113 A Look Into Transcendentalism (Group Anthology Contribution 2019)

Delaney John-Zensky, Danielle Murphy, and Dalton Puffer

In the mid-nineteenth century, a new literary and philosophical movement called Transcendentalism was born. It promoted the idea of living completely by one’s own motives and reality, ultimately ignoring those ideas held by others. This arose from the period before it known as Intellectualism which focused on the practice and exercise of the mind to gain reason.

Transcendentalism began in New England and is largely attributed to two prominent writers—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (Khan). Other highly esteemed writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller were also well-known transcendentalist writers. Popular writings of the movement include Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, or “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In addition to the individual work of each, many of the writers were connected through a club known as The Transcendental Club based in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the Harvard University campus. Here they compiled and spread the various tenets of Transcendentalism through a periodical titled The Dial (ushistory).

Transcendentalism celebrates the individual over society, believing that every person contains knowledge that transcends the physical realm. As such, transcendental thinkers encouraged people to form their own truths independent from those imposed on them by the church, society, and other scholars. The movement marked a shift back to nature as transcendentalists found simplicity and spirituality away from the pressures of civilization.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of “Self-Reliance” and other notable poems and essays, is widely regarded as the founder of the transcendental movement. Thus, he is responsible for many key shifts in the movement from start to finish, beginning when he left the Unitarian ministry in 1932 to become an essayist and orator, the event that launched the transcendental movement.

Four years later, Emerson anonymously published his groundbreaking book Nature, which many consider the defining text on Transcendentalism. Nature propelled Transcendentalism from its origins as a religious reform movement to one with philosophical, theological, political, and literary relevance.

Emerson contributed many important transcendental pieces, such as “The American Scholar,” his controversial Harvard Divinity School address, and some poetry. Perhaps his most famous text, “Self-Reliance” serves alongside Nature as a foundational piece in the transcendental movement (Richardson).

Published in 1841, “Self-Reliance” exemplifies a transcendental text and reinforces the elements central to the movement, such as nonconformity, free thought, and nature over society. Notions of God are intertwined with those of nature and man throughout Emerson’s essay, hinting at the earlier Unitarian reform teachings that served as the springboard for Transcendentalism as society’s relationship with God became increasingly individual. “Self-Reliance” urges people to adopt an individualistic lifestyle, where the ideas of the church and of known intellectuals do not influence one’s own beliefs. This essay is Emerson’s rallying cry to convince the broader public to adopt transcendental principles and live according to his principles of self-sufficiency and nonconformity (Carbone II). 

The end of the practice of Transcendentalism might have been signaled by the decline of Brook Farm between 1844 and 1847. Brook Farm was the commune inhabited by some members of the Transcendental Club. Emerson himself chose not to live there, but visited occasionally. The decline was the result of members not having a clear vision of the views of the farm’s mission, fighting amongst members, and financial problems. The 1850s is when Transcendentalism lost its influence, which is likely due to the death of fundamental member Margaret Fuller. (history.com). Even though other figures of the practice continued to write and publish, Transcendentalists were no longer a functioning group.

Carbone II, Steven A. American Transcendentalism and Analysis of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Inquiries Journal. http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1663/american-transcendentalism-and-analysis-of-ralph-waldo-emersons-self-relianceWednesday, October 2, 2019.

Getchell, Michelle. Transcendentalism. Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-early-republic/culture-and-reform/a/transcendentalism Tuesday, October 1, 2019.

History.com Editors. “Transcendentalism.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 15 Nov. 2017, https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/transcendentalism

Richardson, Jr.  Robert D. The Transcendetal Club. American Transcendentalism Web. https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/ideas/club.html. Wednesday October 2, 2019.

ushistory. Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy. U.S History Online Textbook. http://www.ushistory.org/us/26f.asp. Wednesday, October 2, 2019.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project by Delaney John-Zensky, Danielle Murphy, and Dalton Puffer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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