The Political Dimension of the Transcendentalist Movement

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The literary, philosophical, and religious movement known as Transcendentalism sprung up in America in the mid-1830s, during a time when the country was headed towards a major political crisis. Transcendentalism is as much a literary movement as it is a political one, and some of the key players—Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, and Whitman— interwove politics into their intellectual musings. To speak of race, gender, or class—issues which revolve around power relations or unequal distribution of power—as all of these writers did, is a political move. To say these writers were “liberals” by twenty-first century standards is not quite right; however, they were all ahead of their time in their ideas about liberation and equality for all people.

Perhaps the biggest divide in the early to midnineteenth century was the issue of slavery. An economic, social, and political issue, slavery was divisive from the very beginning. Slavery was never supposed to last. Scholar Paul Lauter explains in his introduction to early nineteenth-century literature in the Heath Anthology of American Literature: “The Founders had mainly assumed that slavery would in the course of time atrophy and that slaveholders, Constitutionally prevented from importing additional slaves, would ultimately turn to other, free sources of labor.” But the invention of the cotton gin changed this way of thinking, reinforcing the institution of slavery and making the use of slaves to pick cotton highly lucrative. The tension mounted in America as several court cases and compromises came into being: the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which prohibited slavery in the new territories; the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which made it legal for slave catchers to come to the North to reclaim escaped slaves; and the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which held that African Americans were not citizens of the United States and that slaveholding could not be excluded from any state or territory. At the same time there were slave revolts led by Nat Turner (1831) and John Brown (1859), as well as a huge abolitionist network of writers, activists, and Underground Railroad conductors. Slavery was on the minds of Americans, and the writers of the day were certainly not exempt.

So why, then, would a small, highly educated and liberal group of New England writers, philosophers, and ministers choose to turn to nature in this time of impending crisis? Transcendentalism represented a turning inward in many aspects; it focused on the individual, on the human spirit and the human soul. For Emerson, nature was divine; it contained the answers to all the mysteries of life. Everyone had access to nature, yet few could really grasp the divine potential of it. He says in Nature:

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. . . . At least they have a very superficial seeing. . . . The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of his infancy even into the era of manhood.

This passage suggests that to really “see” nature, one must think with the imagination of a child. Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists, especially educator Alcott, believed that children saw the world with fresher eyes and that since they were closer to birth, they were closer to their prebirth spiritual state. Children are not full participants in the capitalist system because they are not yet driven by money; their minds are less “crowded” with worries of the modern world.

In this way, Transcendentalism advocates an almost regressive state. If one of the tenets of Transcendentalism is to see with the eyes of a child, another...

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tenet is the quest for individualism. Emerson and Thoreau were very much proponents of American individualism; they eschewed conformity and convention. This forms the basis for Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In this essay, he explains:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a jointstock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.

The idea of self-reliance sets up an interesting paradox. The “joint-stock company” Emerson speaks of represents the backbone of American capitalism. No longer was America a nation of farmers; it was instead a nation of industry, of mills, factories, and stockholders. What does it mean then to be an individual? As an individual, can one still believe in the American system of capitalism? And how does one understand self-reliance in relation to slavery?

Thoreau has an answer for Emerson in his essay “Resistance to Civil Government”. (The essay is often called “Civil Disobedience”.) The philosophy of Transcendentalism and the institution of slavery are diametrically opposed. Transcendentalism is about liberation; slavery is about bondage. Transcendentalism is about rising above commodity and the commodification of nature; slavery is about buying and selling humans as commodities. Transcendentalism is about democracy; slavery is fundamentally antidemocratic. For Thoreau, to espouse an abolitionist philosophy in theory was not enough; he advocated action. He explains in “Resistance to Civil Government”:

I do not hesitate to say those that call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them.

If the government is perpetrating crimes against humanity, as Thoreau thought slavery to be, then citizens have the right, the duty even, to disobey the laws that support such crimes. In Thoreau’s case, he refused to pay a poll tax supporting the Mexican War (which he saw as an effort to extend slavery) and consequently spent a night in jail.

Like Thoreau and Emerson, Fuller actively opposed slavery. In addition to speaking out against slavery, she also spoke out against the subjugation of women, seeing this as another kind of slavery. She does not argue against marriage, she argues against a strict separation of the public and private spheres, envisioning marriage as a fruitful and intellectual partnership. Her view of gender is one of harmony and sharing, as described in Woman in the Nineteenth Century:

Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.

Fuller’s theory of mutual dependence also applies to race relations. Instead of the strict separation of the public and private spheres, the institution of slavery was based on the strict separation of black and white. It was very important to be able to define who was black and who was white, because otherwise the system would crumble. Miscegenation, or the mixing of the races, was considered a crime in the South, yet white masters repeatedly raped their black female slaves, creating offspring whom they then disowned and immediately sold into slavery. The fluidity of transcendentalist thought was in itself a challenge to the rigid views of race and gender held by many Americans in the early to middle nineteenth century.

If fluidity was a challenge to the conventional thinking of the day, then poet Whitman was certainly radical. His free-verse poetry was not only radical in its form—breaking free from traditional rhyme schemes and poetic rhythms—but its content was groundbreaking as well. Whitman’s poetry represented a fundamental challenge to Victorian notions of gender. In Leaves of Grass, he asks, “What is a man, anyhow? What am I? What are you? / All I mark as my own, you shall offset it with your own / Else it were time lost listening to me.” He continues to question notions of American identity, particularly white American identity, in the poem “I Sing the Body Electric.” In this poem, Whitman imagines a slave on the auction block, and asks:

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries? Who might you find you have come from yourself if you could trace back through the centuries?

