The Transcendentalists, the two best known of whom were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, rose to the height of their influence between 1830 and 1841. They rejected Locke's materialism (i.e., his idea that all that can be known for certain is what can be experienced with the five senses, and that to be valid, an idea must be able to be proven empirically) in favor of Kant's idea that "transcendental" knowledge was innate in the human mind. Intuition, therefore, surpasses knowledge as the guide to truth. The individual mind is, they argued, a microcosm of God's mind. It follows that the individual is sacred, as are his rights.
The Transcendentalists were drawing on a long tradition: the Greeks, especially Plato, the Hindus, Christian mystics, and European Romantics. To oversimplify quite a bit, the Transcendentalists drew from these sources the basic belief that human nature was good, and that born in us was a knowledge of perfect goodness in all things. They rejected the idea of the "tabula rasa," i.e., the idea that human beings were born blank slates and that character was formed according to education and experiences. They argued that each human soul was already illuminated, at birth, by the divine. The purpose of human life was to look inside oneself (rather than outward, to the community) for a knowledge of what was good, and then to live according to that goodness.
The Transcendentalists spoke of an "Oversoul," "an all-pervading power for goodness from which all things come and of which all things are part" (McMichael 659). Because of their emphasis on individuality, they rejected the value of organized religion. Each person's relationship with God must be addressed individually, they believed, not mediated by an outside source. Like the English Romantics, the Transcendentalists saw God reflected in Nature, and Thoreau argues that going for a walk in the woods is a far more religious experience than listening to a sermon inside a church.
The Transcendentalists were among the first voices to reject the Protestant Work Ethic with its emphasis on commercialism and materialism. They argued against acquisition and for simplicity: when one is focused on attaining material goods, one cannot make good moral choices, because, as Thoreau argues, one's moral sense is blunted by one's desire to get money and goods, and one's conscience is blunted or erased altogether. The Transcendentalists made two attempts to create Utopian communities which supported their beliefs: one called Fruitlands in 1843, and another, the more successful, at Brook Farm, from 1841-1846. Both were communcal farms on which there was an equal sharing of burdens and benefits. The living conditions were, by design, spartan. Plenty of time was allowed for privacy and solitude, and a basic principle was equality of the sexes, classes, and races.
The Transcendental Club was a group of authors who met regularly, most often at Emerson's home in Concord, Massachusetts. They issued a magazine called The Dial which espoused the ideas of Transcendentalism. Among the members of the club were Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody. Emerson was the guiding light of the group; his ideas influenced the other members, and their ideas flowered out in different directions. Margaret Fuller became one of the most vocal proponents of women's rights, and Thoreau's ideas on civil disobedience and passive resistance influenced people all over the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803, one of 5 children. His father, a minister, died in 1811, when he was 8, and his mother raised the children alone. They were poor, so Emerson went to Harvard on a scholarship. After he graduated, he taught at a women's school for a time, and then entered Harvard Divinity School. He became the minister of the Second Unitarian Church in Boston, and was successful and popular. But as his ideas developed, he became more uncomfortable with the idea of organized religion, and eventually resigned his position.
He travelled in Europe, and when he returned, he published Nature, in which he argued that God made Nature as a reflection of the spiritual world. Nature was a scripture, he said, immediate and accessible to the individual mind and soul. He rejected old ideas, especially European ones: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe...There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own work and laws and worship." In "Self-Reliance," he went on to express the idea that divinity exists in each individual self. He ethically opposed selfishness and materialism: one's most important quest is to merge with the "Oversoul," i.e., God. One's identity rests on unity with nature, and on being true to oneself, rather than to the institutions of society. He saw science and God not as separate and competing forces; rather, science illuminated the mysteries of God.
As for literarure, he rejected the didactic and allegorical, and saw the poet as the interpreter, one whose role is to provide a platform from which to gain a greater view of the world's possibilities. The world is full of symbols, but those symbols, rather than representing any one fixed idea, suggest a range of possibilites. He knew that he, himself, was not the genius America needed to express its new "self," but he was sure that genius would come: "Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres."
In 1825, the year he entered divinity school, he married a woman he loved deeply, Ellen Tucker. She was already ill when they married, and she died less than two years later of tuberculosis. He remarried in 1835 and had four children; his oldest child, Waldo, died at age 6. Despite all of the upheavals and activity in his life, Emerson tried to live as quiet and contemplative a life as possible. His mental and physical health began to fail in 1872, and he died in 1882.
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 and died in 1862, at age 44. His life was outwardly unremarkable and uneventful, and he was not economically successful by anyone's standards, nor did he aspire to be. Yet his work outshone that of Emerson, his mentor, and has had international influence.
Thoreau was born into a poor family. Nevertheless, unlike most other young men of his social class, he went to Harvard, where he supported himself by doing odd jobs and chores, and teaching in the vacations and summers. After his graduation he tried teaching. He and his brother John opened a private school in Concord, Massachusetts and it was a success for a time, but it was closed after John died of lockjaw in 1842. Thoreau also worked intermittently with his father in their pencil factory. He lived with Emerson for a while, and also with Emerson's brother, earning his keep by doing chores, caring for the house and tutoring the children. He contributed essays to The Dial and did lecture tours on occasion. In 1849, he published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; it was not a commercial success. His masterpiece, Walden, was published in 1854. Thoreau contracted tuberculosis and died at age 44, in 1862.
The most famous period of Thoreau's life was the time when he lived at Walden Pond, just south of Concord Village, on land owned by Emerson. In March of 1845, Thoreau began building a house there and moved in on July 4. He lived there for 2 years and 2 months. In the journal he kept of this time, which was later edited and published as Walden, he describes his efforts, experiences, encounters with nature and other people, and shows how he put into practice his philosophy.
Thoreau believed in simplicity and argued against materialism. He believed in the divine unity of nature. He had little interest in travel; he felt that each place is a microcosm of the universe. He argued for change, not socially, but in the individual spirit and conscience. One cannot control what the rest of the world does, he says in "Civil Disobedience," but one can control oneself, and if everyone makes the right choices, the task of social reform will be accomplished.
Nevertheless, he was moved by various political events of his time. He opposed slavery and made abolitionist speeches on a number of occasions. He also opposed the Fugitive Slave Act and spoke out against it. And he refused to pay his taxes in support of the Mexican War, and was jailed for a night, an experience which inspired his most famous essay, "Civil Disobedience" (also sometimes called "Resistance to Civil Government"). This essay directly influenced the ideas and methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism.
4. Perry Miller. The American Transcendentalists.
5. Ed. William Rossi. Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. Norton Critical Edition.
6. Eds. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. Emerson's Prose and Poetry. Norton Critical Edition.
--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.
--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.