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c. 1835

A religious, philosophical, and literary movement, Transcendentalism arose in New England in the middle of the nineteenth century. Critics generally cite 1836 to 1846 as the years when the movement flourished, although its influence continued to be felt in later decades, with some works considered part of the movement not being published until the 1850s. Transcendentalism began as a religious concept rooted in the ideas of American democracy. When a group of Boston ministers, one of whom was Ralph Waldo Emerson, decided that the Unitarian Church had become too conservative, they espoused a new religious philosophy, one which privileged the inherent wisdom in the human soul over church doctrine and law.

Among Transcendentalism's followers were writers Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman; educator Bronson Alcott; and social theorists and reformers Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing. Authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe also felt the influence of Transcendentalism. Important works from the movement include Emerson's essays Nature, "The American Scholar," and "Self Reliance"; Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods;Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century; and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Novels such as Melville's Moby Dick and Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance also had transcendentalist leanings.

It is no coincidence that this movement took off just as the American literary tradition was beginning to blossom. Transcendentalism—though inspired by German and British Romanticism— was a distinctly American movement in that it intrinsically connected to beliefs about American individualism. In addition to the theme of American democracy, transcendentalist literature promotes the idea of nature as divine and the human soul as inherently wise. Transcendentalism also had a political dimension, and writers such as Thoreau put their transcendentalist beliefs into action through acts of civil disobedience against taxation and the Fugitive Slave Law, which they found immoral. The nineteenth century was a volatile one, beginning with the hope and promise of democracy and the development of an American identity and moving towards mass devastation and division by the middle of the century. Slavery and the Civil War, women's rights, growing industrialism and class division—all of these factors were influential and each had a role to play in the transcendentalist movement.


Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Louisa May Alcott was born November 29, 1832, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, and her early life was profoundly influenced by Transcendentalism. Throughout her childhood, the family was quite poor but idealistic. In 1843, Alcott, her three sisters, and her parents joined the transcendentalist utopian commune Fruitlands, which she writes about in her essay "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873). Alcott never left her liberal upbringing behind and, as an adult, supported the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage (right to vote). Still living in poverty, she took odd jobs writing, sewing, and teaching to earn money. Her bestselling novel, Little Women, appeared in 1868, which Alcott followed with many more books featuring the same beloved characters. Alcott never married. She died of mercury poisoning on March 6, 1888, two days after her father's death.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson was born May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. Emerson is widely regarded as a key figure in transcendentalist thought and literature. After graduating from Harvard University in 1821, Emerson served as the pastor of the historic Old North Church (Second Unitarian) in Boston, but left after only three and a half years. In an introduction to Emerson's essays, literary critic Edward Ericson sums up Emerson's philosophy of religion: "His Transcendentalist philosophy was a religion of the spiritually emancipated mind and heart, unbounded by church or party." Emerson came to believe that human beings had inherent wisdom in their souls and that worship should not be constrained to church or religious convention. His religious ideas are connected to American democracy in so far as they assert an egalitarian spirituality available to every individual and a spiritual energy that emanates through the natural realm which serves as its metaphor.

After leaving his appointment as a pastor, Emerson traveled widely in Europe. He was influenced by European philosophy, particularly the writings of Immanuel Kant, who challenged Locke's idea that wisdom was gained only through experience. Kant and the transcendentalists believed that wisdom was inherent in the soul of each human being. In 1836, Emerson became a founding member of the Hedge Club, later named the Transcendental Club by outsiders. Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr., explains: "The club was a forum for new ideas, a clearinghouse, full of yeast and ferment, informal, open-ended, far from the usual exclusive social clique conveyed by the word 'club."' The formation of this club in 1836 in many ways marks the beginning of the transcendentalist movement. Later that same year Emerson wrote his seminal essay Nature. This was followed in 1837 by the essay "The American Scholar," which initially served as a commencement address at Harvard.

Emerson continued to write and travel to Europe long after the transcendentalist movement ended. He greatly influenced many writers, including one of his most famous disciples, Henry David Thoreau. Emerson died April 27, 1882, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)

Born May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, Sarah Margaret Fuller was both an influential figure in Transcendentalism and an early feminist years ahead of her time in terms of her vision of a woman's place in society. Fuller wrote extensively about gender issues, incorporating Emersonian principles of self-reliance into her essays on women's struggles for social, economic, and intellectual equality. Critic Jamie S. Crouse argues that Fuller's feminism is based on the idea that women truly are equal in nature and essence to men, a culturally blind area her fellow male transcendentalists had trouble seeing past. Educated in the classics by her father, Fuller developed a keen intellect from an early age. Unlike her male contemporaries Emerson and Thoreau, Fuller was not able to attend Harvard. (Women were not allowed.) Instead, Fuller faced the social reality of having to support herself. She taught for several years, including a stint at fellow transcendentalist Alcott's experimental, coeducational Temple School. However, Fuller did not think of herself as a transcendentalist until she became good friends with Emerson and joined the Transcendental Club.

Fuller is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845. She was very much a radical of her time for her assertions about women. In an introduction to The Portable Margaret Fuller, critic Mary Kelley writes:

During a century in which America divided the world on the basis of gender and made marriage and motherhood a female's sole occupation, Fuller insisted that women be able to develop their potential, not only as wives and mothers whose lives were defined by domesticity, but as individuals, each of whom had particular inclinations, desires and talents.

Fuller's writings were embraced by female activists and suffragists of the day and helped propel the women's rights movement, acting as a major influence for such events as the first women's rights conference in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Within the literary world, Fuller was also a major voice. She edited the transcendentalist publication The Dial for two years before turning it over to Emerson, at which time she became a columnist and correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. She traveled extensively in Europe, meeting such literary greats as George Sand, William Wordsworth, and Elizabeth and Robert Browning. Fuller was only forty years old when she died on July 19, 1850, in a shipwreck during a hurricane off the coast of Fire Island near New York. She was returning to the United States from Italy with her husband and two-year-old son.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, and spent part of his childhood in Maine, a place that proved formative to the young author's career. His first published book was Twice-Told Tales (1837). In 1841, Hawthorne joined the Fruitlands utopian community to save money for his marriage to Sophia Peabody. He did not entirely agree with the transcendentalist ideals, but scholars later linked him with them. Hawthorne did not last a year at the commune, but the experience inspired his writing of satirical novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852). Hawthorne married Peabody in 1842, and they had three children. They moved around New England—Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts were sometimes their neighbors—and occasionally lived in England. After a successful career as a novelist and also some years spent in civil service, Hawthorne died in his sleep on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. He spent most of his life in Concord, dying there on May 6, 1862, at forty-four years of age. Though Thoreau had only two books published in his lifetime, AWeekonthe Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854), his influence was far-reaching, even through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. A follower of Emerson, Thoreau graduated from Harvard University in 1837. A prolific journal writer, Thoreau wrote daily about his observations of the natural world. In fact, Thoreau is considered one of America's great environmentalists. Like Emerson, he believed nature to be divine. He took Emerson's principles of self-reliance and put them into practice when, in 1845, he moved to Walden Pond (on Emerson's property) to live a rustic, simple life.

Thoreau stayed at Walden for two years and wrote the book Walden in 1854, after the transcendentalist movement had lost favor in many literary circles. Thoreau took Emerson's philosophy of nature as divine a step further; he believed that nature was infused with wildness, and he saw in nature the roots for his concept of "civil disobedience"—about which he wrote the essay "Resistance to Civil Government" (this essay is often called "Civil Disobedience") in 1849. Like other transcendentalist writers, Thoreau was a champion of American democracy, but he also grew frustrated by what he saw as the modern world's way of alienating people from nature. He was guided by his moral principles, which had political implications as well. In an essay introducing Thoreau in the Heath Anthology of American Literature, critic Wendell P. Glick summarizes:

Thoreau's 'Transcendental' premises led him to take a negative view of the dominant values of pre-Civil-War-America. He wrote disparagingly of the destruction to the natural environment ...he deplored the implications of the rise of industrialism ...he condemned the institution of black slavery.

Thoreau's writings on civil disobedience continue to be widely read long after their original publication and are known to have directly influenced such civil rights leaders as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Poet Walt Whitman was born May 13, 1819, in West Hills, New York. Unlike the other writers involved in the transcendentalist movement, Whitman was not a New Englander. He lived most of his life in and around New York City, a city that greatly affected his writing and view of humanity. Before writing the work he is best known for, Leaves of Grass, he worked as a schoolteacher and journalist, writing for several New York newspapers.

