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15 Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism.

What is Transcendentalism? Who are the key players in it? Ralph Waldo Emerson plays an important role in this era. Understanding what distinguishes his work can help you to understand the characteristics of the era. In what ways is love manifested in the Transcendentalist movement?

“ LITERATURE-Ralph Waldo Emerson .”  YouTube , uploaded by The School of Life, 6 May 2016.

Transcendentalism of the Nineteenth Century

Transcendentalism was America’s first notable intellectual and philosophical movement. It developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society. In particular, transcendentalists criticized the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School.

Core Beliefs

Transcendentalism became a movement of writers and philosophers who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the idea that perception is better than logic or experience. Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both humans and nature. Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions, particularly organized religion and political parties, ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that man is at his best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It was believed that only from such real individuals could true community be formed. Rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German idealism, more generally), the movement developed as a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism, John Locke’s philosophy of sensualism, and the Manifest Destiny of New England Calvinism. Its fundamental belief was in the unity and immanence of God in the world.

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” is usually considered the watershed moment at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy. Early in the movement’s history, critics use the term “transcendentalist” as a pejorative, and suggested that the members’ position was beyond sanity and reason.

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

The transcendentalists varied in their interpretations of how their ideas should manifest. Some among the group linked it with utopian social change; for example, Orestes Brownson connected it with early socialism, while others such as Emerson considered it an exclusively individualist and idealist project. In his 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice. The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles that were not based on, or falsifiable by, physical experience, but that were derived from the inner spiritual or mental essence of the human. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as an American outgrowth of romanticism.

By the late 1840s, Emerson believed the movement was dying out, and even more so after the death of Margaret Fuller in 1850. Fuller was an American journalist, critic, and women’s-rights advocate closely associated with the movement; according to Emerson, “she represents an interesting hour and group in American cultivation.”

Emerson’s Influence

Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, was seen as a champion of individualism and a critic of the pressures of society. He disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures. Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature.” Following this groundbreaking work, he gave a speech entitled, “The American Scholar” in 1837. Emerson’s first two collections of essays, published in 1841 and 1844, represent the core of his thinking.

Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets but developing certain ideas and themes such as individuality, freedom, humankind’s ability to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. While his writing style can be seen as somewhat impenetrable, Emerson’s essays remain among the linchpins of American thinking and have greatly influenced the thinkers, writers, and poets who have followed him.

Thoreau’s Influence

Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book  Walden,  a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.

Among Thoreau’s lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay. At the same time, he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.

He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Transcendentalists were all from the greater Boston area, mostly men, all white, and most shared a Unitarian faith. Most Black Americans at this time were enslaved. Were there any widely known Black thinkers  during this period? Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Frederick Douglass embodied Transcendentalist philosophy. They encountered Transcendentalism as free Black Americans living in the North. Both were well-educated and effective public speakers. Both were engaged in abolition, civil rights, and temperance movements.

Focus on Individualism

Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses the moral worth and value of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Liberalism, existentialism, and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual as a central unit of analysis. Individualism is associated with artistic and bohemian interests and lifestyles in which there is a tendency towards self-creation and experimentation as opposed to tradition or popular mass opinions and behaviors, and also with humanist philosophical positions and ethics.

Emerson championed individuality, freedom, and humankind’s ability to realize almost anything. In his essay “Nature,” Emerson asserted that because God’s presence is inherent in both humanity and nature, all people contain seeds of divinity. His essay “Self-Reliance” thoroughly emphasizes the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency and to follow his or her own instincts and ideas.

Adapted from “ The Emergence of American Literature ” by Boundless is licensed CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Questions to Consider: Individualism may seem like an intrinsic characteristic of the people in the West and specifically of the United States, but that ideal evolved. What are the benefits of individualism? What might be its weaknesses?

Being Human Copyright © 2023 by Jacqui Shehorn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism is an American literary, philosophical, religious, and political movement of the early nineteenth century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other important transcendentalists were Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Child, Amos Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Theodore Parker. Stimulated by English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume, the transcendentalists operated with the sense that a new era was at hand. They were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe” (O, 3). Emerson and Thoreau sought this relation in solitude amidst nature, and in their writing. By the 1840s they, along with other transcendentalists, were engaged in the social experiments of Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden; and, by the 1850s in an increasingly urgent critique of American slavery.

1. Origins and Character

2. high tide: the dial , fuller, thoreau, 3. social and political critiques, primary sources, secondary sources, other internet resources, related entries.

What we now know as transcendentalism first arose among the liberal New England Congregationalists, who departed from orthodox Calvinism in two respects: they believed in the importance and efficacy of human striving, as opposed to the bleaker Puritan picture of complete and inescapable human depravity; and they emphasized the unity rather than the “Trinity” of God (hence the term “Unitarian,” originally a term of abuse that they came to adopt.) Most of the Unitarians held that Jesus was in some way inferior to God the Father but still greater than human beings; a few followed the English Unitarian Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) in holding that Jesus was thoroughly human, although endowed with special authority. The Unitarians’ leading preacher, William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), portrayed orthodox Congregationalism as a religion of fear, and maintained that Jesus saved human beings from sin, not just from punishment. His sermon “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) denounced “the conspiracy of ages against the liberty of Christians” (P, 336) and helped give the Unitarian movement its name. In “Likeness to God” (1828) he proposed that human beings “partake” of Divinity and that they may achieve “a growing likeness to the Supreme Being” (T, 4).

The Unitarians were “modern.” They attempted to reconcile Locke’s empiricism with Christianity by maintaining that the accounts of miracles in the Bible provide overwhelming evidence for the truth of religion. It was precisely on this ground, however, that the transcendentalists found fault with Unitarianism. For although they admired Channing’s idea that human beings can become more like God, they were persuaded by Hume that no empirical proof of religion could be satisfactory. In letters written in his freshman year at Harvard (1817), Emerson tried out Hume’s skeptical arguments on his devout and respected Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, and in his journals of the early 1820s he discusses with approval Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion and his underlying critique of necessary connection. “We have no experience of a Creator,” Emerson writes, and therefore we “know of none” (JMN 2, 161).

Skepticism about religion was also engendered by the publication of an English translation of F. D. E. Schleiermacher’s Critical Essay Upon the Gospel of St. Luke (1825), which introduced the idea that the Bible was a product of human history and culture. Equally important was the publication in 1833—some fifty years after its initial appearance in Germany—of James Marsh’s translation of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782). Herder blurred the lines between religious texts and humanly-produced poetry, casting doubt on the authority of the Bible, but also suggesting that texts with equal authority could still be written. It was against this background that Emerson asked in 1836, in the first paragraph of Nature : “Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs” (O, 5). The individual’s “revelation”—or “intuition,” as Emerson was later to speak of it—was to be the counter both to Unitarian empiricism and Humean skepticism.

An important source for the transcendentalists’ knowledge of German philosophy was Frederic Henry Hedge (1805–90). Hedge’s father Levi Hedge, a Harvard professor of logic, sent him to preparatory school in Germany at the age of thirteen, after which he attended the Harvard Divinity School. Ordained as a Unitarian minister, Hedge wrote a long review of the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the Christian Examiner in 1833. Noting Coleridge’s fondness for “German metaphysics” and his immense gifts of erudition and expression, he laments that Coleridge had not made Kant and the post-Kantians more accessible to an English-speaking audience. This is the task—to introduce the “transcendental philosophy” of Kant, (T, 87)—that Hedge takes up. In particular, he explains Kant’s idea of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy: “[S]ince the supposition that our intuitions depend on the nature of the world without, will not answer, assume that the world without depends on the nature of our intuitions.” This “key to the whole critical philosophy,” Hedge continues, explains the possibility of “a priori knowledge” (T, 92). Hedge organized what eventually became known as the Transcendental Club, by suggesting to Emerson in 1836 that they form a discussion group for disaffected young Unitarian clergy. The group included George Ripley and Bronson Alcott, had some 30 meetings in four years, and was a sponsor of The Dial and Brook Farm. Hedge was a vocal opponent of slavery in the 1830s and a champion of women’s rights in the 1850s, but he remained a Unitarian minister, and became a professor at the Harvard Divinity School.

Another source for the transcendentalists’ knowledge of German philosophy was Germaine de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker) (1766–1817), whose De l’Allemagne ( On Germany ) was a favorite of the young Emerson. In a sweeping survey of European metaphysics and political philosophy, de Staël praises Locke’s devotion to liberty, but sees him as the originator of a sensationalist school of epistemology that leads to the skepticism of Hume. She finds an attractive contrast in the German tradition that begins with Leibniz and culminates in Kant, which asserts the power and authority of the mind.

James Marsh (1794–1842), a graduate of Andover and the president of the University of Vermont, was equally important for the emerging philosophy of transcendentalism. Marsh was convinced that German philosophy held the key to a reformed theology. His American edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection (1829) introduced Coleridge’s version—much indebted to Schelling—of Kantian terminology, terminology that runs throughout Emerson’s early work. In Nature , for example, Emerson writes: “The Imagination may be defined to be, the use which the Reason makes of the material world” (O, 25).

German philosophy and literature was also championed by Thomas Carlyle, whom Emerson met on his first trip to Europe in 1831. Carlyle’s philosophy of action in such works as Sartor Resartus resonates with Emerson’s idea in “The American Scholar” that action—along with nature and “the mind of the Past” (O, 39) is essential to human education. Along with his countrymen Coleridge and Wordsworth, Carlyle embraced a “natural supernaturalism,” the view that nature, including human beings, has the power and authority traditionally attributed to an independent deity.

Piety towards nature was also a main theme of William Wordsworth, whose poetry was in vogue in America in the 1820s. Wordsworth’s depiction of an active and powerful mind cohered with the shaping power of the mind that his collaborator in the Lyrical Ballads , Samuel Taylor Coleridge, traced to Kant. The idea of such power pervades Emerson’s Nature , where he writes of nature as “obedient” to spirit and counsels each of us to “Build … your own world.” Wordsworth has his more receptive mode as well, in which he calls for “a heart that watches and receives” (in “The Tables Turned”), and we find Emerson’s receptive mode from Nature onward, as when he recounts an ecstatic experience in the woods: “I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing; I see all; The currents of the universal being circulate through me.” (O, 6).

Emerson’s sense that men and women are, as he put it in Nature , gods “in ruins,” led to one of transcendentalism’s defining events, his delivery of an address at the Harvard Divinity School graduation in 1838. Emerson portrayed the contemporary church that the graduates were about to lead as an “eastern monarchy of a Christianity” that had become an “injuror of man” (O, 58). Jesus, in contrast, was a “friend of man.” Yet he was just one of the “true race of prophets,” whose message is not so much their own greatness, as the “greatness of man” (O, 57). Emerson rejects the Unitarian argument that miracles prove the truth of Christianity, not simply because the evidence is weak, but because proof of the sort they envision embodies a mistaken view of the nature of religion: “conversion by miracles is a profanation of the soul.” Emerson’s religion is based not on testimony but on a “perception” that produces a “religious sentiment” (O, 55).

The “Divinity School Address” drew a quick and angry response from Andrews Norton (1786–1853) of the Harvard Divinity School, often known as the “Unitarian Pope.” In “The New School in Literature and Religion” (1838), Norton complains of “a restless craving for notoriety and excitement,” which he traces to German “speculatists” and “barbarians” and “that hyper-Germanized Englishman, Carlyle.” Emerson’s “Address,” he concludes, is at once “an insult to religion” (T, 248) and “an incoherent rhapsody” (T, 249).

An earlier transcendentalist scandal surrounded the publication of Amos Bronson Alcott’s Conversations with Children Upon the Gospels (1836). Alcott (1799–1888) was a self-taught educator from Connecticut who established a series of schools that aimed to “draw out” the intuitive knowledge of children. He found anticipations of his views about a priori knowledge in the writings of Plato and Kant, and support in Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection for the idea that idealism and materiality could be reconciled. Alcott replaced the hard benches of the common schools with more comfortable furniture that he built himself, and left a central space in his classrooms for dancing. The Conversations with Children Upon the Gospels , based on a school Alcott (and his assistant Elizabeth Peabody) ran in Boston, argued that evidence for the truth of Christianity could be found in the unimpeded flow of children’s thought. What people particularly noticed about Alcott’s book, however, were its frank discussions of conception, circumcision, and childbirth. Rather than gaining support for his school, the publication of the book caused many parents to withdraw their children from it, and the school—like many of Alcott’s projects, failed.

Theodore Parker (1810–60) was the son of a farmer who attended Harvard and became a Unitarian minister and accomplished linguist. He published a long critical essay on David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu , and translated Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette’s Introduction to the Old Testament , both of which cast doubt on the divine inspiration and single authorship of the Bible. After the publication of his “A Discourse Concerning the Transient and Permanent in Christianity” (1841) he was invited to resign from the Boston Association of Ministers (he did not), and was no longer welcome in many pulpits. He argued, much as Emerson had in the “Divinity School Address,” that Christianity had nothing essential to do with the person of Jesus: “If Jesus taught at Athens, and not at Jerusalem; if he had wrought no miracle, and none but the human nature had ever been ascribed to him; if the Old Testament had forever perished at his birth, Christianity would still have been the Word of God … just as true, just as lasting, just as beautiful, as now it is…” (T, 352). Parker exploited the similarities between science and religious doctrine to argue that although nature and religious truth are permanent, any merely human version of such truth is transient. In religious doctrines especially, there are stunning reversals, so that “men are burned for professing what men are burned for denying” (T, 347).

Surveying the scene in his 1842 lecture, “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson begins with a philosophical account, according to which what are generally called “new views” are not really new, but rather part of a broad tradition of idealism. It is not a skeptical idealism, however, but an anti-skeptical idealism deriving from Kant:

It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg [sic], who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms (O, 101–2).

Emerson shows here a basic understanding of three Kantian claims, which can be traced throughout his philosophy: that the human mind “forms” experience; that the existence of such mental operations is a counter to skepticism; and that “transcendental” does not mean “transcendent” or beyond human experience altogether, but something through which experience is made possible. Emerson’s idealism is not purely Kantian, however, for (like Coleridge’s) it contains a strong admixture of Neoplatonism and post-Kantian idealism. Emerson thinks of Reason, for example, as a faculty of “vision,” as opposed to the mundane understanding, which “toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues….” ( Letters , vol. 1, 413). For many of the transcendentalists the term “transcendentalism” represented nothing so technical as an inquiry into the presuppositions of human experience, but a new confidence in and appreciation of the mind’s powers, and a modern, non-doctrinal spirituality. The transcendentalist, Emerson states, believes in miracles, conceived as “the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power…” (O, 100).

Emerson keeps his distance from the transcendentalists in his essay by speaking always of what “they” say or do, despite the fact that he was regarded then and is regarded now as the leading transcendentalist. He notes with some disdain that the transcendentalists are “’not good members of society,” that they do not work for “the abolition of the slave-trade” (though both these charges have been leveled at him). He closes the essay nevertheless with a defense of the transcendentalist critique of a society pervaded by “a spirit of cowardly compromise and seeming, which intimates a frightful skepticism, a life without love, and an activity without an aim” (O, 106). This critique is Emerson’s own in such writings as “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar”; and it finds a powerful and original restatement in the “Economy” chapter of Thoreau’s Walden .

The transcendentalists had several publishing outlets: at first The Christian Examiner , then, after the furor over the “Divinity School Address,” The Western Messenger (1835–41) in St Louis, then the Boston Quarterly Review (1838–44). The Dial (1840–4) was a special case, for it was planned and instituted by the members of the Transcendental Club, with Margaret Fuller (1810–50) as the first editor. Emerson succeeded her for the magazine’s last two years. The writing in The Dial was uneven, but in its four years of existence it published Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” (the core of her Woman in the Nineteenth Century ) and her long review of Goethe’s work; prose and poetry by Emerson; Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings” (which gave the magazine a reputation for silliness); and the first publications of a young friend of Emerson’s, Henry David Thoreau (1817–62). After Emerson became editor in 1842 The Dial published a series of “Ethnical Scriptures,” translations from Chinese and Indian philosophical works.

Margaret Fuller was the daughter of a Massachusetts congressman who provided tutors for her in Latin, Greek, chemistry, philosophy and, later, German. Exercising what Barbara Packer calls “her peculiar powers of intrusion and caress” (P, 443), Fuller became friends with many of the transcendentalists, including Emerson. In the winters of 1839–44, Fuller organized a series of popular and influential “conversations” for women in Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore in Boston. She journeyed to the Midwest in the summer of 1843, and published her observations as Summer on the Lakes the following year. After this publishing success, Horace Greeley, a friend of Emerson’s and the editor of the New York Tribune , invited her to New York to write for the Tribune . Fuller abandoned her previously ornate and pretentious style, issuing pithy reviews and forthright criticisms: for example, of Longfellow’s poetry and Carlyle’s attraction to brutality. Fuller was in Europe from 1846–9, sending back hundreds of pages for the Tribune . On her return to America with her husband and son, she drowned in a hurricane off the coast of Fire Island, New York.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), a revision of her “Great Lawsuit” manifesto in The Dial , is Fuller’s major philosophical work. She holds that masculinity and femininity pass into one another, that there is “no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman” (T, 418). In classical mythology, for example, “Man partakes of the feminine in the Apollo; woman of the Masculine as Minerva.” But there are differences. The feminine genius is “electrical” and “intuitive,” the male more inclined to classification (T, 419). Women are treated as dependents, however, and their self-reliant impulses are often held against them. What they most want, Fuller maintains, is the freedom to unfold their powers, a freedom necessary not only for their self-development, but for the renovation of society. Like Thoreau and Emerson, Fuller calls for periods of withdrawal from a society whose members are in various states of “distraction” and “imbecility,” and a return only after “the renovating fountains” of individuality have risen up. Such individuality is necessary in particular for the proper constitution of that form of society known as marriage. “Union,” she holds, “is only possible to those who are units” (T, 419). In contrast, most marriages are forms of degradation, in which “the woman does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him” (T, 422).

Henry Thoreau studied Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German, and Spanish at Harvard, where he heard Emerson’s “The American Scholar” as the commencement address in 1837. He first published in The Dial when Emerson commissioned him to review a series of reports on wildlife by the state of Massachusetts, but he cast about for a literary outlet after The Dial’ s failure in 1844. In 1845, his move to Walden Pond allowed him to complete his first book, A Week on the Concord and the Merrimac Rivers . He also wrote a first draft of Walden , which eventually appeared in 1854.

Nature comes to even more prominence in Walden than in Emerson’s Nature , which it followed by eighteen years. Nature now becomes particular: this tree, this bird, this state of the pond on a summer evening or winter morning become Thoreau’s subjects. Thoreau is receptive. He finds himself “suddenly neighbor to” rather than a hunter of birds (W, 85); and he learns to dwell in a house that is no more and no less than a place where he can properly sit. From the right perspective, Thoreau finds, he can possess and use a farm with more satisfaction than the farmer, who is preoccupied with feeding his family and expanding his operations.

In Walden ’s opening chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau considers the trade-offs we make in life, and he asks, as Plato did in The Republic , what are life’s real necessities. Like the Roman philosophers Marcus Porcius Cato and Marcus Varro he seeks a “life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust” (W, 15). Considering his contemporaries, he finds that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (W, 8). Thoreau’s “experiment” at Walden shows that a life of simplicity and independence can be achieved today (W, 17). If Thoreau counsels simple frugality—a vegetarian diet for example, and a dirt floor—he also counsels a kind of extravagance, a spending of what you have in the day that shall never come again. True economy, he writes, is a matter of “improving the nick of time” (W, 17).

Thoreau went to Walden Pond on the anniversary of America’s declared independence from Britain—July 4, 1845, declaring his own independence from a society that is “commonly too cheap.” It is not that he is against all society, but that he finds we meet too often, before we have had the chance to acquire any “new value for each other” (W, 136). Thoreau welcomes those visitors who “speak reservedly and thoughtfully” (W, 141), and who preserve an appropriate sense of distance; he values the little leaves or acorns left by visitors he never meets. Thoreau lived at Walden for just under three years, a time during which he sometimes visited friends and conducted business in town. (It was on one such visit, to pick up a mended shoe, that he was arrested for tax avoidance, an episode that became the occasion for “Resistance to Civil Government.”)

At the opening of Walden’s chapter on “Higher Laws” Thoreau confesses to once having desired to slaughter a woodchuck and eat it raw, just to get at its wild essence. He values fishing and hunting for their taste of wildness, though he finds that in middle age he has given up eating meat. He finds wildness not only in the woods, but in such literary works as Hamlet and the Iliad; and even in certain forms of society: “The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet” (“Walking” (1862), p. 621). The wild is not always consoling or uplifting, however. In The Maine Woods , Thoreau records a climb on Mount Ktaadn in Maine when he confronted the alien materiality of the world; and in Cape Cod (1865), he records the foreignness, not the friendliness, of nature: the shore is “a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it” (P, 577).

Although Walden initiates the American tradition of environmental philosophy, it is equally concerned with reading and writing. In the chapter on “Reading,” Thoreau speaks of books that demand and inspire “reading, in a high sense” (W, 104). He calls such books “heroic,” and finds them equally in literature and philosophy, in Europe and Asia: “Vedas and Zendavestas and Bibles, with Homers and Dantes and Shakespeares…” (W, 104). Thoreau suggests that Walden is or aspires to be such a book; and indeed the enduring construction from his time at Walden is not the cabin he built but the book he wrote.

Thoreau maintains in Walden that writing is “the work of art closest to life itself” (W, 102). In his search for such closeness, he began to reconceive the nature of his journal. Both he and Emerson kept journals from which their published works were derived. But in the early 1850s, Thoreau began to conceive of the journal as a work in itself, “each page of which should be written in its own season & out of doors or in its own locality wherever it may be” (J, 67). A journal has a sequence set by the days, but it may have no order; or what order it has emerges in the writer’s life as he meets the life of nature. With its chapters on “Reading,” “Solitude,” “Economy,” “Winter,” and “Spring,” Walden is more “worked up” than the journal; in this sense, Thoreau came to feel, it is less close to nature than the journal.

The transcendentalists operated from the start with the sense that the society around them was seriously deficient: a “mass” of “bugs or spawn” as Emerson put it in “The American Scholar”; slavedrivers of themselves, as Thoreau says in Walden . Thus the attraction of alternative life-styles: Alcott’s ill-fated Fruitlands; Brook Farm, planned and organized by the Transcendental Club; Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. As the nineteenth century came to its mid-point, the transcendentalists’ dissatisfaction with their society became focused on policies and actions of the United States government: the treatment of the Native Americans, the war with Mexico, and, above all, the continuing and expanding practice of slavery.

Emerson’s 1838 letter to President Martin Van Buren is an early expression of the depth of his despair at actions of his country, in this case the ethnic cleansing of American land east of the Mississippi. The 16,000 Cherokees lived in what is now Kentucky and Tennessee, and in parts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. They were one of the more assimilated tribes, whose members owned property, drove carriages, used plows and spinning wheels, and even owned slaves. Wealthy Cherokees sent their children to elite academies or seminaries. The Cherokee chief refused to sign a “removal” agreement with the government of Andrew Jackson, but the government found a minority faction to agree to move to territories west of the Mississippi. Despite the ruling by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall that the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty had been violated, Jackson’s policies continued to take effect. In 1838, President Van Buren, Jackson’s former Vice-President and approved successor, ordered the U. S. Army into the Cherokee Nation, where they rounded up as many remaining members of the tribe as they could and marched them west and across the Mississippi. Thousands died along the way. In his letter to President Van Buren, Emerson calls 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, any more?” (A, 3).

Slavery had existed in the United States from the beginnings of the country, but the question of its morality and entrenchment within the American political system came to the fore with the annexation of Texas, where slavery was legal, and its admission to the Union as the 28th state in 1845. Emerson’s breakout address “On the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies” (1844) was delivered in this context. (The Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1833 and celebrated annually in Concord.) In his address Emerson wrote: “Language must be raked, the secrets of slaughter-houses and infamous holes that cannot front the day, must be ransacked, to tell what negro-slavery has been. These men, our benefactors, … the producers of comfort and luxury for the civilized world. … I am heartsick when I read how they came there, and how they are kept there. Their case was left out of the mind and out of the heart of their brothers” (A, 9).

Frederick Douglass spoke in Concord at Thoreau’s invitation, and was on the dais in Concord in August 1844, when Emerson delivered his emancipation address, where he states: “The Black Man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization” (Wirzbicki, 95; A, 31). Douglass took up Emerson’s term “self-reliance” in advice to his readers and hearers, and he quotes “The American Scholar” in his abolitionist newspaper North Star . “It is a mischievous notion,” Douglass quotes Emerson as saying, “that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago. As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God so is it ever to so much of his attribute that we bring to it” (Wirzbicki, 53; O, 47).

Another important black abolitionist with Transcendentalist leanings and connections was William C. Nell, who founded Boston’s Adelphic Union Library Association in 1836. Nell attended Bronson Alcott’s conversations, heard Emerson speak, and participated in Emerson’s Town and Country Club. He referred to Emerson as the “ever-to-be-honored friend of equal rights” (Wirzbicki, 55). The leadership of Nell’s Association was black, but invited speakers included prominent black and white abolitionists, including Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Angelina Grimké. Nell founded the New England Freedom Association in 1842 to “extend the helping hand to the ‘chattel’ who may have taken to itself ‘wings’” (Wirzbicki, 148); and he joined with Lewis Hayden (who had escaped slavery in Kentucky) to establish the Boston Vigilance Committee after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. Thoreau worked with both Nell and Hayden. He brought Hayden to Concord to speak to the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, and he contributed to the Underground Railroad by hosting fugitives in his cabin at Walden Pond (Wirzbicki, 158).

Fuller addresses American slavery directly in Woman in the Nineteenth Century , recalling her dread at the news that James K. Polk, a Tennessee slaveholder who favored the extension of slavery to Texas, had been elected the nation’s 11th president (by an all-male electorate). The “choice of the people,” she wrote, “threatens to rivet the chains of slavery and the leprosy of sin permanently on this nation, with the annexation of Texas!” (F, 97). Addressing “[t]he women of my country,” she asks: “have you nothing to do with this? You see the men, how they are willing to sell shamelessly, the happiness of countless generations of fellow-creatures, the honor of their country, and their immortal souls for a money market and political power. Do you not feel within you that which can reprove them, which can check, which can convince them? You would not speak in vain; whether each in her own home, or banded in union” (F, 98).

This call both to the individual and to individuals acting together characterizes Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). Thoreau was arrested in 1846 for nonpayment of his poll tax, and he took the opportunity presented by his night in jail to meditate on the authority of the state. The government, Thoreau argues, is but an expedient by which we succeed “in letting one another alone” (R, 64). The citizen has no duty to resign his conscience to the state, and may even have a duty to oppose immoral legislation such as that which supports slavery and the Mexican War. Thoreau concludes: “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also” (R, 67). Slavery could be abolished by a “peaceable revolution,” he continues, if people refused to pay their taxes and clogged the system by going to jail (R, 76).

The Fugitive Slave Law passed by the United States Congress in 1850 had dramatic and visible effects not only in Georgia or Mississippi but in Massachusetts and New York. For the law required all citizens of the country to assist in returning fugitive slaves to their owners. This extension of the slave-system to the north, the subject of Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), was on public view when an escaped slave named Anthony Burns was captured in Boston, tried by a Massachusetts court, and escorted by the Massachusetts militia and U. S. marines to the harbor, where he was taken back to slavery in Virginia. His owner placed him in a notorious “slave pen” outside Richmond, where Burns was handcuffed, chained at the ankles and left to lie in his own filth for four months. Thoreau denounced the absurdity of a court in Boston “trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE,” when the question has already been “decided from eternity” (R, 92). In his “Lecture on Slavery” of 1855, Emerson calls the original 1787 Constitution’s recognition of slavery a “crime” (A, 100), and he contrasts the written law of the constitution with the “Laws” and “Right” ascertained by Jesus, Menu, Moses, and Confucius. An immoral law, he holds, is void.

Although Thoreau advocated nonviolent action in “Resistance to Civil Government,” he later supported the violent actions of John Brown, who killed unarmed pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, and in 1859 attacked the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. In “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau portrays Brown as an “Angel of Light” (R, 137) and “a transcendentalist above all” (115) who believed “that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave” (R,132). In early 1860, just months before the outbreak of the Civil War, he and Emerson participated in public commemorations of Brown’s life and actions.

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  • ––– (ed.), 2014. American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron , Bloomsbury Academic.
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  • –––, 2007. “The Way of Life by Abandonment,” in Impersonality: Seven Essays , Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 79–107.
  • Capper, Charles, 1994/2007. Margaret Fuller: an American Romantic Life , New York: Oxford University Press (Vol. 1, 1994; Vol. 2, 2007).
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  • –––, 1990. “Introduction” and “Aversive Thinking,” in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • –––, 2003. Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes , ed. David Justin Hodge, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • –––, 2004. Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life , Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
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  • Dewey, John., [1903] 1977. “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Philosopher of Democracy,” in John Dewey: The Middle Works , vol. 3, Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 184–92.
  • Firkins, Oscar W., 1915. Ralph Waldo Emerson , Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Follett, Danielle, 2015. “The Tension Between Immanence and Dualism in Coleridge and Emerson,” in Romanticism and Philosophy: Thinking with Literature , Sophie Laniel-Musitelli and Thomas Constantinesco (eds.), London: Routledge, 209–221.
  • Friedl, Herwig, 2018. Thinking in Search of a Language: Essays on American Intellect and Intuition , New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic.
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  • Goodman, Russell B., 1990. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1990. “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth Century America: Emerson and Hinduism,” Journal of the History of Ideas , 51 (4): 625–45.
  • –––, 2015. American Philosophy before Pragmatism , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gross, Robert A., 2021. The Transcendentalists and Their World , New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Grusin, Richard, 1991. Transcendentalist Hermeneutics: Institutional Authority and the Higher Criticism of the Bible , Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press.
  • Harding, Walter, 1965. The Days of Henry Thoreau , New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Horsman, Reginald, 1992. Expansion and American Indian policy, 1783–1812 , Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • –––, 1981. Race and Manifest Destiny: the origins of American racial anglo-saxonism , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kateb, George, 1992. “Democratic Individuality and the Claims of Politics,” in The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture , Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 77–105.
  • –––, 1995. Emerson and Self-Reliance , Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • La Rocca, David and Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso (eds.), 2015. A Power to Translate the World: New Essays on Emerson and International Culture , Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
  • Lysaker, John T. and Rossi, William, 2009. Emerson and Thoreau: Figures of Friendship , Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Marshall, Megan, 2013. Margaret Fuller: A New American Life , Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Matthiessen, F. O., 1941. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman , New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Miller, Perry, 1967. Nature’s Nation , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Myerson, Joel, 1980. The New England Transcendentalists and the “Dial”: A History of the Magazine and its Contributors , Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
  • –––, 1995. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Packer, B. L., 1982. Emerson’s Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays , New York: Continuum.
  • –––, 1995. “The Transcendentalists,” in The Cambridge History of American Literature , Sacvan Bercovitch (ed.), vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 329–604. Reprinted as The Transcendentalists , Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.
  • Poirier, Richard, T., 1987. The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections , New York: Random House.
  • –––, 1992. Poetry and Pragmatism , Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Porte, Joel, and Morris, Saundra (eds.), 1999. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richardson, Robert D. Jr., 1986. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind , Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • –––, 1995. Emerson: The Mind on Fire , Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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  • –––, 2021. The Philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson , New York and Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge.
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  • Von Frank, Albert J., 1998. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wirzbicki, Peter, 2021. Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery , Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Walls, Laura Dassow, 2017. Henry David Thoreau: A Life , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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  • –––, 1970. The Liberal Christians: Essays on American Unitarian History , Boston: Beacon.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Transcendentalists website by Jone Johnson Lewis (M. Div.), available at the Internet Archive.

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Transcendentalism

I. definition.

Transcendentalism was a short-lived philosophical movement that emphasized transcendence , or “going beyond.” The Transcendentalists believed in going beyond the ordinary limits of thought and experience in several senses:

  • transcending society by living a life of independence and contemplative self-reliance, often out in nature
  • transcending the physical world to make contact with spiritual or metaphysical realities
  • transcending traditional religion by blazing one’s own spiritual trail
  • even transcending Transcendentalism itself by creating new philosophical ideas based on individual instinct and experience

II. Transcendentalism vs. Empiricism vs. Rationalism

When the Transcendentalists first came on the scene, philosophy was split between two major schools of thought: empiricism and rationalism . Transcendentalism rejected both schools, arguing that they were both too narrow-minded and failed to account for different kinds of transcendence.

III. Quotes About Transcendentalism

“Go alone…refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” ( Ralph Waldo Emerson )

Probably no one is more strongly associated with transcendentalism than the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote fiery essays arguing for independence, self-reliance, and going beyond the boundaries of society. In this short quotation, Emerson expresses two of his central ideas: first, that you should follow your own path rather than imitating others, no matter how noble or admirable they may be; and second, traditional religious organizations are unnecessary in our spiritual path and we should seek an independent, one-to-one relationship with God.

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.” (George Carlin)

Stand-up legend George Carlin brought a strong Emersonian flavor to his comedy, a style that continues to be popular with modern stand-up comics. Like Emerson, Carlin hated social rules and was constantly pushing limits – using cursewords in his routines and talking about taboo subjects like race and sexuality at a time when standup comics almost never dared to broach these uncomfortable topics. Emerson would have liked the quote, which celebrates both social awkwardness (talking to yourself) and independent thinking.

IV. The History and Importance of Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism was America’s first major intellectual movement. It arose in the Eastern U.S. in the 1820s, when America had fully established its independence from Britain. At that time, the country was led by the first generation to have been born after the Revolutionary War – a generation that had never known anything other than independence. People in this generation couldn’t understand their parents’ reverence for European culture and philosophy, a reverence that was still strong in spite of the Americans’ desire for political independence. To them, America was its own nation, on its own continent, with its own laws and customs, and it needed to have its own art, culture, and philosophy as well – even its own religion! Transcendentalism was designed to fill all of these roles.

Although Transcendentalism didn’t grow into a flourishing philosophical school as its founders hoped (more on that in section 6), Transcendentalist ideas heavily influenced other movements and continue to have echoes today. The Transcendentalist movement was the main inspiration for William James and other founders of the Pragmatist school, which has been by far America’s most significant contribution to global philosophy.

The Transcendentalists even influenced European philosophy – Nietzsche, a revered if eccentric German philosopher, cited Transcendentalists as one of his main influences. Ironically, this means that the American thinkers were a strong philosophical inspiration to German nationalism and even Nazism, with their themes of strong individual leadership, rejecting traditional religion and morality, and breaking down limits so as to usher in a glorious future. Clearly, Emerson and Nietzsche would have strongly disapproved of Hitler and the Third Reich, but it goes to show how philosophers’ ideas can have unexpected consequences when they enter the realms of society, culture, and politics.

V. Transcendentalism in Popular Culture

There are many Transcendentalist themes in the sci-fi action movie Equilibrium starring Christian Bale. In the movie, John Preston is a Cleric, a law-enforcement officer required to take an emotion-suppressing pill every day so that he can carry out his duties without the interference of feelings. But when he misses his dose, Preston becomes increasingly aware of flaws in the system.

The film is Transcendentalist in a couple of ways: first, the emphasis on emotions rather than logic and duty. Preston’s moral awakening comes when he gets in touch with his emotions, which suggests that true morality is an emotional experience. Second, Preston ends up rejecting authority, social expectations, and the whole system that he’s been raised in. That makes him a very Emersonian sort of hero.

Many video games have “ranger” or “druid” characters (e.g. Dota 2, Warcraft, or Neverwinter Nights), and they often seem a little like transcendentalists. They live out in nature, or on the fringes of society, surviving by their own skills and living by their own rules – transcending the limits of civilization. In some cases, they also have spiritual or magical abilities that allow them to transcend the ordinary, physical world.

VI. Controversies

Is transcendentalism philosophy.

Transcendentalism never really caught on in professional philosophy, possibly because of the structure of its arguments. As we saw in section 2, transcendentalism rejected both rationalism and empiricism, pointing out the limitations in both logic and observation. But logic and observation are our main ways of attaining the truth, and if you push back against both of them, then what is the foundation of your own argument ?

