Historical Context

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The Rise of Industry While critics generally assign Transcendentalism to the ten-year period between 1836 and 1846, the movement was tied to a much larger chunk of the middle part of that century, beginning with the election of Andrew Jackson to the United States presidency in 1829 and extending through the Civil War period (1860–1865). Jackson and his fellow Democrats claimed to represent the common person and fought against large corporations and excesses of wealth. Industry boomed as the nineteenth century began, with many technological innovations coming to fruition. The century saw huge population gains, with an influx of immigrants from Europe and Asia; the expansion of territories westward, which led to the displacement of thousands of Native Americans; improvements to the printing press; the development of hundreds of miles of railroads; and the continual transformation from a nation of farmers to a nation of industry and urbanization. In cities, poverty and crime skyrocketed. Union organizers worked tirelessly against wage slavery, while many Americans made their fortunes. Textile mills were built in the Northeast, sparking controversy about whether they represented a way for women to earn a living or a pathway into wage slavery with no escape.

For a time, the economy seemed to boom, until 1837, when recession set in. The panic of 1837 is, in many ways, comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The recession meant lean times for many Americans, and it led writers such as Thoreau to question industrialization. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote in Walden. Writers and thinkers debated meaning and material goods. Thoreau made his position clear: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the socalled comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” Although the recession certainly impacted the American economy, the middle class continued to grow and develop during the middle of the century.

Reform A lot was happening in the middle of the century that divided the country. The slavery issue was a major hotbed of debate, especially once the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, which stated that escaped slaves in the North could be caught and taken back to the South, and into slavery. The law sparked much controversy, a debate further fueled by publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Stowe was one of many authors writing about slavery, with abolitionist literature prevalent in the North along with slave narratives by such authors as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Slavery was opposed on moral, philosophical, and economic grounds.

Transcendentalist writers had a curious position in relation to abolitionism. Whitman opposed slavery but never took a strong abolitionist stance. Writers like Emerson and Hawthorne were not focused strongly on the issue, though it certainly informs their work in both subtle and overt ways. Thoreau had the strongest sentiment against slavery and wrote about it in his essay “Resistance to Civil Government.”

The antislavery movement and the women’s rights movement overlapped in many ways. Women could not vote, or seek divorce from their husbands. Women’s rights activists and antislavery activists saw parallels in their causes in that slavery added an extra burden for black women: not only were they considered property, their bodies were subject to sexual exploitation at the hands of their white masters. Antislavery activists such as Stowe appealed to white women of the North to see the horror of the situation. Women were becoming more and more vocal and rallying support for their cause. The 1848 Seneca Falls convention held in New York was the largest...

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gathering of women’s rights advocates the nation had seen. Frederick Douglass spoke, along with dozens of other women’s rights advocates. Women’s rights activists were fighting laws that held women back as well as fighting to change attitudes. Antebellum America (or pre-Civil War America) was separated into two distinct spheres: the public and the private. The marketplace (where men worked and made a living) was the public sphere, and the private sphere (the home) was relegated to women. The “cult of true womanhood” was the prevailing notion of the day, preaching that women should be pure, pious, domestic, and obedient to their husbands. Writers such as Fuller wrote against the notion of “true womanhood” and the strict separation of spheres. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, and dozens of other women—some famous, some not—fought for women’s rights long after the Seneca Falls convention and the Civil War.

Literary Style

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Free Verse Though many transcendentalist writers used the essay form to express their ideas, Whitman used poetry, specifically free verse. Characterized by irregular line length and a lack of rhyme or regular rhythm, free verse breaks conventional rules of poetic rhyme and meter. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass builds its own rhythms with the repetition of words and phrases, sometimes called “cataloging.” Lines, ideas, and images flow freely, unbroken by regular stanzas or set rules. Free verse was suitable for a transcendentalist poet such as Whitman because the content of his poems matched the freedom of the form. The themes Whitman embraced in poems such as “Song of Myself”—a celebration of the soul, of love, desire, sexuality, and pleasure—were better expressed in a more radical style versus a conventional style. Both the form and the content caught critics’ and readers’ attention (some for the better, some for the worse). Whitman’s use of free verse at that time in the nation’s history made him a lasting name in the American literary canon.