Whitman did not begin as a transcendentalist, nor was the spirited free verse with which he is associated always his style. His writing style developed along with his political sense, and as the country became more and more divided with the approaching Civil War, Whitman used his poetry to extol democracy and American populism. In his introduction to Walt Whitman: A Historical Guide, nineteenth-century literary scholar David S. Reynolds explains:

By the mid-1850s, [he] had become capable of writing all-encompassing poetry as a gesture of healing and togetherness to a nation he felt was on the verge of collapse. He had a messianic vision of his poems, as though by reading them, America would be magically healed.

With his poetry, Whitman also made a conscious decision to cast off the conventions of Victorian literature and society. In the volume Leaves of Grass, his language is openly sexual in places. It is reported that after Emerson and Whitman became friends, Emerson asked Whitman to tone down the sexuality in his poetry. Whitman, however, refused. He believed that the essence of humankind was wild and that sexuality was part of that essence and part of the soul. Though Whitman was opposed to slavery, he was not strong in the abolitionist movement. He did, however, love and admire Abraham Lincoln, and in 1865 he wrote the oft-recited poem "O Captain! My Captain!" and the even finer "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," after Lincoln was assassinated. At times, Whitman was on the periphery of the transcendentalist movement, and at other times he was very closely associated with it. Emerson and Thoreau were great admirers of his poetry. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, in Camden, New Jersey.


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


  • 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
  • Musician Ken Pederson produced a newage 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.

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 Blithe-dale 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 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 Blithe-dale 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 Coverdale was his stand-in; they also debated, and continue to debate, awthorne's judgment of socialism—whether 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 are bold statements about love, desire, nature, and poetics. Though Whitman is less central as a figure in the transcendentalist movement than, 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 reveals 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. The title also refers to the leaves or pages of the book itself, making the grass blades equivalent the poems collected in it.

In poems such as "Song of Myself" and "I Sing the Body Electric," Whitman takes Transcendentalism to an extreme 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 physical, earthy, even sexually explicit in places, expressing both heterosexual and homosexual desire, and inclusive. 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 were radical social reformers and free-thinkers 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.


Emerson's essay Nature lays out the fundamental ideas of the transcendentalist movement in the United States. 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 humankind'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 passionate. He writes:

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 eye-ball; 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, which affirms the individual's ability to see the divine in all existence and to understand nature as metaphor for deity. Nature is the expression of what Emerson calls the Over-soul. It is a bridge of meaning between the material and transcendent spiritual. Nature is very much an active character in this essay. Emerson animates intangible concepts as love, truth, and freedom, naming them as if they were characters in an allegory. Nature is a challenging read in part because much of what Emerson writes depends on his figurative language, his use of metaphor, hyperbole, and simile. These troupes provide him with a way of transcending language itself in an effort to explain how spirituality is both expressed by and transcends nature. Thus nature itself is the perfect metaphor for deity. Soon after this essay was published, Nature became a cornerstone of the movement.

"Transcendental Wild Oats"

"Transcendental Wild Oats" is Louisa May Alcott's satirical account of the year her family spent living at the Fruitlands utopian commune when she was eleven years old. Published in The Independent on December 18, 1873, the story concerns an unnamed idealistic family arriving at the new commune and learning all the rules of plain living. They must be vegans, partaking of no animal products for food or clothing. Most of the people who joined the commune were men, which seems to have not attracted notice, Alcott observes with amusement. She paints the men as dreamers, the women as overburdened with work, and the children as running wild. Although satirical, Alcott's account is not without affection. This essay was later collected in Silver Pitchers (1876).


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 self-reliance and puts it into practice.

While living at Walden, Thoreau built his own cabin from trees he lumbered himself, 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 the United States. 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 following, oft-quoted 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, almost journalistic style characterizes much of Walden. LikeEmerson's Nature, Walden is very much a document in celebration of nature and the spiritual answers nature provides. If Nature utlines the theory of such living, then Walden shows that theory in action.

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 thinking about women's place within society. The essay, according to literary critic Mary Kelley, proposed "an alternative system of gender relations." Fuller wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century during a time 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 asfreelyastoMan.Werethisdone...weshould 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 positively among transcendentalists and women's rights advocates and is most certainly a pillar of first-wave feminism.



Quite simply, Transcendentalism is based on the belief that human beings have self-wisdom and may gain this knowledge or wisdom by tuning in to the ebb and flow of nature. Transcendentalism revolves around the self, specifically the betterment of the self. Emerson and his followers believed that human beings had innate knowledge and could connect with God directly rather than through an institution such as an organized religion. Transcendentalism celebrated the self, an important step in the construction of American identity, better understood as the notion of American individualism—one of the cornerstones of American democracy.

Different writers conceived of the search for self-knowledge in different ways. Whitman's response was a grand celebration of the self in all its complexity and beauty and contradictions. He begins the poem "Song of Myself" with the bold


  • While Transcendentalism was aligned with democracy, its proponents were willing in theory and action to resist federal laws. Research Thoreau's position on taxation, slavery, and the advent of the railroad. Write a paper about how he put his beliefs into action, taking a minority stand against certain social and political issues of his time.
  • Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement in many ways. Research the main differences between the theories of philosopher John Locke and the theories of philosopher Immanuel Kant, and write a speech discussing their philosophies and how Kant's ideas contributed to the transcendentalist ideals.
  • Transcendentalism was a regional movement, located mostly in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Research the history of New England at the time the transcendentalists were writing. Explain the ways in which transcendentalists reflect New England culture of the time. How did New England culture differ from culture in the South?

line, "I celebrate myself." He offers up to his readers, "I loafe and invite my Soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease ...observingaspear of summer grass." Leaves of Grass is filled with such celebration.

Thoreau took a slightly different path toward self-knowledge. Walden is a study of solitude. He says, "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. ...I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude." For him, self-discovery comes as the result of intense reflection. Self-knowledge has political implications as well. Once the individual has established a moral code, it becomes his or her duty to peacefully protest and engage in civil disobedience against the government should governmental policies violate that code. Thoreau's opposition to slavery led to his refusal to pay a poll tax supporting the Mexican War, an act that landed him in jail for a night. For Thoreau, self-discovery was not simply an intangible concept, it was a way of living.

Nature and Its Meaning

Nature is the focal point for much transcendentalist thought and writing. As a theme, it is so central to the movement that Emerson's cornerstone essay is entitled Nature and serves as an investigation into nature and its relationship to the soul. For transcendentalists, nature and the soul were inextricably linked. In the rhythms and seasons of the natural world, transcendentalists found comfort and divinity. In the increasingly industrialized and fragmented world in which they lived, the search for meaning in nature was of great importance. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Fuller, Melville, and others saw possibility, liberation, and beauty in nature.

Emerson writes in Nature, "Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?" For Emerson, nature is a direct line to God, and its "meaning" is directly linked to God's "meaning." His definition of God and meaning is clearly different than that of the conservative Unitarian Church from which he split.

A follower of Emerson, Thoreau took ideas from Emerson's work and put them into practice. He saw nature as not just an awe-inspiring force but a way of life. Thoreau offers up the following advice in Walden: "Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails." For Thoreau, nature is pure because it is free from commercialization and industrialization. It is both a respite and a teacher. The transcendentalists were not reactionary or opposed to the modernization of the world; they were, however, concerned that such modernization could lead to alienation. Nature provided a way to keep humans in touch with their souls and with their spiritual foundations.

Social Reform

Regarding social issues, transcendentalists were considered visionaries in their attitudes toward such issues as social protest, elimination of slavery, women's rights, creative and participatory education for children, and labor reform. Transcendentalism became a venue for social reform because it revolved around the idea of liberation. Transcendentalist writers may have had as their immediate goal the liberation of the soul, but that goal expanded to social liberation as more and more thinkers joined the transcendentalist school of thought.

Founded as an alternative to conservative, organized religion, Transcendentalism had counter-cultural tendencies from its inception. From the free flowing, free verse of Whitman to the civil disobedience of Thoreau to Fuller's radical notion that men and women were social and intellectual equals, the movement was engaged in many controversial social arenas.

As the editor of the transcendentalist publication The Dial, Fuller often published controversial pieces. As the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she invited debate and controversy. Her essay is a call to action for women and men to change society. She laments:

The lot of Woman is sad. She is constituted to expect and need happiness that cannot exist on earth. She must stifle such aspirations within her secret heart, and fit herself, as well as she can, for a life of resignations and consolations.

Clearly this is not an acceptable life to Fuller, just as slavery is unacceptable to Thoreau. In "Resistance to Civil Government," Thoreau states, "Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?" Thoreau's answer was to transgress, and go to jail if necessary, for as he says, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

Along with slavery and gender issues, class issues also came to the forefront in the nineteenth century, revealing a new kind of slavery—wage slavery. Transcendentalists experimented with socialist communes, such as George Ripley's Brook Farm and Alcott's Fruitlands. These experiments were short lived. The legacy of civil disobedience served America and the world well, as it went on to inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead peaceful social protests. In addition, Fuller is often read as a precursor to modern feminism and is seen as a woman ahead of her time.