In other words, Transcendentalism was based on an intuition, a feeling – several philosophers got together and had similar feelings about society, religion, and truth, but what they didn’t have was a set of arguments . As a result, they were not able to persuade new followers other than those who already shared their feelings. The Transcendentalists were brilliant writers, crafting expressive essays and compelling poetry, but they did not write philosophical arguments in the traditional sense.

As a result, some people have argued that Transcendentalism was more of a literary or artistic movement than a philosophical one. Whether or not that’s true really comes down to your definition – if you see philosophy as defined by a method of argument, then Transcendentalism isn’t philosophy. If you see philosophy as defined by an interest in musing about life, then Transcendentalism definitely belongs.

a. Logic and duty

b. Religion and community

c. Emotions and independence

d. All of the above

a. Ralph Waldo Emerson

b. Confucius

c. Socrates

a. Logic / Rationality

b. Empirical observation

what two essays really launched the transcendental movement

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Transcendentalism

By: History.com Editors

Updated: August 21, 2018 | Original: November 15, 2017

A painting from the Hudson River School: "View Towards the Hudson Valley" by Asher Brown

Transcendentalism is a 19th-century school of American theological and philosophical thought that combined respect for nature and self-sufficiency with elements of Unitarianism and German Romanticism. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson was the primary practitioner of the movement, which existed loosely in Massachusetts in the early 1800s before becoming an organized group in the 1830s.

The Origins of Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism has its origins in New England of the early 1800s and the birth of Unitarianism. It was born from a debate between “New Light” theologians, who believed that religion should focus on an emotional experience, and “Old Light” opponents, who valued reason in their religious approach.

These “Old Lights” became known first as “liberal Christians” and then as Unitarians, and were defined by the belief that there was no trinity of father, son and holy ghost as in traditional Christian belief, and that Jesus Christ was a mortal.

Various philosophies began to swirl around this crowd, and the ideas that would become Transcendentalism split from Unitarianism over its perceived rationality and instead embraced German Romanticism in a quest for a more spiritual experience.

Thinkers in the movement embraced ideas brought forth by philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge , ancient Indian scripture known as the Vedas and religious founder Emanuel Swedenborg.

Transcendentalists advocated the idea of a personal knowledge of God, believing that no intermediary was needed for spiritual insight. They embraced idealism, focusing on nature and opposing materialism.

By the 1830s, literature began to appear that bound the Transcendentalist ideas together in a cohesive way and marked the beginnings of a more organized movement.

The Transcendental Club

On September 12, 1836, four Harvard University alumni—writer and Bangor, Maine , minister Frederic Henry Hodge, Ralph Waldo Emerson , and Unitarian ministers George Ripley and George Putnam—left a celebration of the bicentennial of Harvard to meet at Willard’s Hotel in Cambridge.

The purpose was to follow up on correspondence between Hodge and Emerson and to talk about the state of Unitarianism and what they could do about it.

One week later, the four met again at Ripley’s house in Boston. This was a meeting of a much larger group that included many Unitarian ministers, intellectuals, writers and reformers. There would be 30 more meetings of what was called “the Transcendental Club” over the next four years, featuring a shifting membership that always included Emerson, Ripley, and Hodge.

The only rule the meetings followed was that no one would be allowed to attend if their presence prevented the group from discussing a topic. Emerson’s essay “Nature,” published in 1836, presented Transcendentalist philosophy as it had formed in the club meetings.

This group ceased to meet in 1840, but were involved in the publication The Dial , at first helmed by member and pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller , and later by Emerson, with the mission of addressing Transcendentalist thought and concerns.

Henry David Thoreau got his start in The Dial , reporting on wildlife in Massachusetts . After its demise in 1844, Thoreau moved to Walden Pond where he wrote his most famous work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods .

Inspired by different utopian groups like the Shakers, members of the Transcendental Club were interested in forming a commune to put their ideas to the test. In 1841, a small group of them, including author Nathaniel Hawthorne , moved to a property named Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

The venture, helmed by George Ripley, was covered in the pages of The Dial as an idyllic one that involved farm work by day and creative work by candlelight at night.

Emerson never joined the farm. He approved of the commune but didn’t want to give up his privacy, preferring to be a frequent visitor. Thoreau refused to join as well, finding the entire idea unappealing. Margaret Fuller visited but felt the farm was destined for failure.

The farm was run by members buying shares for life-long membership, guaranteeing an annual return on their investment, and allowing members who could not afford a share to compensate with work. As farmers, they were fledglings, but Hawthorne, in particular, was thrilled by the physicality of farming life.

There was also a boarding school onsite that was the farm’s primary income source. The farm proved successful enough that in its first year, members had to build new homes on the property to house everyone. There were over 100 residents.

In 1844, following a restructuring that brought further growth, the commune began to fall into a slow decline, with members becoming disillusioned by its mission, as well as financial challenges and other problems, and squabbling amongst themselves. By 1847, this particular Transcendentalist experiment was finished.

Transcendentalism Fades Out

As the 1850s arrived, Transcendentalism is considered to have lost some of its influence, particularly following the untimely death of Margaret Fuller in an 1850 shipwreck.

Though its members remained active in the public eye—notably Emerson, Thoreau and others in their public opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—following the failure of Brook Farm, it never again materialized as a cohesive group.

American Transcendentalism. Philip F. Gura . Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. Chris Jennings . Transcendentalism. Arizona State University . Transcendentalism. Stanford University .

what two essays really launched the transcendental movement

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The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Mind is the only reality. The real person is what he thinks. The material world is a shadow of the idea. I am only a reflection of what I think.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

On September 8, 1836, while attending Harvard’s bicentennial celebration, Emerson met at Willard’s Hotel in Cambridge with his friends Henry Hedge, George Putnam (a Unitarian minister), and George Ripley to plan a symposium for people who, like themselves, found the present state of thought in America unsatisfactory. They were also moved by the stale intellectual climate of Harvard and Cambridge. President Quincy had his eye on the past; theirs was on the present and future. Almost two weeks later, on September 19, the first meeting of what came to be known as the Transcendental Club was born out of protest.

The movement took its name from the German philosopher Kant. It held that there are moral laws which transcend man—that there are absolute truths. Beauty, goodness, wisdom are to the philosopher precisely what heat, motion, and chemical actions are to the physicist. Transcendentalists believed that religion is a primary sentiment in human nature, not merely dependent on certain facts of history. It is poetic, generous, devout, open to all the humanities and sciences, literature, and sympathies of philosophy.

Basically, they held that there are three primary ideas we know intuitively: the ideas of God, duty, and immortality. These need no confirmation from any book or miracles, but are affirmed by humankind’s own divine nature. God is not a being apart from the universe, but everywhere, especially in humans, insofar as our thoughts are infinite. As we reason, God is absolute Reason. “Stand aside,” said Emerson, “and let God think—that is, let the divine within you show through. Duty is taught by the voice within. We know, when we use our highest Reason, what we ought to do. We need no Ten Commandments for that. Men may shirk duty in perilous times, but they still know what their duty is.”

The Transcendental Club’s magazine,  The Dial , first appeared in 1840 with Margaret Fuller as editor and George Ripley her assistant. Emerson contributed and edited essays, and became its editor in 1842. Through this vehicle, he encouraged many promising thinkers and writers. His influence on the movement was central.

“Such is the saturation of things with the moral law, that you cannot escape from it. You may kill the preachers of it, but innumerable preaches survive: the violets and roses and grass preach it, rain and snow and wind and frost, moon and tides, every change and every cause in nature is nothing but a disguised missionary.”  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Today, a lot of Americans feel strongly about issues such racial justice, women's rights and protecting the environment, and many believe in the power of nonviolent civil disobedience to achieve progress towards a better, fairer world. And while not all of them realize it, in many ways they take after a group of mid-19th century New England intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson , Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, Frederic Henry Hedge, among others, who espoused a philosophy known as transcendentalism .

What Is Transcendentalism?

Individualism and equality for all, finding community in the transcendental club & brook farm, henry david thoreau and the transcendental life, transcendentalism, feminism and the abolitionist movement.

The transcendentalist movement, which emerged in the mid-1830s early nineteenth century, had a straightforward idea at its core. The New England transcendentalism adherents argued that every person possessed the light of Divine truth and should look within himself or herself to find it, rather than simply conform to whatever the powers that be wanted them to think. But from that notion of spiritual self-reliance, a lot of other ideas blossomed, from reverence for nature to the view that everyone in America was entitled to freedom and equality. That led transcendentalists to become an important part of other activist movements in America that sought to abolish slavery and achieve women's suffrage.

It was inspired in part by thinkers on the other side of the Atlantic, like the new Biblical Criticism in Germany touted in the writings of Herder and English and German Romanticism. The actual name of the movement "transcendental," came from the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Emerson was a great admirer of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom he met when he traveled to Europe and helped shape his future writings. Frederick Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister who studied in Germany and knew the German language well brought German philosophy to Americans through Hedge's Club to begin discussions of current topics through a German philosophers lens.

These emerging ideas eventually transferred over to the eastern United States, "Transcendentalism became the first distinctly American philosophy, because it fused several different currents, all of which converged only here in the U.S.," Laura Dassow Walls explains in an email. She's the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, and author of the acclaimed 2017 biography, " Henry David Thoreau: A Life ."

"So, even though the underlying philosophy first emerged in Europe, it was in America that it took hold as a philosophy one could actually commit to and live by," she says. Emerson urged in his essay "The American Scholar" for Americans to stop looking to Europe for inspiration and imitation and to be themselves.

According to Walls, one of transcendentalism's key influences was the religious faith of New England's Puritans , who believed that every person stands before God and must read the Bible for himself or herself. "This gave us the bedrock notion of individualism ," she says.

Another important ingredient was the American Revolution , which promoted equality as an American ideal — even if the new country didn't actually afford that status to a lot of its people, including women and Blacks. "The transcendentalists, whose parents had grown up fighting the Revolution, believed it was their turn to continue the Revolution, that is, to continue the political revolution by igniting it as an intellectual revolution," Walls says. When the United States government under President Van Buren wanted to remove Cherokee from their native lands, Emerson wrote them in protest. He wanted social reform that protected the rights of all.

Old Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Those ideas mixed together with another rising early 1880s influence — European Romanticism , a literary and artistic movement that emphasized feeling and emotion rather than the Enlightenment 's emphasis on reason and order.

"All through the war years — the American Revolution , the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812 — Americans found it virtually impossible to go to Europe or even to access European books," Walls says. "But after the Paris peace treaty of 1815, suddenly travel to Europe was wide open again. A whole generation of ambitious young American men sailed to Europe to continue their education at European universities, above all in Germany. The books and ideas and teachings they brought back with them — Kant , Goethe , the Humboldt brothers , Samuel Taylor Coleridge , Wordsworth , Byron and Shelley , and on and on — infused American colleges and universities with an exciting new wave of European literature and philosophy ." It was "a wave which swiftly spread into the popular imagination, inspiring a widespread confidence that a new age was born, an age in which the individual could intuit truth for him- or herself by an inward search for meaning."

A small group interested in these ideas like George Putnam, Amos Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, and more began meeting together in the mid-1830s, first at a hotel and then in the Boston home of a minister named George Ripley , forming what became known as the Transcendental Club . The group eventually published a magazine, The Dial , which was edited by Fuller. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was the business manager of the magazine and in 1860 established the first English-language kindergarten in the USA.

Later, some of the transcendentalists even created a short-lived utopian community in Boston based upon their ideas — Brook Farm , whose residents shared the agricultural work and operated a school.

While the transcendentalists were a rebellious fringe, a lot of their transcendental philosophy ideas eventually became an accepted part of the American mainstream. "As Emerson said, 'In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended,'" Walls explains. "This notion of self-trust became the foundation for American self-reliance, another term coined by Emerson."

Thoreau , former schoolmaster turned poet and philosopher, bought into transcendentalist philosophy ideas and endeavored to live them. As this article from the Constitutional Rights Foundation details, in 1845, he built a cottage on Walden Pond, on property owned by Emerson, and spent several years living off the land, meditating and contemplating nature. Thoreau stopped paying his taxes in protest against legal slavery in the U.S. and the U.S. war against Mexico in 1846 . That led to him being arrested by the local constable for tax delinquency. He spent a night in jail before a benefactor paid off his debt. The experience led Thoreau to publish his influential essay " Civil Disobedience ," in which he argued that people should defy the government rather than support policies they saw as unjust. Thoreau advocated nonviolent action but later a letter in support of violent actions of John Brown, who murdered unarmed pro-slavery settlers in Kansas.

"Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it," Thoreau wrote.

Henry David Thoreau Black and White Bust Portrait

"Thoreau gave us the classic examples — first in his uniquely individualist form of social protest, civil disobedience, and then in pursuing his Utopian search for truth by living in solitude at Walden Pond — striking out alone to 'enjoy an original relation to the universe' as Emerson said," Walls says. "It's good to remember that this 'original relation' included the universe of human history — world literature, the world's religions, modern science, philosophy all the way back to the ancient Greeks, Plato above all — but also, famously, the universe of the outer world, or nature, which the transcendentalists regarded as the embodiment of divine reason, hence the key to universal meaning."

According to Walls, the transcendentalists "interpreted truth not as something that one could find, single and static, but as something one lived, dynamic and always evolving and changing."

That unending search for the truth also led the movement's members to become activists in big causes of their day. The transcendentalist belief that every person carries God within him or her meant that politics, economics, organized religion and the schools, with their tendency to sort people into hierarchical ranks, needed to be overhauled or at least reformed.

"The American educational system was their first target — education should be free to all, of all ages, men and women alike, and all ethnicities, races and creeds," Walls says. "Many of the transcendentalists were teachers, and several — Bronson Alcott , Elizabeth Peabody [and] Thoreau — founded innovative, progressive schools, which embraced literacy and education for everyone, including women and African Americans." Their ideas still influence education today as we all deserve access to education as human beings.

Transcendentalists also took up the fight against slavery — "led, notably, by women, who took up the cause starting in the 1830s by founding anti-slavery societies at the local level and organizing anti-slavery activism at all levels, local, regional and national," Walls explains. Emerson and Thoreau gave speeches against slavery. Another transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker, not only preached abolitionist sermons but actually formed a vigilance committee to protect free Blacks in Boston from southern slave-catchers. "Thoreau daringly acted as a conductor on the Underground Railroad , and went on to inspire the northern movement in support of John Brown ," Walls notes.

Members of the American transcendentalism movement also were early advocates of equality for women. Margaret Fuller's 1845 book " Woman in the Nineteenth Century " contained what for the time was a daring proclamation: "What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home." Fuller's influence was felt a few years later in the Seneca Falls Convention , the 1848 conference that's widely recognized as the beginning of the women's rights movement.

Margaret Fuller Portrait Drawing in Black and White

The transcendentalist movement eventually began to fade in prominence, but its ideas never really went away and manifesting into later reform movements. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, there was a resurgence of enthusiasm for Thoreau, as antiwar activists and hippies found that his ideas about resisting the power structure were relevant to them. Today, when climate activists argue that environmental protection and social justice for poor people and minority communities aren't separate issues but are actually inseparably linked, they're drawing upon Thoreau's belief that we need to get off the shoulders of others, Walls explains.

"Interest in Thoreau's ideas is stronger today than ever before; certainly students in my own classes resonate to his message more urgently than ever," Walls says. "They identify with Thoreau's fear that we're living lives of 'quiet desperation,' and many respond with intense hope to the solutions he offers. For one reason, his is an individualist form of hope; you can take on his ethical project by yourself, on your own, no matter who you are or where you live. In other words, he offers a sense that even today we can exert at least some control over our lives, learn to live by a higher ethical standard and so at the least make our own lives better — a place to start the ethical project of making all lives better."

Walden Pond, where Henry Thoreau lived for two years, also was the place where Boston entrepreneur Frederic "Ice King" Tudor harvested ice, cutting blocks and shipping them to faraway countries, according to the New England Historical Society . "Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, or Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well," Thoreau wrote in 1854.

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Confused about transcendentalism? You’re not alone! Transcendentalism is a movement that many people developed over a long period of time, and as a result, its complexity can make it hard to understand.

That’s where we come in. Read this article to learn a simple but complete transcendentalism definition, key transcendentalist beliefs, an overview of the movement's history, key players, and examples of transcendentalist works. By the end, you’ll have all the information you need to write about or discuss the transcendentalist movement.

What Is Transcendentalism?

It’s all about spirituality. Transcendentalism is a philosophy that began in the mid-19th century and whose founding members included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It centers around the belief that spirituality cannot be achieved through reason and rationalism, but instead through self-reflection and intuition. In other words, transcendentalists believe spirituality isn’t something you can explain; it’s something you feel. A transcendentalist would argue that going for a walk in a beautiful place would be a much more spiritual experience than reading a religious text.

The transcendentalism movement arose as a result of a reaction to Unitarianism as well as the Age of Reason. Both centered on reason as the main source of knowledge, but transcendentalists rejected that notion. Some of the transcendentalist beliefs are:

  • Humans are inherently good
  • Society and its institutions such as organized religion and politics are corrupting. Instead of being part of them, humans should strive to be independent and self-reliant
  • Spirituality should come from the self, not organized religion
  • Insight and experience are more important than logic
  • Nature is beautiful, should be deeply appreciated, and shouldn’t be altered by humans

Major Transcendentalist Values

The transcendentalist movement encompassed many beliefs, but these all fit into their three main values of individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature.

Individualism

Perhaps the most important transcendentalist value was the importance of the individual. They saw the individual as pure, and they believed that society and its institutions corrupted this purity. Transcendentalists highly valued the concept of thinking for oneself and believed people were best when they were independent and could think for themselves. Only then could individuals come together and form ideal communities.

The focus on idealism comes from Romanticism, a slightly earlier movement. Instead of valuing logic and learned knowledge as many educated people at the time did, transcendentalists placed great importance on imagination, intuition and creativity . They saw the values of the Age of Reason as controlling and confining, and they wanted to bring back a more “ideal” and enjoyable way of living.

Divinity of Nature

Transcendentalists didn’t believe in organized religion, but they were very spiritual. Instead of believing in the divinity of religious figures, they saw nature as sacred and divine. They believed it was crucial for humans to have a close relationship with nature, the same way religious leaders preach about the importance of having a close relationship with God. Transcendentalists saw nature as perfect as it was; humans shouldn’t try to change or improve it.

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History of the Transcendentalist Movement

What’s the history of transcendentalism? Here’s an overview of the movement, covering its beginning, height, and eventual decline.