Romanticism An outgrowth of English Romanticism (1789–1832), yet still strong in its own right, American Romanticism is often called the American Renaissance because it marked a rebirth in American literature. Critics identify this period of American rebirth as beginning with the Jacksonian era in 1828 and lasting to the Civil War in 1865. This era produced authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorn, Fuller, Dickinson, and Poe, along with a whole host of popular writers of serialized fiction, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. American literature was, for the first time, held in high esteem in this country and taken seriously in Europe. American Romanticism certainly had a European heritage, borrowing some key elements. First, the English romantics focused on nature, viewing it as a catalyst for thinking and deep reflection. American transcendentalists took this idea and built upon it. Secondly, English Romanticism was about overflowing, powerful emotions. The overflow of powerful emotions characterized such pieces as Emerson’s Nature and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Romanticism is also humanistic in its view of the world. Transcendentalists embraced humanity and the human spirit, believing strongly in democratic ideals and human potential.

Tone The tone of Transcendentalism is, in a word, exalted. The feelings expressed by transcendentalist writers are intense, the ideas serious, the reflection deep and meaningful. Transcendentalism was an intellectual movement, led by highly educated people. It was not a movement of the masses, though it certainly had an effect on the masses in the long run. The tone of the writing might be best understood in comparison to other writing of the day. At the same time that transcendentalists were writing, popular fiction was gaining ground with the American reading public. Dime novels, serialized novels, sentimental fiction, tales of the city—there were literally dozens of different types of novels circulating and claiming large reading audiences. In fact, Hawthorne is famous for complaining in a letter to his publisher about the “damned mob of scribbling women” writing popular fiction and affecting his book sales. Transcendentalists wanted to create an intellectual tradition, rooted in spirituality and American democracy. The argument can certainly be made that popular fiction commanded an intellectual debate as well and tackled serious issues of the day. But transcendentalists were attempting to create an American aesthetic, and this is reflected in their language and tone.

Movement Variations

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Education Transcendentalism extended into many areas of social reform, including the educational system. When Alcott came to Boston in 1828, he had definite ideas about children’s education. An idealist and visionary, he became involved in the transcendentalist movement, with a passion for educating young children. Alcott believed the key to a better society was education—an idea still dominant in the twenty-first century. Alcott’s focus on very young children was ahead of its time in the nineteenth century, when the popular belief was that young children were simply tiny adults.

Alcott developed his educational model using the ideas of Plato. Plato held that before birth, a person’s soul resided in a spiritual realm, together with all of the other souls waiting to be born. When a person was born, his/her soul was “called” to him/her. Hence, Alcott reasoned that children were closest to birth and therefore closest to that preexisting spiritual state. Young children had better intuition, he believed, and their minds were more open and less cluttered than those of adults. Paul F. Boller, in his book American Transcendentalism, 1830–1860, summarizes Alcott’s philosophy thus: “Education, then, should be directed to the very young, and it should be centered on drawing out of them the moral and spiritual truths latent in the intuitive Reason they all possess.” In 1834, Alcott opened a school in the Masonic temple in Boston, which came to be known as Temple School. Fuller also taught there. Thirty preteen boys and girls attended the school. Alcott used the Socratic method of teaching, that is, asking questions to elicit answers he believed the children already held within them. They read stories and poems and had lively discussions. Alcott also believed in the importance of physical exercise for young children, and so part of their time was devoted to that as well.