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.


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 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.


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. Transcendentalistswantedtocreatean 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.



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,


  • 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 over 150 years in the United States, 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 the United States needs to develop an intellectual and philosophical tradition of its own in his essay "The American Scholar."

    Today: American literature is an established discipline in academia, and several Americans have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, including Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), Saul Bellow (1976), and Toni Morrison (1993).

  • Mid-Nineteenth Century: America is seeing a wave of technological innovations. Railroads are being built, the steam engine is developed, the printing press is improved— 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 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.

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.


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 so-called 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.


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 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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Judi Ketteler

Ketteler has taught literature and composition. In this essay, Ketteler discusses the political dimension of the transcendentalist movement, particularly the way transcendentalist writers address race and gender issues.

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 mid-nineteenth 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


  • The nineteenth century offers a rich variety in literature, much of it influenced by transcendentalist writers. The novels of Melville, including what critics have regarded as his greatest, Moby Dick, originally published in 1851, provide an example of transcendentalist influence.
  • In poetry, Emily Dickinson is an interesting figure for study. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1997) contains all of her poems, which were originally published by Paul Johnson in a three-volume set in 1955. While Dickinson's short, concise lines stand in sharp contrast to Whitman's long inclusive ones, she was greatly influenced by transcendentalist thought, particularly in her focus on nature and desire.
  • In terms of British Romanticism, reading the poetry of William Wordsworth can inform any understanding of American Transcendentalism, since the movements have marked similarities. His Poems in Two Volumes was originally published in 1807.
  • Some of the bestselling "sentimental" novels of the day, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (first published serially in 1851 and 1852), provide a contrast to Transcendentalism in both style and content. However, this novel's depiction of slavery was intended to arouse public outcry against the practice and is considered by some the most influential work to do so in the pre-Civil War days.
  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (1998), edited by Clayborne Carson, provides an opportunity to trace the development of civil disobedience in the United States, which began with Thoreau's essay.

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 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 joint-stock 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 Transcend entalism 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 dvocates 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.

Donald N. Koster

In the following essay, Koster examines the effect the transcendental movement had on American culture and on writers outside its milieu well after its heyday.

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. Frothing-ham—these were among the best known. Worthy astheywere,theyseemedtolackthesparkofthose 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...andcenteringauthority in no bookorperson...itdoesnotdenytheexistence 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, asort of Emersonianin-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. ATraveller 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 best-known 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 ever-changing 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 difference 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.


Alcott, Louisa May, "Transcendental Wild Oats," in the Independent, December 18, 1873, n.p.

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

Cheever, Susan, American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Crouse, Jamie S., "If They Have a Moral Power: Margaret Fuller, Transcendentalism, and the Question of Women's Moral Nature," in ATQ, Vol. 19, No. 4, December 2004, p. 277.

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

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

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

"Louisa May Alcott," in Orchard House: Home of the Alcotts, (accessed July 18, 2008).

Matteson, John, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, W. W. Norton, 2007.

Mellow, James R., Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Myerson, Joel, Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," G. K. Hall, 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.


Blake, David Haven, and Michael Robertson, Walt Whitman: Where the Future Becomes Present, University of Iowa Press, 2008.

This volume collects ten essays celebrating Whitman's poetry and influence from contributors with backgrounds in literary criticism, political theory, art history, and creative writing.

Bode, Carl, ed., The Portable Thoreau, 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.


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In the mid-1700s, the New England Puritan churches began to divide, as some ministers and congregations in Boston and eastern Massachusetts began to resist key doctrines of Calvinism. These churches had been established during the Puritan migrations of the mid-1600s and were grounded theologically on the doctrines of John Calvin (1509–1564). Calvin's theology, as interpreted by the New England Puritans, stressed the absolute nature of God's sovereignty and the inevitability of human depravity. These churches were the official or sanctioned churches of the Massachusetts Commonwealth, the "parish" churches, retaining their public status and support into the early nineteenth century. While theological controversy of one kind or another had been a regular aspect of Puritanism in both England and New England, and indeed in Protestantism generally, the religious divisions that began to emerge in this period would prove to be of particular significance because they led to the formation of a separate movement of religious liberalism that eventually took the name of Unitarianism. Centered in the well-established churches of Boston and at Harvard College, the liberals gained an intellectual and cultural influence that outstripped their relatively small numbers and helped to shape a powerful American liberal tradition in education, literature, the arts, and politics. It was from this movement of Boston liberal theology that the literary and political movement of transcendentalism evolved in the 1830s and 1840s.


As the name "Unitarian" might suggest, the liberals differed with the Calvinists, or orthodox as they were also known, on the doctrine of the trinity. But a more fundamental point of division between the two camps was their conception of human nature. The Calvinists held that men and women were naturally corrupt, and their doctrine of innate depravity expressed this darker view of human motives and capabilities. Furthermore, the Calvinists held that the human will was incapable of changing the condition of the individual, that no human effort of belief or works could of itself produce salvation. Salvation was a work of grace, a gift of forgiveness and redemption given by God and not earned by humans. The liberals increasingly dissented from these views.

Liberal ministers such as Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew, and Ebenezer Gay offered important articulations of liberalism in the eighteenth century, and in the early nineteenth century the movement was carried on and expanded by Joseph Stevens Buckminster, William Emerson, Henry Ware Sr., and Andrews Norton. The most influential exponent of liberal religion, William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), emerged as an important voice in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, advocating a more generous view of human motives and capabilities and a more positive view of the nature of God. The Supreme Being was, for Channing, less a dreadful, judgmental figure than the epitome of the just and compassionate morality for which human beings could strive. Convinced that men and women could and did act out of selfless and compassionate motives, Channing rejected the idea of innate depravity. With Henry Ware Jr. and other liberal theologians, he depicted human life as a period of probation in which each person was tested and thereby encouraged to develop an ever-improving character, one that would take them closer to the moral model of God. Religion thus became an art of developing a growing "Likeness to God" (1826), as Channing put it in one of his most important sermons, a continual process of spiritual devotion and ethical character building.

Controversy between the Calvinists and the liberals continued into the nineteenth century, flaring up in an 1805 dispute over the appointment of the liberal Henry Ware Sr. as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard and again in 1819, when Channing, in his sermon "Unitarian Christianity," declared the principles of liberalism and offered a trenchant refutation of Calvinism. By then, many congregations in Boston had begun to split between Calvinists and liberals, and a legal dispute over the church in Dedham in 1826 helped the liberals retain control of the church buildings and assets. Unitarianism thus became a new religious denomination, still embroiled with its Calvinist opponents but optimistic and ambitious to spread its message of positive spiritual development and human capability.

Early liberal theology was heavily influenced by the English philosopher John Locke and by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart. Its orientation was empirical and anti-idealist, positing the reality and primacy of the material world and describing knowledge, following Locke, as chiefly the product of the bodily senses. In defending the reality and truth of the New Testament in his Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1837–1844), the Harvard theologian Andrews Norton placed great emphasis on the New Testament's historical record of the attested miracles, resting biblical truth on the recorded confirmation of the actual eyewitness to these miraculous claims. In other words, he grounded religious truth in presumed material fact and historical event. But this view of the literal truth of the biblical narrative was being steadily undermined by the "Higher Criticism" of German biblical scholars such as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), and Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860). Using methods of historical research and rational analysis to recognize the Bible as a collection of books written by men at different chronological periods, they made positions such as Norton's, which represented the views of many Unitarian ministers of the early nineteenth century, increasingly doubtful and untenable.

If religious certainty could not be secured through the senses and the evidence of the material world, must one then abandon the spiritual life altogether? A number of younger Unitarian ministers began to resist this conclusion in the 1830s, taking instead a wholly different approach to the problem of religious knowledge. If external evidence was weak or inconclusive, perhaps internal evidence was more certain. Perhaps the mind did not passively absorb knowledge from its surroundings but instead possessed innate qualities and powers that provided religious understanding and spiritual experience of another sort. The mind, in fact, might be understood to tally or correspond with the natural world, to possess within itself the same energy or power as that which we see in natural objects and processes. The most arresting proponent of these theories was a young Unitarian minister, recently separated from his Boston pulpit, named Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). In an original and challenging book titled Nature (1836), Emerson propounded a theory of religion based on "intuition" rather than empirical evidence, explaining the religious sentiment as deeply ingrained into the nature of the mind itself. He argued that mind and nature corresponded in fundamental ways—that nature could mirror to us our own identities and potentialities—because they had a common origin and shared a common nature. Both were vehicles of a divine energy that shaped reality and gave it value and significance.