While people had begun discussing ideas related to transcendentalism since the early 1800s, the movement itself has its origins in 1830s New England, specifically Massachusetts. Unitarianism was the major religion in the area, and it emphasized spirituality and enlightenment through logic, knowledge, and rationality. Young men studying Unitarianism who disagreed with these beliefs began to meet informally. Unitarianism was a particularly large part of life at Harvard University, where many of the first transcendentalists attended school.

In September 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson organized the first meeting of what would later be called the Transcendental Club. Together the group discussed frustrations of Unitarianism and their main beliefs, drawing on ideas from Romanticism, German philosophers, and the Hindu spiritual texts the Upanishads. The transcendentalists begin to publish writings on their beliefs, beginning with Emerson’s essay “Nature.”

The Transcendental Club continued to meet regularly, drawing in new members, and key figures, particularly Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, published numerous essays to further spread transcendentalist beliefs. In 1840, the journal The Dial was created for transcendentalists to publish their works. Utopia communities, such as Brook Farm and Fruitlands attempted to make transcendentalism a complete lifestyle.

By the end of the 1840s, many key transcendentalists had begun to move onto other pursuits, and the movement declined. This decline was further hastened by the untimely death of Margaret Fuller, one of the leading transcendentalists and cofounder of The Dial. While there was a smaller second wave of transcendentalism during this time, the brief resurgence couldn’t bring back the popularity the movement had enjoyed the previous decade, and transcendentalism gradually faded from public discourse, although people still certainly share the movement’s beliefs. Even recently, movies such as The Dead Poets Society and The Lion King express transcendentalist beliefs such as the importance of independent thinking, self-reliance, and enjoying the moment.

Key Figures in the Transcendentalist Movement

At its height, many people supported the beliefs of transcendentalism, and numerous well-known names from the 19th century have been associated with the movement. Below are five key transcendentalists.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson is the key figure in transcendentalism. He brought together many of the original transcendentalists, and his writings form the foundation of many of the movement’s beliefs. The day before he published his essay “Nature” he invited a group of his friends to join the “Transcendental Club” a meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss their beliefs. He continued to host club meetings, write essays, and give speeches to promote transcendentalism. Some of his most important transcendentalist essays include “The Over-Soul,” “Self-Reliance,” “The American Scholar” and “Divinity School Address.”

Henry David Thoreau

The second-most important transcendentalist, Thoreau was a friend of Emerson’s who is best known for his book Walden . Walden is focused on the benefits of individualism, simple living and close contact with and observation of nature. Thoreau also frequently opposed the government and its actions, most notably in his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller was perhaps the leading female transcendentalist. A well-known journalist and ardent supporter of women’s rights, she helped cofound The Dial , the key transcendentalist journal, with Emerson, which helped cement her place in the movement and spread the ideas of transcendentalism to a wider audience. An essay she wrote for the journal was later published as the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century , one of the earliest feminist works in the United States. She believed in  the importance of the individual, but often felt that other transcendentalists, namely Emerson, focused too much on individualism at the expense of social reform.

Amos Bronson Alcott

A friend of Emerson’s, Alcott (father of Little Women’ s Louisa May Alcott), was an educator known for his innovative ways of teaching and correcting students. He wrote numerous pieces on transcendentalism, but the quality of his writing was such that most were unpublishable. A noted abolitionist, he refused to pay his poll tax to protest President Tyler’s annexation of Texas as a slave territory. This incident inspired Thoreau to do a similar protest, which led to him writing the essay “Civil Disobedience.”

Frederic Henry Hedge

Frederic Henry Hedge met Emerson when both were students at Harvard Divinity School. Hedge was studying to become a Unitarian minister, and he had already spent several years studying music and literature in Germany. Emerson invited him to join the first meeting of the Transcendental Club (originally called Hedge’s Club, after him), and he attended meetings for several years. He wrote some of the earliest pieces later categorized as Transcendentalist works, but he later became somewhat alienated from the group and refused to write pieces for The Dial.

George Ripley

Like Hedge, Ripley was also a Unitarian minister and founding member of the Transcendental Club. He founded the Utopian community Brook Farm based on major Transcendentalist beliefs. Brook Farm residents would work the farm (whichever jobs they found most appealing) and use their leisure time to pursue activities they enjoyed, such as dancing, music, games, and reading. However, the farm was never able to do well financially, and the experiment ended after just a few years.

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Criticisms of Transcendentalism

From its start, transcendentalism attracted numerous critics for its nontraditional, and sometimes outright alien, ideas. Many transcendentalists were seen as outcasts, and many journals refused to publish works written by them. Below are some of the most common criticisms.

Spirituality Over Organized Religion

For most people, the most shocking aspect of transcendentalism was that it promoted individual spirituality over churches and other aspects of organized religion. Religion was the cornerstone of many people’s lives at this time, and any movement that told them it was corrupting and to give it up would have been unfathomable to many.

Over-Reliance on Independence

Many people, even some transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller, felt that transcendentalism at times ignored the importance of community bonds and over-emphasized the need to rely on no one but one’s self , to the point of irresponsibility and destructiveness. Some people believe that Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick was written as a critique of complete reliance on independence. In the novel, the character Ahab eschews nearly all bonds of camaraderie and is focused solely on his goal of destroying the white whale. This eventually leads to his death. Margaret Fuller also felt that transcendentalism could be more supportive of community initiatives to better the lives of others, such as by advocating for women’s and children’s rights.

Abstract Values

Have a hard time understanding what transcendentalists really wanted? So did a lot of people, and it made them view the movement as nothing more than a bunch of dreamers who enjoyed criticizing traditional values but weren’t sure what they themselves wanted. Edgar Allen Poe accused the movement of promoting “obscurity for obscurity's sake.”

Unrealistic Utopian Ideals

Some people viewed the transcendentalists’ focus on enjoying life and maximizing their leisure time as hopelessly naive and idealistic. Criticism frequently focused on the Utopian communities some transcendentalists created to promote communal living and the balance of work and labor. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who stayed at the Brook Farm communal living experiment, disliked his experience so much that he wrote an entire novel, The Blithedale Romance , criticizing the concept and transcendentalist beliefs in general.

Major Transcendentalist Works

Many transcendentalists were prolific writers, and examples abound of transcendentalism quotes, essays, books, and more. Below are four examples of transcendentalist works, as well as which of the transcendentalist beliefs they support.

“ Self-Reliance ” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson wrote this essay in 1841 to share his views on the issue of, you guessed it, self-reliance. Throughout the essay he discusses the importance of individuality and how people must avoid the temptation to conform to society at the expense of their true selves. It also contains the excellent line “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

There are three main ways Emerson says people should practice self-reliance is through non-conformity (“A man must consider what a blindman's-bluff is this game of conformity”), solitude over society (“the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”), and spirituality that is found in one’s own self (“The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps”). Self-reliance and an emphasis on the individual over community is a core belief of transcendentalism, and this essay was key in developing that view.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Published in 1855, the first edition of Leaves of Grass included 12 untitled poems. Whitman was a fan of Emerson’s and was thrilled when the latter highly praised his work. The poems contain many transcendentalism beliefs, including an appreciation of nature, individualism, and spirituality.

A key example is the poem later titled “ Song of Myself ” which begins with the line “I celebrate myself” and goes on to extoll the benefits of the individual “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me”, the enjoyment of nature (“The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark colored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn”), the goodness of humans (“You shall possess the good of the earth and sun”), and the connections all humans share (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”).

“ The Summer Rain ” by Henry David Thoreau

This transcendentalism poem, like many of Thoreau’s works, focuses on the beauty and simplicity of nature. Published in 1849, the poem describes the narrator’s delight at being in a meadow during a rainstorm.

The poem frequently mentions the enjoyment that observing nature can bring, and there are many descriptions of the meadow such as, “A clover tuft is pillow for my head/And violets quite overtop my shoes.” But Thoreau also makes a point to show that he believes nature is more enjoyable and a better place to learn from than intellectual pursuits like reading and studying. He begins the poem with this verse: “My books I'd fain cast off, I cannot read/'Twixt every page my thoughts go stray at large/Down in the meadow, where is richer feed,/And will not mind to hit their proper targe” and continues later on with “Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,/What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,/If juster battles are enacted now/Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?”

He makes clear that he is comparing works of Shakespeare and Homer to the joys of nature, and he finds nature the better and more enjoyable way to learn. This is in line with Transcendentalist beliefs that insight and experience are more rewarding than book learning.

“ What Is Beauty? ” by Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child, a women’s rights activist and abolitionist, wrote this essay, which was published in The Dial in 1843. The essay discusses what constitutes beauty and how we can appreciate beauty.

It frequently references the transcendentalist theme that intuition and insight are more important than knowledge for understanding when something is beautiful, such as in the line “Beauty is felt, not seen by the understanding.” All the knowledge in the world can’t explain why we see certain things as beautiful; we simply know that they are.

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Summary: Transcendentalism Definition

What’s a good transcendentalism definition? Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement centered around spirituality that was popular in the mid-19th century. Key transcendentalism beliefs were that humans are inherently good but can be corrupted by society and institutions, insight and experience and more important than logic, spirituality should come from the self, not organized religion, and nature is beautiful and should be respected.

The transcendentalist movement reached its height in the 1830s and 1840s and included many well-known people, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Transcendentalists wrote widely, and by reading their works you can get a better sense of the movement and its core beliefs.

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Taking the AP Literature exam? Check out our ultimate guide to the AP English Literature test and our list of AP Literature practice tests .

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There's a lot of imagery in transcendentalism poems and other writings. Learn everything you need to know about imagery by reading our guide.

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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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Transcendentalism

What is Transcendentalism? Who are the key players in it? Ralph Waldo Emerson plays an important role in this era. Understanding what distinguishes his work can help you to understand the characteristics of the era. In what ways is love manifested in the Transcendentalist movement?

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Transcendentalism of the Nineteenth Century

Transcendentalism was America’s first notable intellectual and philosophical movement. It developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society. In particular, transcendentalists criticized the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School.

Core Beliefs

Transcendentalism became a movement of writers and philosophers who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the idea that perception is better than logic or experience. Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both humans and nature. Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions, particularly organized religion and political parties, ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that man is at his best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It was believed that only from such real individuals could true community be formed. Rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German idealism, more generally), the movement developed as a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism, John Locke’s philosophy of sensualism, and the Manifest Destiny of New England Calvinism. Its fundamental belief was in the unity and immanence of God in the world.

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” is usually considered the watershed moment at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy. Early in the movement’s history, critics use the term “transcendentalist” as a pejorative, and suggested that the members’ position was beyond sanity and reason.

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

The transcendentalists varied in their interpretations of how their ideas should manifest. Some among the group linked it with utopian social change; for example, Orestes Brownson connected it with early socialism, while others such as Emerson considered it an exclusively individualist and idealist project. In his 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice. The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles that were not based on, or falsifiable by, physical experience, but that were derived from the inner spiritual or mental essence of the human. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as an American outgrowth of romanticism.

By the late 1840s, Emerson believed the movement was dying out, and even more so after the death of Margaret Fuller in 1850. Fuller was an American journalist, critic, and women’s-rights advocate closely associated with the movement; according to Emerson, “she represents an interesting hour and group in American cultivation.”

Emerson’s Influence

Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, was seen as a champion of individualism and a critic of the pressures of society. He disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures. Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature.” Following this groundbreaking work, he gave a speech entitled, “The American Scholar” in 1837. Emerson’s first two collections of essays, published in 1841 and 1844, represent the core of his thinking.

Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets but developing certain ideas and themes such as individuality, freedom, humankind’s ability to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. While his writing style can be seen as somewhat impenetrable, Emerson’s essays remain among the linchpins of American thinking and have greatly influenced the thinkers, writers, and poets who have followed him.

Thoreau’s Influence

Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.

Among Thoreau’s lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay. At the same time, he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.

He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Transcendentalists were all from the greater Boston area, mostly men, all white, and most shared a Unitarian faith. Most Black Americans at this time were enslaved. Were there any widely known Black thinkers during this period? Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Frederick Douglass embodied Transcendentalist philosophy. They encountered Transcendentalism as free Black Americans living in the North. Both were well-educated and effective public speakers. Both were engaged in abolition, civil rights, and temperance movements.

Focus on Individualism

Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses the moral worth and value of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Liberalism, existentialism, and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual as a central unit of analysis. Individualism is associated with artistic and bohemian interests and lifestyles in which there is a tendency towards self-creation and experimentation as opposed to tradition or popular mass opinions and behaviors, and also with humanist philosophical positions and ethics.

Emerson championed individuality, freedom, and humankind’s ability to realize almost anything. In his essay “Nature,” Emerson asserted that because God’s presence is inherent in both humanity and nature, all people contain seeds of divinity. His essay “Self-Reliance” thoroughly emphasizes the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency and to follow his or her own instincts and ideas.

Adapted from “ The Emergence of American Literature ” by Boundless is licensed CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Questions to Consider: Individualism may seem like an intrinsic characteristic of the people in the West and specifically of the United States, but that ideal evolved. What are the benefits of individualism? What might be its weaknesses?

Transcendentalism in American History

The Importance and Equality of the Individual

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Transcendentalism was an American literary movement that emphasized the importance and equality of the individual. It began in the 1830s in America and was heavily influenced by German philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Immanuel Kant, along with English writers like  William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Transcendentalists espoused four main philosophical points. Simply stated, these were the ideas of: 

  • Self Reliance
  • Individual Conscience
  • Intuition Over Reason
  • Unity of All Things in Nature

In other words, individual men and women can be their own authority on knowledge through the use of their own intuition and conscience. There was also a distrust of societal and governmental institutions and their corrupting effects on the individual. 

The Transcendentalist Movement was centered in New England and included a number of prominent individuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson , George Ripley, Henry David Thoreau , Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. They formed a club called The Transcendental Club, which met to discuss a number of new ideas. In addition, they published a periodical that they called "The Dial" along with their individual writings.

Emerson and 'The American Scholar'

Emerson was the unofficial leader of the transcendentalist movement. He gave an address at Cambridge in 1837 called "The American Scholar." During the address, he stated that:

"Americans] have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame....Young men of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison with these, — but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust, — some of them suicides. What is the remedy? They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career, do not yet see, that, if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him."

Thoreau and Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau decided to practice self-reliance by moving to Walden Pond, on land owned by Emerson, and build his own cabin where he lived for two years. At the end of this time, he published his book, "Walden: Or, Life in the Woods." In this, he wrote, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

Transcendentalists and Progressive Reforms

Because of the beliefs in self-reliance and individualism, transcendentalists became huge proponents of progressive reforms. They wished to help individuals find their own voices and achieve to their fullest potential. Margaret Fuller, one of the leading transcendentalists, argued for women's rights. She argued that all sexes were equal and should be treated as such. In addition, transcendentalists argued for the abolition of enslavement. In fact, there was a crossover between women's rights and the abolitionist movement. Other progressive movements that they espoused included the rights of those in prison, help for the poor, and better treatment of those who were in mental institutions.

Transcendentalism, Religion, and God

As a philosophy, Transcendentalism is deeply rooted in faith and spirituality. Transcendentalists believed in the possibility of personal communication with God leading to an ultimate understanding of reality. Leaders of the movement were influenced by the elements of mysticism found in Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religions, as well as the American Puritan and Quaker faiths. The transcendentalists equated their belief in a universal reality to the Quakers’ belief in a divine Inner Light as a gift of God’s grace.

Transcendentalism was greatly influenced by the doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School during the early 1800s. While Unitarians stressed a rather calm and rational relationship with God, transcendentalists sought a more personal and intense spiritual experience. As expressed by Thoreau, transcendentalists found and communed with God in gentle breezes, dense forests, and other creations of nature. While Transcendentalism never evolved into its own organized religion; many of its followers remained in the Unitarian church.

Influences on American Literature and Art

Transcendentalism influenced a number of important American writers, who helped create a national literary identity. Three of these men were Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. In addition, the movement also influenced American artists from the Hudson River School, who focused on the American landscape and the importance of communing with nature. 

Updated by Robert Longley

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The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism

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The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism

19 Transcendental Poetics:Emerson, Higginson, and the Rise of Whitman and Dickinson

Ed Folsom is the editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, codirector of the Whitman Archive (www.whitmanarchive.org), and editor of the Whitman series at the University of Iowa Press. The Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa, he is the author or editor of numerous books and essays on Whitman and other American writers. He recently concluded a Guggenheim Fellowship, working on his biography of Leaves of Grass.

  • Published: 18 September 2012
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This article, mainly, analyses the poetic works of the Transcendentalists. Most of them have been categorized as essayists or nonfiction writers. Poetry was to them the occasional rather than the chief medium of expression. It was said that Transcendentalist poetry was too philosophical, not written to please, but to convince. However, this poetry often seemed as a kind of bardic or homiletic wisdom literature. The article also examines the works of Whitman and Dickinson relating them to Transcendentalism as although it is generally known that Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are somehow associated with Transcendentalism, no one seems quite sure just how or just how much their poetry can or should be called “Transcendental.” While the Transcendentalists attempted to keep Whitman's and Dickinson's poetry in check, they also promoted their poetry to encourage society to take their idiosyncratic poetry seriously.

There are, of course, poems by Transcendentalists. It is less certain that there is such a thing as Transcendental poetry, at least as a meaningful category. Certainly Transcendentalist poets were not grouped that way in the earliest American literature histories and anthologies, nor did these poets think of themselves in such an alliance. The designation has evolved with our literary historiography, starting with George Willis Cooke's 1903 anthology, The Poets of Transcendentalism , which gathered poems originally published in the Dial , the Radical , and the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in order to show how “the poetry influenced by transcendentalism would serve to indicate how largely that movement had affected American literature” (v).

The category never caught on, however, and the term Transcendental poetry now causes more confusion than clarification. Every reader of American literature knows that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote poems. Many, if pressed, recall that Henry David Thoreau wrote poems, and some remember that Margaret Fuller did, too, though the anthologizing tendencies of modern literary study have tended to force authors who worked in multiple genres to be remembered and read in only one. Most of the Transcendentalists have been categorized as essayists or nonfiction writers, and, as Cooke noted in his anthology, poetry was to the Transcendentalists “the occasional rather than the chief medium of expression.” “There was something in transcendentalism,” Cooke continued, “that made them poets in youth or at rare moments”; indeed, for many of them “poetry was an accident,” and their philosophical inclinations usually led to Transcendentalist poetry's “chief defect”: “[I]t is too philosophical…not written to please, but to convince” (23–25). So while many students of American literature have read some Jones Very sonnets (most were written in a short burst of creative fervor), few have encountered the poems of Ellery Channing, Ellen Hooper, and Christopher Pearse Cranch, the other Transcendentalists perhaps most fully committed to writing in the genre. And although it is generally known, too, that Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are somehow associated with Transcendentalism, no one seems quite sure just how or just how much their poetry can or should be called “Transcendental.”

