Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

Critically speaking, Transcendentalism was not exactly a cohesive movement. In other words, it was a collection of varied ideas and aims that existed among various thinkers, writers, and philosophers. Emerson biographer Richardson says:

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Whatever Transcendentalism was, it was not suited to institutionalizing. It gave birth to no academy; it flourished in no college or seminary. It had two collective expressions during its heyday (the club and the magazine called The Dial) but could only manage one at a time.

Emerson is regarded as the center of the movement, but he encouraged his followers to think for themselves. While the movement may not have been a cohesive whole, it was very influential for several American writers.

Critics have responded in varied ways to transcendentalist works. Perhaps Whitman’s Leaves of Grass garnered the strongest responses. Critic Reynolds points out that while there were more positive than negative views of Whitman’s poetry collection, the negative views were very strong:

Some vigorously denounced its sexual explicitness and its egotistical tone. One reviewer blasted the volume as a “mass of filth,” and another insisted that its author must be “some escaped lunatic raving in pitiable delusion.”

Fuller’s critics could also be harsh. She faced the dual challenge of being a woman and writing about controversial issues. Fuller scholar Donna Dickenson explains, “The best of Fuller’s female defenders lacked all conviction, while the worst of her attackers—male and female alike—were full of passionate intensity.”

It is not unusual that radical ideas would not be well received by the keepers of culture—the role that critics tend to play. Texts such as Walden, which did not seem as overtly radical as Leaves of Grass, tended to receive rave reviews.

Twenty-first-century literary critics are still writing about transcendentalist works and see continuing transcendentalist influence in modern literature.

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Essays and Criticism