The downfall of Temple School was the publication of a book of “conversations” held at the school. These conversations were religious in nature, and considered radical, even sacrilegious, because Alcott dared to speak of scripture and scriptural interpretation with young children. While many of his fellow transcendentalists supported him, he was attacked in the newspapers, and enrollment greatly suffered. By the late 1830s, the school had shut down, with the final straw being Alcott’s acceptance of a black child into the school. While Alcott was certainly ahead of his time in his thinking, 1830s Boston was not fully prepared for him. He went on to establish an experimental community near Boston called Fruitlands; it was a very small community, never attracting more than a handful of people. Alcott’s daughter, Louisa May Alcott, went on to write books for adults and young people, including Little Women.

The Transcendental Club Transcendentalism was an intellectual movement, characterized by lively philosophical and moral debates. The Transcendental Club was a loose gathering of intellectuals who discussed everything from truth, reason, and spirituality to social reform and slavery. The first meeting was in 1836 at George Ripley’s home in Boston. Emerson, Alcott, Fuller, Thoreau, James Freeman Clarke, Parker, Orestes Brownson, Channing, and Frederic Hedge were some of the regular attendees. Critic Boller says, “Alcott, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson . . . described it as ‘a company of earnest persons enjoying conversations on high themes and having much in common.’” The formation of the club marked the beginning of the transcendentalist movement. Though the meetings of the club declined after a few years and eventually ceased to exist, the ideas discussed and debated in the meetings continued to shape the movement not just in literary ways but in philosophical and religious ways as well.

Compare and Contrast

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Mid-Nineteenth Century: Black Americans are still held in slavery. Several laws are passed in relation to slavery, which escalate the debate in the United States. Abolitionists in the North actively fight against slavery, while escaped slaves write narratives chronicling their experiences. The nation ultimately goes to war over the issue, resulting in the emancipation of all slaves.

Today: Slavery has been abolished for almost 150 years in America, though African Americans face continuing discrimination and are still fighting for equal access to economic resources.

Mid-Nineteenth Century: The 1830s see the flowering of the American literary tradition. American literature has not been taken seriously abroad before this time. Emerson argues that America needs to develop an intellectual and philosophical tradition of its own in his essay “The American Scholar.”

Today: American literature is a respected discipline in academia, and several authors have won Nobel prizes for their work. The American literary tradition is rich and varied today, including voices from many cultures representing various races, ethnicities, religions, social classes, and sexual orientations.

Mid-Nineteenth Century: America is seeing a wave of technological innovations. Railroads are being built, the steam engine is developed, the printing press is imporved—the world is changing. The country is making the transformation from a rural base to an urban one, with the population in cities rising rapidly and the population expanding westward.

Today: The pace of technology has not slowed down since the nineteenth century. The world is completely transformed in the twentieth century, with the development of the airplane, television, computer, and a whole host of other modern conveniences.

Representative Works

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The Blithedale Romance Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852, came on the heels of the transcendentalist movement. A key American author, Hawthorne was on the periphery of Transcendentalism, but his work was informed by transcendentalist ideals, and he is often grouped with transcendentalist writers. The Blithedale Romance is key to the transcendentalist movement in that it depicts—loosely perhaps—the story of Brook Farm, an experimental socialist community populated by various transcendentalist thinkers and writers. Hawthorne lived only briefly at Brook Farm, but he came away disillusioned. The Blithedale Romance fictionalizes his experiences there, embodied in characters such as intellectual feminist Xenobia (thought to represent Fuller), philanthropist Hollingsworth, and Miles Coverdale (the narrator). Coverdale explains:

It was our purpose . . . to give up whatever we had heretofore attained, for the sake of showing mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles, on which human society has all along been based.

By the end of the novel, however, the Blithedale experiment has failed because of betrayals and complications, and Xenobia ends up drowning (as Fuller drowned in a shipwreck). Critics at the time debated how accurate Hawthorne intended his fictionalized account to be and whether or not Coverdale was his stand-in; they also debated, and continue to debate, Hawthorne’s judgement of socialism— whether or not he felt it to be a viable alternative to the growing industrialism and poverty of the nineteenth century.

