American Transcendentalism
Thoughts and Links

by Ernie Seckinger

Maxham Daguerreotype of Thoreau,
Courtesy of The Thoreau Society, Lincoln, MA

I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead.

Thoughts on Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism. Something from the past. Required reading. Emerson's sometimes stilted prose; Thoreau's grandiose pedantry. Who is this Goethe fellow? These thoughts of Transcendentalism are all most people experience. I count myself a bit in that territory when I was young. Yet as I mature, I find that these men and women have something deeply significant to say, and that they lead me to transcend my old ways of thought.

More than 150 years ago, a group of people began a new movement when they grew weary of the Unitarian Church. That movement -- which came to be called Transcendentalism -- continues to have a great effect on American culture. Accepted dates from this movement range from 1830 to the early 1880s, with 1836 being known as the Annulis Mirabilis. Most of the activity with which we are familiar occurred between 1836 and the mid 1840s.

What is (or was) Transcendentalism? First, it is difficult to state such a discrete notion, given such a diverse group. Super individualism was at their core. Philosophically though, there was a center and it was about the notion of spontaneous reason. This is to say that man is not born a blank slate on which experience will write, but as a potential reasoning being. I do not think they meant that a babe left in the woods would survive to become a new Plato, but rather that people are capable of discovering a truth solely on the basis of intuition.

Walter Harding, in The Days of Henry Thoreau, says Kant and Hegel argued that there is a body of knowledge within man, innate, and that this knowledge transcended the senses, thus Transcendentalism. This knowledge was the voice of God within Man. It was central to the Transcendentalists' belief that the child was born with an ability to tell right from wrong. His moral sense became calloused as he grew and listened to the world rather than that inner voice. Particularly Alcott called for a return to a childish innocence and for one to heed the voice of God within.

Many consider articles written in the 1830s by Hedge, Ripley, and Brownson in the Unitarian periodical The Christian Examiner to be the sparks of the movement. Emerson was the nominal leader of the group. Thoreau is now the most famous of his "flock," but many others also contributed, including Margaret Fuller, James Freeman Clarke, Orestes Augustus Brownson, George Ripley, Jones Very, Frederic Henry Hedge, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and Amos Bronson Alcott.

Transcendentalism's intellectual ancestors were many. In the immediate past generation they included the Germans Kant, Goethe, Schleimacher, and the English Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. The Transcendentalists could, as was usual among the educated of the time, read French, but few read German. Influences in English came primarily from Coleridge in his Aids to Reflection. Wordsworth falls within the group of writers influenced by and seeking to interpret this German Romanticism, but as Emerson said, you had to be a Transcendentalist before Wordsworth made sense. Each member of this movement had different effects on their followers and on American intellectual history.

Thoreau and Emerson, and to some extent Fuller, continue to effect those courses today. Most, however, faded into the background, fated to be studied only by the literary and religious estheticians. Perry Miller gives a profound reason for the disappearance of Transcendentalism as a movement -- they were victims of their own success. They achieved many of their goals and society moved on. But at a more fundamental level, a major reason for the disappearance of "organized" Transcendentalism was its clear call for an individual approach to these issues. By their insistence on individualism, they doomed their movement no less so than did the Shakers with their celibacy.

I have approached the Transcendentalists from primarily a literary/philosophical perspective. Is that how they viewed their own actions and words? To some extent yes, but in a larger sense most of them were doing and thinking about religion. They were tired of a stale Unitarianism, whose theological basis from Locke deprived the human mind a direct understanding or connection to God. As their thought grew in this area, some ridiculed the Transcendentalists as heavenly plumbers with direct piped connections to God.

Do transcendentalist writings serve as a baseline on which to lead one's own life? I believe Thoreau or Goethe would have been horrified at the question. Reading their works was not,in their view, a means of textual proselytizism; rather it was an examination of a life, of their own observations and analyses of the symbols of nature around them. By doing this, their only attempt to influence you was an effort to motivate you to do the same -- to live life, to see Nature. As Goethe put it,  " Most people toil during the greater part of their lives in order to live, and the slender span of free time that remains worries them so much that they try by every means to get rid of it. O Destiny of Man!" And as Thoreau put it, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Do their writings serve as away to look at the world for ourselves? As I (slowly) move through the literature of German and American thought on transcendentalism, I think, or perhaps feel, that there is indeed something here. I read where some literary critics, as their outlook and experience matures, flow back to Emerson as the presenter and interpreter of the movement. However, some things transcend aesthetics for art's sake. Take Thoreau and even Goethe compared to Emerson. The latter viewed the world from behind his desk. Oh, he waxed poetic about nature, but I think a glance at his stoop would show clean boots. Thoreau and Goethe had muddy boots. Therein lies the primary difference: Thoreau, and to a lesser extent Goethe, were in and of the world.

How Thoreau got his hermit reputation is beyond me; he was not. A glance at his reading and his writing will soon tell you he cared about people, politics (especially when they were misguided as in the Mexican War or slavery), art, Nature, and family. Thoreau stands today as the crystallizer of how a person of education and thought can live without carrying capitalism to an exploitative level. He did not depart from society; he did not refuse a job for money; he simply had more things to do and more life to live than the person wrapped up in concerns about economic advancement.

Henry's house site at Walden Pond, May 2001

Other Photographs of Walden and Concord

Transcendentalism Links


Immanuel Kant: Links


Goethe Society of North America

Coleridge's works

Wordsworth's complete poetical works
The Wordsworth Trust
His friendship with Coleridge

Emerson's Guide to German Literature
Project Gutenberg text of Sartor Resartus

The Thoreau Reader
The Thoreau Society
My review of Walden
Excursions from the Library of Congress
Edward Abbey (A Thoreau intellectual descendant, sort of)
Malaspina Great Books: Thoreau

Margaret Fuller

Women's History from Jone Johnson Lewis


Emerson Texts

Various Emerson links including texts of some works (From Jone Johnson Lewis)

Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker website


Essays and Poems on Google Books

James Marsh

A main topic at the first meeting of the Transcendental Club, September 19, 1836, was Coleridge's and Marsh's distinction between Reason and Understanding. While he was a Transcendentalist (head of the Vermont branch), Marsh expressed his dissatisfaction with Boston Transcendentalism on its failure to develop a logical system. His true goal was to express Christianity in modern form. Marsh's fame rested then and now mostly on his Preliminary Essay to Coleridge's Aids to Reflection. He also influenced the methods of modern education. Dewey credited his influence. Marsh was another of the far too many victims of TB in the past.

Early American Reception of German Idealism


Orestes Brownson

His *.com

General Transcendentalism

An M.A. thesis about Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism by Ian Frederick Finseth
Jone Johnson Lewis's Transcendentalism site
Gonzaga University's American Transcendentalism site
Virginia Commonwealth's site

Me (Ernie Seckinger)

Reading Walden Again

My reading list for 1999 including many Transcendentalism works
Ditto for 2000
Otra vez 2001
As the jazz man said, one more time again 2002
Still reading in 2003
Still ticking in 2004
Alive in 2005!
Slow Blog in 2006
In Heaven reading in 2007
Email me at ernieseckinger (the @ sign)

All Links updated November 12, 2006
Thanks to Richard Lenat of The Thoreau Reader for stylistic and content assistance.

Links updated June 29, 2008

© 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Ernest W. Seckinger Jr

The C-SPAN American Writers series archive includes the show on Emerson and Thoreau.

2002 NPR spot and links for Thoreau


Reading Page