In its 1836–46 heyday, the New England–based religious, intellectual, and social movement known as transcendentalism fostered a truly American literature and inspired important social reforms, including abolition of slavery and new roles for women. Although it was never a mass movement, its adherents’ attempts to harmonize human freedom with religious belief, social responsibility, and the natural order continue to resonate in today’s American culture.
Transcendentalism was deeply influenced by the romantic movement that swept Europe in the wake of the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Young Americans—children of the early 19th century—found themselves drawn to new ideas about how to interact with nature and find personal authenticity and wholeness.
In so doing, they challenged old-line religious beliefs, questioned the growing Industrial Revolution, and energized emerging notions of American democracy. Well educated (many were Harvard graduates) and more urban than most Americans of their time, most who called themselves transcendentalists were clergy, writers, and teachers living in and near Boston.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the beginning what became known as transcendentalism was mainly a revolt against many of the teachings and assumptions of the New England religious establishment. As Massachusetts, established as a Puritan “City on a Hill” in the early 17th century, evolved toward Unitarianism in the early 19th century, some church leaders and members came to see their modern creed as excessively rationalistic and inadequate to modern challenges.
Bostonian Ralph Waldo Emerson was destined to follow in his Unitarian minister father’s respectable footsteps. When his 20-year-old wife died of tuberculosis in 1831, the young Harvard graduate was plunged into doubt, finding his own preaching of religious certitude of little comfort.
Resigning his ministry at Boston’s Second Unitarian Church, Emerson went to Europe, learning French, German, and Italian and meeting such key romantic advocates as essayist Thomas Carlyle and poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
By the 1830s the former minister was traveling the American lyceum circuit, preaching lay sermons to men and women seeking moral and intellectual improvement. In his famous 1841 lecture, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson urged people to think, and rethink, for themselves, saying “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines ... To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Revered and attacked, admired, imitated, and sometimes mocked as a disembodied “transparent eyeball,” Emerson was the intellectual and personal center of the coterie of like-minded thinkers and doers who were the transcendentalists. He is generally considered to be America’s first public intellectual and first philosopher of the evolving republic.
Other Important Trancendentalists
Emerson’s circle was marked by deep intellectual and personal friendships that could at times become competitive or even petty. Transcendentalism tried to unleash human potential rather than codify it, and transcendentalists tended toward independence rather than orthodoxy. In the process, adherents made important contributions to the slavery and labor questions of their day and rethought education and women’s rights.
Henry David Thoreau
The person most closely associated with Emerson, Thoreau is best known for his two-year experiment in natural living at Walden Pond and his formulation of “civil disobedience,” the idea that free people of conscience can, and indeed must, refuse to go along with unjust government actions. A Harvard graduate like his mentor, Thoreau worked to develop practical skills and showed a real talent for making do with available resources.
In important ways, he embodied the self reliant man of Emerson’s orations. Thoreau wrote his essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” after he was arrested at Walden in 1846 by Concord’s sheriff for refusing (for a sixth time) to pay a poll tax because he felt it aided Massachusetts’s participation in the Mexican-American War, a war that many believed was being fought to preserve and expand slavery.
“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them ... ?” Thoreau asked. “The authority of government ... can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.” He served a night in jail; the essay became an inspiration for later activists.
Cofounder with Emerson of the influential but shortlived quarterly The Dial, Fuller was later an assistant editor and foreign correspondent for the New-York Tribune and one of America’s earliest exponents of women’s rights. In her essays and an influential 1845 book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller argued that the kinds of self-realization and personal fulfillment advocated by transcendental thinking must also be available to women.
“As men become aware that all men have not had their fair chance,” she wrote in the July 1843 Dial, “they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance.” Fuller died in a shipwreck near New York as she returned from Italy with her husband and young son, who both also drowned.
Parker, a controversial minister, was forced out of the Unitarian Church. Although he had doubts about the intellectual equality of black people, he became an enthusiastic transcendentalist and a leader of the antislavery movement. A foe of the Mexican War like Thoreau, Parker led opposition in the Boston area to federal efforts to enforce the new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, going so far as to hide an escaped slave in his home.
Even more controversially, he helped finance arms purchases that helped antislavery zealot John Brown and others fight slaveholding settlers in the disputed Kansas-Nebraska Territory and enabled Brown to launch his failed raid on a U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.
Orestes A. Brownson
Born in Vermont, Brownson was a lifelong religious seeker who ultimately became a Roman Catholic. During his years as an important transcendentalist, Brownson focused on inequitable treatment of workers, both free and enslaved. A socialist and editor of his own Boston-based journal, Brownson saw the gap between the wealthy and laboring classes growing disastrously in violation of God’s law and the supposed equality promised by American democracy.
“What in one word is this American system?” he asked in 1840. “Is it not the abolition of all artificial distinctions, all social advantages founded on birth or any other accident, and leaving every man to stand on his own feet ... ?”
Best known today as the often-absent father of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, the self-educated Alcott pioneered new educational methods, some of which have continued to influence American schooling. Children, he believed, should not be forced to learn a rigid curriculum but taught ways to open their minds to a world of knowledge.
The child, he wrote, “is the Book. The operations of his mind are the true system.” Although his ideas were controversial, partly because he disdained corporal punishment, Alcott was eventually appointed superintendent of Concord’s public schools.
Less successful was Fruitlands, the agricultural community Alcott and a British friend founded in a rural Massachusetts town in 1843. It lasted just six months, done in by rules that included cold-water showers, strict vegetarianism, sexual abstinence, and opposition to animal exploitation so strict that colonists could not use horses or oxen to clear land for farming.
George Ripley and the Brook Farm Experiment
Brook Farm, an experiment in communal living on a transcendental plane, proved more durable than Alcott’s Fruitlands but collapsed in 1847 after six years of financial struggle, infighting, a disastrous fire, and a smallpox outbreak. Located on a 200-acre West Roxbury, Massachusetts, dairy farm, the “colony” was the brainchild of Unitarian minister George Ripley, his wife, Sophia, and other committed transcendentalists.
In the wake of 1837’s socially destructive U.S. financial panic, ideas of economic self-sufficiency, the ennoblement of manual labor, and the in-gathering of likeminded intellectuals seemed especially appealing. Brook Farm’s founders were also influenced by the social thought of Frenchman Charles Fourier, whose American adherents would eventually gain control of this experiment in group living.
Although Emerson was unenthusiastic about Ripley’s proposed “city of God,” planning proceeded apace in 1840–41. During a very cold and wet spring, the Ripleys and a dozen supporters—most lacking any agricultural experience whatsoever—took up residence at the farm. In 1842 a school of college-preparatory caliber was established at Brook Farm, attracting some of the cream of New England society as students and teachers.
The settlement quickly became a magnet for tourists, transcendentalists, and Fourierists, but its poor soil and inadequate financing, as well as a series of disasters, led to its demise. As the community failed, George Ripley auctioned off his personal library in a vain effort to save the foundering utopian enterprise.
Emerson immersed himself in the ideas, poetry, and literature of early 19th-century Europe, but he and other transcendentalists were also convinced that their countrymen and -women must and could create a uniquely American voice in all the arts, especially fiction and poetry. Eventually, writers who were not always best sellers in their own time would be canonized by 20th-century critics and are still considered among the most important the United States ever produced.
An early settler and major investor in Brook Farm, Hawthorne was the descendant of Puritan elders, among them participants in the Salem witch trials. In 1852, 10 years after he spent more than six months milking cows and spreading manure, he satirized Brook Farm in his novel The Blithedale Romance. More important were novels such as The Scarlet Letter and short stories, including “Young Goodman Brown,” in which Hawthorne examined darker aspects of theology and human behavior.
A strong admirer and interpreter of Hawthorne’s work, Melville, a New Yorker, first gained notice as the writer of popular seafaring stories based on his own experiences. His later stories and novels, including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Benito Cereno, and Moby-Dick (dedicated to Hawthorne) were much bleaker, exploring issues of slavery, race, and madness before and after the Civil War. His sales languished during his lifetime but were revived by positive critical attention in the 1920s and later.
Born on a failing Long Island farm, Whitman was an itinerant teacher, printer, and editor whose poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, later much expanded, burst on the scene in 1855. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson wrote to the previously unknown poet days after its publication. Emerson viewed Whitman as the ideal poet he had proposed in an 1844 essay. An active opponent of slavery, Whitman used his poetry to mourn the violence of war as he nursed injured Union soldiers.
His poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” lamented Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Whitman’s poetry celebrated ordinary men and women. That, and his radical use of free verse—characterized by some as “barbaric yawp”—became key aspects of his truly “American” poetics.
Always controversial in its own time, transcendentalism gained new respect and importance in the 20th century, as educators, literary critics, and social activists found in its teachings and experiments new energy and new lessons for the United States and other societies.
In Thoreau, such social critics as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and American anti-Vietnam war protestors found inspiration and justification for their opposition to colonialism, racism, and arrogant political power. Educational programs that seem to borrow from the child-centered focus of Alcott and others have met both praise and scorn in America and Europe.
Emersonian concepts of self-reliance and personal fulfillment, sometimes credited with improving American public life, have also been blamed for encouraging a “culture of narcissism.” Transcendentalism continues to transcend its own historical place and time.