In a way, Whitman is echoing Emerson. In nature, all is fluid. The systems of power humans build around natural distinctions, such as race or gender, are all, in fact, unnatural and easily challenged.

Transcendentalism did represent a challenge to American thought. It might seem almost anti-political in the way it advocates a turning inward to examine the self. But for the transcendentalist writers, this inner examination represented a pathway to liberation, both personal liberation and political liberation. Before the Civil War, American democracy held a fundamental contradiction within itself. The ideals about equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence were not yet realized. Transcendentalists were strong supporters of American democracy, and in pointing out the flaws and contradictions, they helped to shape American intellectual and literary thought.

Source: Judi Ketteler, Critical Essay on Transcendentalism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Influences of Transcendentalism on American Life and Literature

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No one can say with assurance just when the Transcendental Movement, that began with the publication of Emerson’s Nature and the founding of the Transcendental Club in 1836, reached its high-water mark and started to ebb. The years of greatest excitement appear, however, to extend from 1836 through about 1843. By the latter date the meetings of the Club had ceased, Brook Farm came to the end of its purely Transcendental phase and began its transition to Fourierist Phalanx, Alcott’s Fruitlands began and ended, The Dial was straining to continue publication, Brownson was on the verge of his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and other advocates of the movement were increasingly devoting themselves to particular reform causes such as Abolition and women’s rights or to their own private ends. We may recall that Parker strove to rekindle the old enthusiasm in 1853 by calling for renewed meetings of the Transcendental Club but that his call went unanswered.

Although the movement as such may have been of relatively short duration, its influence has continued to be felt in a variety of ways down to the present day. And two of its three greatest literary statements—Walden and Leaves of Grass— were published after the crest, in 1854 and 1855 respectively.

In the present chapter we shall examine first the influence of Transcendentalism as it affected certain aspects of American civilization in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Then we shall look at its impact on particular American writers of distinction other than such widely recognized Transcendentalists as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. For, as Simon and Parsons have remarked, “A movement [Transcendental Movement] that resisted definition at the start has been pervasive enough to have influenced subsequent movements as disjunct as Naturalism and Neo-Humanism and to have affected writers as opposed in their loyalties as Irving Babbitt and Eugene O’Neill.”

There was, of course, a body of men who quite consciously thought of themselves as Transcendentalists and who tried to carry on the ideals and ideas of the earlier generation into post Civil War America. Samuel Johnson, John Weiss, Samuel Longfellow, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, David A. Wasson, Moncure Conway, Octavius B. Frothingham— these were among the best known. Worthy as they were, they seemed to lack the spark of those who had generated the movement. And some of the ancient sages lingered on, creating in Concord itself what Brooks has referred to as an “afterglow of Transcendentalism.” For example, there was the Concord School of Philosophy that Alcott and William T. Harris of the St. Louis Hegelians founded in 1879 to combat the materialistic trend of scientific thinking. For nine summers young students, mostly from the West, where Alcott had indefatigably lectured, flocked there to take the courses on Emerson, Plato, Dante, Goethe, or Oriental religions, and to listen to William James lecture on psychology or Harrison Blake read from his friend Thoreau’s unpublished journals.

Of far wider-ranging importance, however, was the gathering movement of mind cure through the power of positive thinking that resulted in such phenomena as New Thought and Christian Science. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby pioneered both in his search for a way to cure the sick. Born a year before Emerson, he came to manhood as the Transcendental Movement was just beginning to stir. No intellectual, he was nonetheless plainly touched by the basic idea of the movement, for he came to consider himself as an agent “revealing that the power of curing was the divine wisdom in all of us accessible through intuition.”

Quimby died in 1866, and following his death a split in the religious faith-healing movement occurred, with Mary Baker Eddy establishing the Christian Science Church and Warren F. Evans, a Swedenborgian minister, combining New Thought with the Hegelian idea that thought is the greatest creative force in the world.

Huber distinguishes Christian Science from New Thought thus:

Christian Science is closely organized and rigidly centralized with a unified doctrine and an absolute discipline over its practitioners. In matters of faith, the absolute idealism of Christian Science denies the existence of matter and the reality of suffering. The New Thought movement consists of independent sects loosely organized . . . and centering authority in no book or person . . . it does not deny the existence of sickness, sin and poverty, but asserts that these evils can be overcome by right thinking.

Donald Meyer opines that “mind cure conventionalized lyric transcendentalism into a prosy pragmatism. . .” Indeed, the mind cure theologists made the inevitable connection with Emerson and the Transcendentalists. With no real philosophers among them, they had a tendency to plunder Emerson’s works in particular for those ideas that fitted nicely into their theories of health, wealth, and power through mind, which is God. It was doubtless the metaphysics of practical idealism that they taught which fascinated William James, who saw that “the heart of mind cure was its psychology, and the heart of that psychology was its displacement of consciousness. Consciousness could not be trusted.” In developing his theory of the subconscious and its importance to human behavior, James seems to have credited it with almost magical powers that needed only to be obeyed. As Meyer remarks, “Much of his description of the subconscious amounted to no more than a new label for the famous faculty of transcendental reason or intuition celebrated in New England sixty years earlier.” Meyer goes on to point out that in its poetic-philosophic form the transcendental idea of intuition was not acceptable to scientific psychologists, but that essentially the same idea wearing the cloak of the “subconscious” was acceptable because it appeared to be more open to study and explanation. Nonetheless it was characterized by traits associated with the religious faculty, traits that facilitated the individual’s spiritual experience most directly in its best and fullest form.

