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Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism

What Is Transcendentalism? Introduction

New England Transcendentalism was a religious, philosophical, and literary movement that began to express itself in New England in the 1830s and continued through the 1840s and 1850s. Although Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, and others among the Transcendentalists lived to old age in the 1880s and beyond, by about 1860 the energy that had earlier characterized Transcendentalism as a distinct movement had subsided. For several reasons, Transcendentalism is not simple to define. Transcendentalism encompassed complex philosophical and religious ideas. Its tenets were tinged with a certain mysticism, which defies concise explanation. Moreover, significant differences of focus and interpretation existed among the Transcendentalists; these differences complicate generalizations about the movement as a whole.

Henry David Thoreau himself pointed out the difficulty of understanding Transcendentalism in his well-known journal entry for March 5, 1853:

The secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Science requests me . . . to fill the blank against certain questions, among which the most important one was what branch of science I was specially interested in . . . I felt that it would be to make myself the laughing-stock of the scientific community to describe to them that branch of science which specially interests me, inasmuch as they do not believe in a science which deals with the higher law. So I was obliged to speak to their condition and describe to them that poor part of me which alone they can understand. The fact is I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. Now that I think of it, I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.

Transcendentalism clearly eluded succinct definition in Thoreau's time as much as it does in our own.

Moreover, the Transcendentalists were only loosely connected with one another. They were not a cohesive, organized group who shared a formal doctrine. They were distinct and independent individuals who accepted some basic premises about man's place in the universe.

Transcendentalism flourished in the intellectual centers of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, because of Ralph Waldo Emerson's presence, in nearby Concord as well. Emerson moved to Concord in 1834 and bought a home on the Cambridge Turnpike in 1835. His essay Nature, a systematic exposition of the main principles of Transcendentalism, was published anonymously in 1836. Its publication sparked a period of intense intellectual ferment and literary activity.

Although it was based in part on ancient ideas (the philosophy of Plato, for example), Transcendentalism was in many ways a radical movement, threatening to established religion. Some people opposed Transcendentalism vigorously. One of its most reactionary critics was Harvard professor Andrews Norton, who attacked Emerson's "Divinity School Address" in 1838 and who went on to produce a piece titled Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity in 1839. (The "latest form of infidelity" to which Norton referred was, of course, Transcendentalism.)

Emerson was, as a high-profile writer, lecturer, and editor of the Transcendental periodical The Dial, central among the Transcendentalists. In addition to Emerson and Thoreau, others involved in the movement included: Amos Bronson Alcott (philosopher, educator, and Concordian); Margaret Fuller (early feminist, author, and lecturer; one of the editors of The Dial); James Freeman Clarke (Unitarian minister, author, and editor); Theodore Parker (Unitarian minister and abolitionist); Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (teacher and educational reformer, writer, editor, and social reformer; one of the publishers of The Dial); George Ripley (Unitarian minister, editor, and founder of the Brook Farm community); Orestes Brownson (editor, reviewer, and contributor of essays to The Christian Examiner and to his own Boston Quarterly Review); William Henry Channing (Unitarian minister and editor of the Western Messenger and other journals); Christopher Pearse Cranch (Unitarian minister, editor of the Western Messenger, poet, and artist); Convers Francis (Unitarian minister, biographer of John Eliot, and historian of Watertown); William Henry Furness (Unitarian minister, theologian, and author); Frederic Henry Hedge (Unitarian minister, scholar, author, editor, lecturer, and professor of ecclesiastical history and of German at Harvard); and Jones Very (poet, tutor in Greek at Harvard, and, after he proclaimed himself the second coming of Christ, a resident at McLean's Asylum). These individuals, all of whom devoted serious thought to the major concepts of Transcendentalism, were educated, intellectual people.