Leaves of Grass When Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, it was unlike any collection of poems published by an American poet in the history of the nation. Characterized by long, twisting sentences combined in a free, liberated poetic form, the poems of Leaves of Grass were bold statements about love, desire, Nature, and poetics. Though Whitman might be considered less of a central figure in the transcendentalist movement than, say, Emerson, there is no doubt that Leaves of Grass was inspired by, and indeed born out of, the transcendentalist movement. In these poems, Whitman offers a celebration of Nature and of the soul and the soul’s innate connection to God through Nature. The title Leaves of Grass belies the central metaphor of the collection: that something as small as a single blade of grass contains the divinity of God and at the same time is a small part of the world at large.

In poems such as “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman pushes the envelope of Transcendentalism in his discussion of the body and sexuality. In “Song of Myself,” he proclaims, “I am the poet of the Body, / and I am the poet of the soul.” “I Sing the Body Electric” begins with the bold statement, “The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them.” Whitman’s language is very physical, even sexually explicit in places, expressing both heterosexual and homosexual desire. Critic M. Jimmie Killingsworth in his essay “Whitman and the Gay American Ethos,” explains:

The centrality of sex in Leaves of Grass and Whitman’s experimentation in language, above all his free verse . . . and his audacity in exploring metaphors and other tropes, earned him the contempt of many reviewers in his own time but also made him a hero among less conventional contemporaries and among later critics.

Emerson and Thoreau were fans of Whitman, as was the circle of radical social reformers and freethinkers with whom he involved himself. A poetic pioneer, Whitman inspired many modern poets, especially in the 1960s during the time of social protest and political reform.

NatureNature, by Emerson, lays out the fundamental ideas of the transcendentalist movement in America. Published in 1836, Nature came at the beginning of the movement, sparking a literary outpouring over the next decade by various transcendentalist authors. The work is, as its title suggests, a study of Nature and humanity’s relationship to Nature. Part philosophical treatise, part prose poem, Nature attempts to outline the pathway to spiritual enlightenment, which begins with not only the praise and appreciation of Nature but also the belief that it is divine.

Emerson opens this essay with a call to develop an American intellectual tradition—something about which he was very passionate. He says:

The foregoing generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we, through their eyes. . . .Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?

While Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists were very much influenced by British Romanticism and German philosophy, they were espousing a new kind of thinking, which they saw as distinctly American. They wanted to break free from any traditions that put up barriers between humans and God. Emerson preached a religion of democracy and connectedness, in which every human has equal access to spiritual enlightenment. He writes:

Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

Many critics have read the image of the transparent eyeball as a key symbol for Transcendentalism in that Transcendentalism is about the ability to see the divine and to “transcend” the soul. Nature is very much an active character in this essay. Emerson breathes life into such intangible concepts as reason, understanding, love, truth and freedom, naming them as if they were characters in a play. He interacts with them and tries to delineate the relationship between them. Nature is an intense read, but the transcendentalist movement itself was intense, dealing with lofty ideals and philosophical meanders. Soon after it was published, Nature became a cornerstone of the movement.

Walden Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854, is one of the most cherished pieces of American literature. Though published after the height of Transcendentalism, Walden was written during the twenty-six-month period when Thoreau lived at Walden Pond. A detailed record of Thoreau’s life there, Walden takes Emerson’s philosophy of selfreliance and puts it into practice.

While living at Walden, Thoreau built his own cabin from trees he lumbered himself, farmed and grew his own food, and generally lived a life of self-sufficiency. In addition to providing a detailed log of his expenses and budget for his time at Walden, he writes at great length in the first chapter, “Economy,” about the state of labor in America. Thoreau recognized that industrialization had a grip on the country and that people’s labor was being exploited to feed the system. His answer was deliberate living, and Walden can be read as a manual for this type of living. Thoreau explains his reasons for his Walden experiment in the oftquoted and treasured lines:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

