Summary and Keywords
New England transcendentalism is the first significant literary movement in American history, notable principally for the influential works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement emerged in the 1830s as a religious challenge to New England Unitarianism. Building on the writings of the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing, Emerson and others such as Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, James Freeman Clarke, and Theodore Parker developed a theology based on interior, intuitive experience rather than the historical truth of the Bible. By 1836 transcendentalist books from several important religious thinkers began to appear, including Emerson’s Nature, which employed idealist philosophy and Romantic symbolism to examine human interaction with the natural world. Emerson’s Harvard addresses, “The American Scholar” (1837) and the controversial “Divinity School Address” (1838), gave transcendental ideas a wider prominence, and also generated strong resistance that added an element of experiment and danger to the movement’s reputation. In 1840 the transcendentalists founded a journal for their work, and Fuller became the Dial’s first editor, a position that gave her an important role in the movement and a crucial outlet for her own work in literary criticism and women’s rights.
Though it had begun as a religious movement, by the middle 1840s transcendentalism could be better described as a literary movement with growing political engagements on several fronts. Emerson proclaimed it as an era of reform and aligned the transcendentalists with those who resisted the social and political status quo. In her feminist manifesto Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Fuller called for the removal of both legal and social barriers to women’s full potential. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau went to live in the woods by Walden Pond; his memoir of his experience, Walden (1854), became a founding text of modern environmental thinking. Antislavery also became a key concern for many of the transcendentalists, who condemned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and actively resisted the execution of the law after its passage. The transcendentalists, a nineteenth-century cultural avant-garde, continue to exert cultural influence through the durability of their writings, works that shaped many aspects of American national development.
The Unitarian Context
By the end of the 18th century Calvinism, the foundational doctrine of the Puritan settlements in New England, had lost its grip on the established churches in Boston and eastern Massachusetts. As Conrad Wright has explained, the transition from Calvinism to religious liberalism was gradual in 18th-century New England, as preachers and congregations ceased to emphasize harsh doctrines such as innate depravity and election to grace. Ministers such as Charles Chauncey, Jonathan Mayhew, and Ebenezer Gay prepared the way for a more positive and optimistic form of Christianity, first known as Arminianism or liberalism, and eventually coalescing as Unitarianism.1 In 1819 William Ellery Channing consolidated this movement in “Unitarian Christianity,” a sermon in which he challenged the trinitarianism of the Calvinists and emphasized moral action rather than theological dogma as the basis of religion. “The true love of God is a moral sentiment,” he declared, and “the love of virtue, rectitude, and goodness” were “the surest and only decisive signs of piety.”2 Channing defined the first phase of American Unitarianism, and he stands as the key transitional figure between the Unitarians and their rebellious heirs, the transcendentalists. While struggling with the decision to enter the ministry, Emerson found in Channing’s preaching a literary eloquence and an affirmative theory of human nature that guided him to a new conception of the role of the minister. Emerson was particularly influenced by Channing’s conception of a religion based on self-culture, the disciplined process of self-examination and moral and spiritual growth.3 Further influenced by the strains of Romanticism arriving from Germany and Great Britain, he intensified Channing’s teachings into a fundamental principle of the innate divinity within each individual.
The Beginnings of Transcendentalism
Emerson’s resignation of his Boston pulpit in 1832 was an important step in the development of his new religious outlook, and the tour of Europe which followed helped him reshape himself as an independent lecturer and writer. Through the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle Emerson, Fredric Henry Hedge and others became deeply engaged with the Kantian tradition of idealistic philosophy and the literary works of Goethe and Novalis, finding in these German sources a liberating alternative to the materialistic epistemology of John Locke. The transcendentalists were thinkers who were hungry for new ideas, and books and essays that spoke to their concerns had an enormous impact on the way in which they understood human character and social events. Hedge’s 1833 essay “Coleridge’s Literary Character” provided the transcendentalists with a fresh vocabulary for religious perception. Hedge traced Coleridge’s ideas to “Kant and his followers,” calling this tradition “the transcendental philosophers.” Most notably, Hedge described the distinction between an “interior consciousness” that was “active” and a “common consciousness” that was “passive.”4 Thus Hedge’s reading of Coleridge’s reading of Kant enabled the transcendentalists to relocate religious authority in the inner experience of the holy rather than, as the Unitarians mostly agreed, the empirically historical truth of the Christian scriptures and tradition. “If there is a single moment in which American transcendentalism can be said to exist,” Robert D. Richardson observed, “it is when Emerson read Hedge’s manifesto.”5
In his influential anthology of transcendentalist writings, Perry Miller termed 1836 the “Annus Mirabilis” of the movement, noting the publication of several new books influenced by German philosophy. These books signaled a growing split within Unitarianism.6 In September of that year Emerson brought out Nature, a book that connected the theories of Coleridge, Carlyle, and German idealism to the subject of the natural world. In generic terms, Nature was less theological than philosophical, and in many of its passages, more poetic than philosophical. Emerson conducted a symbolic reading of the natural world, using it as a text through which spiritual truths could be decoded. “Words are signs of natural facts,” he wrote; those “particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.” Thus, “nature is the symbol of spirit.”7 He portrayed this closeness between nature and spirit in an account of a walk in the woods in which he was shorn of his “mean egotism” and “uplifted into infinite space,” momentarily becoming a “transparent eye-ball.” “I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”8 Emerson’s highly charged symbolism, as oddly captivating now as it was in 1836, illustrates the difference between the transcendentalists and the Unitarians, not only over questions of religious doctrine but also over modes of religious expression. This dramatic literary performativity and artistic experimentation account for part of the impact of Nature, and few could match the voice that Emerson’s pages transmitted.