Emerson had listened closely to the preaching of Channing and had sought him out for a list of reading materials when he began his divinity studies. In Channing's conception of religion as a process of continual spiritual advancement and self-culture Emerson found an important new way to consider the religious life. Extending Channing's premises, he began to preach an empowering version of spiritually intense, ethically grounded nonconformity, in which each man and woman was enjoined not to accept passively the religious premises and imperatives of others, or the dictates of a church or other institution, but to rely instead on an innate moral sense. "Souls are not saved in bundles," Emerson wrote. "The Spirit saith to the man, 'How is it with thee? thee personally'?" (W 6:214). This philosophy, which rested on the premise of a unifying transcendent or spiritual energy that generated all reality and held it in unity, came to be known as transcendentalism.

By 1836 Emerson had moved from his Boston pulpit into the role of freelance lecturer. He followed Nature with two important lectures at Harvard, "The American Scholar" (1837) and the "Divinity School Address" (1838), and summarized his developing philosophy in two volumes, Essays (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844). The "Divinity School Address," in particular, was controversial for its pointed critique of the conventional preaching of the day, and its insistence that the "religious sentiment" was not mediated by the church or by the supernatural intervention of Jesus, but was instead a universally available capability. The great achievement and legacy of Jesus was that "alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man" (CW 1:81). With these and other works in the late 1830s and early 1840s, all marked by Emerson's stirring poetic and rhetorical gift, he began to make an important impact on American literature, one that continues into the twenty-first century.

The appearance of Nature in 1836 was accompanied by the publication in the same year of several works by others that suggested that a transcendentalist movement had begun to blossom. William Henry Furness (1802–1896), a Unitarian minister in Philadelphia and a friend of Emerson's, published Remarks of the Four Gospels, a work that accepted the reality of the biblical miracles but resisted their relevance in the establishment or proof of the truth of Christianity. Convers Francis (1795–1863), a Unitarian minister in Watertown, Massachusetts, and later a member of the Harvard faculty, published Christianity as a Purely Internal Principle, which, as its title suggests, made internal or intuitive evidence fundamental to religious belief. It was also in 1836 that Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), who would later become one of Emerson's closest friends, published his Conversations with Children on the Gospels, a book that grew out of his work at his experimental Temple School in Boston. Alcott prefaced his work with a treatise titled "The Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture," which approached Channing's doctrine of the culture and development of the soul from the perspective of education rather than theological doctrine. Alcott's philosophy of education was dialogic and interactive rather than hierarchical. The role of the educator was not to impart facts and ideas to a passive student but to strengthen and cultivate that student's inner strengths and capabilities. What had been essentially a theological movement was thus beginning to open into a more general movement of reform, with important implications for education, politics, and social justice, as well as literature and art.

Almost from its beginning, transcendentalism was an embattled movement. Its critique of the more moderate form of liberal religion represented by the Unitarian mainstream generated a counter-critique, and controversy sizzled in Unitarian circles from the middle 1830s to the early 1840s. In 1836 George Ripley (1802–1880), a Boston Unitarian minister and one of the best-read and most incisive theological thinkers among the transcendentalists, published two essays—"Schleiermacher as a Theologian" and "Martineau's Rationale of Religious Inquiry"—in the Unitarian journal Christian Examiner. These essays further advanced the view, shared by Emerson, Furness, and other transcendentalists, that acceptance of the biblical miracles was not a necessary element of Christian faith. Andrews Norton, who had been a liberal firebrand in his youth, now found himself in the role of defender of what had become a somewhat conservative position on the miracles. Norton attacked Ripley's position and Ripley replied, bringing the transcendentalist controversy, as it has come to be known, into the pages of the Christian Examiner.


Two controversial addresses on the nature of Christ and on Christian theology expressed the transcendentalists' critique of the Christian theology of their era. In his 1838 address to the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that the cult of the personality of Jesus was a barrier to a fuller understanding of the essentially nonpersonal or transpersonal nature of the deity. Emerson preferred to use the "Soul" to indicate those attributes, and later wrote an essay titled "The Over-Soul" (1841) to describe this new religious conception. In "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (1841), Theodore Parker argued for an "Absolute Religion" that defined such Christian doctrines as the trinity and belief in the biblical miracles as "transient" attempts to understand and express the nature of religious experience.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Divinity School Address" (1838)

Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love. But by this eastern monarchy of a Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking. All who hear me, feel, that the language that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and formal,—paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.

(CW 1:82)

From Theodore Parker's "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (1841)

Any one who traces the history of what is called Christianity, will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation. What is falsehood in one province passes for truth in another. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and "only infallible rule" of the next. Now Arius, and now Athanasius is Lord of the ascendant. Both were excommunicated in their turn; each for affirming what the other denied. Men are burned for professing what men are burned for denying. For centuries the doctrines of the Christians were no better, to say the least, than those of their contemporary pagans. The theological doctrines derived from our fathers, seem to have come from Judaism, Heathenism, and the caprice of philosophers, far more than they have come from the principle and sentiment of Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity, the very Achilles of theological dogmas, belongs to philosophy and not religion; its subtleties cannot even be expressed in our tongue. As old religions became superannuated and died out, they left to the rising faith, as to a residuary legatee, their forms, and their doctrines; or rather, as the giant in the fable left his poisoned garment to work the overthrow of his conqueror. Many tenets that pass current in our theology, seem to be the refuse of idol temples; the offscourings of Jewish and Heathen cities, rather than the sands of virgin gold, which the stream of Christianity has worn off from the rock of ages, and brought in it bosom for us. It is wood, hay and stubble, wherewith men have built on the corner stone Christ laid. What wonder the fabric is in peril when tried by fire?

(Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader, p. 347)

In this already overheated environment, Emerson's "Divinity School Address" (1838) generated further controversy. Andrews Norton responded to it with his own address, "A Discourse of the Latest Form of Infidelity" (1839), and another Unitarian leader and Harvard faculty member, Henry Ware Jr. (1794–1843), who had preceded Emerson in the pulpit of the Second Church of Boston, also responded critically to the "Divinity School Address" in an 1838 sermon titled "The Personality of the Deity." Ware's objections, however, were different from those of Norton. He believed that Emerson's emphasis on a more abstract concept of "soul" depersonalized the more commonly held belief in the father-like nature of God. God's "personality" was an essential element, Ware felt, in the possibility of worship and religious devotion. Unless men and women understood God as a "person," they would have no deeply emotional attachment to him and would thus lose the sense of comfort and security that the parental qualities of God provided.

A further, and somewhat more bitter, dispute followed in 1841, when Theodore Parker (1810–1860), minister of the Unitarian church in Roxbury, delivered a sermon titled "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." Parker's sermon, now regarded as a key text of the transcendentalist movement, made a crucial distinction between the historical trappings and manifestations of religion, which changed from age to age and from culture to culture, and its unchanging spiritual core. His argument, of course, was that theologies, with their particular doctrines and symbols, fade away, while a pure essence of religion—Parker thought of it as "Absolute Religion"—remains an eternal part of human experience. As part of his argument, Parker categorized the accounts of miracles in the Bible with the "transient" elements of religion. Some of the ministers in the audience who did not hold liberal views were alarmed and outraged at Parker's sermon, and they demanded that other Unitarian ministers take a stand on it. A fierce controversy within Boston Unitarian circles ensued, in which most of Parker's fellow ministers distanced themselves from him and maneuvered to exclude him from their group. Parker, stung by the ostracism but hardheadedly determined to continue as a Unitarian minister, resisted their efforts and eventually turned his ostracism into a badge of honor, moving to a new pulpit in Boston and becoming one of the city's most prominent preachers. His fame continued to grow as he embraced the antislavery movement, earning a reputation as one of America's greatest antislavery orators.


While transcendentalism is usually referred to as a movement, it was in fact a very loose association of individuals, by no means in agreement on all issues, that generated very few institutional structures. One of the few meeting points was the Transcendental Club, which first met in 1836 and continued a series of gatherings in which Emerson, Parker, Ripley, Frederic Henry Hedge, and others played key roles. Composed with only a few exceptions of Unitarian ministers, the club helped to reinforce a shared sense of the need for change within Unitarianism. A clearer record of the thinking of the transcendentalist group can be found in the four-year run of The Dial (1840–1844), a journal edited by Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) and Emerson to provide a medium of expression for transcendental writing. Under the editorships of Fuller (1840–1842) and then Emerson (1842–1844), The Dial became a literary as well as a theological magazine, publishing poetry, book reviews, and fiction along with sermons and theological writings and commentary on political and social reform. One of the most significant early literary and cultural magazines in the United States, The Dial is one of the more important legacies of the transcendental movement. It gave voice to figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Jones Very, Christopher Pearse Cranch, and Henry David Thoreau. With the Transcendental Club, it is one of the chief means we have for determining who was counted, and who counted themselves, as part of the transcendental movement. The Dial also gave Margaret Fuller a key place in the literary landscape of New England, helping to open the door for her later work for the New-York Daily Tribune. Emerson's younger protégé, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), often assisted Emerson with the details of copyediting and preparing the magazine for publication and also published some of his early work there. Thoreau's connection with The Dial gave him an introduction to publishing operations, exposed him to the writings of many of his contemporaries, and also provided a venue for work that he might not have otherwise completed.

