Transcendentalism

Many people associate a secluded cabin in the woods with Transcendentalism, a literary and philosophical movement that began in the 1830s. Although having a relatively brief heyday, Transcendentalism continues to live on in the minds of writers of today, making it one of the most influential periods in American literature.

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    Transcendentalism A cabin in the woods StudySmarterA cabin in the woods can easily be associated with Transcendentalism. But how? Pixabay

    What do you think of when you see the photo above? Perhaps solitude? Simplicity? A spiritual awakening? A retreat from modern society? A sense of independence?

    The definition of Transcendentalism

    Transcendentalism is an approach to philosophy, art, literature, spirituality, and a way of living. A group of writers and other intellectuals started what became known as the "Transcendental Club" in 1836. Lasting until 1840, these club meetings focused on new ways of thinking and orienting one's self in the world. First and foremost, Transcendentalism emphasizes intuition and personal knowledge and resists conformity to social norms. Transcendentalist writers and thinkers believe individuals are inherently good. Everyone has the power to “transcend” the chaos of society and use their own intellect for finding a sense of greater meaning and purpose.

    Transcendentalists believe in the power of the human spirit. Through the Transcendentalist view, the individual is capable of experiencing a direct relationship with the divine. In their mind, organized, historical churches are not necessary. One can experience divinity through contemplation of nature. With a return to simplicity and a focus on everyday situations, they can enhance their spiritual lives.

    Another major theme in Transcendentalism is self-reliance. Just as the individual can experience the divine without needing a church, the individual must also avoid conformity and instead rely on their own instincts and intuition.

    Transcendentalism cannot be easily defined, and even those within its circles have nuanced attitudes and beliefs regarding it. Because it promotes individuality, self-reliance, and one's own inner strength and knowledge, it rejects becoming a simple definition and an institution. You'll never find a school for Transcendentalism, nor are there any prescribed rites or rituals associated with it.

    Origins of Transcendentalism

    Symposium: A social gathering where intellectual ideas are discussed.

    In September 1836, a group of prominent ministers, reformists, and writers gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to plan a symposium around the state of present-day American thought. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would become the leading man of the Transcendentalist movement, was in attendance at this first meeting. The club became a regular occurrence (soon called “The Transcendentalist Club”), with more members attending each meeting.

    Transcendentalism Portrait of Waldo Emerso StudySmarterPortrait of Ralph Waldo Emerso, Wikimedia commons

    At first created to protest the dull intellectual climate of Harvard and Cambridge, the meetings formed as a result of the members’ common dissatisfaction with religion, literature, and politics at the time. These meetings became a forum to discuss radical social and political ideas. Special topics included women’s suffrage, anti-slavery and abolitionism, American Indian rights, and utopian society.

    The last meeting of the Transcendentalist Club was in 1840. Shortly thereafter, The Dial, a magazine centering on Transcendentalist ideas, was founded. It would run essays and reviews in religion, philosophy, and literature until 1844.

    Transcendental literature characteristics

    Although the most famous works in Transcendentalist literature are non-fiction, Transcendentalist literature spanned all genres, from poetry to short fiction, and novels. Here are some key characteristics you will find in Transcendentalist literature:

    Transcendentalism: Psychology of inner experience

    Much of the Transcendentalist literature focuses on a person, character, or speaker who turns inward. Free from the demands of society, the individual pursues an exploration—often an outward one—but simultaneously of their own inner psyches. Immersing oneself in nature, living in solitude, and devoting life to contemplation are classic Transcendentalist methods for discovering the inner landscape of the individual.

    Transcendentalism: Exaltation of the individual spirit

    Transcendentalist writers believed in the inherent goodness and purity of the individual soul. Through their rejection of organized religion and dominant social norms, they touted the human spirit as innately divine. Because of this, many Transcendentalist texts meditate on the nature of God, spirituality, and divinity.

    Transcendentalism: Independence and self-reliance

    There can’t be a Transcendentalist text without a sense of independence and self-reliance. Because the Transcendentalist movement began from dissatisfaction with the current social structures, it urged individuals to govern themselves instead of becoming dependent upon others. You'll find Transcendentalist texts have a character or speaker who decides to go their own way—to march to the beat of their own drum.

    Transcendental literature: authors and examples

    There were many Transcendental authors, though Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller provide classic examples of the foundation of this movement.

    Transcendentalism: ‘Self-Reliance’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson

    "Self-Reliance", an essay published in 1841 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, has become one of the most famous Transcendentalist texts. In it, Emerson claims each individual has true authority over themselves. He argues that individuals should trust themselves above all else, even if it means not conforming to societal norms. Goodness, he says, comes from within an individual, not from what is outwardly seen in society. Emerson believes that each person should govern themselves according to their own intuitions and not by what political or religious leaders dictate. He closes his essay by arguing that self-reliance is the path the peace.

    Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.

    -Ralph Waldo Emerson, from "Self-Reliance"

    Transcendentalism Title page of Walden by Henry David Thoreau StudySmarterTitle page of Walden, written by Henry David Thoreau, Wikimedia commons

    Transcendentalism: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

    Published in 1854, Walden explores Thoreau’s experiment of living simply in nature. Thoreau recounts the two years he spent living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond. He records scientific observations of natural phenomena and reflects on nature and its metaphorical significance. Part memoir, part spiritual quest, part self-reliance manual, this book has become the quintessential Transcendentalist text.

