Transcendentalism

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Date: 2012
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,353 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1130L

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The first truly American literary, philosophical, and religious movement—transcendentalism—emerged in New England from 1830 to 1855 as a part of and as a reaction to European romanticism. In essays, books, and other works of nonfiction, transcendentalist writers explored simple yet groundbreaking ideas for their time. They focused on personal spiritual awakening and individual self-gained insight; they were idealistic and embraced nature as they reacted against the increasingly commercial nature of the emerging American society. Transcendentalists spoke out against rationalism and materialism. Some of the movement's best-known works include the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walden: or, Life in the Woods, (1854) by Henry David Thoreau.

New England transcendentalism, as it sometimes is known, had its roots in Concord, Massachusetts, and surrounding areas. While transcendentalism can be identified as a movement as early as 1830, its name comes from the so-called Transcendental Club, which started meeting in 1836. That year Emerson published his first book, Nature. He was arguably the best-known member of the group, which also initially included writers Amos Bronson Alcott and James Freeman Clarke. Emerson's friend, Thoreau, was also a prominent transcendentalist though he was not a member of the club. Indeed, on the whole transcendentalism was not a formal or unified movement but a way of emphasizing the importance of individual spirituality to improve both one's self and society. A second wave of transcendentalists emerged in the United States in the mid- to late 1800s, primarily during the Reconstruction period. Both groups of transcendentalists showed that Americans could be the literary and intellectual equals of their peers in Great Britain and Europe, capable of developing an original philosophy.

Historical Context

When the Transcendental Club was formed, the nation was only a few decades old. The country's identity was still being formed, and though it was not yet a major player on the international stage, its growing importance to the world's culture could not be denied. Americans were seen as having boundless energy and a democratic zeal. The United States was quickly expanding, with the population growing by a third between 1820 and 1830, and a third again between 1830 and 1840. More territory was being acquired under the banner of Manifest Destiny, while the country fought wars including the Mexican-American War to help the process along.

Yet individual rights for many seemed an afterthought despite the freedoms defined in the Bill of Rights. Slavery still flourished in the South, and as the country expanded geographically, there were battles over whether new states would sanction slavery. In the 1830s American Indians were being forced to give up lands in the East and resettle in the West. Women's rights were few, and women did not have the right to vote. Amidst these issues and a growing awareness of commercialism and materialism, especially in New England, transcendentalists sought a different path.

Literary Themes

While the many authors and philosophers affiliated with the movement did not agree on how to define transcendentalism, this very division reflected the individual nature of the movement and proponents' shared belief that people were responsible for their own choices. In their writings, a number of leading transcendentalists like Emerson spoke out against the commercialism and materialism that were becoming part of the American character. Religion and belief systems were being analyzed. Authors like Emerson declared themselves independent from historical Christianity, and many transcendentalists had a fascination with spiritual beliefs and works from Asia, especially those related to Buddhism and Hinduism.

The way religion was discussed struck at the heart of a common concern of transcendentalists. Emphasizing the importance of the individual, many involved in the movement believed that a person could gain insight without the assistance of institutions like the church, and that each person was able to develop his or her own spiritual intuition. Spiritual experiences did not have to intertwine with religious institutions or ritualized faith. Many transcendentalists believed in the mystical and thought one should move past the evidence given by the senses. Issues of comparative religion were often included in transcendentalist writings. Post-bellum transcendentalists focused primarily on topics of comparative religion and the traditions of Asian culture, especially related to beliefs and faith.

Nature is another common theme found in transcendental writings. Because of the importance of individualism and carving one's own path independent of institutions, nature was idealized as a place to embrace beauty and find both spiritual and individual truths. Nature was a means to express the divine within and without oneself. Nature, according to transcendentalists, could help one engage the imagination and find a place to think in new ways.

Many transcendentalists wrote about and supported issues related to social reform as well. These topics included women's rights, abolition, methods to educate children, and utopian living. Anti-slavery values were adopted because transcendentalists wanted all to be free to choose their own path. A number of early transcendentalists tried their hand at utopian living at places like Brook Farm and Fruitland to better connect with nature and live ideally for spiritual enlightenment.

Critical Overview

Transcendentalism had many detractors. Those affiliated with organized religion of the time saw transcendentalism, its writings, and authors as threats. Other contemporary writers criticized transcendentalism. Edgar Allan Poe spoke poorly of the definitive transcendental literary journal The Dial, for example. The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne once lived in a utopian community with transcendentalists and at times their influence is evident in his writings. He ultimately became disillusioned and mocked transcendentalists in his short story "The Celestial Railroad" and other works. Herman Melville was also influenced by transcendentalists but critical of them in such works as The Confidence-Man (1857). Yet some transcendentalist works have stood the test of time. Thoreau's Walden was generally well received upon publication and remains relevant even today because critics believe it still speaks to a fundamental longing among Americans.

Major Authors and Works

The most important transcendentalist was Emerson, whose works characterize the movement. Among his significant publications were Nature, which was originally released anonymously in 1836, as well as his first two volumes of essays. The lecture "The Transcendentalist," originally published in The Dial in 1843, helped give the movement its philosophical and social definition. In reprinted talks like "American Scholar" and "Divinity School Address," he declared freedom from the cultural authority of Europe and traditional Christianity.

Thoreau, the second most important transcendentalist, lived out the spirit of individualism and embraced nature. His most significant work, Walden, was written in the wake of his stay at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847. Leaving his family behind, he spent two years trying to find himself by living alone and simply in a small cabin he built by himself on property owned by Emerson. Such time and space gave him the opportunity to understand the nature of the need to define one's convictions and beliefs for one's self and live them out. He also wrote noteworthy essays, including "Civil Disobedience," which proved influential to twentieth-century nonviolent protesters including Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Other leading transcendentalist writers focused on issues such as social reform. While Emerson founded The Dial in 1840, it was radical thinker Margaret Fuller who served as editor for the first two years of the magazine's existence. Fuller contributed an essay to The Dial that eventually was expanded to a book, Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845). This work influenced the women's rights movement in the United States as Fuller argued there should be support for the personal and social growth of women. Alcott concentrated on education reform that was also concerned with the spiritual. His book Conversations on the Gospel with Children (1836-37) was based on talks with his students on the New Testament. He believed children could intuitively understand spiritual issues and educators should take charge of drawing them out.

Other noteworthy tomes in the later years of transcendentalism include Clarke's Ten Great Religions (1871) and John Weiss's American Religion (1871), both of which explored spiritual beliefs in comparative religion fashion. Octavius Brooks Frothingham provided a history of the movement to date with Transcendentalism in New England (1876), and explored transcendentalism and other theories in The Religion of Humanity (1873).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2181500300