Another series of cultural events that helped to shape the development of transcendentalism, and gave prominence to one of its key figures, were Fuller's public "Conversations," seminars for women held in Boston from 1839 to 1844. Fuller was (like Thoreau) an excellent linguist in both classical and modern languages, and she was one of the best judges of literature among the transcendentalists. She was deeply interested in the work of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and published an important assessment of him in The Dial. She had been influenced by Amos Bronson Alcott's theory of the use of dialogue in education, and she adapted this technique for her "Conversations," building on an earlier New England tradition of women's reading groups. She hoped to use these formal but nevertheless dialogic events to encourage women's public self-expression, an essential step, she believed, in their full self-development.

Fuller's "Conversations" were important in the development of her advocacy for the rights of women, a process that was also advanced in her editorship and contributions to The Dial. Although she had to relinquish her editorship after two years because the magazine did not generate enough circulation to provide her any pay, she learned much in that role, and she also profited from the outlet for her essays that The Dial provided. Her 1841 essay "Goethe" was important in making Goethe's achievement known more widely, and it demonstrated Fuller's judgment and her potential as a literary critic. Her most significant Dial publication followed in 1843, an essay on women's rights titled "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women." She expanded this essay into the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), her most important work and a historically significant articulation of the argument for women's rights.

Fuller argued that women, as well as men, should be allowed to develop the full range and capacity of their nature. The process of self-cultivation was a central value of Emerson and other transcendentalists; Fuller used the idea here to bolster her argument for women's rights. She combined this emphasis on self-cultivation with the observation that conventionally "masculine" traits were not necessarily restricted to men, nor were "feminine" traits restricted to women. These artificial barriers of gender definition had to be overcome, for the good of both men and women. Citing many examples of women's strengths and achievements, and of the positive conception of women in myth and history, Fuller defied the rigid division in her historical era between a public sphere restricted to men and a domestic sphere restricted to women. She would herself live this theory out in moving to New York in 1844 to become a columnist for the New York Tribune and by going to Europe in 1846, where she both reported on and became an active supporter of the unsuccessful Italian Revolution of 1848 led by Giuseppe Mazzini.


Fuller's turn toward issues of politics and social reform typified the path that many of the transcendentalists took in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Reacting to the social injustices generated by the competitive market economy and to the malaise of materialism that infected American society, the transcendentalists searched for alternative forms of economic interaction and cooperation and were drawn to early forms of associationist thought advanced by the French social theorist Charles Fourier and his American disciple and popularizer Albert Brisbane. Under the leadership of George and Sophia Ripley, several transcendentalists helped to establish the Brook Farm commune in 1841. On a farm in Roxbury, just south of Boston, the group began a cooperative work association that included both raising crops and conducting a school. Ripley had been an important voice in the transcendentalists' critique of conventional theology and biblical interpretation. Respected by all the transcendentalists for his learning, he brought both leadership and deep dedication to Brook Farm. He and others became increasingly interested in Fourier's theories of the equitable and harmonious distribution of the labor, and in 1844 they reformulated Brook Farm into a Fourierist "phalanx" in order to pursue those goals. Fourier believed that the necessary work of a community could be divided among its members in such a way that individuals would be required to perform duties for which they had no affinity or attraction. He termed the arrangement of such a community a "phalanx" and saw such communities as the basis of a new social order. The periodical that they founded at Brook Farm, The Harbinger, offers an excellent record of the discourse of social theory during the years of the commune's existence.

Though not without its troubles, Brook Farm survived and was in a process of expansion until a fire destroyed a new building into which the commune had poured much of its resources and undermined the farm's financial stability, causing it to disband in 1847. Satirized by a disillusioned former commune member, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance, and generally discounted by historians of the period as a failed experiment, Brook Farm is nevertheless remembered as an important symbol of the tradition of progressive critique that accompanied the development of the American industrial economy at mid-century. Scholarly work on its history by Richard Francis and Sterling F. Delano have shown that it remains an important index of both the hopes for a more just society and the theoretical and pragmatic difficulties of implementing this form of utopian project. In this sense, Brook Farm provides a window into the spirit of dissenting social experimentation in the United States in the period just before the Civil War.

Amos Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands commune, undertaken on a farm near Harvard, Massachusetts, in late 1843, much smaller in scale and much less durable even than Brook Farm, is another example of dissenting experimentation. An inveterate experimenter, Alcott had blazed a trail in teaching with his Temple School in Boston and had also endured harsh criticism and social ostracism as a result. His contribution to The Dial, two collections of aphoristic "Orphic Sayings," also had become, to critics of the transcendentalist movement, targets of derision for their abstraction and portentousness. Alcott undertook the Fruitlands project with the English reformer Charles Lane in his typical spirit of hope, but also as a kind of vocational last stand, an attempt to make his and his family's way in the world while still avoiding the competitive and corrupting ways of the world. Like Brook Farm, Fruitlands became more famous through satiric depictions than through any historical accounts of it. Alcott's daughter Louisa May, who became one of America's most celebrated and widely read novelists, described the experiment through the eyes of a somewhat unwilling child participant (she was ten when the family moved to Fruitlands) in "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873), a fable in which she depicts her father as the naive victim of the cunning Lane. It was Louisa May Alcott's income from her book sales that finally gave the Alcott family financial stability in the 1860s.

In 1845 Henry David Thoreau undertook a utopian experiment of a different kind when he began to build a cabin for himself at Walden Pond, on land that his friend Emerson had recently acquired. Aware of the Brook Farm and Fruitlands experiments, and sharing the spirit of resistance and experimentation that they embodied, Thoreau instead began an experiment in solitude, hoping to discover, through self-reflection and the close observation of nature, how to live a more wise and fulfilling "natural life." Thoreau stayed at Walden two years, and over the next seven years he worked through an expanding account of his life there. Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) became a literary and environmental classic, a book that spoke deeply to many American readers, then and now, who felt a gnawing worry that life was sliding by them, out of their control and beyond their ability to comprehend or even enjoy. Thoreau's call to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life" (p. 91) has remained a challenge to a culture complacently awash in consumer goods and cowed into a pusillanimous conformity. The book charts the flow of the seasons as Thoreau lived at the pond, recording both his private thoughts and aspirations as well as his descriptions of the animal and plant life around him, which he took as his companions and teachers. Deeply spiritual in its sense of nature as a manifestation of transcendent spirit, but also resolutely this-worldly in its practical concerns about how life should be lived day to day, Walden reflected Thoreau's dual identity as a poet-seer and a skillful and grounded realist. In scaling back his material wants, and thereby dramatically simplifying his way of life, he established an enduring counterstatement to the development of American cultural values and to a modern style of life characterized by relentless consumption and frantic hurry.

Thoreau's Walden, his voluminous and highly engaging Journal (which he kept assiduously over many years), and several key nature essays published posthumously in 1862 ("Walking," "Wild Apples," and "Autumnal Tints") expanded greatly on Emerson's descriptions of the spiritual importance of the natural world, making the study, celebration, and preservation of nature one of the characteristic themes and central legacies of transcendentalism. Thoreau's reputation rested largely on Walden throughout the twentieth century, but his Journal and later essays have come to gain more attention and respect. Those texts demonstrate his deep engagement with scientific thinking and botanical fieldwork, and they provide a greater sense of his deep commitment to environmental awareness and the protection and preservation of natural places. Considered now a founder of the modern American environmental movement, Thoreau offered a witness to his experience in nature that has had a shaping impact on American culture. As the severity of the threat to the environment has grown in the industrial age, Thoreau's writings have seemed more prophetic and more relevant to modern readers.

One of the most dramatic examples of the turn of transcendentalist thinking toward the political was the experience of Margaret Fuller in Italy. Fuller's work for the Tribune had substantially broadened her social awareness and deepened her commitment to progressive political change, perhaps preparing her for finding herself on the brink of a revolution in Italy. In the Risorgimento, as it came to be known, Giuseppe Mazzini led a revolutionary movement to unify Italy as a democratic state. While the 1848 uprisings that resulted in Mazzini's brief leadership in a Roman republic did not succeed, the struggle led the way for the eventual establishment of a unified and democratic Italian state later in the century. After her arrival in Italy, Fuller met and befriended Mazzini; she also met and married a young supporter of his cause, Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, and gave birth to a son, Angelo, in 1848.

Fuller saw the Italian Revolution as an important extension of democratic principles, part of the progressive movement of political history, and an essential aspect of human social development. In the movement for a democratic Italy, and in the resistance to it, she saw parallels to American history and to recent American political events. While in Italy, Fuller embraced more completely the doctrines of associationism and socialism that had been under intense discussion in the United States when she left, and she also accepted the necessity of militant struggle in the pursuit of signifi-cant progressive change and social justice. What she found in Italy, both personally and intellectually, was crucial to her, extending the path of self-cultivation and personal growth that she had begun years ago in her teaching experiences and in her work with The Dial. Her involvement with the Italian Revolution is a reminder that Fuller's feminism, the stance that she is best known for, was grounded in a wider commitment to democratic egalitarianism and universal justice.

Returning to the United States with her family in 1850, Fuller had begun to write a history of the Italian Revolution. But she and her family were killed in a shipwreck near the American coast. At age forty, with her public fame well-established and her skill as an essayist and commentator honed more finely through her Tribune work and Italian experiences, Fuller had been poised to make a significant public impact upon her return. It is tempting to speculate on how Fuller would have reacted to the American political scene in the 1850s, when the disputes over slavery were intensifying. It is a good probability that her new militancy would have found another outlet in the antislavery cause.

Emerson, who was a reluctant political activist, had grown increasingly outspoken on slavery and engaged in antislavery writing in the 1840s. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Compromise of 1850, ignited him as a piercing antislavery orator, in part because this new law brought the actual enforcement of enslavement into those parts of the country where slavery had long been outlawed. Emerson's gradual evolution from a spiritual poet of the inner life into an resolute advocate of political causes and influential public figure is one of the great transformations of American history, although it was not until the late twentieth century that his later career as a public intellectual truly came into focus. But his personal change, like Fuller's, was also the sign of the change in the transcendentalist movement itself, which responded to an era in which the claims of human rights, in the form of feminism and antislavery, became the dominant intellectual occupations.


Transcendentalism had begun to lose cohesion as a "movement" by the mid-1840s. The termination of The Dial in 1844, Fuller's move to New York in that same year, the disbanding of Brook Farm in 1847, Thoreau's return from Walden Pond in 1847, Emerson's lecture tour in England in 1847 and 1848, and Fuller's death in 1850 are all markers of significant moments of change and adjustment in what was for six or seven years a somewhat synchronous intellectual insurgency. Although the relatively brief duration of transcendentalism as a movement may appear to indicate finally a narrative of failure or collapse, a longer historical perspective suggests the pervasive and continuing influence of transcendentalist principles and goals in the shaping of American culture. As a literary figure Emerson has certainly played the role of a cultural founder, establishing a tradition of American poetry oriented to the exploration of transcendent vision and the corresponding linkages between the inner life and the world of nature. Walt Whitman (1819–1892), who was profoundly influenced by Emerson's ideas and also by aspects of his experimental and innovative commitment to an organic, free-flowing style, is a key transmitter of Emersonian vision in the American poetic tradition. Students of Emerson such as Richard Poirier in his 1987 study The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections have also taken note of Emerson's anticipation of the key themes of the American philosophical pragmatism, noting continuities between Emerson's work and that of William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952). Emerson's emphasis on process and multiple perspective, rather than his visionary idealism, is in this case taken to be his most lasting impact.

Thoreau, too, has become the originating voice in an important tradition of American nature and environmental writing, one that blossomed in the last three decades of the twentieth century as the environmental crisis of the modern industrial age became more acute and more alarming. Thoreau's advocacy for the value of wild places influenced John Muir (1838–1914) and other writers and activists on the environment and helped create the cultural understanding that made possible the preservation of the national parks and other wild areas. The renewed vogue for Thoreau's writings in the 1960s and 1970s reflected the strengthening of the environmental ethic during that era. Thoreau's Walden has also became representative of an American cultural yearning for the simpler life, embodying a growing collective longing for an escape from a society defined by hurry, meaningless work, and obsessive material consumption.

Although Fuller's early death in 1850, when she was expanding dramatically as a public intellectual and a cultural critic, curtailed her influence somewhat, she did have a formative influence on Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and other leaders the women's rights movement of the later nineteenth century. Fuller's feminist work, after a period of neglect in the early twentieth century, began to be rediscovered in the 1970s with the rise of the women's movement. The last three decades of the twentieth century saw an intensive rereading of Fuller's texts, especially Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and led to scholarly interest in the biographical reconstruction of her life and of her relationships with Emerson and other transcendentalists. The archival and editorial work of Robert N. Hudspeth resulted in a complete edition of her letters, one of her most revealing and absorbing modes of writing. Fuller stands in the twenty-first century as one of the most important and representative figures of her era, a woman who speaks directly to this later age.

During the late 1830s and early 1840s, the years of high transcendentalist activity, Emerson was prone to downplay the newness of transcendentalism, whose ideas were often referred to as the "new views" and which was identified with a novel and daring conception of spiritual experience and literary expression. The "new views," he wrote in an 1841 lecture, "The Transcendentalist," "are not new, but the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times" (CW 1:201). While the origins of transcendentalist thinking may indeed have been ancient, its impact on American society was arousing, inspiriting, and finally progressive. The transcendentalists gave American culture its first distinctive literary voice, brought artistic endeavor and aesthetic appreciation into a more secure place in the culture, and advanced, on several fronts, the cause of human rights and social justice.

See alsoConcord, Massachusetts; The Dial;Lyceums; Nature; Nature;Reform; Romanticism; Unitarians; Utopian Communities; Woman in the Nineteenth Century


Primary Works

Channing, William Ellery. William Ellery Channing: SelectedWritings. Edited by David M. Robinson. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1985.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works of Ralph WaldoEmerson. 6 vols. to date. Edited by Alfred R. Ferguson et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971–. Cited parenthetically in the text as CW.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph WaldoEmerson. 12 vols. Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903–1904. Centenary edition. Cited parenthetically in the text as W.

Fuller, Margaret. The Letters of Margaret Fuller. Edited by Robert N. Hudspeth. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. 1845. Facsimile ed., with introduction by Madeleine B. Stern and textual notes by Joel Myerson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1980.

Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. Edited by Elizabeth Hall Witherell. New York: Library of America, 2001.

Thoreau, Henry David. Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings. Edited by Bradley P. Dean. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993.

Thoreau, Henry David. Journal. 7 vols. to date. Edited by John C. Broderick et al. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981–.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

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Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden. Expanded ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.

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Du Bois, Ellen. "Margaret Fuller in Italy." Women's Writing 10, no. 2 (2003): 287–305.

Francis, Richard. Transcendental Utopias: Individual andCommunity at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Grodzins, Dean. American Heretic: Theodore Parker andTranscendentalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

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David M. Robinson


views updated May 18 2018


TRANSCENDENTALISM was a movement for religious renewal, literary innovation, and social transformation. Its ideas were grounded in the claim that divine truth could be known intuitively. Based in New England and existing in various forms from the 1830s to the 1880s, transcendentalism is usually considered the principal expression of romanticism in America. Many prominent ministers, reformers, and writers of the era were associated with it, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), Theodore Parker (1810–1860), Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), and Orestes Brownson (1803–1876).

Various organizations and periodicals gave the movement shape. The earliest was the so-called "Transcendental Club" (1836–1840), an informal group that met to discuss intellectual and religious topics; also important was the "Saturday Club," organized much later (1854). Many transcendentalists participated in the utopian communities of Brook Farm (1841–1848; located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts), founded by George Ripley (1802–1880) and his wife, Sophia Dana Ripley (1803–1861), and the short-lived Fruitlands (1843–1844; located in Harvard, Massachusetts), founded by Alcott. A number of transcendentalist ministers established experimental churches to give their religious ideas institutional form. The most important of these churches were three in Boston: Orestes Brownson's Society for Christian Union and Progress (1836–1841); the Church of the Disciples (founded 1841), pastored by James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888); and Theodore Parker's Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society (founded 1845–1846). The most famous transcendentalist magazine was the Dial (1840–1844), edited by Fuller and then by Emerson; other major periodicals associated with the movement included the Boston Quarterly Review (1838–1842), edited by Brownson, and the Massachusetts Quarterly Review (1847–1850), edited by Parker.

