Transcendentalism: An American Philosophy



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Transcendentalism: An American Philosophy

Directions: Highlight the main points of Transcendentalism and any other points that specifically stick out to you.

Walt Whitman'sLeaves of Grassintroduced the "free verse" style of poetry, reflecting the individualistic tone of transcendentalism. This picture of Whitman with a butterfly appeared in the 1889 edition.

TRANSCENDENTALISM is a very formal word that describes a very simple idea. People, men and women equally, have knowledge about themselves and the world around them that "transcends" or goes beyond what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel.

This knowledge comes through intuition and imagination not through logic or the senses. People can trust themselves to be their own authority on what is right. A TRANSCENDENTALIST is a person who accepts these ideas not as religious beliefs but as a way of understanding life relationships.



The individuals most closely associated with this new way of thinking were connected loosely through a group known as THE TRANSCENDENTAL CLUB, which met in the Boston home of GEORGE RIPLEY. Their chief publication was a periodical called "The Dial," edited by Margaret Fuller, a political radical and feminist whose book "Women of the Nineteenth Century" was among the most famous of its time. The club had many extraordinary thinkers, but accorded the leadership position to RALPH WALDO EMERSON.


Margaret Fuller played a large part in both the women's and Transcendentalist movements. She helped plan the community at Brook Farm, as well as editing The Dial, and writing the feminist treatise, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

Emerson was a Harvard-educated essayist and lecturer and is recognized as our first truly "American" thinker. In his most famous essay, "THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR," he urged Americans to stop looking to Europe for inspiration and imitation and be themselves. He believed that people were naturally good and that everyone's potential was limitless. He inspired his colleagues to look into themselves, into nature, into art, and through work for answers to life's most perplexing questions. His intellectual contributions to the philosophy of transcendentalism inspired a uniquely American idealism and spirit of reform.








The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again.
It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth.
It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts.
It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry.
It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought.
It can stand, and it can go.
It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires
Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

-Excerpt from The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson










The Transcendental Club was associated with colorful members between 1836 and 1860. Among these were literary figures NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE,HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW, and WALT WHITMAN. But the most interesting character by far was HENRY DAVID THOREAU, who tried to put transcendentalism into practice. A great admirer of Emerson, Thoreau nevertheless was his own man — described variously as strange, gentle, fanatic, selfish, a dreamer, a stubborn individualist. For two years Thoreau carried out the most famous experiment in self-reliance when he went toWALDEN POND, built a hut, and tried to live self-sufficiently without the trappings or interference of society. Later, when he wrote about the simplicity and unity of all things in nature, his faith in humanity, and his sturdy individualism, Thoreau reminded everyone that life is wasted pursuing wealth and following social customs. Nature can show that "all good things are wild and free."

As a group, the transcendentalists led the celebration of the American experiment as one of individualism and self-reliance. They took progressive stands on women's rights, abolition, reform, and education. They criticized government, organized religion, laws, social institutions, and creeping industrialization. They created an American "state of mind" in which imagination was better than reason, creativity was better than theory, and action was better than contemplation. And they had faith that all would be well because humans could transcend limits and reach astonishing heights.


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