The connection between Emerson’s doctrines and the new mind-cure religion quite plainly existed, even though it might be somewhat tenuous. After all, Transcendental doctrine seemed to deny the reality of matter and stressed the power of mind. And Emerson had contended that sickness should not be named; for it was a kind of evil which, being negative, could scarcely be said to exist. Robert Peel has shown the warm reception accorded Mary Baker Glover Eddy’s Science and Health in 1876 on its publication, and surely her refusal to accept disease, pain, old age, and death as realities, because such notions are applicable to matter rather than to spirit, which is the true reality, suggest at least a dim reflection of Emersonian attitudes. That Mrs. Eddy’s ideas attracted at least some of the Transcendentalists is shown, for example, by Alcott’s active interest in her book, which led him to visit her classes in Lynn and lecture to them. What made her new church particularly attractive to many members of the upper middle class was its tight discipline and its apparent rejection of New Thought’s religious pragmatism that “guaranteed sick people health, poor people riches, and troubled people happiness.” Unlike New Thought it did not embrace the “success” idea.

It is, of course, not only through religious or mental healing movements that American Transcendentalism has continued to exert an influence in the United States, and in other parts of the world as well. Carpenter, for example, has suggested that its influence in India, through Gandhi’s extensive reading of Emerson and Thoreau, is considerable. He has also produced evidence of the practical impact of their thought on the leaders of modern India. And Lyons has advanced the view that the Austrian educator and social philosopher Rudolf Steiner and his Waldorf Schools—of which there are eight in the United States and some eighty in seventeen countries—show an affinity with Alcott’s experiments in education and also with the basic ideals of Transcendentalism. For Steiner’s Anthroposophy was to be “a way of knowledge that would lead the spiritual in man to the spiritual in the universe.”

In the United States the New Humanism of the scholars Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More was at least partly traceable to the Transcendental influence. Babbitt’s studies of Indian philosophy would have been unlikely without the initial inspiration of the Orientalism of the American Transcendentalists, including Emerson, of whom Babbitt was, according to René Wellek, at times a conscious disciple. He disapproved, however, of Emerson’s undue optimism and of the romantic enterprise of reconciling man and nature. Nevertheless he felt the need of the “pure supernatural light” that he saw in Transcendentalism.

In the first half of the present century the influence of Transcendentalism in America, with the exception of its effect on a number of writers whom we shall discuss shortly, appeared largely dissipated. With the almost total triumph of materialism in an increasingly mechanized society, the Transcendental ideals seemed to have no place. The cumulative experience of two World Wars, a Great Depression, a Korean war and a Southeast Asian war has, however, brought about a resurgence of those ideals from about 1950 to the present. In the 50s the emergence of the “Beat” protest was a first straw in the wind. With its rebellion against the tyranny of possessions, of highly organized social structure, of the encroachments of the police state mentality, it was, despite the leftist radicalism of many of its members, an essentially apolitical movement, “a last-ditch stand for individualism and against conformity.”

By the 1960s and early 1970s many young Americans whom Huber calls the New Romantics were engaged in a spontaneous movement of dissent from the success creed that had motivated their parents. Rebelling against the work ethic that had led the Puritans to embrace work rather than leisure in the name of God’s will and that had led their parents to prefer work over leisure in behalf of the God of national security proclaimed by their government, they “turned their backs,” in Huber’s words, “on the American goals of mobility and crass achievement.” Clad in the unisex uniform of blue jeans, they wore their hair long and smoked their marijuana joints short. Again to quote Huber, they “were social evolutionists engaged in a peaceful, non-political protest against the competitive ethic of success. Dropouts from the traditional values of steady work, competition, and status-seeking (with its anxieties), they proclaimed a life of meditation, cooperation, sensory gratification, and pleasure now.”

Some of them involved themselves in “transcendental meditation” as taught by gurus oriental and occidental; many went to live in communes where cooperation and doing one’s own thing went hand in hand; and all were concerned about what they viewed as the rapidly deteriorating quality of life in America. In these ways they were logical descendants of the Transcendentalists; however, they seemed largely to lack the urge to reform that was so much a part of the earlier movement. And they were, by and large, far less philosophically or intellectually inclined. But the Thoreauvian advice to simplify one’s life and to live in harmony with nature rather than as nature’s adversary appeared to be at the root of their concept.

Turning now to the influence of Transcendentalism on American writers, we shall observe that it has been fairly constant since the early days of the movement. Of course, it is more difficult to discern in some than in others, but it would be scarcely an exaggeration to say that few of our foremost literary figures have been untouched by it.

In the preceding chapter attention was paid to the criticism of Transcendentalism by Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville at a time when the movement was at or near its peak. Despite the predominantly adverse attitude that we examined there, each one of them may also be seen as reflective in one way or another of at least certain aspects of the Transcendentalist rationale.

