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, Page 838 | Top of Articlelater 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 Page 839 | Top of Articleforty-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
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:
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, Page 841 | Top of Articleand 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 Page 842 | Top of Articleliving. 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
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.
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 Page 844 | Top of Articleimmediate 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.
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 Page 845 | Top of Articledeep 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,
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 Page 847 | Top of Article1837 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 Page 848 | Top of Article
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.
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
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 Page 850 | Top of Articleare 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 Page 851 | Top of Articlepoem, 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 Page 853 | Top of Articlewearing 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 Page 854 | Top of Articlemeditation, 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 Page 855 | Top of Articleconformity 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 Page 857 | Top of Articlemind (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 Page 858 | Top of Articlecontemporary 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, http://www.louisamayalcott.org/louisamaytext.html (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.