentalists read the Bhagavadgita (sometimes called the Hindu Bible), the Upanishads (philosophical writings on the Hindu scriptures), and Confucius. In addition, Emerson in ‘‘Self-Reliance'' quotes both an Islamic caliph (religious person) and the founder of Zoroastrianism.

The New England transcendentalists did not confine themselves to literary pursuits but also experimented with putting their philosophy into practice. Some, such as Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, focused on educational reform. Peabody and Margaret Fuller applied the principles of transcendentalism to the crusade for women's rights. The group created two experimental communities, Fruitlands and Brook Farm.

But it is the writing of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau that has been the most enduring product of American transcendentalism. Thoreau's ideas about nonviolent resistance to oppressors, especially, were important both to Mahatma Gandhi's campaign against the British in India in the early 1900s and to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.


During the three decades before the Civil War, the movement to abolish slavery in the United States steadily gained momentum. An abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, began publication in 1831, and the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia in 1833. By 1838, there were nearly fifteen hundred anti-slavery organizations in the United States, with nearly a quarter of a million members. The Liberty Party was formed in 1840 to make abolition a central issue in national politics.

Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists spoke out against slavery, as did John Greenleaf Whittier and other writers. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the autobiography of escaped slave Frederick Douglass, was published in 1845 and became an immediate bestseller. Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, published serially in 1851-1852, gave a tremendous boost to the abolitionist cause. Both books movingly portray the brutal conditions and dehumanizing effects of slavery as it existed in the American South. In addition, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which legislated harsh penalties for escaped slaves who were recaptured, actually strengthened the anti-slavery movement.

Slavery, of course, became a central issue in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, of whom the normally apolitical Emerson was a strong supporter, signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in 1863. The proclamation was symbolic, however; enforcement provisions did not back it. Slavery finally ended with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.


During the nineteenth century, the term "sensibility’’ was used to...

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mean adherence to a set of unwritten but all-encompassing rules that governed acceptable social behavior. A person of sensibility observed others closely to learn how things were done and then acted accordingly, being careful never to step outside the bounds of conventional behavior. The term is preserved in the title of Jane Austen's famous novel,Sense and Sensibility, first published in 1811. The story follows the lives of two sisters, one of whom lives a life governed by sensibility and the other of whom flouts sensibility and lives by her passions. In accordance with Austen's belief that sensibility led to personal happiness and social order, her sensible Elinor is shown to be the wiser of the two and is rewarded—after many dramatic trials—with the man of her dreams, while sensual Marianne must reform herself before the author allows her to make a happy marriage.

The idea of sensibility as promoted by Austen and by nineteenth-century society in general is exactly that which Emerson argues against in "Self-Reliance.’’

Compare and Contrast

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Mid-1800s: Transcendentalism, which borrows some elements of Eastern philosophies and religions, takes hold in Massachusetts and influences many American intellectuals and writers.

Today: Yoga is increasingly popular throughout the United States. Yoga, the Sanskrit word for "union," is a philosophy that was first systematized by the Indian sage Patanjali. The various schools of yoga taught today have some things in common with transcendentalism, such as the beliefs that each individual soul is directly linked to God and that truth is everywhere present in creation and can be experienced intuitively, rather than rationally. While millions of Americans practice only one element of yoga—its regimen of physical postures and exercises—a growing number are adopting the broader philosophy and its more mystical practices, such as meditation.

Mid-1800s: As the Industrial Revolution brings more efficient production of goods—which, in turn, makes goods more abundant and more affordable—Emerson cautions that progress and happiness are not to be found through materialism but by living simply and seeking peace within.

Today: An informal ABC News poll finds that nearly one-third of Americans spend more than they earn. This accords with statistics that show that, in 2000 and 2001, the monthly savings rate is often negative, meaning that in some months Americans collectively are spending more than they are earning and not saving any money at all.

Mid-1800s: The economy of the American South is based on slave labor, and Americans are deeply divided over whether slavery is morally acceptable. Anti-slavery literature mailed to the South is routinely burned or otherwise destroyed. In the North, abolitionists are sometimes physically attacked. In 1837, abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy is murdered for his opposition to slavery. Only after a massively destructive Civil War is slavery finally abolished.

Today: Virtually no person in America would argue that slavery is acceptable. Since the Civil War, black Americans have fought for and won equal rights under the law in all arenas, from voting to property ownership.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading