Although New England transcendentalism was primarily a religious protest against rational conservatism and a mercantile civilization, its memory remains viable chiefly because of its contributions to U.S. literature. The works of the principal transcendentalists, emerson, thoreau, and whitman, have an assured place on any shelf of great books. But American literature's debt to transcendentalism merely begins with these authors. Many members of the transcendental fellowship were not themselves gifted creatively, yet they exercised wide influence as reformers and critics. In addition, several powerful works of the creative imagination owe their existence to animosities stirred in writers to whom transcendentalism was anathema. Literature's greatest debt to transcendentalism, however, lies beyond the perimeter drawn here. The transcendental insurgence bade the American genius renounce European influence and harken to the voice of Nature. Rallying to this gospel, American writers in all parts of the young nation found courage to choose their own themes and forms. Although the noonday of transcendentalism lasted little more than a dozen years (1836–50), by the end of the 19th century much critical and creative work in American literature was touched by the transcendental impulse.
Beginnings in the U.S. American recognition of transcendentalism began in 1833 with Frederick Henry Hedge's essay on Coleridge in The Christian Examiner. Further essays in this journal by Hedge, George Ripley, and Orestes brownson, particularly Brownson's "New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church" (1836), brought the movement to America. In 1836 the Transcendental Club was formed in Boston when the pioneers of the movement were joined by Emerson, Theodore parker, Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody. That same year, with Nature, which
explored the implications of transcendentalism with remarkable fecundity, Emerson established his primacy over the group and fixed its center at Concord village, where he lived. Emerson's "American Scholar Address"(1837) and "Divinity School Address" (1838), which amplified appeals made by the earlier transcendentalists for intellectual and spiritual independence, gave the movement the broad base from which it worked to create an authentic American culture. Emerson's prose recreates the transcendental experience of unheralded intuitions; his poetry is didactic but metrically precocious, a harbinger of new forms; his views on a transcendental aesthetic are given in "The Poet" and The Conduct of Life. "Poetry and Imagination" describes the transcendental doctrine of the symbol and reveals Emerson's decisive role in the development of symbolism in modern literature.
Thoreau's contemporaries said he was Emerson's literary shadow; Emerson said nothing to disabuse them. Yet posterity acknowledges Thoreau as the supreme artist of transcendentalism; his five speculative books of rural travels, a multivolume journal, several striking essays, most notably "Civil Disobedience" (1849) and "Life Without Principle" (1863), and above all Walden (1854) are his monument. In "Walking," the most articulate statement of transcendentalism's aims in literature, Thoreau insisted that more of the wildness of nature must
enter into American literature. His own writings uphold his argument. His prose proclaims the vitality that experience and action give to style.
Spread of the Movement. The distinction of transmitting the transcendental view to America at large belonged to Parker, the master of 20 languages, who spoke to thousands from pulpit and lecture platform, and whose readership ran to hundreds of thousands. Among his contemporaries, Horace Greeley alone rivaled him in influence. Parker's "Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (1841) stands beside Nature as one of the two supreme articulations of transcendentalism. Scarcely less important was his pellucid "Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion" (1842), the principal route along which many, bewildered by Emerson's vagueness, passed to an understanding of transcendentalism. His essay on "The Position and Duties of the American Scholar" (1849) finds Parker at his characteristic best, persuading men by argument to accept views toward which Emerson's wraithlike insights had already inclined them.
Two of the major transcendentalists, Alcott and the Yankee Minerva, Margaret Fuller, shone more in conversation than in letters. Alcott's huge journals abound with the epigrams from which Orphic Sayings (1840) and Concord Days (1872) were culled, but his inquisitive, unbiased mind served him best in his role as teacher; he was not a writer. Nonetheless, his Conversations on the Gospels (1836) joined Emerson's Nature and Brownson's "New Views" to spread the transcendentalist endeavor. Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), the one book for which Margaret Fuller is remembered, made courageous claims for woman's rights. Her Papers on Literature and Art (1846), compiled from her work as literary editor of Greeley's Tribune, discloses her real influence on literature. As able a critic as could be found in America in her day, she drew freely upon her firsthand knowledge of European literature to formulate demands for higher standards of achievement among American writers, urging upon them the fluent sense of life she found in Catholic countries.
Transcendentalism found in Brownson its boldest champion. His is the distinction of having convinced others that literature is an organic expression of the whole community. He was himself convinced that American literature's real affinities reposed in the literature of the Continent, and he propagated an interest in German philosophical idealism and liberal French thought. This led to publication, under Ripley's editorship, of Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature (14 v., 1838–42), and Hedge's anthology, Prose Writers of Germany (1848). Both works not only made accessible seminal documents from which transcendentalism derived, but opened up a view of literature that assured continuance of unhampered receptivity to experience, a view that transcendentalism coveted.
Influence on Poetry. Despite heavy commitments to religion, ethics, and sociology, from the outset the transcendentalists regarded the creation of an American poetry as their chief task. The attempts of Thoreau, Hedge, William Ellery channing, Alcott, and Margaret Fuller to court the muse produced only versified epistemology. Christopher Cranch's poem "Correspondences" is, except for Emerson's essays, the best statement transcendentalists made on epistemology; moreover Cranch brought to his poetry a penetrating and agile wit that gave it literary value. In the Boston locale, Jones Very was the only true poet among the transcendentalists; his Essays and Poems (1839), edited by Emerson, contains the best sonnets written in 19th-century America; his essays on epic poetry and Shakespeare have a sophistication not matched in their time. Elsewhere, at Brooklyn and Amherst, transcendental expectancy sponsored the poetic achievement of Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Whitman traveled to Boston to seek personal assurance from Emerson that the transcendental afflatus had descended upon him. Emily Dickinson, in seclusion at Amherst, after assessing Emerson's poems and essays (e.g., "The Poet," "Worship," and "Compensation"), concluded that "By intuition, Mightiest things Assert themselves" and set down "bulletins … From Immortality" that proclaim her transcendentalism's rarest flower.
Journals to Promote the Movement. The transcendentalists made repeated attempts to launch a journal to propagate their views; none was successful. The first venture, The Western Messenger (1835–40), was published in Cincinnati by several exiled Bostonians, including Channing, Cranch, James Freeman Clarke, and William G. Eliot, grandfather of T. S. Eliot. It failed when, with commendable integrity, it boosted Brownson's "Laboring Classes." Meanwhile, Brownson himself started the Boston Quarterly Review (1838–42), likewise shortlived, but the most spirited journal of its day. The Dial (1840–44), named by Alcott, published by Elizabeth Peabody, and edited by Ripley and Emerson with help from Margaret Fuller and Thoreau, gave many Transcendentalists, including Thoreau, their first chance to appear in print. When it failed, Ripley began at brook farm his Harbinger (1845–49), a weekly with a socialist bias, but strong in criticism. Its contributors included Greeley, Lowell, Whittier, Albert Brisbane, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry James, Sr., and Ripley's brilliant wife, Sophia, whose conversion to Catholicism followed that of Brownson, Isaac hecker, and other Brook Farm associates. The Harbinger was discontinued when Ripley transferred his services to Greeley's Tribune, where, as literary editor, he did many excellent pieces. Parker's Massachusetts Quarterly Review (1847–50), though it carried perceptive reviews and a brilliant résumé of the literary creed of transcendentalism, fared no better than its predecessors. Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers (1849), where Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" first appeared, and William Henry Channing's The Spirit of the Age (1849–50) survived only for the publication of an issue or two.
Reactions against Transcendentalism. In American Notes, Charles Dickens says of his visit to Boston: "I was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would be certainly transcendental." This view of transcendentalism reflects a belief held by several eminent writers and is a reminder that transcendentalism goaded its detractors to greater creative efforts than it did it adherents. Hawthorne, himself a transcendentalist apostate, lampooned the movement in "Earth's Holocaust," "The Celestial Railroad," and The Blithedale Romance (1852), which contains abrasive fictional portraits of Brownson and Margaret Fuller. James Fenimore Cooper, despite the Leatherstocking's intimacy with nature, warns in The Crater (1847) against transcendental excess. Edgar Allan Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" enjoins the same caution. The defiant individualism of Herman Melville's Ahab discloses a hardy distaste for transcendentalism, which Melville indulges further in Pierre (1852), where Emerson and Thoreau, as Plinlimmon and Millthorpe, are gibed at, and in The Confidence Man (1857). Louisa May Alcott's Silver Pitchers (1876) and Henry James's The Bostonians (1886) attest to the durability of transcendentalism as an object of ridicule.
The afterglow of transcendentalism, however, flared in more than negations. Transcendentalism had established new tastes that raised the aims of American literature and assured its growth. Well might James Joyce's Finnegan regard "Concord on the Merrymaking" with soulful respect.
Bibliography: o. b. frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England: A History (New York 1959). p. miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, Mass. 1960). g. f. whicher, ed., The Transcendentalist Revolt against Materialism (pa. Boston 1949).
[j. j. mcaleer]