Poe, for example, has been viewed by more than one astute critic as adopting the Transcendentalist position particularly in his Eureka, where he bridges the gap between truth and poetry (beauty) he had so frequently insisted on. Arnold Smithline sees him as advocating in this poem the intuitive over the rational approach:

Thus we see that Poe’s ideas in Eureka are very close indeed to Transcendentalism. . . In his assertion of the unity of man and the cosmos, and of reliance upon intuition as the best means of realizing that ultimate Truth, Poe is following the main tenets of the Transcendentalists. His final vision is not a descent into the maelstrom of nothingness but a positive assertion of man’s divinity.

Conner agrees that Eureka has a transcendental conclusion although he does not see the entire work in that light. For Conner, Poe pushed his mechanistic attitude “to the conclusion that God is all, and in so doing pushed himself at least part way into the camp of the scorned transcendentalists.” In like manner Conner views Longfellow as distrustful of all transcendentalism but accepting and molding some transcendental doctrines to his conservative Unitarian Christianity.

Marjorie Elder has devoted an entire volume to establishing with voluminous documentation Hawthorne’s debt to the Transcendentalists’ aesthetic theories, which she also sees as influencing many other critics of Transcendentalism, such as Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and Melville. Tellingly, she quotes Longfellow: “The highest exercise of imagination is not to devise what has no existence, but rather to perceive what really exists, though unseen by the outward eye,—not creation, but insight.” Here he is surely at one with Emerson.

Hawthorne speaks specifically in such works as “The Hall of Fantasy,” “The Old Manse,” and the preface to “Rappaccini’s Daughter” of the influence of the Transcendentalist aesthetic theories as carefully formulated and written by Emerson. Indeed Elder believes that “Hawthorne, like Emerson, saw Reality shadowed in the Actual; the Perfect in the Imperfect—in Nature and Man. Hawthorne’s Artist, like Emerson’s, was the last best touch of the Creator, enabled by Faith, Intuition, the pursuit of Beauty and by Nature’s revelations to him to create an image of the Ideal.” In fact she sees Hawthorne as carrying out the Transcendentalist aesthetic by mingling the Actual and the Imaginative throughout his tales. He is, she holds, using Transcendental symbolism by doing so in his assertion of Truth as well as by arranging scenes in correspondence with Nature. In like manner, she believes that “Melville’s symbolic method of striking through the mask was thoroughly Transcendental.”

That Melville was opposed to Emersonian Transcendentalism as a philosophy we have already remarked, but that there are echoes of that philosophy too numerous to mention in such books as Mardi and Moby-Dick the most casual reader may discern. Indeed in his last work, Billy Budd, written long after the movement was at its height, Melville seems to accept an essential tenet of the Transcendentalists, and most certainly of Emerson, namely, that society everywhere is conspiring against the manhood of its members. For Captain Vere, who condemns the Christ-like Billy, is the very symbol of that conformity that makes of the human being not a man but a uniformed robot. Vere’s tragedy is that he is sensitive enough to know it.

Even the “Genteel Poets” of the latter part of the nineteenth century were touched by the Transcendental concepts. As Conner has shown, the broker-poet E.C. Stedman in Nature and Elements and in such a poem as “Fin de Siècle” displays his interpretation of the divine immanence as the private soul universalized, a distinctly Transcendental concept. And Richard Watson Gilder thought of the material universe after the Transcendental fashion as simply an expression or manifestation of God! “His God both was and was not the universe, was transcendent as well as immanent.”

As for the greatest American poet of the latter half of the nineteenth century other than Whitman, Dickinson, there is ample evidence that she absorbed Transcendental ideas as well as the Emersonian spirit and thus became, in the words of Clark Griffith, a “post-Emersonian, or, still more accurately perhaps, a sort of Emersonian-in-reverse.”

Such poems as 632, “The Brain is Wider than the Sky,” composed perhaps in 1862, and 1510, “How happy is the little Stone,” written perhaps in 1881, suggest quite clearly the Transcendental inspiration. The first, stating the unlimited measurements of the human mind—“wider than the sky,” “deeper than the sea,” and “just the weight of God”—implies the divinity of man and his identification with the universal being, a fundamental Transcendental tenet. And the second, about the happy little stone “That rambles in the Road alone,” not concerned with fashioning a career or with fearsome exigencies, created by universal force to be “independent as the Sun,” and “Fulfilling absolute Decree in casual simplicity” reflects the Transcendental ideals of individual freedom, closeness to nature, simplicity in living, and the divinely ordered universe.

Still other poems with a distinct Transcendental thrust are 501, “This World is not Conclusion”; 668, “‘Nature’ is what we see”; 669, “No Romance sold unto”; 1176, “We never know how high we are”; 1354, “The Heart is the Capital of the Mind”; and 1355, “The Mind lives on the Heart.”

As Cambon has pointed out, Dickinson was, however, ambivalent in her transcendentalism, apparently feeling at times, as in 280, that she has no over-soul to rely on in her existential plight. The poem describes the funeral in her brain as she realizes her desperate isolation as an earthbound member of the human race. “And then a Plank in Reason [the Transcendentalist intuitive wisdom], broke, she says, letting her drop terrifyingly from world to world until, ambiguously, she “Finished knowing—then—” as the poem ends.

