Transcendentalism is an visionary philosophical and social movement that expanded in New England around 1836 in response to Rationalism. Influenced by Romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy, it was centered around the idea that divinity flows through and is apart of all nature and humanity. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were major figures during this time.
The true ideas of Transcendentalism were built and influenced by the theories preceding it. Most influential were the writings of Immanuel Kant who said that real knowledge was that which was innate, instead of proved empirically. Some other important influences were that of Romanticism poets, namely William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The literary work of Transcendentalists was against the spiritual tradition of the Unitarian church, who at this time believed in the idea that science and reason helped people to discover God's plan for their life. Practitioners of Transcendentalism were completely against these ideas, believing that the teachings of spiritual knowledge interfered with already innate spiritual knowledge. The divine was there to be felt, not something to be convinced of.
- 1827-28 Cherokees ratify their new constitution
- 1828-30 Cherokees wrote a Memorial, or petition, asking the United States congress their permission to stay in their homes east of Mississippi
- 1829–37 President Andrew Jackson encourages westward movement of white population
- 1830 Congress passes Indian Removal Act, allowing Jackson to relocate eastern Indians west of the Mississippi
- 1831 William Lloyd Garrison starts The Liberator, antislavery journal; Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia
- 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes "Nature"
- 1837 Financial panic: failures of numerous banks lead to severe unemployment, which persists into the early 1840s
- 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson sends a letter to President Van Buren protesting the removal of the Cherokee from their homeland
- 1838–39 Trail of Tears: Cherokees forced from their homelands by federal troops
- 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes Self-Reliance
- 1847 Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden; or, Life in the Woods
- 1850 Fugitive Slave Act of the Compromise of 1850 is put into affect
- 1854 Henry David Thoreau delivers Slavery in Massachusetts at an anti-slavery meeting in Massachusetts
- 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision denies citizenship to African Americans
- 1861–65 American Civil War begins
Cultural Connections: Classics, Art, and Music
The English-born Thomas Cole was an accomplished artist that established the Hudson River School, an American art movement that grew in the mid-19th century. He was influenced by Transcendentalism and Romanticism trends and was known for his naturalistic portrayal of American scenery. His 1836 painting, The Oxbow, compares the wilderness and agricultural settlement of early America to emphasize the possibilities of the national landscape. As well as suggesting a potential likelihood of the United States land's future destiny while very much in awe of its majestic and natural beauty and the abundant resources available too. Thomas Cole, and other Hudson River painters believed in the same ideals as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, in that man could grow to be more spiritual acquainted with God in harmony of the natural and beautiful form of the world, if nature were to be left unharmed by the assistance of humankind.
Frédéric Chopin was a polish-born child prodigy pianist and composer. His unique blend of dream-like melody and bittersweet harmony creates a melancholic, poetic feeling of classic and romantic music. His piece, Preludes (Chopin) No. 15 "Raindrop" is his longest composition of his collection and generates a dark and dramatic tone of self-reflection and introspection. His music, while sometimes demanding, can have a subtle expression of depth and allows us to draw in new feelings and experiences. His compositions were very popular with followers of Transcendentalism and Romanticism time and trends because of that.
Important Movements in Philosophy
Transcendentalism was an important movement in philosophy during the early to middle years of the nineteenth century. Transcendentalism reform began in the Unitarian church, with the advocacy of an indwelling God and the significance of intuitive thought. This philosophy has an emphasis on individualism and being capable of transcending society. In order to transcend society one must be capable of looking past and beyond it. One must use their own intuition as a guide and not allow themselves to conform to the norms of the world. A philosophical breakthrough in Transcendentalism occurred with the publication of Waldo Ralph Emerson’s Self-Reliance, where he urges the reader to trust himself. “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude after ones own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance)
Transcendentalists believed in the Oversoul. This is the divine spark within, which connects us to all parts of nature, including human kind. The discovery of ones spark will never be found by use of logic or reason, but only through ones own intuition. The Oversoul and intuition, together, help us to understand our circumstances in life and give us all answers to all questions. “Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable…every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquires he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature)
Events, Laws, and Historical Documents
In 1838, Emerson wrote a personal letter to President Martin Van Buren, in an attempt to express his disagreement and concern about the government’s ethic cleansing, most commonly known as Trail of Tears, occurring in the American land east of Mississippi.
About 16,000 Cherokees lived in what is now Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. The Cherokee chief refused to sign a removal agreement with the government, however the government still was able to find a minority faction to agree to removal of the tribes in territories west of Mississippi. The Cherokees, if not dying along the way, were removed in 1835. In immediate response to this travesty, Emerson called this, “A crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country; for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our Government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country, anymore?” (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Letter to Martin Van Buren President of the United States)
In Emerson’s letter of President Martin Van Buren, Emerson out rightly expresses his opinion on the government’s decision regarding The Cherokees. His approach towards the President is extremely respectful, but at the same time clearly reflecting his pure disgust with the President’s decisions. “In the name of God, sir, we ask you if this be so. Do the newspapers rightly inform us?... The piety, the principle that is left in the United States, if only in its coarsest form, a regard to the speech of men, - forbid us to entertain it as a fact.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Letter to Martin Van Buren President of the United States)
Slavery had long existed in the United States since the beginnings of the country, however when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, it had a great impact on not just the affected states, (New York, Georgia, Massachusetts and Mississippi), but also on a prominent transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau. This law stated that all citizens of the previously listed states must assist in returning any runaway slaves back to their owners. Thoreau wrote multiple writings, including, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854).This writing was based on a speech by Thoreau given at a anti-slavery rally in Massachusetts, after the re-enslavement of fugitive slave, Anthony Burns. "Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried." (Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts) There is also Lecture on Slavery, written in 1855 which shares more of his disagreement with slavery, and how it is morally corrupt.
Events, Writings, and Movements with Religion
The 19th Century Transcendentalist were tremendously against structured and organized religion. They believed in spiritual independence, which means they held belief that the relationship between man and God was personal and only that. They were idealistic and optimistic, believing they could find the answers to whatever they sought after through intuition and instinct and considered the world to be one great entity. And also believed that the divine nature could be found in each individual, but only if that individual had independence of his mind. Very much contradictory to John Locke's theory, tabula rasa, which believed that all individuals is a blank slate and that knowledge is placed through experience. Transcendentalism believed that intuition enabled them to ignore external authority and instead depend on direct experience.
Transcendentalist also believed in the Oversoul, which is the heavenly spark that is found from within and encompasses all aspects of nature together. Again, only through intuition and personal insight could one find it's connection to the divine. Transcendentalism gives it's belief to the limitless possibilities of human capability to connect with both the natural and spiritual world. Their point is to become completely conscious of our senses and inner voice to help wisely and correctly guide us and to see these ideas in nature.
American Transcendentalism Web. Virginia Commonwealth University, 1999. Web. 14 July 2010.
Baym, Nina. "The Norton Anthology of American Literature." W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007. Web. 14 July 2010.
Baym, Nina, eds. "The Norton Anthology: American Literature." 7th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.
Campbell, Donna. "American Transcendentalism." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University, 2010. Web. 12 July 2010
Frederic Chopin @ Art + Culture. 2006. Web. 14 July 2010
Hampson, Thomas. "I Hear America Singing: Artist/Movements/Ideas." Educational Broadcasting Corporation. 1995. Web. 14 July 2010.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Transcendentalist." 1995. Web. 14 July 2010.
The American Novel: 1830-1850s Transcendentalism. Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2007. Web. 14 July 2010