Transcendentalism emerged from Unitarianism, or "liberal Christianity"—an anti-Calvinist, anti-Trinitarian, anticreedal offshoot of Puritanism that had taken hold among the middle and upper classes of eastern Massachusetts. The founders of transcendentalism were Unitarian intellectuals who came of age, or became Unitarians, in the 1820s and 1830s. From Unitarianism the transcendentalists took a concern for self-culture, a sense of moral seriousness, a neo-Platonic concept of piety, a tendency toward individualism, a belief in the importance of literature, and an interest in moral reform. They looked to certain Unitarians as mentors, especially the great Boston preacher William Ellery Channing. Yet transcendentalists came to reject key aspects of the Unitarian worldview, starting with their rational, historical Christian apologetic.

The Unitarian apologetic took as its starting point the thesis of the British philosopher John Locke that all knowledge, including religious knowledge, was based on sense data. The Unitarians were not strict Lockeans; under the influence of the Scottish "Common Sense" philosophers, notably Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, they held that some fundamental knowledge could be known intuitively—for example, that certain things were morally right and wrong, and that the world that human senses perceive in fact exists. Nonetheless, Unitarians held that only "objective" evidence could prove Jesus had delivered an authoritative revelation from God. They believed they had found such evidence in the testimony, provided in the Gospels, of Jesus' miracles. The Unitarians valued the historical study of Gospel accounts, in order to prove them "genuine" and therefore credible.

Transcendentalists rejected as "sensual" and "materialistic" Unitarianism's Lockean assumptions about the mind, and were inspired instead by German philosophical idealism. Its seminal figure, Immanuel Kant, argued that sense data were structured by the mind according to certain "transcendental" categories (such as space, time, and cause and effect), which did not inhere in the data, but in the mind itself. The transcendentalists liked the Kantian approach, which gave the mind, not matter, ultimate control over the shape of human experience. The name of their movement was derived from Kant's philosophical term. Yet the transcendentalists, unlike Kant but like other Romantics (and, to an extent, the Common Sense philosophers), held that religious knowledge itself could be intuitively known. According to this view, people could tell "subjectively" that Jesus had given a revelation from God, because his doctrine was self-evidently true and his life self-evidently good.

The transcendentalist apologetic turned out to have radical implications. Because transcendentalists believed religious truth could be known naturally, like any other truth, they tended to reject the idea of miraculous inspiration as unnecessary and to dismiss as false the claim made for the Bible that it had unique miraculous authority. Transcendentalists still respected Jesus, but the more radical of them, like Emerson in his Divinity School Address (1838), and Parker in Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (1841), attacked the miracle stories in the Gospels as pious myths. Such attacks were highly controversial; theologically conservative Unitarians accused the transcendentalists of being infidels and atheists. Meanwhile, the transcendentalists began to see religious value in sacred writings beyond the Bible, including those of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. The transcendentalists became pioneers in the American study of comparative religion.

Another implication of intuitionism had to do with the role of the artist. The transcendentalists believed all human inspiration, whether biblical or not, drew from the same divine source. They did not hold religious inspiration to be mundane, like artistic and intellectual inspiration; rather, they held that artistic and intellectual inspiration, like religious inspiration, were divine. The artist, in particular the poet, gained new importance to the transcendentalists as a potential prophet figure, and poetry as a potential source of divine revelation. Emerson was being characteristically transcendentalist when in his first book, Nature (1836), he sought to achieve wholly honest, beautiful, and original forms of expression. In his address "American Scholar" (1837), meanwhile, he called on American writers to stop imitating foreign models; actually, the transcendentalists promoted American interest in foreign Romantic writers, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832).

Intuitionism also affected the transcendentalist approach to social and political problems. Transcendentalists

believed laws should be disobeyed if moral intuition held them to be unjust. Thoreau famously argued this point in his essay "Civil Disobedience" (1848; also called "Resistance to Civil Government"). He here advised individuals to disobey unjust laws so as to prevent their personal involvement in evil.

More broadly, the transcendentalists held that inspiration was blunted by social conformity, which therefore must be resisted. This is a theme of Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" (1841) and Thoreau's book Walden (1854). When approaching the education of children, the transcendentalists advocated innovative methods that supposedly developed a child's innate knowledge; Alcott tried out transcendentalist methods at his famous experimental Boston school in the mid-1830s. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), who later played a major role in bringing the European kindergarten to America, described Alcott's approach in her Record of a School (1835), as did Alcott himself in his Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836).

Transcendentalists also came to criticize existing social arrangements, which they thought prevented individual spiritual development. There were calls and attempts to change what were seen as oppressive economic structures. Orestes Brownson, in his Boston Quarterly Review articles on the "Laboring Classes" (1840), advocated abolition of inherited private property. George and Sophia Ripley, with others, tried to make Brook Farm a place with no gap between thinkers and workers. Eventually, the Farmers adopted a system inspired by the French socialist Charles Fourier, who believed that in a properly organized society (one he planned in minute detail), people could accomplish all necessary social work by doing only what they were naturally inclined to do. Margaret Fuller, meanwhile, criticized the lack of educational, political, and economic opportunities for women of the era. In the famous series of "conversations" she led for women (1839–1844), Fuller set out to encourage their intellectual development, and in her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1846), issued a famous manifesto in favor of women's rights. She came to embody many of the principles she advocated, and became a significant literary critic and journalist, as well as a participant in the Roman Revolution of 1848.

The transcendentalists saw slavery as inherently wrong because it crushed the spiritual development of slaves. They protested against slavery in various ways and a few of them, most notably Parker, became leaders of the abolitionist movement. Finally, the transcendentalists laid great value on the spiritual value of nature; Thoreau, particularly, is regarded as a principal forerunner of the modern environmental movement.

Transcendentalism has always had its critics. It has been accused of subverting Christianity; of assessing human nature too optimistically and underestimating human weakness and potential for evil; of placing too much emphasis on the self-reliant individual at the expense of society and social reform. Yet even those hostile to transcendentalism must concede that American literature, religion, philosophy, and politics have been shaped by the movement in profound ways.


Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright, eds. Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1999.

Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Packer, Barbara, "The Transcendentalists." In The Cambridge History of American Literature. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Vol. 2: Prose Writing 1820–1865. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


See alsoIndividualism ; Philosophy ; Romanticism ; Utopian Communities ; Walden .


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A form of epistemological idealism that, besides rejecting the empirical aspect of human cognition, claims to find a foundation for absolute truths immanent in the human mind or soul. This foundation is variously named "reason," "the Ego," "Absolute Spirit," etc., and is often identified in some way with god. The transcendentalism of New England, while adopting some of the notions of the European idealists, made little use of the logical rigor that characterized the latter movement.

German Transcendentalism. In modern philosophy the term transcendentalism is traced to the attempt made by kant to save universal and necessary truths after his philosophical criticism had concluded that man's cognitive powers were incapable of attaining nonempirical objects. While Kant did not deny the reality of such objects, he said they transcended human cognition and were accessible to autonomous practical reason only by an act of faith [see categorical imperative; transcendental (kantian)]. Subsequent transcendentalists constructed elaborate systems in which all reality was deduced from a single principle attained by an intuition either of the knowing subject or of the act of cognition itself.

J. G. fichte replaced Kant's autonomous practical reason by the self, or ego, taken as an absolute principle of both metaphysical truth and all reality. By systematic deduction he sought to demonstrate the procession of the nonself, that is, nature, from the practical ego as a necessary condition for moral striving. Thus, like Kant, he founded metaphysical reality upon the exigencies of morality. Reacting against this moralism, schelling identified both consciousness and nature with the absolute or God, while hegel attempted to describe in terms of dialectical triadsthesis-antithesis-synthesisthe necessary procession of nature and finite consciousness from the Absolute. Hegel sought to justify his theory by finding in the history of finite consciousness (man) and nature conclusive evidence of the dialectical life of the Absolute spirit. Here modern philosophy reached the ultimate in pantheistic monism (see pantheism). Subsequent thinkers rebelled against such a closed system, which united rationalism with idealism, and so rejected all metaphysics as absurd speculation.

American Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism in New England flourished in the 1830s after several Unitarian clergymen discovered the writings of coleridge. Coleridge's thought, while largely Romantic, had been influenced by Kant. The common notion of the transcendental philosophers, that God was somehow immanent in nature and in the human soul, was very welcome to men in revolt against the Calvinist concepts of a wrathful God and the total depravity of human nature (see unitarians; calvinism.)

Prominent in the original group of "like-minded men"first labeled transcendentalists by opponents were William Ellery channing, Ralph Waldo emerson, Theodore parker, Henry David thoreau and Orestes A. brownson. Differences in background, interests and temperament made disagreement and disunity among them inevitable. They agreed in asserting the immanence of divinity in man and in natureleaving the terms vaguebut each added whatever intellectual tradition he found congenial, while using their common assertion to promote his personally chosen mission in life.

