Definition Transcendentalism is a term associated with a group of new ideas in literature that emerged in New England in the early-to- middle 19th century. The major figures in the movement included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman.
What was the central idea… that held all those authors and poets and philosophers together so that they deserved the name Transcendentalists?
Social Movement The Transcendentalists can be understood in one sense by their context -- by what they were rebelling against, what they saw as the current situation and therefore as what they were trying to be different from.
Fun Facts They were a generation of well educated people who lived in the decades before the American Civil War and worked for the abolition of slavery.
Focus on American Literature Decades after American independence, now it was time for literary independence. So they created literature that was clearly different from anything from Europe.
Another way to look at the Transcendentalists is to see them as a generation of people struggling to define spirituality and religion in a way that took into account the new understandings their age made available.
Pendulum Swing The Enlightenment had come to new rational conclusions about the natural world, mostly based on experimentation and logical thinking.
Romanticism A more Romantic way of thinking -- less rational, more intuitive, more in touch with the senses -- was coming into vogue.
More Emotional Religion The spiritual hunger of the age gave rise, to an intuitive, experiential, passionate, more-than-just-rational perspective. God gave humankind the gift of intuition, the gift of insight, the gift of inspiration. Why waste such a gift?
In their perspective, a loving God would not have led so much of humanity astray; there must be truth in these scriptures, too. Truth, if it agreed with an individual's intuition of truth, must be indeed truth.
And so Transcendentalism was born "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.“ Ralph Waldo Emerson
What did Transcendentalists Believe? The inherent goodness (divinity!) of Man and Nature.
Other beliefs The value of individualism That Society is the source of corruptive, distracting materialism
God in Nature That God, the Oversoul, is the universal soul that permeates all being (much like "the Force")
Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882 Ralph Waldo Emerson is truly the center of the American Transcendental movement, setting out most of its ideas and values in a little book, Nature, published in 1836.
Henry David Thoreau 1817 –1862 He was a poet, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, philosopher, and leading Transcendentalist.
Friend of Emerson He is best known for his book Walden, which details the year he spent living an isolated, simple life near Walden pond. He is also famous for the essay “Civil Disobedience” which encourages people to resist unjust laws.