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Transcendentalism Return to the Timeline
Ralph Waldo Emerson with his son Edward and baby grandson Charles Lowell Emerson, from Emerson family photograph album, estate of Amelia Forbes Emerson, 1982.

Courtesy of the Concord Free Public Library
Literary, religious, and philosophical movement originating in New England in the mid-1830s and remaining influential until the 1860s. The philosophy behind transcendentalism was an eclectic mix of English romanticism (especially as mediated by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle), antirationality, antipuritanism, the mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg, and aspects of Eastern philosophies. The term "transcendentalism," which was actually coined by those who ridiculed the movement for its dreamy abstractions, derives from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote of the need to transcend reason alone for a true understanding of reality.

The central beliefs of transcendentalism were in unity between nature and God, the presence of God in each individual, and the potential perfectibility of humans. These core beliefs generated others, particularly in individualism and in the self-reliance extolled by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." Although transcendentalism was criticized for its supposed otherworldliness, it did have a strong practical element, evident in the formation of the utopian community of Brook Farm, in its anti-institutionalism, and in the dedication of many of its members to social reform. Writers who were either transcendentalists or closely associated with the movement include Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), Emerson, Margaret Fuller (1810-50), and Henry David Thoreau. Key transcendentalist works include Emerson's essays, especially "Nature" (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), "The Over-Soul" (1841), and "Self-Reliance" (1841), and Thoreau's "Walden" (1854). THE DIAL was the journal produced by the group. The influence of transcendentalism was such that it touched even those writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson who were uneasy about it or who rejected it outright.

Further Reading:
THIS IS THE BEAT GENERATION (1999) by James Campbell; BEAT DOWN TO YOUR SOUL (2001), edited by Ann Charters; THE BEAT GENERATION WRITERS (1996), edited by A. Robert Lee; A DIFFERENT BEAT: WRITINGS BY WOMEN OF THE BEAT GENERATION (1997), edited by Richard Peabody, and THE DAYBREAK BOYS (1990) by Gregory Stephenson.

From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson. Reprinted by permission of the author.


The American Novel