Lawrence Buell has effectively articulated the conundrum that faces anyone who tries to write about this subject: “Transcendentalism's poetry has often seemed tame and thin by comparison to its prose….Given the Transcendentalists' admiration for poetry, why didn't they produce better results?” Buell offers a nuanced answer to his question, suggesting that in some cases the results were actually pretty good and demonstrating that there are at least a few promising ways to go about reading the Transcendentalists' poems as a unified body of literature. Out of the “heterogeneous assemblage of more or less traditional short lyric and mid-length narrative genres” that compose the output of Transcendentalist poets, Buell says that we can identify one key pattern as “a persistent striving for the arresting compressed statement,” resulting in Transcendentalist poems that “often strike one as a kind of bardic or homiletic wisdom literature” (98, 101, 102).

That quality of compression was something that the earliest commentators on American literature noted. Charles F. Richardson, for example, in his groundbreaking study, American Literature, 1607–1885 (1886–1888), noted that “[t]he poetry of Emerson occupies a peculiar position” because “it is obedient, as a rule, to the canons of poetic art…but on the whole it is simply to be considered as a medium for the expression of thought which could not so concisely be uttered in prose. When Emerson wished to speak with peculiar terseness, with unusual exaltation, with special depth of meaning, with the utmost intensity of conviction, he spoke in poetic form” (139–40). This wish leads Emerson and the other Transcendentalist poets toward what Buell calls “epigrammaticism,” a seeking of “the peaks, the quintessences, of experience” instead of “temporal sequence.” Channing alone among the Transcendentalists takes “the fall into individuality,” only to discover “inadequacy” in his “subjectivity” (107). Otherwise, Buell argues, when we spot the first-person pronoun in Transcendentalist poetry, it will almost inevitably turn out to be “grammatically an I, effectively an everyman,” as “particularized experience” and “psychological complication” are rejected in favor of “aphoristic statements” and “typic figures” (113, 116).

Temporal sequence, particularized experience, and intense subjectivity are the tools of the trade for Walt Whitman, just as subjectivity and psychological complication might be said to define Emily Dickinson's poetry. In that sense, these two unlikely founders of an American poetic tradition seem anti-Transcendental, and their simultaneous concoctions of radically innovative yet strikingly dissimilar poetic forms and voices would seem, if related at all to Transcendentalist poetry, to be rejections of its basic ideas as well as of its traditional forms. And yet, perhaps the only really important question today to be asked about this poetry is whether it in some way created, or allowed to be created, what Adrienne Rich has memorably called this “strange uncoupled couple…a wild woman and a wild man” who formed the genesis of our national poetic tradition (447). Moreover, if actual Transcendentalists' poems do not stand behind Dickinson's and Whitman's work, do Transcendentalist poetics serve these two poets somehow as the liberating and defining force? If Whitman and Dickinson are, as Rich says, our “sensual, free-ranging, boastful father” and our “reluctant, elusive, emotionally closeted mother” (450), is their common father a Transcendentalist named Emerson, whose own poetic works may have offered little as a model but whose evocations of what “the poet” in America might someday become inspired an experimentation that the father himself never succeeded in undertaking but uneasily came to recognize (or would have come to recognize) in his wild progeny?

Emerson in his essay “The Poet” created an image of the new American poet as someone he could imagine but whom he had not yet found: “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe” ( EmCW 3:21). It is striking how Emerson's description of what characterizes the emerging great American poetry does not seem to apply to any poems the Transcendentalists wrote (including his own poetic epigraph for his essay, which portrays “A moody child and wildly wise,” who “[p]ursued the game with joyful eyes” while searching “[t]hrough worlds, and races, and terms, and times” for “musical order, and pairing rhymes” [3:1]). When we hear Emerson say that “the poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly,” speaking with an “intellect inebriated by nectar” (3:16), we think of Whitman's and Dickinson's work more than of Channing's and Cranch's. Emerson evokes the poet who will bring “the new religion” and be “the reconciler, whom all things await,” the “genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials,” and who could see poetry in the “yet unsung” aspects of the nation—“in the barbarism and materialism of the times,” in “banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus,” in “our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the Northern trade, the Southern planting, the Western clearing, Oregon and Texas”—and that poet seems in retrospect to presage Whitman and his catalogs of America's geography, occupations, and its wild variety (3:21–22). “Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres,” Emerson wrote, and Whitman answered by claiming “The United States are essentially the greatest poem” (3:22; Leaves 709).

Other parts of “The Poet”—as when Emerson tells us that “the sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body,” that poetry is “God's wine,” and that the poet's “cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for is inspiration, and he should be tipsy with water” as he “pours out verses in every solitude” ( EmCW 3:17)—evoke in retrospect Dickinson, the self-described “little Tippler,” who would echo Emerson's description: “Inebriate of Air—am I—/ And Debauchee of Dew” ( Poems 1:99). Emerson was imagining a poetry quite different from that produced by his fellow Transcendentalists, including the poems he himself produced. Theirs was poetry exceedingly sober, epigrammatic instead of expansive, wise instead of wild, and largely obedient to the traditions of rhyme and meter. The key, then, is this: Transcendentalism valued self-reliance and independent action, but it valued these qualities, paradoxically, as existing under a kind of amorphous central control, the Over-Soul. To act in consonance with the transcendent inclinations of our joined souls would often make our actions look out of step with degraded societal norms. So the Transcendentalists had a complex relationship with tradition. Poetic tradition was for them something intrinsically different from social traditions; it was something to be valued, the gift of the muse, the centuries-long record of emanations from the Over-Soul. Buell's conundrum, then, about Transcendentalist poetry—“an art of cautiously bound forms, formal diction, traditional metrics that at times seem bizarrely at odds with the theory of Self-Reliance” (98)—is in fact a kind of inevitability. Transcendentalists could talk about a radical poetry—a poetry that would in some sense be as radical an act as the philosophical, religious, and social radical acts that they were so adept at—but their own devotion to poetic tradition stymied their attempts to achieve it. Instead of setting out to create such a poetry, then, the Transcendentalists instead began to search outside their ranks to see whether someone somewhere was creating it. Whitman and Dickinson facilitated the search by sending their poems to the two most influential Transcendentalist thinkers about poetry—Emerson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

In this essay I suggest how Transcendentalism—and Transcendentalist poets—were responsible for promoting Whitman and Dickinson and for encouraging the culture to take their idiosyncratic poetry seriously. At the same time, Transcendentalists attempted to keep Whitman's and Dickinson's poetry in check. More than we have heretofore realized, early reviewers of Whitman's Leaves of Grass— some of them Transcendentalists—were claiming the book for Transcendentalism, even while recognizing its heretical elements. Emerson was not only the first major literary figure to praise Leaves ; he was also the first to try to intervene with its author to shape it into something that would allow it to retain its Transcendentalist associations. Similarly, Higginson, another Transcendentalist poet, was the first literary figure to encourage Emily Dickinson, even as he maneuvered to keep her out of print until after her death, when he could shape her poems into posthumous volumes fit for the Transcendentalists' reading.

Emerson and Higginson in fact form what is otherwise a missing link between Whitman and Dickinson, and each one's endorsement of one of these two innovative poets of the nineteenth century initiates something of a struggle over which of the “strange uncoupled couple” (Rich 447) would ultimately be sanctioned to transmit Transcendentalist poetry and values into the twentieth century. Emerson and Higginson—Waldo and Wentworth, as they were known to their friends—were two of the most formidable of the first two generations of American Transcendentalists. Both wrote a substantial amount of poetry, but both—like most of the Transcendentalist poets—were much better known for their essays. Like Emerson, Higginson wrote an influential essay about poetry and the future of poetry in the United States, a piece that had as direct and powerful an impact on Dickinson as Emerson's “The Poet” had on Whitman. These essays separately formed Whitman and Dickinson as poets and prompted each of them, at early stages of their careers, to send his or her poems to one of these towering Transcendentalists. Emerson and Higginson both recognized the power and innovation in the poetry that found its way into their hands, but both were also nonplussed by it, unsure just what it was they were reading, uncertain in fact whether they were reading something that would redefine poetry as they knew it or whether it was promising, half-formed work that called out for their critical shaping in order for it to become viable as the new American poetry, for which both men were on the lookout. Ultimately, each would come to be associated with the discovery and distribution of the two now-recognized founders of a distinctive American poetry. The real flowering of American Transcendental poetry came, then, not with poetry written by Transcendentalists but rather with poetry recognized and nurtured by them.

Emerson, of course, famously responded to Whitman's unsolicited poems in 1855, finding “incomparable things said incomparably well” ( EmL 8:446). Higginson's initial response to Dickinson has been lost, though he would later recall how “the impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius was as distinct on my mind at the first reading of these…poems as it is now” ( Magnificent 545). When Dickinson's poems first appeared as a printed book, they appeared with Higginson's name on the title page as coeditor and with the evidence of what Dickinson herself called his “surgery” all over them, from the categories he created to arrange her poems in safe Transcendental thematic clusters, to the titles he furnished, to the corrected punctuation and occasionally corrected rhyme. Emerson's name appeared on the spine of Whitman's second edition of Leaves of Grass in what may be the first book-cover blurb in American literary history, as Whitman, without permission, brazenly emblazoned Emerson's words from his private letter to the poet: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” ( EmL 8:446). Higginson deterred Dickinson from publishing until after her death, when he could have his way with her poetry; Emerson was not so fortunate, trying to persuade Whitman to remove the sexually explicit poems from his 1860 Leaves , only to be rebuffed by the poet, who was then in the process of publishing his much-expanded book in Boston with young publishers who were Emerson's friends. That edition would effectively mark the end of Whitman's close association with the Transcendentalists.

It is important to realize the analogous ways that Whitman and Dickinson come into the American canon, how these very different, equally radical poetic voices were nurtured by Transcendentalists who were equally intrigued and befuddled by them. These two foundational American voices struck a number of Transcendentalists as, at once, consonant with Transcendentalism and yet oddly anti-Transcendental. Furthermore, it is important also to realize how a tension within Transcendentalist poetry itself may well have produced these two writers, who form the genesis of our national poetic tradition. Emerson, along with several other Transcendentalist poets—like Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott—were fascinated with Whitman's poetry and tried to salvage his book as a Transcendentalist text. Higginson, with others—like his own brother-in-law Ellery Channing—were appalled at Emerson's endorsement of Leaves and did their best to distance Whitman's book from Transcendentalism. Then, soon after Emerson's attempts to restrain Whitman failed, Higginson discovered in Dickinson another radical, but he would hold this new find in reserve until after Emerson's and just before Whitman's death and then release her on the nation as its new poetic voice, once he had massaged her poetry into more conventional form. Meanwhile, he continued to do all he could to undermine Whitman's claim—once endorsed by Emerson—to be seriously considered as a poet.

As we look at the response to these two poets, then, we can track a divide among the Transcendentalists themselves, all of whom were committed to a more formal, traditional, and “epigrammatic” poetry than either Whitman and Dickinson eventually created, but some of whom came to recognize the genius in a poetry that veered away from the conventional, away from the epigrammatic and formal wisdom literature that defined most Transcendentalist poetry. Again, poetry was the one area where the Transcendentalist radical thinkers and social activists tended to remain conservative: It is as if the vast traditions of poetic form provided the decorum and restraint that served as the reins to their reformist free spirit, that made these radical abolitionists and women's rights activists still remarkably genteel people. Whitman and Dickinson challenged the Transcendentalists to see how poetry itself could become a radical act, and their breakthroughs unsettled the Transcendentalists and their heirs, so much so that Dickinson's actual unvarnished poetry, freed of Higginson's surgical scars, would not appear in print until 1955, and the critical debate continues to this day about whether we have yet encountered Dickinson unshackled from her male editors.

We are now so familiar with Emerson's celebration of Whitman's Leaves of Grass in 1855, when he called his book “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed” ( EmL 8:446) that we tend to forget that Whitman was only one in a long line of poets whom Emerson had initially found to be at the beginnings of great careers. For a while Bronson Alcott was Emerson's innovative new voice, but his promise stagnated into a permanent, stunted prospect. Charles King Newcomb was another young genius for Emerson in the 1840s, but in 1850 Emerson referred to him as “the unique, inspired, wasted genius” ( EmJMN 11:316). The notorious vagabond Ellery Channing, like Whitman, had his poetic career jump-started by Emerson's encouragement in the Dial : “Our first feeling on reading [Channing's poems] was a lively joy. So then the Muse is neither dead nor dumb, but has found a voice in these cold Cisatlantic States” (“New” 1:222).

Channing's poetry appears to most readers today to be fussily formal, but in the 1840s and 1850s, he was viewed by many Transcendentalists as too careless and casual. Thoreau famously said that Channing wrote “poetry in a sublimo-slipshod style” and suggested that he should begin writing in Latin in order to develop grammatical discipline ( ThPEJ 3:118). Emerson stuck with his praise of Channing, though, and in 1843 reviewed his Poems in the Dial : “We have already expressed our faith in Mr. Channing's genius, which in some of the finest and rarest traits of the poet is without a rival in this country. This little volume has already become a sign of great hope and encouragement to the lovers of the muse” (Review 4:135). Channing's career as a poet thus seemed set, but he, too, would fade as Emerson's poetic hope, and he must have been chagrined when the next year he read “The Poet” with its admission that Emerson still looked “in vain for the poet I describe” ( EmCW 3:21).

At the time of Emerson's infatuation with Channing's poetry, Walt Whitman was a newspaperman in his early twenties, working as a printer at the New World , living in New York City, and beginning to publish fiction in the United States Magazine, and Democratic Review . By the spring of 1842 he was editing the New York Aurora , where, on March 7, he published a review of Emerson's lecture the previous Saturday evening. The lecture, Whitman reports, was on the “Poetry of the Times,” and the young editor was obviously impressed with what he heard:

[Emerson] said that the first man who called another an ass was a poet. Because the business of the poet is expression—the giving utterance to the emotions and sentiments of the soul; and this expression or utterance is best effected by similes and metaphors. But it would do the lecturer great injustice to attempt anything like a sketch of his ideas. Suffice it to say, the lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have ever heard anywhere, at any time. ( Journalism 1:44)

Very little of Emerson's lecture made it into his more famous essay, so it is worth examining the manuscript of the actual lecture to see just what Whitman heard. The passage that Whitman paraphrases went, in Emerson's words, like this: “[T]he man who first called another man Puppy or Ass was a poet, and saw at the moment the identity of nature through the great difference of aspect. His eye so reached to the thought and will of the wretch he beheld, that he could hear him bark or bray, with a bestial necessity under this false clothing of man.” It is striking that the opening of this paragraph that Whitman singles out begins this way: “All things are symbols. We say of man that he is grass, that he is a stream, a house, a star, a lion, fire, a day; and if we wish to accuse him any time, we call him a snake, a baboon, a goat, a gull, a bat, an owl, a toad, and an infinity of names beside” ( EmEL 352).

It is tempting to imagine Whitman in the audience, hearing Emerson recite that catalog and beginning to conceive Leaves of Grass , to imagine a child coming to him with a handful of grass, asking the question—“What is the grass?”—that would generate the poem he would eventually call “Song of Myself.” While Emerson emphasized the metaphorical nature of these tropes, Whitman would eventually learn to push them in metonymic ways, seeing not the “great difference of aspect” between a man and grass but witnessing instead the literal ways that a man is grass transformed through natural cycles (he observes “the cow crunching” the grass and asks “How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?” before “bequeath[ing] myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love”). A man is grass, becomes the grass, grows into it and out of it. And Whitman would come to “believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,” as he discovers how the fact that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” generates an ecological set of connections that renders as metonym what we previously thought of as metaphor: We are not like these things in nature; we are these things, given time and space enough ( Leaves 33, 59, 47, 89, 31, 28).

Before we leap too quickly from Emerson's lecture to Whitman's Leaves of Grass thirteen years later, though, we need to remember what kind of a poet Whitman was in 1842, when he heard Emerson speak. Whitman was aware that Channing had been christened by Emerson as the new, authentic American poet—“without a rival in this country”—and he no doubt noticed that the qualities Emerson praised were “refinement,” “originality,” “delicacy of the diction,” and “fineness of perception” (Review 4:135; “New” 1:223). Whitman, in the late 1830s and early 1840s, had begun writing poetry, and his work at that time was marked by a “delicacy of the diction” and a “refinement” that seemed fit for the Dial ; he wrote poetry at this time as if he sought to produce the same effects that might garner the same praise. However, what must have struck Whitman most forcefully in Emerson's Dial essay on Channing's “new poetry” were the words that, while they purported to describe Channing's verse, seemed to suggest so much more: “[T]here is an absence of all conventional imagery, and a bold use of that which the moment's mood had made sacred to him, quite careless that it might be sacred to no other, and might even be slightly ludicrous to the first reader” (“New” 1:223). So, while Whitman's own poetry during the Dial years could easily be mistaken for that published in the Transcendentalist periodical, in the next ten years he would reinvent poetry for himself and ultimately for the nation: poetry with an absence of conventional imagery, a bold use of the present moment turned sacred, and what appeared to most nineteenth-century readers as ludicrously explicit bodily imagery. Much of the inspiration came from Emerson but not from his poetry, and it began in 1842, when he heard Emerson lecture.

Whitman had at this point published fewer than ten poems, all in newspapers, and all of them in careful prosody. Nothing in his work then indicated that he would have done anything but applaud Emerson's emphasis in the lecture on the “beauty in rhythm or metre (whereof rhyme is one instance) which has its origin in the pulse and constitution of man.” “Rhyme may pass away” at some distant point in the future of civilization, Emerson said that night, “yet it will always be remembered as a consecrated and privileged invention possessing what I may call certain rights of sanctuary ” ( EmEL 358–59). And rhyme certainly found sanctuary in all of Whitman's poetry from around this time.