Channing labored to prevent Unitarian theology from hardening into a rigid orthodoxy like the Calvinism against which it had rebelled. Advocating his "principle of essential sameness" of God and man, he appeared pantheistic in his efforts to uphold the spiritual dignity of human nature. Emerson was so inspired by the same vision of man's inalienable worth that he opposed any system that seemed to deny the natural adequacy of man to live as befitted a spiritual being; thus he broke with institutionalized Christianity as an antihuman supernaturalism. His seeming apotheosis of nature, both human and nonhuman, was offset by his Yankee practicality. His widespread popularity in America rested on the shrewd wisdom of his epigrams on self-culture rather than upon his metaphysical speculations, which were incomprehensible to most of his followers.

Parker espoused social reform, especially abolitionism, while Thoreau divorced himself from human society to become the spokesman for the world of nature.

Brownson's range of interests included religions and social reform as well as history and philosophical speculation. In seeking to justify "the divinity of man" both metaphysically and historically, he saw that the low state of humanity that had called forth the reforms of transcendentalism contradicted its basic assertion that the most sublime dignity of man was purely natural. He went on, not to deny the fact of man's godlike state, but to accept the traditional Christian doctrine that, through the incarnation, God had gratuitously elevated man to a sharing in the Divine Life. Historical research, soul searching and prayer led him to the step for which his transcendentalist friends never forgave him: he entered the Catholic Church.

New England transcendentalism illustrates well the interests and ideals of 19th-century America. For a consideration of the influence of New England transcendentalism on literature, culture and intellectual history in the United States, see transcendentalism, literary.

Bibliography: German Transcendentalism. j. d. collins, History of Modern European Philosophy (Milwaukee 1954). f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md 1946) v.3, 4. American Transcendentalism. p. miller, The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, Mass. 1960). o. a. brownson, Works, ed. h. f. brownson, 20 v. (Detroit 18821907).

[j. e. daly]


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Origins. Transcendentalism was a literary, religious, and philosophical movement that began in New England in the 1830s. It had no formal structure or doctrine but rather consisted of the ideas of a group of people who shared a common outlook and interests. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Augustus Brownson, and many others met frequently near Boston for conversation and in 1840 began publishing a periodical, The Dial, to express their views. While topics of discussion ranged over a variety of subjects from education to slavery to the distinctiveness of the American character, most Transcendentalists saw the movement as essentially spiritual. Like many others of their day, they were religious seekers with enthusiasm for utopianism and social reform. They were distinguished, however, by the intellectual rigor with which they explored their interests and their incorporation of a wide variety of traditions, including ancient mysticism and other nonChristian beliefs, in their quest for spiritual truth.

Inward Experience. Although several Transcendentalists, notably James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and William Henry Channing, were Unitarian ministers, as a general rule the movement was not based around the practice of public worship in a church. Dissatisfied with the doctrines and styles of worship of the established churches, most Transcendentalists rejected religious dogma in favor of a simple belief in human moral potential and intuitive capacity for discovering spiritual truth. They believed that divinity lay in man and nature, and so true religion meant seeking the divine in oneself and ones surroundings. Inward experience was seen as the ultimate path to spiritual satisfaction, and thus they cultivated a lifestyle that encouraged contemplation, communing with nature, continuing education, and creative expression. Many kept regular journals, which they considered invaluable tools in the process of self-examination.

Communal Interests. Along with their commitment to the development of the individual, many Transcendentalists also held a deep appreciation for communal activities. They shared their private journals with one another and laid almost ritual significance on their regular meetings for conversation. Several became involved in the development of Utopian communities, which they believed might provide ideal conditions for personal growth and living in harmony with nature. In 1841 Unitarian minister George Ripley established a 160-acre community called Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, where all members worked together at agriculture, industry, and crafts. Many Transcendentalists became frequent visitors or members of the farm, where they created a well-respected school and held cultural events and public conversations, until a fire destroyed much of the community in 1846. In 1843 Alcott established another community, Fruitlands, thirty miles from Boston. Members were required to conform to restrictive patterns of eating, dress, and hygiene that were intended to be socially conscious (cotton was forbidden because it was produced by the slavery of people, wool because of the slavery of sheep) and conducive to personal development. Some of the ideals set for the community proved hard to meet, and when one influential member sought to introduce celibacy, the experiment came to an end after only seven months.

Reform and Influence. The impulse toward improving or even perfecting society that drew many Transcendentalists to utopianism was also manifest in their involvement in social reform movements and educational endeavors. Drawing on the liberal, rationalistic tradition of Unitarianism, they rejected the widespread Calvinist notion that humans are innately sinful and helpless before God, accepting instead that man is a moral creature with a natural capacity to do good. Seeking to cultivate this capacity in themselves and others, they spoke out on social issues from economic inequality to slavery to womens rights. While Transcendentalist publications were poorly circulated in their time, Emerson and others drew public attention to their ideas on religion, literature, philosophy, and social issues by traveling the country on a lecture circuit where they addressed as many as fifty thousand people at a time. Many of their listeners were undoubtedly moved by what they heard, but the diffuse and informal nature of the Transcendentalist movement makes its popular influence difficult to gauge. It is clear, however, that Transcendentalism had a lasting impact on American literature, particularly through the works of Emerson, and laid the groundwork for new movements as diverse as the tradition of theological liberalism of the later nineteenth century and the environmental conservation movement of the early twentieth century.


Catherine L. Albanese, Corresponding Motion: Transcendental Religion and the New America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977);

Paul F. Boller Jr. American Transcendentalism, 18301860: An Intellectual Inquiry (New York: Putnam, 1974).


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During the 1830s, a philosophical movement emerged in New England called Transcendentalism. Transcendentalist thinking influenced ideas on religion, motivated social reform, and inspired great works of literature. Followers of Transcendentalism challenged many of the most common expressions of American culture of the time.

God and humans

Transcendental ideas were controversial because they challenged almost universally accepted Christian beliefs. Transcendentalists rejected the idea that religious institutions are necessary to help humans achieve a spiritual experience. They believed instead that God was a part of everything, including the soul of each person. As such, they believed that each person could have an intuitive spiritual experience that was divine.

Their ideas challenged deeply held American beliefs about divinity, faith, and organized religion. If people could experience God's presence in nature, then what was the point of going to church? If each person is divine, then how was Jesus different? And if God was a part of everything, then life as a whole—not just the unusual events that Christians consider to be proof of God—is a miracle. The ideas were startling.

Intuition, truth, and goodness

The Transcendental belief that spiritual truth is contained in nature, in fact in every part of man's world, inspired people to think in new ways. The idea that humans can achieve an intuitive understanding of the world around them gained wider acceptance. Artistic expression, closely connected with intuition, came to be valued as a way to reveal the truths of life. Transcendentalism produced some of the greatest works of American literature. Among the most well-known Transcendental writers are Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850). Emerson's essay Nature (1836) and his lecture “The Transcendentalist” (1842) were key statements of Transcendental belief.

Transcendentalists sought to express the divine in themselves and to find it in their surroundings. High moral order was the goal for both the individual and the community. Believing that people were basically good, they worked to help communities improve. They spoke up on social issues such as slavery , women's rights, and education. A few Transcendentalists even started their own communities, the most famous being Brook Farm, in Massachusetts , to provide ideal conditions for spiritual growth and experience.

An American perspective

Transcendentalism was never a formal, unified movement. With its emphasis on the individual and personal experience, many Transcendentalists held a variety of viewpoints on social, religious, and philosophical issues. The emphasis on individual spirituality, however, inspired many to improve themselves and society. Seeking changes in the social order as defined by the majority in America, they voiced a uniquely American perspective.


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tran·scen·den·tal·ism / ˌtranˌsenˈdentlˌizəm/ • n. 1. (Transcendentalism) an idealistic philosophical and social movement that developed in New England around 1836 in reaction to rationalism. Influenced by romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy, it taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive views on feminism and communal living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were central figures.2. a system developed by Immanuel Kant, based on the idea that, in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyze the reasoning process that governs the nature of experience.DERIVATIVES: tran·scen·den·tal·ist (also Tran·scen·den·tal·ist) n. & adj.


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transcendentalism School of philosophy that traced its origin to the idealism of Immanuel Kant. It concerned itself not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects. It spread from Germany to England, where Samuel Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle came under its influence. In the mid-19th century, it spread to the USA, where its proponents included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In general, it emphasized individual (as opposed to collective) moral and spiritual responsibilities and rejected materialism, returning to nature for spiritual guidance.


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transcendentalism This is the belief that God stands outside and independent of the universe of which He is the Creator. It is normally contrasted with the idea of immanence—the belief that God dwells in the world. The doctrine of immanence is common in pantheism, in which human beings and Nature are thought to be aspects of an all-inclusive divinity. Monotheism is normally transcendentalist. See also RELIGION; THEISM.

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