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THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE & TRANSCENDENTALISM

    "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."


With this fiery challenge Ralph Waldo Emerson concluded his 1837 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Address, THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. As his words were received with great enthusiasm, Emerson argued not only for a new American culture, freed from European bondage, but also for a rebirth of an intellectual and artistic life that was inextricably bound up with the life of the spirit. Before long, Emerson and his circle of writers, reformers, and artists would christen those ideals which governed the spirit "Transcendentalism."

The Old Manse in Concord, MA
The Old Manse in Concord, MA.

The Transcendentalists stood at the heart of The American Renaissance-- the flowering of our nation's thought in literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music in the period roughly designated from 1835-1880. Concentrated in Boston and Concord, MA, the home of many of the literary members such as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, Theodore Parker, Jones Very, George Ripley, the Peabody Sisters, and the Channings, Transcendentalism was far broader than a geographical phenomenon or a select club membership--though Ripley and Emerson had founded the Transcendental Club in 1836. Rather it was a faith shared by such diverse minds and such diverse places as those of Walt Whitman in Brooklyn or Emily Dickinson in Amherst or the Hudson River School of painters in New York; it was a visionary bent, a way of, as the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth had once described his mission, "of seeing into the life of things" that permeated the best of American thought and art throughout much of the 19th century. Even those artists of the American Renaissance who would find difficulty with the optimism of the Transcendentalists--Hawthorne and Melville among them--would be forced to focus on and respond to the existential issues the movement raised.

American Transcendentalism

The term Transcendentalism was derived from the philosopher Kant, who called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." The roots of the American philosophy ran deep into German and English Romanticism. From German philosophers such as Fichte and Herder, it received its mystic impulse; from Goethe, Novalis, Jean-Paul, Heine, and the other great German Romantic poets it acquired its imagistic language and themes. Acquaintance with German thought, by and large, filtered through English translations--Coleridge and Carlyle's among the best--and acquaintance with these and the work of other English Romantics such as Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron enriched the Americans' perspectives as well.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman in 1891.
In his 1841 address delivered at Boston's Masonic Temple , which was later reprinted in THE DIAL, Emerson attempted to define the philosophy in simple terms as "What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842." In reality it was far more complex collection of beliefs: that the spark of divinity lies within man; that everything in the world is a microcosm of existence; that the individual soul is identical to the world soul, or Over-Soul, as Emerson called it. This belief in the Inner Light led to an emphasis on the authority of the Self--to Walt Whitman's I , to the Emersonian doctrine of Self-Reliance, to Thoreau's civil disobedience, and to the Utopian communities at Brook Farm and Fruitlands. By meditation, by communing with nature, through work and art, man could transcend his senses and attain an understanding of beauty and goodness and truth.

Transcendentalism dominated the thinking of the American Renaissance, and its resonances reverberated through American life well into the 20th century. In one way or another our most creative minds were drawn into its thrall, attracted not only to its practicable messages of confident self-identity, spiritual progress and social justice, but also by its aesthetics, which celebrated, in landscape and mindscape, the immense grandeur of the American soul.


THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE
A SELECTED LIST OF WRITERS, ARTISTS, AND COMPOSERS


This list focuses not only on those creative artists working within the actual time frame of the American Renaissance, but also those whose art was a direct outgrowth of the Renaissance's and Transcendental thought.

Major Figures Dates Significance Major Work
William Cullen Bryant 1794-1878 Poet A FOREST HYMN
Bronson Alcott 1799-1888 Educator, Reformer

Temple School

CONCORD DAYS

TABLE TALK

George Ripley 1802-1880 Religious Reformer

founder Brook Farm

ed. THE HARBINGER

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882 Philosopher, Poet,

ESSAYS

WOODNOTES

Elizabeth Peabody 1804-1894 Feminist, Educator
Nathaniel Hawthorne 1804-1864 Author

SCARLET LETTER

HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES

MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE

Henry W. Longfellow 1807-1882 Poet

POEMS ON SLAVERY

EVANGELINE

COURTSHIP OF MILES STANDISH

John G. Whittier 1807-1892 Poet, Abolitionist

HOME BALLADS, POEMS, & LYRICS

VOICES OF FREEDOM

Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849 Poet, Author, Journalist

THE RAVEN

ULALUME

THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE


THE BLACK CAT

Margaret Fuller 1810-1850

Feminist, Journalist,

Literary Critic

WOMEN IN THE 19TH C.
ed./essays THE DIAL
W.H. Channing 1810-1884 Christian Socialist

Brook Farm

ed. THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE

Theodore Parker 1810-1860 Unitarian & Congregationalist Reformer LETTERS TOUCHING THE MATTER OF SLAVERY
Harriet Beecher Stowe 1811-1896 Novelist, Reformer UNCLE TOM'S CABIN
Walt Whitman 1813-1892 Poet LEAVES OF GRASS
Jones Very 1813-1880 Poet, Mystic POEMS & ESSAYS
Henry Ward Beecher 1813-1887 Congregationalist Minister, Reformer SERMONS
Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862 Essayist, Naturalist, Philosopher, Poet

WALDEN

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

MAINE WOODS

JOURNALS

W. Ellery Channing 1818-1901 Biographer, Poet

THOREAU, THE POET-NATURALIST

THE WANDERER

THE WOODMAN

Julia Ward Howe 1819-1910 Poet, Reformer

SEX & EDUCATION

THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC

Herman Melville 1819-1891 Author

MOBY DICK

BILLY BUDD

BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER

Hudson River School 1825-1850 Romantic Landscape Painters

KINDRED SPIRITS (Cole)

IN THE WOODS (Durand)

OLANA (Church)

Albert Bierstadt 1830-1920 Romantic Western Painter THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
Emily Dickinson 1830-1886 Poet COMPLETE POEMS & LETTERS
Louisa May Alcott 1832-1888 Author

LITTLE WOMEN

TRANSCENDENTAL WILD OATS

BEHIND A MASK

Mark Twain 1835-1910 Author, Journalist, Satirist

HUCKLEBERRY FINN

TOM SAWYER

INNOCENTS ABROAD

The Luminists 1840-1880 Romantic Landscape Painters

LAKE GEORGE (Heade)

LAKE GEORGE (Kensett0

Daniel Chester French 1850-1931 Sculptor

Lincoln Memorial

Minuteman Statue

Edward MacDowell 1860-1908 Composer Songs + 1ST PIANO CONCERTO
Charles Ives 1874-1954 Composer

Songs + symphonies

CONCORD SONATA

Charles T. Griffes 1884-1920 Composer Songs + PLEASURE DOME of KUBLA KHAN


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