Even such a relatively sophisticated literary practitioner as William Dean Howells, author of almost forty novels, esteemed critic, and editor of such influential journals as The Atlantic Monthly and Harpers, is seen to have a kinship with the New England Transcendentalists because of his Swedenborgian background, a kinship most marked during his period of Utopian social reform. It may be discerned in such novels as The World of Chance (1893) in which we meet an old socialist, David Hughes, who had once been a member of the Brook Farm community and who serves as Howells’s spokesman in suggesting that society is not to be reformed by individuals who are simply interested in improving themselves, but by those who will work together to reconstruct its institutions. A Traveller from Altruria (1894) and its sequel, Through the Eye of the Needle (1907), present Howells’s social idealism by contrasting the growing inequities of American life and its laissez-faire economic system to his utopian view that reiterates the Transcendental vision of the potential value of each man and the perfectibility of human society.

The Transcendental influence extends into the present century in the thought of such eminent poets as Frost and Stevens, such a dramatist as O’Neill, and such voices of the “Beat Generation” as those of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.

That Robert Frost had a lifelong interest in Emerson is attested not only by much of his poetry but also by his biographer, Lawrance Thompson. William Chamberlain in his essay “The Emersonianism of Robert Frost” sees it as “central to an understanding of the core of Frost’s philosophy of poetry, the concept of a ‘momentary stay against confusion.’” Chamberlain presents such poems as “West-Running Brook” and “Directive” as prime evidence. The former poem contains a conversation between husband and wife about the brook that runs west contrary to all the other country brooks that run east to reach the ocean. The husband explains toward the end of the poem:

It is this backward motion toward the source, Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in, the tribute of the current to the source. It is from this in nature we are from. It is most us.

This seeming identification of the human being’s origin with a common natural source, a universal being, is thoroughly transcendental as is the somewhat more obscure admonition in “Directive” in which the poet directs us back to a hidden brook that once provided water for a farm house long gone and tells us to “drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Nor should we overlook the thoroughly Transcendental rejection of thoughtless adherence to tradition that forms the basis of one of Frost’s bestknown poems, “Mending Wall.”

Frost, brought up in a Swedenborgian household, was a self-proclaimed mystic who believed in symbols and who, through their use, suggests again and again in his poems the Emersonian, Thoreauvian requirement that man must establish a primary contact with nature in order to give any meaning to his life. It is scarcely surprising, then, to find him listing Emerson’s Essays and Poems and Thoreau’s Walden among the ten books he believed should be in every public library.

Although a transcendental influence may seem far from surprising in a “country” poet like Frost, its presence in a poet so urbane and sophisticated as Wallace Stevens may be unexpected. But, as Nina Baym has fully demonstrated, it is there in full measure. Contrary to the frequently expressed idea that Stevens rejected Transcendentalism, she finds that “line by line. . .his kinship manifests itself.” Noting that the Transcendentalists, despite their insistence on a universal mind, recognized that each human being continued to apprehend, conceive, and perceive through his own mind, she observes that Stevens, however he may insist “that each man’s perception is discrete and cannot be related back to an overarching unity, believes very strongly that the experience of any one mind is common to all minds.” Thus she finds in Stevens’ poetry a modern version of Transcendentalism.

Baym further notes that Stevens’ poetry may be interpreted as a modern attempt to articulate the Transcendental moment of ecstasy proclaimed so strikingly by Emerson. She finds, however, that it is Thoreau more than Emerson or any other Transcendentalist that Stevens resembles. The reason is their sharing of “an overwhelming love for landscape, which leads them both to dedicate themselves to nature in poetry with the same sort of novitiate intensity.” Beyond sharing this love of nature, she sees Thoreau and Stevens formulating their principal emotions—joy and despair—in much the same way. Both are also seen as preoccupied with change as an immutable fact of the universe (perhaps the Platonic doctrine of flux?). “From ‘Sunday Morning’ on through all his works,” she says, “Stevens asserted that although we think we love stability, in fact everything in the world that we love, and even love itself, originates from change. ‘Death is the mother of beauty’. . . Walden, as much as ‘Sunday Morning,’ is an attempt to show the world enduring through change . . .”

Many examples can be found among Stevens’ poems to illustrate his transcendental point of view. For example, in “The Planet on the Table” he writes of the poet:

His self and the sun were one And his poems, although makings of his self, Were no less makings of the sun.

Here we see the identification of the self with divinity (the Sun) and the Emersonian notion of poetry all existing in nature before time was.

In what is perhaps Stevens’ most famous poem, “Sunday Morning,” we observe the modern woman unable to devote herself to the conventional worship of dead gods. The poet asks

Why should she give her bounty to the dead? What is divinity if it can come Only in silent shadows and in dreams? Shall she not find in comforts of the sun, In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else In any balm or beauty of the earth, Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven? Divinity must live within herself. . .

Here Stevens has brilliantly encapsulated three main tenets of Transcendentalist doctrine: that the God of the established churches is a dead, historical God who can no longer inspire faith; that religious ecstasy is to be found through contact with nature; and that the living God can be found only within the self. The poem further emphasizes Stevens’ rejection of the sterile, changeless, conventionalized Heaven in favor of the everchanging beauties of the earthly here and now.

Or again, in such a poem as “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” we see the suggestion of the individual mind being one with a central mind (like the Transcendental over-soul) as part of a dimly divined order that we know through feeling or intuition. The final three stanzas say it best:

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves, We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole, A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind. We say God and the imagination are one. . . How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind, We make a dwelling in the evening air, In which being there together is enough.