This type of simple, poetic style characterizes much of Walden. Like Emerson’s Naure, Walden is very much a document in celebration of Nature and the spiritual answers Nature provides. If Nature outlines the theory of such living, then Walden puts it into practice. This is one of the reasons why Walden has endured and sounds fresh even to modern readers.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century Published in 1845, Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century is a political and philosophical treatise that gives voice to women in history and envisions a new way of conceiving of women’s place within society. It is an essay that, according to literary critic Mary Kelley, proposed “an alternative system of gender relations.” Fuller wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century during a time in history when women could not yet vote, file for divorce, or be taken seriously if they entered the public sphere to earn a living alongside men. She was keenly aware of women’s lack of economic and political power and aligned herself with the suffragists of the day, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to secure the vote for women.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century is certainly politically charged. It is also a philosophical rethinking of gender relations. Fuller writes:

We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man. Were this done . . . we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and . . . a ravishing harmony of the spheres would ensue.

In this essay, Fuller advocates harmony and balance between the public and private, the marketplace and the household, instead of strict separation. Fuller’s argument is filled with literary and classical allusions; she was writing to an educated audience, very much trying to appeal to the readership of works such as Emerson’s Nature. Woman in the Nineteenth Century was received very positively among transcendentalists and women’s rights advocates and is most certainly a pillar of first-wave feminism.

Media Adaptations

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Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire, discusses his book and Emerson’s life on CSPAN’s Booknotes series. The interview aired August 13, 1995. For tape, transcript, or real-audio clip, visit http://www.booknotes .org.

Musician Ken Pederson produced a new-age CD entitled Walden, inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Pederson produced it himself and released it in 1997.

Audio Partners Publishing Corporation released Thoreau and Emerson: Nature and Spirit, a double audiocassette, in 1997. The cassettes include passages from the authors’ works relating to nature and spirituality.

The Spiritual Light of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a double audiocassette, was released in 1992 by Audio Literature. The work contains passages from Emerson’s writings.

Voices and Visions: Walt Whitman, released by Winstar in 1999, is a VHS videocassette. It features poets of the twentieth century reading from Whitman’s poems.

Originally produced for PBS in 1998, the VHS videocassette Walt Whitman and the Civil War is available from Monterey Video. It includes Whitman’s poetry set against the backdrop of the Civil War.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Boller, Paul F., American Transcendentalism, 1830–1860: An Intellectual Inquiry, Putnam, 1974.

Dickenson, Donna, Margaret Fuller: Writing a Woman’s Life, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Ericson, Edward L., Emerson on Transcendentalism, Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.

Glick, Wendell P., “A Concord Individualist,” in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, edited by Paul Lauter, D.C. Heath and Company, 1994.

Kelley, Mary, The Portable Margaret Fuller, Penguin Books, 1994.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie, “Whitman and the Gay American Ethos,” in A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, edited by David S. Reynolds, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lauter, Paul, ed., Introduction, in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, D.C. Heath and Company, 1994.

Myerson, Joel, Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

Reynolds, David S., ed., A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, University of California Press, 1995.

Further Reading Bode, Carl, ed., The Portable Thoreau, The Viking Press, 1965. This work includes Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, eighteen poems, and several essays and journal entries. Bode presents Thoreau’s work, as well as the controversies of Thoreau’s life in this comprehensive collection.

Cameron, Kenneth Walter, Young Emerson’s Transcendental Vision: An Exposition of His World View with an Analysis of the Structure, Backgrounds and Meaning of “Nature,” Transcendentalist Books, 1971. This books provides a wealth of information about Transcendentalism and Emerson’s relationship to it. It also includes a reprinting of works by authors relevant to Emerson’s work, such as British romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Chai, Leon, The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance, Cornell University Press, 1987. This work discusses the influence of European Romanticism on the authors of the American Renaissance, including German and British writers and philosophers.

Myerson, Joel, The New England Transcendentalists and “The Dial,” Associated University Presses, 1980. This book discusses the transcendentalist periodical The Dial, including information on the publication and reception of the periodical as well as a discussion of the Transcendental Club.

Rose, Anne, Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830–1850, Yale University Press, 1981. This work discusses the influence of Transcendentalism on the reform movements of the nineteenth century, including an in-depth historical background on the movement.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide