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American Transcendentalism Previous Next
Digital History ID 3551


The American Transcendentalists were a group of young New Englanders, mostly of Unitarian background, who found liberal religion too formal and rationalistic to meet their spiritual and emotional needs. Logic and reason, they believed, were incapable of explaining the fundamental mysteries of human existence. Where, then, could people find answers to life’s fundamental problems? The deepest insights, the transcendentalists believed, were to be found within the human individual, through intuition.

The transcendentalists shared a common outlook: a belief that each person contains infinite and godlike potentialities; an emphasis on emotion and the senses over reason and intellect; and a glorification of nature as a creative, dynamic force in which people could discover their true selves and commune with the supernatural. Like the romantic artists and poets of Europe, they emphasized the individual, the subjective, the imaginative, the personal, the emotional, and the visionary.

The central figure in transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Trained, like his father, to be a liberal Unitarian minister, Emerson found his parents’ faith unsatisfying. Unitarian theology and ritual, he wrote, was “corpse cold”; it was the “thin porridge or cold tea” of genteel Bostonians. Emerson’s life was marked by personal tragedy and illness--his father died when he was a boy; his first wife died after less than two years of marriage; his firstborn son died at the age of five; a brother went insane. Consequently, Emerson could never believe that logic and reason offered answers to life’s mysteries.

Appalled by the complacency, provinciality, and materialism of Boston’s elite, the 29-year-old Emerson resigned as minister of the prestigious Second Church of Boston in 1832. Convinced that no external answers existed to the fundamental problems of life, he decided to look inward and “spin my thread from my own bowels.”

In his essays and public lectures, Emerson distilled the essence of the new philosophy: All people contain seeds of divinity, but society, traditionalism, and lifeless religious institutions thwart the fulfillment of these potentialities. In his essay “Nature” (1836), Emerson asserted that God’s presence is inherent in both humanity and nature and can best be sensed through intuition rather than through reason.

In his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841), he called on his readers to strive for true individuality in the face of intense social pressures for conformity: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members....The virtue in most request is conformity....Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

Although Emerson himself was not an active reformer (he once wrote that whenever he saw a reformer, he felt like asking, “What right, Sir, do you have to your one virtue?”), his philosophy inspired many reformers far more radical than he. His stress on the individual, his defense of nonconformity, and his vocal critique of the alienation and social fragmentation that had accompanied the growth of cities and industry led others to try to apply the principles of transcendentalism to their personal lives and to society at large.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was one of the transcendentalists who strove to realize Emersonian ideals in his personal life. A pencilmaker, surveyor, and poet, Thoreau, like Emerson, was educated at Harvard. He felt nothing but contempt for social conventions and wore a green coat to chapel because Harvard’s rules required black. After college, he taught school and worked at his father’s pencil factory, but these jobs brought him no fulfillment.

In March 1845, the 28-year-old Thoreau, convinced that his life was being frittered away by details, walked into the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, to live alone. He put up a cabin near Walden Pond as an experiment--to see if it was possible for a person to live truly free and uncommitted: “I went into 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.” The aim of his experiment was to break free from the distractions and artificialities of life, to shed himself of needless obligations and possessions, and to establish an original relationship with nature. His motto was “simplify, simplify.”

During his 26 months at Walden Pond, he constructed his own cabin, raised his own food (“seven miles of beans”), observed nature, explored his inner self, and kept a 6,000-page journal. He served as “self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms,” “surveyor of forest-paths,” and protector of “wild-stock.” He also spent a night in jail, for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American War. This incident led him to write the classic defense of nonviolent direct action, “Civil Disobedience.”

Another figure who sought to realize transcendentalist ideals in her personal life was Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial. Often mocked as an egotist, she once said: “I know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.” She did indeed possess one of 19th century America’s towering minds. She was the first woman to use the Harvard College library and later became one of the nation’s first woman journalists, writing for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. A determined social reformer, she became a leading advocate of women’s rights, publishing Woman in the 19th Century in 1845. The book, in which she called for the complete equality of women and men, became a central work of the emerging women’s rights movement.

Active in Rome’s revolution of 1849, she shocked Bostonians by taking an Italian revolutionary nobleman, 11 years her junior, as her lover, and bearing his child out of wedlock (they secretly married later). She died in a shipwreck off Long Island, at the age of 40, along with her husband and son. Edgar Allan Poe spoke for many Americans when he said of her: “Humanity is divided into men, women, and Margaret Fuller.”

Another key figure in the transcendentalist circle was Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), a pioneer in the areas of child development and education. Often ridiculed--reviewers mockingly described one of his books as “clear as mud”--Alcott was far ahead of his time in his conception of education, which he viewed as a process of awakening and drawing out children’s intellectual and moral capacities through dialogue, individualized instruction, nature study, and encouragement of creative expression through art and writing. Critics scoffed at his techniques, particularly his rejection of corporal punishment and his substitution of “vicarious atonement,” a method of child discipline in which Alcott had naughty children spank him. When his own daughters misbehaved, Alcott went without dinner.

Convinced that adults had a great deal to learn about children’s physical, intellectual, and moral development, Alcott recorded 2,500 pages of observations on the first years of his daughters’ lives (who included Louisa May, later the author of Little Women and Little Men). He also published his dialogues with pupils on such controversial topics as the meaning of the Christian gospel and the processes of conception and birth.

Two dramatic attempts to apply the ideas of transcendentalism to everyday life were Brook Farm, a community located near Boston, and Fruitlands, a utopian community near Harvard, Massachusetts. In 1841, George Ripley, like Emerson a former Unitarian clergyman, established Brook Farm in an attempt to substitute transcendentalist ideals of “brotherly cooperation,” harmony, and spiritual fulfillment for the “selfish competition,” class division, and alienation that increasingly characterized the larger society. “Our ulterior aim is nothing less than Heaven on Earth,” declared one community member. Brook Farm’s residents, who never numbered more than 200, supported themselves by farming, teaching, and manufacturing clothing. The most famous member of the community was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who based his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance on his experiences there. The community lasted in its original form just three years.

In 1843, Bronson Alcott and others attempted to form a “New Eden” at Fruitlands--a community where they could achieve human perfection through high thinking, manual labor, and dress and diet reform. Practices at Fruitlands included communal ownership of property, frequent cold water baths, and a diet based entirely on native grains, fruits, herbs, and roots. Residents wore canvas shoes and linen tunics, so as not to have to kill animals for leather or use slave-grown cotton. Division of labor by gender, however, remained traditional. Responsibility for housekeeping and food preparation fell on Alcott’s wife Abba. Asked by a visitor if there were any beasts of burden at Fruitlands, Abba Alcott replied: “There is one woman.”

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