    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.

    -Henry David Thoreau, from Walden (Chapter 2)

    Transcendentalism: Summer on the Lakes by Margaret Fuller

    Margaret Fuller, one of the prominent women of the Transcendentalist movement, chronicled her introspective voyage around the Great Lakes in 1843. She wrote an intensely personal account of all that she encountered, including her sympathy for the treatment of Native Americans and commentary about the deterioration of the natural landscape. Just as Thoreau used his experience at Walden to meditate upon the external and internal lives of individuals, Fuller did the same in this often overlooked Transcendentalist text.

    Although Fuller is not as famous as Emerson or Thoreau, she paved the way for many feminist writers and thinkers of her time. She was one of the first women who were permitted to participate in the Transcendental Club, which was rare, given that, at the time, women typically did not occupy the same public intellectual spaces as men. She went on to become the editor of The Dial, a Transcendentalist-focused literary journal, which cemented her role as an important figure in the Transcendentalist movement.

    Who sees the meaning of the flower uprooted in the ploughed field? ...[T]he poet who sees that field in its relations with the universe, and looks oftener to the sky than on the ground.

    -Margaret Fuller, from Summer on the Lakes (Chapter 5)

    Impact of Transcendentalism on American literature

    Transcendentalism began in the 1830s, just before the American Civil War (1861-1865). As the Civil War unfolded, this new movement of thought forced people to look at themselves, their country, and the world with a new introspective perspective. The impact Transcendentalism had on the American people encouraged them to acknowledge what they saw with honesty and detail. Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 essay "Self Reliance" impacted many writers of the time, including Walt Whitman, and later authors like Jon Krakauer. Many American writers today are still impacted by Transcendental ideology that emphasizes one's individual spirit and independence.

    Transcendentalism Portrait of Wlat Whitman StudySmarterPortrait of Walt Whitman, Wikimedia commons

    Transcendentalism: Walt Whitman

    Although not officially part of the Transcendentalist circle, poet Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) read Emerson’s work and was immediately transformed. Already a man of self-reliance and deep intuition, Whitman would later write Transcendentalist poetry, such as ‘Song of Myself,’ (from Leaves of Grass, 1855) which celebrates the self in relation to the universe, and ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom,’ (1865) which uses nature as a symbol.

    Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you.

    You must travel it by yourself.

    It is not far. It is within reach.

    Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,

    Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land

    -Walt Whitman, from 'Song of Myself' in Leaves of Grass

    Transcendentalism: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

    Into the Wild, written by Jon Krakauer and published in 1996, is a non-fiction book detailing the story of Chris McCandless and his expedition of self-discovery on a solo journey through the Alaskan woods. McCandless, who left behind the modern-day "trappings" of his life in search of greater meaning, spent 113 days in the wilderness. He embodied the mid-nineteenth century Transcendentalist notions of self-reliance, nonconformity, and immersion in nature. In fact, McCandless cites Thoreau several times in his journal entries.

    Despite the Transcendentalism movement occurring in the mid-nineteenth century, there are still Transcendentalist texts today. Another modern-day example of Transcendentalist literature is the book Wild (2012), by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed, who is grieving her mother's passing, turns to nature for self-discovery and to follow her intuition. What other modern-day examples of Transcendentalist literature or films can you think of?

    Anti-Transcendentalist literature

    Standing in direct opposition to Transcendentalism was an Anti-Transcendentalist offshoot. Where Transcendentalism believes in the inherent goodness of one’s soul, anti-Transcendentalist literature—sometimes called American Gothic or Dark Romanticism—took a pessimistic turn. Gothic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville saw the potential for evil in every individual. Their literature focused on the darker side of human nature, such as betrayal, greed, and the capacity for evil. Much of the literature contained the demonic, grotesque, mythical, irrational, and fantastical, which is still popular today.

    Transcendentalism - Key takeaways

    • Transcendentalism is a mid-nineteenth-century literary and philosophical movement.
    • Its major themes are intuition, the individual's relationship to nature and the divine, self-reliance, and nonconformity.
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two close friends, are the most famous Transcendentalist writers. Margaret Fuller is lesser-known, but she paved the way for early feminist writers and thinkers.
    • "Self-Reliance" by Emerson and Walden by Thoreau are essential Transcendentalist texts.
    • Transcendentalism influenced several writers and genres in American literature: Walt Whitman and John Krakauer, to name a few.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Transcendentalism

    What are 4 beliefs of Transcendentalism?

    The 4 beliefs of Transcendentalism are: individuals are inherently good; individuals are capable of experiencing the divine; contemplation of nature brings about self-discovery; and individuals should live according to their own intuition. 

    What is Transcendentalism in American literature?

    Transcendentalism in American literature is a contemplation of one's inner and outer experiences. Most Transcendentalist literature centers on spirituality, self-reliance, and nonconformity.

    What was one of the main ideas of Transcendentalism?

    One of the main ideas of Transcendentalism was that individuals did not need to rely on organized religion or other social structures; instead, they could rely on themselves to experience the divine. 

    What were the main principles of transcendentalism?

    The main principles of Transcendentalism are self-reliance, nonconformity, following one's intuition, and immersion in nature. 

    Which leading writer of the mid-nineteenth century founded transcendentalism?

    Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leader of the Transcendentalism movement in the mid-nineteenth century. 

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