One month after he reviewed Emerson's lecture on the poet in the Aurora , Whitman published, in the same paper, a poem called “Time to Come,” which had originally been published in 1838 as “Our Future Lot.” It ended with the promise of an afterlife: “The flickering taper's glow shall change / To bright and starlike majesty, / Radiant with pure and piercing light / From the Eternal's eye!” In revising the poem after hearing the lecture, Whitman concludes it in a more pantheistic darkness: “O, powerless is this struggling brain / To rend the mighty mystery; / In dark, uncertain awe it waits / The common doom, to die” ( Early Poems 27–29). Whitman's poem is in fact remarkably similar in tone and idea to Ellery Channing's “Death,” published first in the January 1843 Dial , then in his 1843 Poems ; as in Whitman's poem, the Transcendentalist addresses death and succumbs to its dark mysteries. Channing may at first seem a surprising model for Whitman, but these two unlikely contemporaries illuminate each other in some surprising ways. They were both embraced early and quickly by Emerson, and both felt the burden of his praise as well as his disappointing, waning enthusiasm for their poetry, even while he remained fond of them personally.

It is striking how Whitman began his review of Emerson's 1842 lecture: “The transcendentalist had a very full house on Saturday evening.” Whitman seldom used the term Transcendentalist during his career, so it is notable that his first mention of Emerson in print uses that descriptor. The term was still novel enough for readers that the next day the Aurora published an explanation of Transcendentalism. Another review in the Aurora of an Emerson lecture the next week referred to him as the “great gun of Transcendentalism” ( Journalism 1:490–91). Emerson's lecture and his essay made it clear to Whitman that Transcendentalism was a movement that imagined a radically new kind of poetry, one that was responsive to America in as yet unarticulated ways. During the decade after Whitman heard and read Emerson, he managed to invent such a poetry. However, the word Transcendentalism would fade from Whitman's vocabulary after the 1840s, even while the Transcendentalists themselves became more and more important to him after Leaves of Grass finally appeared.

Meanwhile, Higginson himself, fresh out of Harvard (where he gave a commencement address on “Poetry in an Unpoetical Age”), desperately wanted to become another of Emerson's chosen new poets, too, so he submitted his “Sunset Thoughts” to the Dial in 1843, where they were promptly rejected by Emerson, who told Higginson his verses “have truth and earnestness” but not “that external perfection which can neither be commanded nor nor [ sic ] described.” In a casual postscript, Emerson wrote “[p]erhaps after all I may publish your verses,” but he never did ( EmL 7:551). Sixty years later, Higginson was still bristling over that rejection, calling Emerson his “wise executioner,” who wielded “the inevitable scissors of fate, cutting short the wings of young ambition” (“Personality” 221). The same year that Emerson rejected Higginson, he renewed his “faith in Mr. Channing's genius” (Review 4:135), even while preparing to announce in “The Poet” that he still awaited the original American poet he described.

I look now at the ways that some Transcendentalists recognized, claimed, shared, and promoted Whitman's work (while others rejected it) and the ways that Whitman initially embraced the support he received from them and then, after the Civil War, began distancing himself when it began to interfere with his growing reputation as a true American original. Then I turn to Dickinson and the surprising ways that the Dickinson and Whitman stories become entwined toward the century's end.

Whitman's poetry got its foothold in the American imagination only through its association with the Transcendentalists. It is difficult to imagine what would have become of Leaves of Grass had Emerson not decided to recommend it to his friends, talk it up every chance he got, and respond personally to Whitman. Almost immediately after Emerson received his copy of Leaves from Whitman in July 1855 and before he wrote back to Whitman, he began writing to various Dial contributors and others, encouraging them to read it: people like Samuel Gray Ward, Caroline Sturgis Tappan, Theodore Parker, and Frank Bellew ( EmL 8:442–43, 445). Besides Whitman himself, Emerson apparently was the only person promoting the book in the months after it appeared. Passing his own copy around and encouraging others to buy it, Emerson was, after Whitman, the most effective early distributor of Leaves .

In September, Emerson showed his copy of the book to Unitarian minister and abolitionist Moncure D. Conway, who bought a copy the next day and read it on his way to New York to seek Whitman out, the first of several emissaries Emerson sent to make a connection with this still-mysterious author. Soon after this meeting, Charles Eliot Norton, son of Emerson's old adversary Andrews Norton, published a review of Leaves in Putnams Monthly , in which he adroitly drew the connections between Whitman's book and Transcendentalism: “The poems themselves,” Norton wrote, “may briefly be described as a compound of the New England transcendentalist and New York rowdy.” Norton no doubt spoke with Emerson about the book; in a letter to James Russell Lowell soon after his review, Norton reported Emerson's admiration for the book: “It is no wonder that he likes it, for Walt Whitman has read the ‘Dial’ and ‘Nature,’ and combines the characteristics of a Concord philosopher with those of a New York fireman.” Norton professed admiration for many passages but found others “disgustingly coarse” and said he “would be sorry to know that any woman had looked into it past the title-page” (quoted in Wilson 249). The concern with the physicality and sexuality—the “disgusting coarseness”—of the book, of course, would worry Emerson (and most other Transcendentalists) as well, something Emerson would warn Whitman about as the 1860 edition of Leaves was going to press. Nonetheless, Norton saw Whitman as an extension of the Dial crowd, a Transcendentalist with a difference.

Norton was not the only one: Numerous reviews of the first edition emphasize the connection; for example, the reviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle , who called Leaves “one of the strangest compounds of transcendentalism, bombast, philosophy, folly, wisdom, wit and dullness which it ever entered into the heart of man to conceive” (September 15, 1855; quoted in Price 18). Within the year, reviewers succeeded, for better or worse, in shackling Leaves to Transcendentalism, and Transcendentalists themselves kept reading the book, though many of them did not like it. Higginson recalled that he read Whitman's poems “on their very first appearance, and with some disappointment; the attacks on them made me expect more from them than I got” (quoted in Barrus 54). The recent census of extant copies of the 1855 Leaves reveals, in fact, that the identifiable original owners of the first edition can largely be traced back to Emerson and his recommendations of the book to his literary circle. Without this group of purchasers, Whitman's claim late in his life that the first edition did not sell any copies—“None of them were sold—practically none—perhaps one or two, perhaps not even that many” (Traubel 2:472)—might in fact have been true. Emerson lent his paperbound copy to a whole string of his friends before finally giving it to Franklin Sanborn, who later recalled the occasion: “I went home with him and he gave me a copy of the first edition, bound in paper, and in our walk he gave me some description of it, saying: ‘It is a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald’ ” (Myerson, Whitman 143–44). Even Emerson was now beginning to describe the book as a creative mix of the divine and the commonplace, the exalted and the trivial, Transcendentalism and rowdyism.

Some of the glow of the Emerson circle's response to Whitman had begun to wear off after Whitman's stunning decision to print Emerson's private letter to him in the New York Tribune on October 10, 1855. Whitman, unlike Channing and the other poets Emerson had earlier championed, was a seasoned and well-connected printer and journalist; he knew how to exploit the single important positive response he received to his book, and he was a master of self-promotion. Whitman bought numerous copies of the Tribune , cut out the Emerson letter, and began pasting it in unsold copies of Leaves ; then he printed it up as a separate broadside; and finally he printed it as part of a sewn-in section of reviews in later issues of the first edition. It was with the second edition of Leaves in 1856, though, that Whitman stretched the bounds of professional courtesy not only by putting Emerson's words on the spine of the book but also by reprinting Emerson's full letter inside and offering a long letter back, a letter he never actually sent and that Emerson read at the same time as everyone else who purchased the 1856 edition. Whitman did all of this without alerting Emerson. When Frank Bellew told Emerson he had seen his letter to Whitman in the Tribune , Emerson was shocked: “ ‘In the New York “Tribune”? No, no! impossible! he cannot have published it!…Dear! Dear!’ he muttered, ‘that was very wrong, very wrong indeed. That was merely a private letter of congratulation. Had I intended it for publication I should have enlarged the but very much’ ” (Bosco and Myerson 149). Ellery Channing—who had good reason to hope that Emerson never meant to supersede his praise of Channing's poetry with a printed endorsement of Whitman—later claimed that he “was present when Mr. Emerson first saw his own letter of praise printed by Whitman” and recalled that Emerson said nothing but “was as angry as I ever saw him in my life” (145). Sanborn later recalled that Channing “did not like ‘Leaves of Grass’—thought it not original,” and he reported that “Mr Emerson would praise it for six weeks and then forget it—that was his fashion” (quoted in Maynard 124).

Emerson, however, swallowed his anger and maintained his interest well beyond Channing's hoped-for six weeks. He visited Whitman in Brooklyn in December, dined with him at the Astor House, and accompanied the poet to a couple of fire engine houses, and the two met numerous times over the next few years. Some of Emerson's Transcendentalist friends shared his enthusiasm for the book. Bronson Alcott, curious about Emerson's fascination with Leaves , visited Whitman in Brooklyn in early October and was intrigued enough to return a month later, this time bringing Thoreau and Sarah Tyndale (who would develop a close friendship with Whitman) along with him. Emerson's sudden ardor for this unknown New York poet must have piqued Thoreau's curiosity, made him (like Channing) a little jealous, and prompted him to wonder what kind of man had suddenly appeared to fill the disciple gap in Emerson's life that Thoreau once had occupied. Alcott recalled the first meeting of the two future American literary giants in 1856: They were, Alcott wrote, “like two beasts, each wondering what the other would do, whether to snap or run” ( AlcJ 290). Thoreau later wrote that Whitman had become “the most interesting fact to me at present.” Like Emerson, he was both disgusted and fascinated by this New York phenomenon; of the 1856 edition, he said, “[T]here are two or three pieces in the book which are disagreeable, to say the least, simply sensual….It is as if the beasts spoke.” But then, he quickly rethought: “[I]t may turn out to be less sensual than it appears,—I do not so much wish that those parts were not written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is, without understanding them.” Thoreau, while calling Whitman's poems “awfully good” and Whitman himself a “great fellow,” still felt “a little imposed upon” by the poetry: “[Whitman] puts me into a liberal frame of mind prepared to see wonders,—as it were, sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain,—stirs me well up, and then—throws in a thousand of brick” ( ThCorr 444). While Thoreau's style was to pause and look deeper, Whitman's was to move on and look wider. What struck Emerson as “strange weary catalogues” ( EmL 8:445) struck Thoreau as endless bricks, relentlessly turning the natural world into an artificial construct. Both Transcendentalists, whose own poetry tended toward the epigrammatic, were befuddled by Whitman's diffuseness and repetitiveness.

Emerson, though, despite the caution of many friends, was fascinated by Whitman's new formless form and marshaled his Transcendentalist troops to begin to colonize Leaves of Grass , to claim it as a Transcendentalist text, as the very thing his poetics, as articulated in “The Poet,” inevitably led toward. He got the more aesthetically radical members of the group to go along—Thoreau, Alcott, and Sanborn, especially. We might think of the 1856 edition of Leaves as the Transcendentalist high point, with Emerson's words on the spine, Emerson's letter reprinted in the back, Whitman's long letter to Emerson (addressed to “dear Friend and Master”) serving as his poetic apologia, and Norton's “book of transcendental poetry” review reprinted in Whitman's gathering of positive and negative reviews at the end of the volume, titled “Leaves-Droppings.”

Continuing his efforts on Whitman's behalf, Emerson leaned on James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly , to publish Whitman's “Bardic Symbols” (later, “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life”). Lowell, after deleting lines that he thought suggested suicide, agreed to publish Whitman's work, and the poem appeared in April 1860. A dark meditation on nature, the poem fit nicely with Transcendentalist poetic concerns, and, while it was remarkably free from traditional meter, it was also free of the explicit sexuality and coarseness that bothered many of the circle. Emerson, then, was continuing to position Whitman as the radical poetic flowering of Transcendentalism, and Lowell, by becoming the first editor to tame Whitman's words, began a process that Emerson would soon try to repeat when he attempted to convince Whitman to expurgate his book. However, first Leaves of Grass had to be brought to Boston, and the sudden appearance of a radical Boston publisher—Thayer and Eldridge—to move Leaves from New York to the very heart of Transcendentalism assisted with Emerson's efforts to claim Leaves for the movement.

Whitman got his first look at the Transcendentalists on their own turf when he traveled to Boston in 1860 to oversee the production of his book by Thayer and Eldridge. Emerson and Thoreau had decided to invite Whitman to Concord during this visit, but, as Sanborn recalled, “The ladies of these houses, Mrs. Emerson, Sophia Thoreau, and Mrs. Alcott, declared they would not have him in the house” (Myerson, Whitman 146). Eldridge, however, recalled a different reason, one that suggests that Whitman might already be worrying about how he and his book were being usurped by the Transcendentalists: “Walt was invited by Emerson to Concord but declined to go, probably through his fear that he would see too much of the literary coterie that then clustered there, chiefly around Emerson” (Schmidgall 49). So instead, Emerson came to the Thayer and Eldridge offices to meet Whitman, and the publishers took him over to their foundry, where Whitman was ensconced with the typesetters, arguing over the fonts and the page design. Thayer and Eldridge had already contacted Emerson about their decision to publish Whitman's book and may have shown him the manuscript since it is clear that Emerson had, by the time of Whitman's visit, read the new and much-expanded version of Leaves and was very worried about it. Emerson had decided to take Whitman to dinner at the Saturday Club, but Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier vetoed the plan. The class differences, as well as Whitman's reputation for coarseness, were denying him access to the hallowed haunts of the Concord and Boston establishments, but he enjoyed the company of the typesetters.

Emerson, however, continued to visit Whitman in Boston, and during a walk on Boston Common, he tried to perform surgery on Leaves , not unlike what Higginson would attempt, more successfully, with Dickinson a few years later. Emerson wanted Whitman's new cluster, “Enfans d'Adam” (later, “Children of Adam”), with its raw sexual imagery, removed before the book went to press. Emerson's insistence was impressive—“I could never hear the points better put,” Whitman said—but he drew the line and rejected his “master's” advice: “I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way.” The two had dinner and parted amicably, and Whitman recalled that “thenceforward I never waver'd or was touch'd with qualms” ( Prose 1:281–82). Something broke at that point, however, and the personal relationship between them cooled. They did not meet again until a year before Emerson's death. Emerson would, however, continue to work through emissaries to try to tame Whitman. In the early 1870s, for example, he told John Burroughs that “he thought Walt's friends ought to quarrel a little more with him, and insist on his being a little more tame and orderly—more mindful of the requirements of beauty, of art, of culture, etc.” (quoted in Barrus 65). Eldridge himself recalls that Emerson's concerns with the 1860 Leaves were not moral but rather had to do with getting Whitman's poems widely circulated (Schmidgall 49). Emerson was at this point still the promoter of the book, and he knew by now from the reaction of many Transcendentalist friends that if the book emphasized physicality and sexuality even more than the previous edition, it would cease to have a place in polite society. It could then not flourish as the innovative offshoot of Transcendentalism, and so Emerson tried to preserve Leaves' chances to be on parlor tables. Late in his life, Whitman reiterated this point, insisting that Emerson's suggestion “that I should expurgate, cut out, eliminate” was because “he was anxious to have people read me” (Traubel 4:30).

Emerson, of course, had made it clear in “The Poet” that the new American poetry would have to broach subjects not traditionally considered within the realm of poetry: “The vocabulary of an omniscient man would embrace words and images excluded from polite conversation. What would be base, or even obscene, to the obscene, becomes illustrious, spoken in a new connexion of thought” ( EmCW 3:11). Still, he was clearly uneasy about much of Whitman's poetry, and he was keenly aware of how Whitman's explicit language bothered his Transcendentalist friends. He recorded in his journal Edwin Percy Whipple's comment that Whitman “had every leaf but the fig leaf” ( EmJMN 14:74). Emerson's concerns seemed justified when the reviews of the 1860 Leaves began appearing. Once again, reviewers hammered home the book's Transcendentalist roots but emphasized even more the author's coarsening of these values, as did the Saturday Review : “He is absolutely without sense of decency. He has obviously no sort of acquaintance with the masters of his art, and his studies have been apparently confined to Mr. Tupper, his news-paper, and the semi-lyrical rhapsodies of the Boston transcendentalists” (July 7, 1860; quoted in Price 95). In addition, Moncure Conway, having briefly resurrected the Dial in 1860, gave the new edition of Leaves what was becoming the characteristic Transcendental arm's-length embrace: While “in some of these pages one must hold his nose whilst he reads,” and while “the writer does not hesitate to bring the slop-bucket into the parlor to show you that therein also the chemic laws are at work,” still Whitman's “profanity is reverently meant, and he speaks what is unspeakable with the simple unreserve of a child” (519).

Meanwhile, Whitman—alarmed that his self-imposed embrace by Emerson was now leading to reviews that served to reduce Leaves to a failed Transcendentalist text by portraying it as an odd New York urban adjunct of the Transcendentalist movement or as a depraved coarsening of the movement—began a career-long distancing of himself from Emerson and ultimately denied that he had been influenced by Emerson in any significant way. It is clear that Whitman was not entirely charmed by the Transcendentalists he met in Boston (or the ones, like Lowell and Longfellow, who refused to dine with him). It was, after all, during this 1860 trip that Whitman met the Transcendentalist who would carry on the most vicious offensive of them all against him and his poetry: Wentworth Higginson.

Higginson had come to the movement after marrying Ellery Channing's sister, Mary; through her acquaintances he had visited Brook Farm. He was already a poet—after Emerson's rejection of his poetry in the Dial , his first poems had been published by Channing, one of them in Brook Farm's Harbinger (Wineapple 27)—and had become increasingly radicalized by the abolitionist movement, which led to his dismissal from the Newburyport Unitarian Church and his subsequent call to the newly established Free Church in Worcester. He had by this time already helped form the Boston Vigilance Committee to intervene in attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and had been indicted for his role in the committee's rescue attempt of escaped slave Anthony Burns. He then was one of the “Secret Six” conspirators (along with Franklin Sanborn) who supported John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and, after its failure, planned an eventually aborted armed raid to rescue Brown and his coconspirators from a Virginia prison. Higginson “had friendly relations” with Thayer and Eldridge—both publishers were active in the Vigilance Committee's activities, and Thayer, who funded some of Higginson's militant pro-Brown plans, had sheltered one of the Harpers Ferry raiders in his house.

