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New England Transcendentalism


The New England transcendentalists were an influential but decidedly heterogeneous group of young writers, critics, philosophers, theologians, and social reformers whose activities centered in and around Concord, Massachusetts, from about 1836 to 1860. Insofar as they can be considered to have subscribed to a common body of doctrine, their leader and spokesman was Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). Apart from Platonism and Unitarian Christianity, the chief formative intellectual influence on the group was German idealism. It was not, however, the dense and difficult epistemological works of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel that primarily attracted the transcendentalists; although nearly all had made some attempt to read the German philosophers, very few had persevered to the point of mastering them. Rather, it was the more personalized and poetic expressions of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Novalis, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, together with the belletristic expositions of Mme. de Staël's De l'Allemagne (New York, 1814) and Victor Cousin's Introduction à l'histoire de la philosophie (English translation, Boston, 1832) that provided Emerson and his disciples with whatever philosophical nourishment they possessed. Thus, far from being in any strict sense a primarily philosophical movement, New England transcendentalism was first and foremost a literary phenomenon. It was a passionate outcry on the part of a number of brilliant and highly articulate young Americans who had become so intoxicated with the spirit of European romanticism that they could no longer tolerate the narrow rationalism, pietism, and conservatism of their fathers.

After Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (18171862), the more important early transcendentalists were William Ellery Channing (17801842)"Dr. Channing," as Emerson called himdistinguished clergyman and social reformer, leader of the Unitarian revolt against Calvinism; Amos Bronson Alcott (17991888), mystic, educationalist, and reformer; George Ripley (18021880), Germanist, disciple of François Marie Charles Fourier, and one of the founders of the Brook Farm community and of the Dial (the chief transcendentalist periodical); Orestes Augustus Brownson (18031876), journalist and clergyman whose lifelong attempt to reconcile religious conviction with radical views about social reform led him to embrace, in turn, nearly every available variety of Christianity from Presbyterianism to Catholicism; Frederic Henry Hedge (18051890), scholar, authority on German philosophy, founder in 1836 of the informal Transcendental Club for "exchange of thought among those interested in the new views in philosophy, theology and literature"; Margaret Fuller (18101850), literary critic, political radical, feminist, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), and first editor of the Dial (18401844); Theodore Parker (18101860), dissenting Unitarian preacher and abolitionist whose ordination discourse, "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (delivered in Boston in 1841), denied the necessity of believing in biblical inspiration and in miracles and led Emerson to nickname him the Savonarola of transcendentalism; Jones Very (18131880), poet and eccentric; James Freeman Clarke (18101888), Unitarian minister and religious pamphleteer; and Christopher Pearse Cranch (18131892), minister, painter, critic, and poet. Among the later transcendentalists were John Weis (18181879), Samuel Longfellow (18191892), J. E. Cabot (18211903), O. B. Frothingham (18221895), and Moncure D. Conway (18321907). It is debatable whether Nathaniel Hawthorne should be counted as a transcendentalist, but it is certain that, with other major imaginative writers like James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman, Hawthorne owed much to his contact with transcendentalist modes of thought and feeling.

The Nature of Transcendentalism

"What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us," Emerson explained to a Boston audience in 1842, "is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842" ("The Transcendentalist"). Yet we must add that it was a form of idealism that included and frequently confused the technical or epistemological idealism of the post-Kantian philosophers and the more vaguely understood "idealism"in the sense of romantic aspirationismof Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode and Novalis's Fragmente. The term transcendental was derived, Emerson claimed, from the use made of it by Kant, who had demonstrated that there was "a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions [sic ] of the mind itself"; and that Kant had called them "Transcendental forms." This somewhat subjective exposition (contrast, for example, Critique of Pure Reason, B 25, A 1112) led Emerson to conclude that consequently "whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought, is popularly called at the present day Transcendental. " Here, of course, the word intuitive is being employed in its most general sense, quite dissociated from any philosophical use, so that Emerson could immediately go on lamely to characterize the "Transcendentalist" as one who displays a predominant "tendency to respect [his] intuitions."

The failure on the part of the movement's leader to give any really informative definition of transcendentalism is nevertheless instructive. Because of their intellectual eclecticism and avowed individualism, their subjective fads and eccentricities, and, above all, their wide range of activities, which embraced almost every aspect of American cultural life in the mid-nineteenth century, any attempt to express the outlook of the New England transcendentalists in a single formula is bound to fail. O. B. Frothingham was certainly right when he admitted that transcendentalism was not a systematic theory of life but something more like a state of mind, "an enthusiasm, a wave of sentiment, a breath of mind that caught up such as were prepared to receive it, elated them, transported them, and passed onno man knowing whither it went."

In a clear sense, however, the transcendentalists were the inheritors of certain forms of sensibility already well developed within the European romantic movement: a vague yet exalting conception of the godlike nature of the human spirit and an insistence on the authority of individual conscience; a related respect for the significance and autonomy of every facet of human experience within the organic totality of life; a consequent eschewal of all forms of metaphysical dualism, reductivism, and positivism; nature conceived not as a vast machine demanding impersonal manipulation but as an organism, a symbol and analogue of mind, and a moral educator for the poet who can read her hieroglyphics; a sophisticated understanding of the uses of history in self-culture; in general, the placing of imagination over reason, creativity above theory, action higher than contemplation, and a marked tendency to see the spontaneous activity of the creative artist as the ultimate achievement of civilizationthese were the more pervasive principles shared by all thinkers of the New England school. Yet if "idealism," or, better still, "romanticism," serves roughly to denote the genus of transcendentalism, it is important to determine the specific characteristics of the American version.

American Characteristics

American transcendentalism differed from its European counterparts in at least two important ways. First, unlike most forms of European idealism in the nineteenth century, transcendentalism was not simply closely allied with contemporary theological speculation and debate but arose directly out of it. The majority of its original adherents, including Channing, Emerson, Parker, Ripley, and Cranch, were, or had been, Unitarian clergymen, and from the point of view of cultural history the advent of transcendentalism must be seen as the final liberation of the American religious consciousness from the narrow Calvinism that Unitarianism had already done much to ameliorate. This is not, however, to imply that transcendentalism was primarily a movement within the Christian church. For its outcome, as the works of Emerson and Thoreau, for example, amply testify, was essentially secular and humanist in the widest sense.

Second, the later inception of romantic idealism in the United States led its exponents to less fluctuating and at the same time less radical programs of social reform. If the typical German or English romantic began with an enthusiasm for the ideals of the French Revolution, became disillusioned by the Terror, and ended his career a conservative, Emerson's disciples felt the outcome of the Revolution as something more distant and, in any case, European. Their social philosophy was the natural outcome of their reactions to the very different American scene. The majority of transcendentalists never wavered in their active opposition to slavery, imperialism, bureaucratization, and cultural philistinism; yet, partly because the United States had already achieved a democracy and partly because Western expansion kept economic conditions relatively good, the transcendentalists were not incited to the more extreme forms of political protest characteristic of such European inheritors of idealism as Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

See also Brownson, Orestes Augustus; Carlyle, Thomas; Channing, William Ellery; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Cousin, Victor; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Fourier, François Marie Charles; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Neo-Kantianism; Novalis; Parker, Theodore; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Staël-Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de; Thoreau, Henry David.


Perry Miller's two collections, The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950) and The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), provide excellent selections of transcendentalist writings; they also contain bibliographies. O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England: A History (New York: Putnam, 1876), is still the best intellectual history of the movement.

Michael Moran (1967)

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