In American drama Eugene O’Neill, currently undergoing a great revival of interest, is the only significant playwright to have reflected something of the Transcendental attitude. As he once wrote to the drama critic George Jean Nathan, “The playwright of today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfactory new one for the surviving primitive, religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with.” This is indeed what the Transcendentalists of a hundred years before had felt that they must do. The dif- ference between them and an O’Neill lies in their belief that they had discovered a cure for the pervasive sickness.

O’Neill is seen by Carpenter as ambivalent in his feelings toward the Transcendentalists. Like him they had been “rebels against the materialism of their times, but their idealism had also been the product of a Yankee and Puritan society,” a society that O’Neill scorned for its narrow hypocrisies (in, e.g., Beyond the Horizon and Desire Under the Elms). Emerson and Thoreau, says Carpenter, never scorned material things but sought go ameliorate the actual situation, and appealed to the future. O’Neill, on the other hand, had no belief in the future or any hope for it. Tragedy he considered essential to the nature of things. Thus, in a sense, Carpenter finds him even more transcendental than the optimistic Emerson.

“Historic Transcendentalism,” Carpenter comments, “has, in fact, divided into two streams. The first has become active, scientific, and pragmatic. The second has become passive, mystical, and psychological. Emerson’s thought flowed largely in the first stream, toward modern pragmatism. O’Neill’s thought tended towards modern, nonrational psychology.” Thus O’Neill’s marked interest in, and use of, Freudian probings into the less accessible reaches of the human psyche as a means of comprehending the mysterious behavior of his fellow travelers on the planet Earth.

Turning to the more immediate scene, we find such poets as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder carrying on, each in his own way, the tradition of Whitman and Thoreau. Ginsberg quite plainly accepts Whitman’s concept of the poet as teacher, prophet, and seer. And he writes his verse in the same free and irregular lines, with a vocabulary geared to the colloquial diction of his own time and place. Although his view of America lacks the optimistic note of the author of Leaves of Grass, he shares the Transcendental will to protest against an established majority that is leveling the nation into a deadly mediocrity.

As Ginsberg was the Beat Generation’s approximation of Whitman, so has Snyder been its latter-day version of Thoreau. Intensely interested, as was Thoreau, in the literature and philosophy of the Orient, he learned Chinese and Japanese and even lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery. And like Thoreau he has been intensely concerned with the physical environment of America. Nor can the preoccupation in his verse with the need to be free and on the move be overlooked, so much is it in the tradition of Thoreau.

In conclusion, it is impossible not to agree with Edwin Gittleman’s view that “contrary to the commonplace assertion that the Civil War effectively destroyed the transcendental ambiance in America, the magical Circle of Concord has never really been broken. Rather, it has been expanded to where now it seems to touch (if not embrace) a perplexing demi-world consisting of Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, S.D.S., Abbie Hoffman, sexual freedoms, Black Power, lysergic acid diethylamide, and miscellaneous esoterica and erotica.” Even though Gay Wilson Allen may be right in remarking that the main difficulty for one today trying to teach the Transcendentalists is that their goal of a deeper spiritual life has become “an almost meaningless abstraction,” his further observation that they were trying to find a more satisfying life here and now on this lovely earth is perhaps equally true of many of those mentioned in Gittleman’s catalogue of the contemporary underground that cannot accept the values of the American establishment.

To close this book on American Transcendentalism without giving the last word to its foremost spokesman, Emerson, would seem almost an act of heresy. In his journal for 1841 he said of it, “That it has a necessary place in history is a fact not to be overlooked, not possibly to be prevented, and however discredited to the heedless & to the moderate & conservative persons by the foibles or inadequacy of those who partake the movement yet is it the pledge & the herald of all that is dear to the human heart, grand & inspiring to human faith.”

Source: Donald N. Koster, “Influences of Transcendentalism on American Life and Literature,” in Transcendentalism in America, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 84–98.

Saints Behold: The Transcendentalist Point of View

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2648

A hostile American reviewer of Wordsworth noted that ‘he tries to look on nature as if she had never been looked on before’ and he bemoaned that fact that the poet seemed to be attracting an ‘ever increasing school of devoted disciples’ in America. Now, what he blames Wordsworth for accurately sums up the ambition of many of the Transcendentalists. There is no need here to disentangle the indigenous emotional drive from the imported European ideas in Transcendentalist thought. But it is important to stress how eager the Transcendentalists were to develop a new attitude towards nature, a new point of view. Picking up the Wordsworthian hint they developed it for their own purposes. Thus Parker echoes Wordsworth in describing the correct way to respond to the world. He is discussing terrestial beauty.

Now to many men, who have but once felt this; when heaven lay about them, in their infancy, before the world was too much with them, and they laid waste their powers, getting and spending, when they look back upon it across the dreary gulf, where Honor, Virtue, Religion have made shipwreck and perished with their youth, it seems visionary, a shadow, dream-like, unreal. They count it a phantom of their experience; the vision of a child’s fancy, raw and unused to the world. Now they are wiser. They cease to believe in inspiration. They can only credit the saying of the priests, that long ago there were inspired men; but none now; that you and I must bow our faces to the dust, groping like the Blind-worm and the Beetle; nor turn our eyes to the broad, free heaven; that we cannot walk by the great central and celestial light that God made to guide all that come into the world, but only by the farthing-candle of tradition. . . Alas for us if this be all.

An awareness of the divine beauty of the world should not be made dependent on ‘tradition’, nor on any inherited and institutionalized modes of thought or belief. It would be apprehended directly by any one who could maintain the requisite reverence of attitude and recapture a personal conviction that the world was ‘instinct with the Divine Spirit’. ‘When this day comes, man will look on Nature with the same eye, as when in the Eden of primitive innocence and joy.’ It was the privilege of unmediated admiration and response which the Transcendentalists were determined to secure for their age. It was for this reason they took issue with the Unitarians with their Lockean materialism and passionless contention that only through the biblical miracles was God revealed to man. Such an attitude seemed to impoverish the present world.

It is negative, cold, lifeless, and all advanced minds among Unitarians are dissatisfied with it, and are craving something higher, better, more living and lifegiving. . . Society as it is, is a lie, a sham, a charnelhouse, a valley of dry bones. O that the Spirit of God would once more pass by, and say unto these dry bones, ‘Live!’ So I felt, and so felt others.

Thus Orestes Brownson described the original thrust behind the movement. The Transcendentalists refused to see the world as ‘a mute and dead mass of material forms’: rather, it was ‘a living image, speaking forth the glory of God’. At least, it was that if it was looked at properly. The eye which was ‘purified of the notes of tradition’ would see God in all things. Here. Now. That thralldom to old and cramping ways of thought, which inhibited and policed the individual response, would be broken. It was such a release from tradition that the Transcendentalists sought to achieve so that they might indulge a proper admiration for a present America neither subservient nor inferior to Europe. And the most forceful concept with which to challenge the traditional eye was clearly the innocent eye.

Innocent, the soul is quick with instincts of unerring aim; then she knows by intuition what lapsed reason defines by laborious inference; her appetites and affections are direct and trustworthy. . . By reasoning the soul strives to recover her lost intuitions; groping amidst the obscure darkness of sense, by means of the fingers of logic, for treasures present always and available to the eye of conscience. Sinners must needs reason: saints behold.

So Alcott summed up the extremity of his position. For him ‘thought disintegrates and breaks’ the unity of soul a child enjoys with the world. The prescribed cure was obvious: unlearn reason and behold the world with child-like passive admiration. The word recurred in much Transcendentalist writing. ‘Wisdom does not inspect but behold’ wrote Thoreau; while Emerson recommended for the ‘habitual posture of the mind—beholding’. Saints behold, and so do children. The way back into a divine nature was through the innocent eye. Alcott himself was an educational experimenter of some audacity and he took his beliefs to their logical conclusion. He held conversations with children on the gospels and made their response a test of the validity of Christianity. ‘If these testimonies of children, confirm the views of adults—that Christianity is grounded in the essential Nature of Man—than shall I add to its claim upon our faith.’ It is hard to imagine Wordsworth making so literal an application of his poetic assertion that the child was a prophet and philosopher. There was much more interest in the child’s point of view in America than in Europe at the time. It was revered to an unusual degree. Thus Miss Peabody, who worked in Alcott’s experimental school, could observe:

It was very striking to see how much nearer the kingdom of heaven . . . were the little children, than those who had begun to pride themselves on knowing something. We could not but often remark to each other, how unworthy the name of knowledge was that superficial acquirement, which has nothing to do with self-knowledge; and how much more susceptible to the impressions of genius, as well as how much more apprehensive of general truths, were those who had not been hackneyed by a false education.

There is knowing and knowing. The knowledge which is a mere accumulation of data will tend to support the tabula rasa theories of the psychological sensationalists and make man the sport of matter. But the knowledge which seems to deliver itself as unharassed intuition, which seems to be the result of a generous impressionability and an out-reaching sense of spiritual qualities shared by perceiver and perceived, this knowledge will justify the Transcendentalists in their assertions. ‘The mind must grow, not from external accretion, but from an internal principle’, in the words of Sampson Reed. Given this emphasis on the ‘internal principle’, the process of true knowing, and the diminished concentration on the thing known, then clearly the child’s mind can be expected to attract novel focus. The interest, that is to say, is in a cognitive stance, a stance of reverent response and assimilation. There is far less interest in the end results of analysis and prolonged inquiry, such as finished doctrine, intricate theology, or logical demonstration. For the Transcendentalists the central question was: how should a man look at the world to recover and retain a sense of its ‘actual glory’? And for many of them the answer was— behold it with wonder, like a child.

