A religious, philosophical and literary movement, Transcendentalism arose in New England in the middle of the nineteenth century. Critics generally cite 1836 to 1846 as the years when the movement flourished, although its influence continued to be felt in later decades, with some works considered part of the movement not being published until the 1850s. Transcendentalism began as a religious concept rooted in the ideas of American democracy. When a group of Boston ministers, one of whom was Ralph Waldo Emerson, decided that the Unitarian Church had become too conservative, they espoused a new religious philosophy, one which privileged the inherent wisdom in the human soul over church doctrine and law.
Among Transcendentalism’s followers were writers Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman; educator Bronson Alcott; and social theorists and reformers Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing. Authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe also felt the influence of Transcendentalism. Important works from the movement include Emerson’s Nature, “The American Scholar,” and “Self Reliance”; Thoreau’s Walden; Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century; and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Novels such as Melville’s Moby Dick and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance also had transcendentalist leanings.
It is no coincidence that this movement took off just as the American literary tradition was beginning to blossom. Transcendentalism—though inspired by German and British Romanticism—was a distinctly American movement in that it was tied into notions of American individualism. In addition to the theme of American democracy, transcendentalist literature also promotes the idea of nature as divine and the human soul as inherently wise. Transcendentalism also had a political dimension, and writers such as Thoreau put their transcendentalist beliefs into action through acts of civil disobedience to the government. The nineteenth century was a volatile one, beginning with the hope and promise of democracy and the development of an American identity and moving towards mass devastation and division by the middle of the century. Slavery and the Civil War, women’s rights, growing industrialism and class division— all of these events were influential and each had a role to play in the transcendentalist movement.
Self-Wisdom 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, self-discovery comes as the result of intense reflection. Self-knowledge has...
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political implications as well. Once the individual has established a moral code, it becomes his or her duty to peacefully protest and engage in civil disobedience against the government should governmental policies violate that code. Thoreau’s opposition to slavery led to his refusal to pay a poll tax supporting the Mexican War, an act that landed him in jail for a night. For Thoreau, self-discovery was not simply an intangible concept, it was a way of living.
Nature and Its Meaning Nature is the focal point for much transcendentalist thought and writing. As a theme, it is so central to the movement that Emerson’s cornerstone essay is entitled Nature and serves as an investigation into nature and its relationship to the soul. For transcendentalists, nature and the soul were inextricably linked. In the rhythms and seasons of the natural world, transcendentalists found comfort and divinity. In the increasingly industrialized and fragmented world in which they lived, the search for meaning in nature was of great importance. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Fuller, Melville, and others saw possibility, liberation, and beauty in nature.
Emerson writes in Nature, “Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?” For Emerson, nature is a direct line to God, and its “meaning” is directly linked to God’s “meaning.” His definition of God and meaning is clearly different than that of the conservative Unitarian Church from which he split.
A follower of Emerson, Thoreau took ideas from Emerson’s work and put them into practice. He saw nature as not just an awe-inspiring force but a way of life. Thoreau offers up the following advice in Walden: “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.” For Thoreau, nature is pure because it is free from commercialization and industrialization. It is both a respite and a teacher. The transcendentalists were not reactionary or opposed to the modernization of the world; they were, however, concerned that such modernization could lead to alienation. Nature provided a way to keep humans in touch with their souls and with their spiritual foundations.
Social Reform Regarding social issues, transcendentalists were considered visionaries in their attitudes toward such issues as social protest, elimination of slavery, women’s rights, creative and participatory education for children, and labor reform. Transcendentalism became a venue for social reform because it revolved around the idea of liberation. Transcendentalist writers may have had as their immediate goal the liberation of the soul, but that goal expanded to social liberation as more and more thinkers joined the transcendentalist school of thought.
Founded as an alternative to conservative, organized religion, Transcendentalism had countercultural tendencies from its inception. From the free flowing, free verse of Whitman to the civil disobedience of Thoreau to Fuller’s radical notion that men and women were social and intellectual equals, the movement was engaged in many controversial social arenas.
As the editor of the transcendentalist publication The Dial, Fuller often published controversial pieces. As the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she invited debate and controversy. Her essay is a call to action for women and men to change society. She laments:
The lot of Woman is sad. She is constituted to expect and need happiness that cannot exist on earth. She must stifle such aspirations within her secret heart, and fit herself, as well as she can, for a life of resignations and consolations.
Clearly this is not an acceptable life to Fuller, just as slavery is unacceptable to Thoreau. In “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau states, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” Thoreau’s answer was to transgress, and go to jail if necessary, for as he says, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Along with slavery and gender issues, class issues also came to the forefront in the nineteenth century, revealing a new kind of slavery—wage slavery. Transcendentalists experimented with socialist communes, such as George Ripley’s Brook Farm and Alcott’s Fruitlands. These experiments were short lived. The legacy of civil disobedience served America and the world well, as it went on to inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead peaceful social protests. In addition, Fuller is often read as a precursor to modern feminism and is seen as a woman ahead of her time.