New England Transcendentalism was a religious, philosophical, and literary movement that began to express itself in the 1830s and continued through the 1840s and 1850s. For several reasons, Transcendentalism is not easy to define. Transcendentalism encompasses complex ideas; its beliefs are tinged with a certain mysticism; and significant differences of interpretation existed among people who considered themselves Transcendentalists.
The core beliefs of Transcendentalists generally include the following:
- The importance of a direct relationship with God and with nature.
- Belief in a kind of cosmic unity between mankind, God, and nature — sometimes called the Oversoul — which is a divine spirit or mind present in each and every person and in all of nature.
- A sense of dignity and importance of human activity as expressions of the divine. And a belief in an individual's power to bring about personal improvement and social change in harmony with God's purposes.
- The belief that truth is innate in all of creation and that knowledge of truth is intuitive.
Thoreau's life and writings are a great example of Transcendentalism. You may have studied about his decision to move away from the comforts of modern life to live alone in a small cabin in the woods of Walden Pond. He did this in order to get more in touch with nature and to test his beliefs. He believed that by being alone with nature, away from outside influences, he would better be able to understand universal truths present in nature and find wisdom for everyday life. Other people might turn to a religious leader or political figure for guidance, but Transcendentalists put the highest value in discovering truths for oneself.
As you watch Dead Poets' Society, look for characters who share some of the beliefs outlined above. How would someone who believes in a personal, intuitive path to truth approach poetry? Rather than being handed a book with step-by-step instructions for how to understand poems, a Transcendentalist wants to read and interpret the poems for himself — just like Robin Williams' character when he rips the instruction section right out of the textbook. Take a closer at his character and the influence he has on his students and you'll find more examples of the Transcendentalist world view.
For a closer look at the original Transcendentalists, check out the online literature note CliffsNotes Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism.