Mary McKenney October 18, 2013 Transcendentalism Overview
“It's not what you look at that matters, It's what you see.” -Henry David Thoreau
“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” (Henry David Thoreau).1 This idea is the epitome of Transcendentalism: an early 19th Century philosophical, religious and social revolution. Widely considered the first intellectual revolution in America this movement is the foundation upon which all American literature has been built. Created by an informal group of New England scholars, the ideals and notions of Transcendentalism gradually rippled outward to affect all of America. The Transcendentalists, disgusted by the conformity and lack of individuality, sought an end to life as one of the masses by seeking knowledge beyond what was widely accepted. Beginning as a conflict in the Unitarian church it quickly divulged into something that questioned the philosophical, religious and social norms of the time. Primarily examining independence, human rights, and man’s place in the universe these intellectuals changed the literary world. Although Transcendentalism only lasted several decades the religious, political and social issues addressed changed the way America viewed the world. The religious circumstances of the 1800’s led to the creation of the Transcendentalism period. In order to understand Transcendentalism it is necessary to understand what was occurring in the religious world during the early 1800’s. The dominant religion in New England in this time was Unitarianism, a more liberal branch of Christianity. Unlike the very harsh Calvinists, the Unitarians focused more on stability and harmony, rather than obedience and guilt. However, the Transcendentalists felt something was missing in Unitarianism. The authors of this time strove to gain a more complete spiritual experience outside of the established religions. Ralph Waldo Emerson,
the original Transcendentalist, encouraged this mindset of fluid religious boundaries saying: “If the noblest saint among the Buddhists, the best Mahometan, the highest Stoic of Athens, the purest and wisest Christian could meet somewhere and converse, they would all find themselves of one religion.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). However, many of the authors held more traditional religious values and believed that the ideas revered by Transcendentalism came from God. Charles Ellis surmised this though in his quotation: “[Transcendentalism maintains] that man has ideas, that come not through the five sense, or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world.” (Charles Ellis). This movement, which began as a religious revolution, quickly spread to address other issues such as the changing political world. The political landscape of 1800’s was tumultuous place in American history but without this chaos Transcendentalism could not have been created. During this time American was expanding in every possible way. As floods of immigrants entered New York adventurers pushed to the south and the west fervently embracing the idea of Manifest Destiny. Andrew Jackson was elected president and his encouragement of self-reliance drove the Transcendentalist views on the individual. He encouraged people to create their own destinies and focus on personal achievement. These values were mirrored in Transcendentalist works and the American people began to change. However, all Transcendentalist writers did not look on the government favorably: In his essay Civil Disobedience Henry David Thoreau states; “The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.” The people of this time were becoming less and less dependent on the government and transformed into proactive, self-made men. Transcendentalists encouraged this in all of their writings, believing the enormity of organized politics could corrupt the individual. This idea was reflected in all of the texts throughout this literary period and helped pave the way for Transcendentalism to address the scores of social issues of the 19th Century. The social issues of the 1800’s were immense and were the foundation for many of the works published during the Transcendentalism movement. Women’s rights and the
abolishment of slavery were the primary concerns of the Transcendentalist writers. Margaret Fuller published the first piece of feminist literature, Women of the 19th Century and encouraged equality between men and women saying; “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.” Although the lives of women in America were not changed drastically during this time, Margaret Fuller and many other authors set the stage for women of a later time to change the world. However, feminist works were not the focus of this literary period, the abolishment of slavery, which was the forefront social issue of the time, was featured in almost all of the Transcendentalists’ texts. In the period leading up to the Civil War the country became more and more divided, as slavery became an incredibly hotly contested issue. As Transcendentalism was primarily based in the northeast many of the texts called for the abolishment of slavery. Henry David Thoreau was particularly disgusted by the government’s allowance of slavery and called for the people to disobey the government saying; “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law”. (Henry David Thoreau). Although Transcendentalists were highly influenced by the social landscape of the 1800’s at the same time they sought to avoid it. Many Transcendentalist ideals revolve around the idea of removing oneself from society in order to become a complete individual, not forced to conform and become one of the masses. One of the most famous Transcendentalist works Walden was written while Henry David Thoreau lived apart from the world on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. However, as hard as the Transcendentalists tried to breakaway from society they were inevitably molded by it. The culture of the time shaped the Transcendentalist period. Although the revolution was short-lived, waning after several decades and completely ending with the outbreak of the civil war in 1861 the influence of the movement is still felt today. Texts
such as Women of the 19th Century, Walden, Nature and many other Transcendentalist works are still read and studied. The culture of nonconformity and individualism is alive and thriving today. The ideas on man, beauty and life are incredibly important and the
issues addressed by Transcendentalist authors are ones that continue to pose problems for modern society.