Just as the child was used as a positive image to set up against the claims of tradition, so the claims and rights of the uneducated vernacular type were pushed against the aristocratic hegemony of Europe over American thought. ‘We are now the literary vassals of England, and continue to do homage to the mother country. Our literature is tame and servile, wanting in freshness, freedom, and originality. We write as Englishmen, not as Americans. . . Moreover, excellent as is the English literature, it is not exactly the literature for young republicans. England is tile most aristocratic country in the world.’ Orestes Brownson continuously stressed the democratic implications of transcendentalist thought. He insisted that ‘the light which shines out from God’s throne, shines into the heart of every man’. The relevance of this for the writer was brought out by George Ripley: ‘The most sublime contemplations of the philosopher can be translated into the language of the market.’ So he instructs the American writer: ‘He is never to stand aloof from the concerns of the people; he is never to view them in the pride of superior culture or station as belonging to a distinct order from himself.’ Clearly a totally new perspective, disregardful of the past and the accumulated precedents of culture, was being sought and required. The call was for the point of view of the uninstructed: the eye of the child, the language of the market. The optimism involved in this idealization of the untutored need not be underlined. But there is one further implication of Transcendentalist thought which should be brought out. Many of the Transcendentalists were Unitarians who became dissatisfied with the mere observance of orthodox and seemly forms. They were more interested in sentiment than institutions and there was current enmity between them. So Brownson wrote: ‘The sentiment now breaks away from that form, which, if one may so speak, has become petrified.’ Perhaps this attitude was most significantly dramatized by Emerson’s resignation from the Unitarian ministry in 1832. ‘I am not engaged to Christianity by decent forms’ he explained later, ‘what I revere and obey in it is its reality, its boundless charity, its deep interior life. . . Its institutions should be as flexible as the wants of man. That form from which the life and suitableness have departed should be as worthless in its eyes as the dead leaves that are falling around us.’ I think one may take this as a more general apostasy from all formalism—in art as well as in religion. Because if all nature is good and the unmediated inner impulse of man reliable, then there is no need for life to be transmuted and reworked into art: art must rather emulate nature; flow with it, grow like it. Such an art—it is characteristic of much American writing—can display an almost unique breadth of hospitality, a spontaneous generosity of inclusion, a free-ranging wonder and compassionate attention which more than justify its daring neglect of accredited forms. For indeed there are forms which the instinct of health will cry out to scatter and demolish; forms which condone mental sloth, which perpetuate habitual responses, which flatter old complacencies, which smother all emerging novelty. But if we may adapt Emerson’s words a little and say that the Transcendentalist felt that form could afford to be, indeed ought to be, as flexible as sentiment, then we could fairly point out that this might involve them in problems of organization. The vivifying enthusiasm and stimulus of the Transcendentalists provided the essential impetus for the development of a genuine American literature. But their own wellwarranted animus against forms has often, for subsequent writers, changed into the real and often arresting problem of how to assemble and contain their material. An excess of flexibility may well let everything in, but at the cost of not being able to hold very much together.

The Transcendentalists themselves could hold everything together by mystical generalizations. They disliked Unitarianism because ‘it cannot pass from the Particular to the General’. Transcendentalism could do exactly this, with effortless confidence. But it should here be pointed out that the Transcendentalist, by relying so much for his poise and faith on fervent but vague feelings and generalizations, does expose himself to the risk of a shockingly abrupt disillusion, a very sudden sense of blighting deprivation, an impotent gloom which is the residue of an evaporated enthusiasm. And indeed the Transcendentalists at times revealed the precariousness of their position. Consider these two quotations from George Ripley.

The creation in itself, without reference to the Almighty Spirit from which it sprung, is formless and without order—a mass of chaotic objects, of whose uses we are ignorant, and whose destiny we cannot imagine. It is only when its visible glory leads our minds to its unseen Author, and we regard it as a manifestation of Divine Wisdom, that we can truly comprehend its character and designs. To the eye of sense, what does the external creation present? Much less than we are generally apt to suppose. . . Merely the different arrangements of matter, the various degrees and directions in which the light falls on the object admired, and the change of position with regard to space. This is all that is seen. The rest is felt. The forms are addressed to the eye, but the perception of beauty is in the soul. And the highest degree of this is perceived, when the outward creation suggests the wisdom of the Creator. Without that, it is comparatively blank and cold and lifeless.

Without that—everything depends on religious conviction. There are no compromise assurances, no working rules, no limited certainties, no veracities attainable by the senses alone. It is all or nothing. Again:

Without religion, we are buried in this world as in a living tomb. Mystery—Darkness—Death—Despair —these are the inscriptions which are born on the portals of our gloomy prison-house. Doomed and unhappy orphans, we know not whence we came, why we are here, nor whither we go. . . All is blank, and desolate, and lifeless, for to our darkened eye no God is present there. And God, my friends, is necessary to man.

Some of these images have a prophetic air. The lost child becomes a frequent figure in American literature, and images of confinement and imprisonment obtrude themselves in the works of writers as remote as Poe and Sherwood Anderson. The journey of which the path and destination are no longer sure becomes a common theme (it is in Melville and Mark Twain), and the material world as chaos instead of God’s order is the insistent tenor of the work of Henry Adams. One could say that Pragmatism was a necessary solution to the dangerous extremism of response countenanced by Transcendentalist thought.

Perhaps the simplest definition of what Transcendentalism meant to those who embraced it is given by Ripley: ‘It thirsts after the primitive, absolute, all pervading Truth. It is not contented with the knowledge of barren insulated facts.’ They believed you could take a single discrete fact and infer from it some absolute truth: hence the continual shift from particularization to generalization in their writing. But take away that all-maintaining confidence in God, and man is left surrounded by ‘barren insulated facts’ with only the ‘eye of sense’ to help him. The Transcendentalists asserted that a man who could not see God everywhere was blind. The blind men of a later age duly had to return to a braille-like reading of the world.

No sentimentalist . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . no more modest than immodest.

This was the character—as much persona as person—who tried to see what America was by looking around him as though for the first time. Effectively he brought a continent to life. We have perhaps lost some of the sense of the audacity of that undertaking and yet his first poem makes a gesture which is in fact one of the perennial gestures of art: a gesture of passionate attention towards vast stretches of ignored reality. He is, as he confesses, not the explorer of life; neither is he the arranger, the describer, the analyser of life; nor is he the improver of life: he is ‘the reminder of life’ and the strange but persistently true thing is how often humanity needs such reminders, such reminding.

Source: Tony Tanner, “Saints Behold: The Transcendentalist Point of View,” in The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 19–25.


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