To meet with co-conspirators, Higginson used the Thayer and Eldridge offices, which is where he met Whitman in 1860. As Higginson recalled: “I perhaps felt a little prejudiced against him from having read his ‘Leaves of Grass’ on a voyage, in the early stages of seasickness,—a fact which doubtless increased for me the intrinsic unsavoriness of certain passages. But the personal impression made on me by the poet was not so much of manliness as of Boweriness, if I may coin the phrase” ( Cheerful 230). The reference to Whitman's “Boweriness” evokes the working-class culture that dominated the Bowery at the time, a culture that increasingly in the later nineteenth century became associated with sexual licentiousness as the home of “fairies”—and Higginson loved labeling Whitman an “unmanly man” (Nelson and Price 500).

By October 1861, when Whitman submitted more poems to Lowell at the Atlantic , he found that his Transcendentalist credentials had been revoked. Lowell was no longer editor, having been replaced by James T. Fields, Higginson's friend and inveterate supporter. Emerson did not step in this time, and the poems, perhaps with a discouraging word from Higginson, were rejected. Whitman would stop seeking the Transcendentalists' help with his poetic career, and he would appear in the Atlantic only once more. In 1874, when Emerson published Parnassus , Whitman was nowhere to be found in his anthology, which gathered, as Emerson said in the introduction to the book, “any poem or lines that interested me” and demonstrated once again the Transcendentalist insistence on the power of poetry to compress thought (“Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words”) ( Parnassus iii). Higginson was excluded from Parnassus , too, but a number of Transcendentalists did make the cut, including Thoreau, Jones Very, Lowell, and, leading the way with eight poems, his pre-Whitman favorite, Ellery Channing, who seemed to have regained his position in Emerson's estimation as the contemporary poet to be taken seriously.

Emerson, after all, never had much to say about Whitman as a poet—there is little evidence, finally, that he thought of him as a poet since he referred to Whitman's work much more often as “wit & wisdom” (in “The Poet,” “wits” are what Emerson calls those lyricists whose work falls short of “poetry” [ EmCW 3:22]). “[W]it & wisdom,” ironically, seem a closer descriptor of Transcendentalist poetry (“homiletic wisdom literature,” in Buell's phrase [102]) than of Leaves , but the phrase underscores Emerson's uncertainty about just what Whitman was writing; Emerson was never sure just what he was seeing when he looked at Leaves (thus his admission to Whitman in his 1855 letter that, after reading the book, “I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion”) ( EmL 8:446). Whitman did not think of Emerson as a poet, either, never once commented on a single Emerson poem, and progressively cared less and less for his essays, too. “He is too cautious,” Whitman concluded in one manuscript about Emerson's limitations as a writer (Folsom 61).

It was different with Emily Dickinson, who began her own poetic career by reading Emerson's poems, finding them “pleasant” and often echoing them. Dickinson had started writing poems in 1850, just before she turned twenty, within weeks after she received from her friend Benjamin Franklin Newton a copy of Emerson's 1847 volume of poetry. Unlike Whitman, Dickinson was taken with Emerson as a poet, and his poems clearly influenced hers, especially his nature poems like “The Humble-Bee” (her first two poems—like many of her later ones—featured the bee “courting” the flower). By 1857, when Emerson lectured in Amherst and stayed at Emily's brother Austin's house next door to her, Dickinson would have been in much the same stage of poetic development as Whitman when he first heard Emerson lecture in 1842—still writing quite commonplace, formal poems that revealed little of the unorthodox genius just about to explode. This occasion was the best opportunity Dickinson had to meet Emerson, but she did not even journey next door to do so.

Dickinson would adapt some of Emerson's lines and adopt some of his imagery, and she would steal a line from Ellery Channing (probably via Emerson's quotation of the line in “New Poetry”)—“If my bark sink, 'tis to another sea” (Channing 101; Dickinson, Poems 2:1079)—but she would always so thoroughly transform the contexts and tones that her borrowings become very slippery to trace. Still, the echoes that are discernible tend to come from Transcendentalist poets—many from Higginson himself—and Emerson was clearly a major poetic model for her. It is fascinating to think about how Dickinson might have met Emerson in 1857, just before her first major eruption of poetry in 1858. Perhaps if his visit had been a year later, Dickinson might have had poems she would have felt confident showing him. Then we would have had a different poetic history, with Emerson, still enthusiastic about his discovery of Whitman, now confronting Dickinson's very different poetic innovation. How that would have turned out is anyone's guess.

It was in the Atlantic that, five years later in 1862, Dickinson read Higginson's “Letter to a Young Contributor.” This article initiated a relationship between Dickinson and Higginson that has received endless analysis and commentary. The key, though, is that, as with Whitman, Dickinson was inspired by a Transcendentalist poet's essay about the qualities that great American poetry was destined to have. Higginson reminded aspiring young American poets that the great poets of the past were once awkward and unappreciated and that eventually “this American literature of ours will be just as classic a thing” as any poetry in the history of the world ( Magnificent 539). We can imagine Dickinson being every bit as taken with Higginson's suggestion that “there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence” ( Magnificent 531) as Whitman had been with Emerson's suggestion in “The Poet” that “America is a poem in our eyes” ( EmCW 3:22).

Higginson wrote this article in the lull between his militant abolitionist days and his call, a few months after it was published, to take on the commission to lead the first black regiment of freed slaves in the Union Army. Some have speculated that it was Higginson's temporary renunciation of social action and his retreat to (as he put it) the “sylvan groves” of poetry away from the “fascinating trivialities of war and diplomacy” ( Magnificent 541) that attracted Dickinson. But for Higginson, as for all of the Transcendentalists, poetry was always the retreat from social action, the place for resuscitation and renewal through restorative contact with a secure tradition.

Thirty-two-year-old Dickinson was now ready to show her poetry to someone (Whitman was thirty-six when he sent Leaves to Emerson), and to this wise-sounding Transcendentalist (only seven years her senior) she sent four poems, along with a letter, in which she asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” ( Letters 403). Dickinson turned to this Transcendentalist, one more aesthetically conservative than Emerson, but one very much on the watch for a promising female poet to emerge as the new American voice. It was not a chance choice; Dickinson was, as Richard Sewall has said, “a complete Higginsonian” who read everything he wrote and was upset with herself when she came across an essay of his she had somehow missed (567). Inspired by Thoreau, Higginson had written a series of nature essays that made a lasting impact on Dickinson, and several her poems can be read as responses to them.

Higginson's embrace of Dickinson makes perfect sense, given his strong devotion to both decorum and women's rights. His earliest squabble with Emerson, in fact, came in 1849 over the rights of women, when the question of their eligibility for membership in the Town and Country Club became a matter of contention. After Higginson insisted on bylaws specifying that “men and women” would be eligible, the debate ended when “men” was agreed to, though members disagreed about how inclusive that term was to be understood. When Higginson nominated specific women, Emerson let him know that his insistence on women members could be “quite fatal” to the existence of the club and that he had used “men” in the by-laws “designedly” ( EmL 7:59, 8:212–13). Emerson was certainly a supporter of women's rights (he delivered a supportive address to the 1855 women's rights convention and wrote of the necessity for equal property rights and voting rights for women), but his position on women's place in society was nuanced, complex, and shifting, while Higginson was from the beginning an enthusiastic and unqualified supporter. For Higginson, after all, a woman stood at the very origins of poetry—Sappho, about whom he wrote with passion and insight and whose ancient school he compared favorably with Margaret Fuller and the classes she ran for women at Elizabeth Peabody's Boston bookstore ( Magnificent 497; Wineapple 22). While Emerson nurtured a long line of younger male poets, culminating in Whitman, Higginson supported just as long a line of women poets (including Harriet Prescott Spofford, Rose Terry, and Helen Hunt Jackson), culminating in Dickinson. So when Higginson began “Letter to a Young Contributor” with an address to “My dear young gentleman or young lady,” the contrast to Emerson's “The Poet,” where the pronoun for the poet is always masculine, was no doubt apparent to Dickinson. That old battle between Emerson and Higginson over specified inclusiveness for females would continue in subtle ways to shape the very history of American poetry.

Unlike Emerson (who visited Whitman within months of receiving his book), Higginson waited eight years to visit Dickinson. But, of course, Higginson was not dealing with an aggressive poet who had quickly put herself into print before contacting him. Higginson could do the shaping more effectively by feigning a casual interest and by delaying Dickinson's publishing. Emerson told everyone he knew about Whitman's work; Higginson told Fields and Helen Hunt Jackson about Dickinson, but he kept the news from Emerson. His poet—the chaste woman to Emerson's wildly sexual man, the gentle warper of conventional form to Emerson's shatterer of tradition, the lyricist of short poems to Emerson's epic beast—was the secret he kept from Emerson in what became a decades-long skirmish for the future of American poetry. So it is almost predictable that in his now-lost initial reply to Dickinson, Higginson, alarmed at the lack of discipline he found in the four poems she sent, asked whether she had been reading Whitman. Assured that she had heard Whitman was as “disgraceful” as Higginson found him to be, he took her on as his Transcendental poetic project and began his long “surgery” on her poetry. To have answered in the affirmative would have been the deal breaker, suggesting that her radical newness somehow derived from the wild man himself, even though she no doubt had read Whitman's “As I Ebb'd” in the Atlantic , which regularly came to the Dickinson household and two years later would publish Higginson's essay. However, Dickinson knew enough of Higginson (and no doubt picked up on his distaste for Whitman in the tone of his question to her) to realize the proper answer. Thus, she avoided saying she had not read Whitman's poetry , just that she had not read his book : “You speak of Mr Whitman—I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful—” ( Letters 404).

Dickinson had no doubt read that Whitman's book was disgraceful in the Springfield Daily Republican in an 1860 review called “Leaves of Grass—Smut in Them,” and it may have helped generate her dismissive response to Higginson. The reviewer noted the irony that Whitman's volume was “published in the puritanical and transcendental city of Boston, by Thayer & Eldridge, who we hope are willing to stand the notoriety of it” (June 16, 1860; quoted in Barney et al. 15). Dickinson, the Puritan apostate, knew, then, how to respond to this well-connected Transcendentalist about any possible connection to or admiration for Whitman. Higginson, rereading her letter decades later, recalled that he “had sounded her about certain American authors” and that “she knew how to put her own criticisms in a very trenchant way” ( Magnificent 546).

Dickinson sent Higginson nearly a hundred of her poems over the next twenty-five years, while also quoting his own poetry and praising it. She began calling him “Master,” just as Whitman had addressed Emerson in his 1856 Leaves . It gradually became clear to Dickinson that Higginson would not really be able to teach her anything she needed to know about writing her poetry, no more than Emerson could teach Whitman about writing his poetry, but the relationship remained vital to her nonetheless. As Sewall puts it, “at least he was interested and, in his way, loyal” (575). His strongest advice, and the advice she clearly followed, was to resist being published (in one letter, she tells him of Helen Hunt Jackson's wanting to publish one of her poems and asks whether Higginson “would be willing to give me a note saying you disapproved it, and thought me unfit” [ Letters 563]). Higginson often urged Fields to publish in the Atlantic the young female poets he was discovering, and he could have ushered Dickinson into print there, but he never did (Wineapple 10). The urge to put oneself before the public before one's work had been fully formed and perfected was, for Higginson, the great literary sin. It is one of the strongest cautions in his “Letter to a Young Contributor,” and it is precisely what he most despised about Whitman and his impulsive self-publishing, self-promoting ways; in the Atlantic in 1867, he said that “it is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ only that he did not burn it afterwards” (“Literature” 753). Leaves , in his estimation, should never have seen print, should rather have been kept in the private care of someone like Emerson, who might then eventually have issued it in a more suitable form.

During the entirety of his sporadic correspondence with Dickinson, which lasted to the final weeks of her life, then, Higginson, while nurturing her, simultaneously kept trying to put reins on Whitman and his reputation. Like Emerson, he went to John Burroughs, one of Whitman's strongest supporters, to register his concerns, admitting that he had read Whitman “several times…trying to do him justice,” but each time “he still seems to me crude, turgid and even morbid.” The problem was his coarseness and crudeness; Whitman could write a powerful passage, “but when I follow it up, I always wish that he had ploughed it all in and waited for a better crop, which, in that rich soil would surely come” (quoted in Barrus 53–54). This was his strategy with Dickinson, too, but since he was successful in discouraging her from publishing, he could do some of the plowing and pruning himself after her death.

Higginson's attitudes toward Whitman were complex. He was, from the beginning, fascinated with the poet's physique, though bothered by the poet's “self-conscious and egotistical” attitude (quoted in Barrus 54). He was disgusted that Whitman chose to spend the Civil War attending soldiers in the hospitals instead of joining the battle. Later he would deepen his accusations of Whitman's “unmanly manhood,” his “priapism,” and his sexual licentiousness (Nelson and Price 497, 500). Whether his disdain for Whitman derived mostly from some insecurity about his own sexual identity, from a deep disgust of Whitman's casual ways, from his inability to see anything but cowardice in Whitman's hospital service, from an honest dislike of Whitman's poetry, or from some mix of these and other factors, it is abundantly clear that his concerns continued to be expressed as a failure in Whitman to demonstrate a proper regard for tradition, culture, and refinement. He was not a poet who could or should carry the Transcendentalist legacy into the new century.

In 1881 Whitman was back in Boston, once again overseeing the publication by a commercial publisher of Leaves of Grass . This time, it was James Ripley Osgood, who had long been associated with Ticknor and Fields, Emerson's Boston publisher and, as it happened, an old acquaintance of Whitman from their days drinking at Pfaff's beer hall in New York. Osgood was now on his own, and, while continuing his association with Emerson by publishing books about him as well as his correspondence with Carlyle, he was trying to put together a new stable of writers. When Osgood indicated he wanted to publish Leaves , Whitman had warned that “the old pieces, the sexuality ones…must go in the same as ever” ( WhCorr 3:224). If he was going to take Leaves back to the old Transcendental city, Whitman decided, he was going to do it on his own terms, and this new edition would not become the version Emerson had tried to coerce him into publishing back in 1860. Osgood agreed to publish the unexpurgated book, and Whitman once again settled in Boston for a month to work with the typesetters and read proof. For the first time, Leaves would have an established, respectable publisher, and for the second time this New York poet's book would carry a Boston imprint, twenty-one years after his ill-fated 1860 edition, the last one to have gotten reviews explicitly tying the book to the Transcendentalists. This new edition was in a very real sense Whitman's return to the Transcendentalists, but as the master rather than the disciple.

So while in Boston, Whitman renewed his friendship with the old crowd, staying at Franklin Sanborn's house in Concord, where a reception included Bronson and Louisa May Alcott as well as the Emersons. Whitman recalled that there was “a good deal of talk” about Thoreau among the guests who gathered around the aged and now largely silent Emerson. Whitman then visited Thoreau's grave and made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond. Right after he recorded this Concord memory in Specimen Days , Whitman added a section called “Boston Common—More of Emerson,” in which he relived the meeting “twenty-one years ago,” when his first Boston edition of Leaves was in production and when Emerson tried everything he could—“it was an argument-statement, reconnoitering, review, attack, and pressing home (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry)”—to get Whitman to delete “that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems, ‘Children of Adam’ ” ( Prose 1:278–82). And now that decision—the one that had made it clear that Whitman was no longer under Emerson's guidance, that Emerson would not become for him what Higginson later became for Dickinson—would come back to bite him just when he was finally becoming “respectable” in the Transcendentalists' city, published by Emerson's own publisher, invited finally into the Emerson's home, socializing with the Alcotts and the Sanborns, visiting Hawthorne's and Thoreau's graves, gaining access to the latest Concord gossip.

The 1881 edition of Leaves appeared in November. A few months later the Boston district attorney informed Osgood that Leaves should be withdrawn from circulation. The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice (affiliated with the infamous antiobscenity campaigner Anthony Comstock) had complained to the Boston district attorney about the availability of Leaves after its Boston sales had started off well. The DA informed Osgood that Leaves fell “within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature” and advised him to “withdraw” and “suppress” the book ( WhCorr 3:267n). Osgood asked Whitman to prepare a new edition “lacking the obnoxious features,” and he sent the poet the list of passages that the DA demanded be “expunged.” Many were the same ones Emerson had tried to convince Whitman to take out in 1860. This time, Whitman agreed to a few small changes, but Osgood said “the official mind” would not be satisfied with these and demanded that Whitman agree to the excision of entire poems (3:271n). When Whitman refused, Osgood ceased publication. The banning became major news, and the controversy raged for the next two years, until Comstock himself lost a case against the radical free-love reformer, Ezra Heywood, who had published two of Whitman's banned poems in a journal.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the Transcendentalists' battle continued over whether to keep Leaves of Grass in check as an approved book of poetry or to cut it loose as a disgrace. Higginson dismissed it in the Nation as beneath contempt and complained once more of its lack of form and of the “somewhat nauseating quality” of its sexually explicit poetry: “Whitman's love, if such it can be called, is the sheer animal longing of sex for sex—the impulse of the savage, who knocks down the first woman he sees, and drags her to his cave.” There was, Higginson said, stunningly, “no good in [this] publication, except to abate the outcries of the Liberal League against Mr. Anthony Comstock and his laws respecting obscene publications. So long as ‘Leaves of Grass’ may be sent through the mails, the country is safe from over-prudery, at least” (“Recent Poetry” [1881] 476). This backhanded compliment suggested to some of Whitman's friends that Higginson had in fact used his influence to get the district attorney to suppress Whitman's book. Higginson again expressed his concern with “public morals” in his “Unmanly Manhood” essay in the Woman's Journal just weeks before Leaves was banned from the mails, dangerously comparing Whitman to Oscar Wilde and condemning the way both wrote about nakedness (1).

The old Emerson/Higginson tension within Transcendentalism, however, was still alive. The Free Religious Association—formed just after the Civil War by radical Unitarians and counting among its original members Emerson, Higginson, Sanborn, and its first president, Octavius Brooks Frothingham—was still going strong when the 1881 Leaves appeared. As the conveyers of Transcendentalist thought into the late nineteenth century, the Free Religionists embodied many of the biases that earlier Transcendentalists had formed, including a strong opinion for or against Whitman. As John Tessitore has recently suggested, “in Higginson's analysis, Whitman was Transcendentalism's worst-case scenario, a disciple who took philosophical and ethical idealism out of Greece's ‘sacred whiteness’ and deposited it in the degradation of social and sexual ambiguity. Ultimately, Whitman revealed the moral, and perhaps mortal, dangers inherent in the individualistic radicalism through which Higginson himself had made his name” (5). However, other Free Religionists like Frothingham, Sidney Morse, and Cyrus Bartol (an original member of the Transcendental Club), while having qualms about Whitman's words, sought to put them in the proper context by marshalling them into the service of the doctrines and decorum of Emerson's philosophy, deemphasizing the body, and emphasizing the spiritual aspects of the book.

Frothingham, for example, in an 1882 North American Review essay in the middle of the controversy over Leaves , put it in the category of “books objectionable certainly, but not pestiferous, because vice is not their aim.” The book's coarseness, Frothingham proposed, derived from Whitman's admirable belief “that whatever exists in nature deserves to be recognized and copied.” After all, he continued, while there may be “a vulgar coarseness in some of Whitman's pieces…the aim of the volume is high; so high, that it drew encomium from R. W. Emerson, who had no sympathy whatever with dirt.” Whitman, he concluded, is “a believer…not a prophet of obscenity” (328). These late expressions of Transcendentalist ideals, which suggest that Whitman's sensual passages were in fact not transgressive but rather pure and proper in a larger sense and charged with a moral seriousness, began, as Tessitore observes, to reveal the split that would eventually undo the Free Religion Association: “Just how ‘plain’ could one be—scientifically, artistically, ethically—before one lost one's ‘purity’? Just how radical could one be before one lost one's respectability? Just how ‘free’ could one be before one lost one's way?” (12–13). It was a concern for all Transcendentalists, but importantly, the disagreements continued to sort themselves into an Emerson-Higginson divide, as the Emersonians carried on the fight after Emerson himself died in 1882 in the midst of the controversy.

Some reviews of Whitman's controversial new book resurrected its Transcendentalist connections, just as reviewers back in the 1850s and early 1860s had done. The New York Times found much of the poetry “solemn commonplace merged into a species of transcendentalism” (January 22, 1882; quoted in Barney et al. 57), and Emily Dickinson, in her last years, would have read a review of Leaves in the Springfield Daily Republican , this time with a quite different tone from the newspaper's 1860 “Leaves of Grass—Smut in Them”:

This new volume of Whitman's contains philosophy, antiquities and history all in one, and is the book of the year in Boston which will bear the most reading and study. The only one to compare with it is another of Osgood's publications, Mr [George Willis] Cooke's “Ralph Waldo Emerson,”—and the two are curiously related to each other. But for Emerson, Whitman might never have written, or written in another form, and what can be further from the Emersonian mode of writing than these unformed and almost lawless numbers, this broad range over the most prosaic elements of life as well as those regions of ideal beauty in which the genius of Emerson delights? (November 10, 1881; quoted in Barney et al. 42)

This review, which places Whitman's work safely in the context of Emerson and emphasizes that Whitman's idiosyncratic mode of writing was the fitting self-reliant sign of Emersonian influence, might have made Dickinson finally want a copy of the book herself.

In 1887, as he was delivering a eulogy at Emily Dickinson's funeral, Higginson was also actively opposing the attempt by Whitman's friends to get the poet a federal war pension. He was still convinced that Whitman's hospital service amounted to an evasion of military service, and the looseness of Whitman's poetic form seemed increasingly to Higginson part and parcel of a more general moral looseness that made the poet an example of “unmanly manhood” (“Unmanly” 1). His incessant attacks on Whitman were on some level a defense of Emerson, an attempt to unchain Emerson from his early mistake of praising Whitman.

In 1889, the same year that he realized his lifelong dream by publishing his first volume of poetry, Higginson joined with Mabel Loomis Todd to edit and shape Dickinson's poetry into a suitable book. The more he read her poems, the more he was enthralled by the possibilities: “There are many new to me which take my breath away & which have form beyond most of those I have seen before” (Sewall 571). Just having them in type made them look better to this man who lived by the creed of formality. “While Emerson lives,” he had written in the Atlantic in 1871, “it will be still believed that literature means form as well as matter” (“On” 574). Form was, to Higginson, a moral, aesthetic, and political necessity. He strongly endorsed Sidney Lanier's 1883 claim that the poetry of Whitman and his followers “is free, it is asserted, because it is independent of form….We all know what that freedom means in politics which is independent of form, of law. It means myriad-fold slavery to a mob. As in politics, so in art….independence of form in art means death” (Lanier 58). The morbidity that Higginson found in Whitman's poetry was the death of tradition, and its result was destructive and unreined freedom. Thus, when he turned to creating Dickinson's book for her posthumous fame, he was committed to putting her in form. He insisted on titles for many of the poems, which, of course, narrowed the focus of Dickinson's wildly ambiguous works; he regularized the punctuation and often corrected rhyme; and he organized the chosen poems into neat transcendent categories—Life, Love, Nature, Time, and Eternity—that corralled her radically multivalent poems.

Higginson first introduced Dickinson to the public in an essay in the Christian Union , in which he claimed her for the Transcendentalists by placing her poetry in a category Emerson had talked about “many years since in the Dial ” — “The Poetry of the Portfolio,” the work “of persons who wrote for the relief of their own minds, and without thought of publication” (Blake and Wells 3). The contrast to the self-publishing and self-promoting Whitman could hardly have been clearer. Yet in this review, Higginson was doing with Dickinson's poetry exactly what so many early reviewers had done with Leaves of Grass— claiming it for the Transcendentalists. Other reviewers would follow suit. In 1896, for example, reviewing the third series of her poems, Bliss Carman read Dickinson's work as “one more tribute to the New England ideal…the bent for transcendentalism inherited from Emerson.” Carman saw her as “like Emerson, a companion for solitude,” with “a lack of sensuousness, just as there was in Emerson.” Such criticism was music to Higginson's ears: Even though Carman felt that her limitations kept Dickinson from rising “into the first rank of poets” (again making her like Emerson, he noted), Dickinson was now becoming perceived as the Transcendentalists' heir, replacing Whitman—her purity (much of it supplied by Higginson) replacing his coarseness (which Whitman had insisted on over Emerson's objections), her small violations of form replacing Whitman's abandonment of all decorum (62, 66–67).

Higginson cemented the accomplishment of Dickinson's book with an essay in the Atlantic in 1891, just months before Whitman's death. Here he proclaimed Dickinson as the new American voice: “Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson many years since into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life” ( Magnificent 543). He professed surprise at the success of the volume of her work he had brought forth, one that was “launched quietly and without any expectation of a wide audience,” yet went through six editions in six months, “a suddenness of success almost without parallel in American literature.” Higginson quoted at length from her correspondence (including her request that he “be my preceptor”), recalled his meetings with her, and suggested how his “surgery” on her poems worked, as he tried “to lead her in the direction of rules and traditions” (550).

With Dickinson now safely in print and prominently introduced in the Atlantic , Higginson turned his attention to finishing off Whitman, who, now in his last year, may have read his only Dickinson poems in Higginson's Atlantic article. Although in poor health, Whitman was still actively talking about the latest literary and social news, and friends kept him updated on the new offerings in the major magazines. In the late 1880s, he spoke of Higginson, with “his strict, straight notions of literary propriety,” as one of his “enemies” and generally remained dismissive of him: “[H]e amounts to nothing, anyhow—is a lady's man—there an end!” (Traubel 2:372, 6:95) Each of these writers questioned, from different sets of assumptions, the manliness of the other.

With Whitman's death in 1892, Higginson's disdain for the poet turned even more venomous, and the obituary he published in the New York Evening Post and in the Nation clearly attempted to put a nail in Whitman's poetic coffin and to deny him immortality. He first returned to his longtime concern with Whitman's “superb but now blighted physique” and claimed that his postwar infirmity was largely responsible for the public attention he had garnered, but his debility, Higginson suggested, did not derive—as the poet and his disciples insisted—from his exhausting hospital service. Rather, his “paralysis, insanity, premature old age are the retribution for ‘the drench of the passions’ in youth,” when the poet wrote the most “malodorous portions” of his work. That work has had a “bad influence—we speak from personal observation—on the lives of many young men.” In addition to hinting that Whitman died from the complications of syphilis, Higginson hammered home his omnipresent theme that careful formality is the basis of art, and, while Whitman's “cyclopaedia of epithets,” his “accumulated directory of details,” his “sandy wastes of iteration” might contain “scattered particles of gold—never sifted out by him, never abundant enough to pay for the sifting,” finally Whitman's work has only “phrase, but not form, and without form there is no immortality” ( Contemporaries 84). Whitman's supporters, like John Burroughs, quickly fought back, calling Higginson's “inference” about Whitman's sexual licentiousness “entirely gratuitous,” betraying “an unpardonable stupidity, to say nothing of malignity, on his part” (215).

Meanwhile, Higginson's investment in Dickinson now seemed to be paying off. He was gratified that Dickinson's volume, along with a follow-up collection issued in 1891, had sold 15,000 copies by 1895 (Myerson Dickinson ), more copies than Leaves of Grass had sold throughout Whitman's lifetime, and had done so, unlike Whitman's books, “without puffing or special effort.” His unconventional heir of the Transcendentalists was now displacing Emerson's old and abandoned wild man. Reviewing Mabel Todd's edition of the third series of Dickinson's poems, Higginson finally explicitly replaced Whitman as Emerson's new American poet with his own poet. He wrote that she was the poet who had finally answered Emerson's plea for a distinctive, new American poetry by capturing “the peculiarly American quality of the landscape, the birds, the flowers.” Moreover, her “defects and irregularities of manner,” which led to the “vehement hostility and derision of leading English critics,” paled in comparison to “those exhibited by Whitman, who has always been more unequivocally accepted in England than at home” (“Recent Poetry” [1896] 275). He was upset that the Dickinson book had not sold well in England, but he used that fact to attack British tastes, which approved Whitman's coarseness and rejected Dickinson's superior innovations. He increasingly compared the two poets and always ranked Dickinson far above Whitman, as when, reviewing Stephen Crane's Black Riders , he found Crane's lines “as formless, in the ordinary sense, as the productions of Walt Whitman,” yet affirmed that Crane “grasps his thought as nakedly and simply as Emily Dickinson” and finally achieves something close to Dickinson's admirable “terseness”: “[W]hile Whitman dilutes mercilessly, Crane condenses almost as formidably” (“Recent Poetry” [1895] 296). The distilled, epigrammatic poetry so favored by Transcendentalists was safely ensconced, Higginson believed, in an ongoing American poetic tradition that could now move through Dickinson to emerging new poets like Crane, thereby isolating Whitman as an unfortunate anomaly. Just after he turned seventy, Higginson commented that “few of us now remain who were baptized into the light & hope of the ‘Transcendental’ movement” (quoted in Wineapple 305), and he was gratified that his poetic discovery would apparently be lighting the way into the twentieth century.

By 1903, when Higginson joined with Henry Walcott Boynton to write the Reader's History of American Literature , he had begun to temper his judgments of both Dickinson and Whitman. It had, after all, become clear that Whitman was going to continue to get talked about. So Higginson perversely relegated Whitman to a chapter on “The Southern Influence” (because Whitman once lived for a few months in New Orleans and because Sidney Lanier once wrote about him). While Higginson still found the early Whitman to be a poet who “substitute[d] mere cadence for form” and was “the most meretricious” of all American poets, he conceded that Whitman had “lyric glimpses” and that his “less pleasing aspect became softened” over the years ( Reader's 228, 232–33); he even suggested that Whitman's late poem “Joy, Shipmate, Joy!” could be engraved on his tombstone (Wineapple 303). As for his own “partially cracked” half-creation (quoted in Pollak and Noble 53), Emily Dickinson hardly fared better in his Reader's History , where fewer pages were devoted to her than to Whitman. The history finally dismissed her for the same reason it had dismissed Whitman: “Emily Dickinson never quite succeeded in grasping the notion of the importance of poetic form” (264). Inevitably, form had triumphed over innovation in Higginson's judgment; even he, he now realized, could not effectively salvage Dickinson's work for the future. Like Emerson, when he omitted Whitman from Parnassus , Higginson had gradually lost his enthusiasm for his poetic discovery.

Had it not been for Emerson's and Higginson's perspicuity in recognizing radical poetic genius when they saw it, however, and their efforts to nurture, shape, and distribute—in their own peculiar ways—that genius, the history of American poetry would be far different from what it is today. Higginson and Emerson clearly did not know what their efforts had engendered. Without the support of their famous Transcendentalist mentors, Whitman and Dickinson might have worked their way to the forefront of American poetry, but that possibility is far from certain. Their work might instead have withered and faded, never flourishing, waiting in some state still for diligent archivists to find and wonder at what might have been. As it turned out, Emerson, Higginson, and the other Transcendentalists who participated in this remarkable two-pronged emergence were responsible for putting Whitman's and Dickinson's work on display and for insisting that it be read in the contexts of Transcendentalism. The movement's pervasive influence on the poetry that has come after them has rendered most of the poetry written by Transcendentalists themselves trite, disappointing, and quaint. Whitman and Dickinson, the wild father and mother of American poetry, are in no small part the creations of the Transcendentalists, the results of a skirmish within Transcendentalism itself, and the surprising if reluctant flowering of Transcendentalist poetics.

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  1. Transcendentalism

    Transcendentalism, 19th-century movement of writers and philosophers in New England who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humanity, and the supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest ...

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    The literary, philosophical, and religious movement known as Transcendentalism sprung up in America in the mid-1830s, during a time when the country was headed towards a major political crisis.

  3. Transcendentalism

    Transcendentalism became a movement of writers and philosophers who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the idea that perception is better than logic or experience. Among the transcendentalists' core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both humans and nature.

  4. Transcendentalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    1. Origins and Character. What we now know as transcendentalism first arose among the liberal New England Congregationalists, who departed from orthodox Calvinism in two respects: they believed in the importance and efficacy of human striving, as opposed to the bleaker Puritan picture of complete and inescapable human depravity; and they emphasized the unity rather than the "Trinity" of ...

  5. Transcendentalism: Explanation and Examples

    I. Definition Transcendentalism was a short-lived philosophical movement that emphasized transcendence, or "going beyond." The Transcendentalists believed in going beyond the ordinary limits of thought and experience in several senses: transcending society by living a life of independence and contemplative self-reliance, often out in nature transcending the physical world to make contact ...

  6. Transcendentalism

    Transcendentalism is a philosophical, spiritual, and literary movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the New England region of the United States. A core belief is in the inherent goodness of people and nature, and while society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent.

  7. Transcendentalism

    Transcendentalism is a 19th-century school of American theological and philosophical thought that combined respect for nature and self-sufficiency with elements of Unitarianism and German ...

  8. Introduction

    Emerson's lecture demonstrates that he regarded Transcendentalism primarily as a philosophical movement. He argues that humankind was "ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the ...

  9. 25.1: A Look Into Transcendentalism (Group Anthology Contribution 2019)

    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 ...

  10. Transcendentalism and Ralph Waldo Emerson

    The Transcendental Club's magazine, The Dial, first appeared in 1840 with Margaret Fuller as editor and George Ripley her assistant. Emerson contributed and edited essays, and became its editor in 1842. Through this vehicle, he encouraged many promising thinkers and writers. His influence on the movement was central.

  11. What Is Transcendentalism and How Did It Change America?

    The transcendentalist movement, which emerged in the mid-1830s early nineteenth century, had a straightforward idea at its core. The New England transcendentalism adherents argued that every person possessed the light of Divine truth and should look within himself or herself to find it, rather than simply conform to whatever the powers that be ...

  12. Transcendentalism Analysis

    Transcendentalism was an intellectual movement, led by highly educated people. It was not a movement of the masses, though it certainly had an effect on the masses in the long run. The tone of the ...

  13. Trancendentalism

    Trancendentalism. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, a philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism took root in America and evolved into a predominantly literary expression. The adherents to Transcendentalism believed that knowledge could be arrived at not just through the senses, but through intuition and contemplation of the ...

  14. What Is Transcendentalism? Understanding the Movement

    Transcendentalism is a movement that many people developed over a long period of time, and as a result, its complexity can make it hard to understand. That's where we come in. Read this article to learn a simple but complete transcendentalism definition, key transcendentalist beliefs, an overview of the movement's history, key players, and ...

  15. 2.7: Transcendentalism

    Transcendentalism became a movement of writers and philosophers who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the idea that perception is better than logic or experience. ... he gave a speech entitled, "The American Scholar" in 1837. Emerson's first two collections of essays, published in 1841 ...

  16. Transcendentalism: Key Authors

    Henry David Thoreau was born into the lower economic status, but because of his natural intelligence, his family chose him to attend Harvard University. This is where he met the famous transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was in 1836 when the two transcendentalists met. Emerson would later become Thoreau's good friend and mentor.

  17. Transcendentalism in American History

    Updated on November 22, 2017. Transcendentalism was an American literary movement that emphasized the importance and equality of the individual. It began in the 1830s in America and was heavily influenced by German philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Immanuel Kant, along with English writers like William Wordsworth and Samuel ...

  18. Transcendental Poetics:Emerson, Higginson, and the Rise of Whitman and

    The category never caught on, however, and the term Transcendental poetry now causes more confusion than clarification. Every reader of American literature knows that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote poems. Many, if pressed, recall that Henry David Thoreau wrote poems, and some remember that Margaret Fuller did, too, though the anthologizing tendencies of modern literary study have tended to force ...

  19. The Legacy of American Transcendentalism in Contemporary Literature

    The commending literary text to which I will compare and contrast these to is Thoreau's Walden (1854), a book containing a collection of essays written by a prominent Transcendentalist figure after devoting two years of his life animating transcendentalist life values at the Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. There, Thoreau lived as a ...

  20. Transcendentalism Essay

    Transcendentalism Essay. Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement created in the 1830's by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author of Nature and Self Reliance, which refuted the intellectual and spiritual culture at the time. Although the movement eventually succumbed to the winds of time, it did not die quietly and it can still be heard today.

  21. Study Guide Transcendentalism Flashcards

    Study with Quizlet and memorize flashcards containing terms like **Know the four authors' full names and how to spell them., 1 What aspects of America's continued growth contributed to the beginning of the transcendental movement?, 2 Be able to name and discuss three tenets of the transcendental philosophy and what consequent action a transcendentalist would take because of each belief. (end ...