The surge of transcendentalist books in 1836 was accompanied by the first of several public controversies over the new views, this one focused on the authenticity and importance of the New Testament miracles. By shifting the source of religion to the intuitive power of “Reason,” the transcendentalists had implicitly undercut the work of the most prominent biblical scholar among the Unitarians, Andrews Norton. Norton responded with a blistering attack on an article by George Ripley in the Christian Examiner. Ripley had written in support of the British Unitarian James Martineau, holding with him that the miracles of Jesus, while authentic, were not essential aspects of his message, and should not be considered the basis of Christian belief. Stung by this assertion, Norton condemned their position as “vitally injurious to the cause of religion, because tending to destroy faith in the only evidence on which the truth of Christianity as a revelation must ultimately rest.”9 Norton insisted on the importance of the factual evidence of the miracles, as transmitted historically, thus drawing a clear line between what he considered the essential doctrines of Christianity and the positions that the transcendentalists were embracing.
Emerson’s Harvard Addresses
In the next two years Emerson was given two opportunities to expound his views at Harvard public events, and he made the most of these occasions. His 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar,” a landmark in American literary and oratorical history, proclaimed American potential as a literary and philosophical nation and condemned “the sluggard intellect of this continent” which seemed only capable of “exertions of mechanical skill.”10 Calling for America’s thinkers to look to the natural world first as a source of inspiration and to avoid a bookish imitation of British and European models, he argued that “in self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,—free and brave.”11 Thus empowered, he foresaw a nation in which “we will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”12 When students at Harvard Divinity School invited him to address their graduation ceremony in 1838, Emerson sharpened his message to a theologically inclined audience of Unitarian ministers and ministerial graduates. He candidly condemned “historical Christianity”13 for overlooking the human need for a genuine spirituality, and urged a return to a fundamental “religious sentiment” that was not defined by creeds or churches. “Through it,” he declared, “the soul first knows itself.”14 From this perspective, the idea of Jesus as a supernatural miracle worker lost its significance. Emerson reconstructed Jesus not as a unique messiah but as a visionary poet who found potential divinity in the soul of every man and woman. Adding to the controversial thrust of his address was his harsh condemnation of the dreary preaching of contemporary ministers who rested on tradition and form rather than lived experience. “Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.”15 It is not difficult to see how this characterization of the church might have perturbed those serving as its ministers, and how it caught the attention of the students ready to join them. Emerson’s version of Jesus as a prophetic poet rather than a supernatural messiah reignited the smoldering argument with Norton, and it provoked a calmer but more substantial challenge from Henry Ware Jr., a Divinity School professor and Emerson’s predecessor in his Boston pastorate.16 Emerson did not enter into public exchanges with either Norton or Ware, and while it is wrong to portray him as unconcerned with the criticism, he certainly did not let it undermine his sense of mission or obstruct his accelerating productivity.
The Transcendental Club
The Harvard addresses, combined with Emerson’s growing success as an independent lecturer in Boston, made him the most prominent figure in the transcendentalist movement. But his views were shared by a variety of gifted thinkers and writers, many of whom were grounded in the Unitarian ministry and went on to significant careers as authors, educators, or reformers. They initiated a series of meetings over the next four years that came to be known as the Transcendental Club. As Joel Myerson commented in his history of the club, it was “a focal point for Transcendentalism.”17 Their discussions included the politics of the divided Unitarian denomination, the possibility of establishing a transcendentalist journal, and philosophical exchanges on Coleridge, Goethe, mysticism in Christianity, and concepts of God. The club was bolstered by nonclerical intellectuals such as Margaret Fuller, a budding translator of German and a scholar of Goethe, and the educational reformers Amos Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Two members of the group also held distinctive literary and artistic interests. Christopher Pearse Cranch would later publish several volumes of poetry and eventually establish himself in Europe as a successful landscape painter, and John Sullivan Dwight would become Boston’s expert on classical music and the founder of Dwight’s Journal of Music.18
The period in which the Transcendental Club met, 1836–1840, was a remarkably productive one for many of its participants. Fuller met Emerson in 1836, and they developed a strong but sometimes stormy friendship. She published her first major work, a translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, in 1839, including an illuminating preface on Goethe’s devotion to a law of ever-renewing creative energy that she believed was the core principle of transcendentalism.19 Fuller’s close friend and fellow German scholar James Freeman Clarke took the leading role in The Western Messenger (1835–1841), now regarded as the first of several transcendentalist periodicals.20 Emerson’s close friend Bronson Alcott established his Temple School in 1836, in which dialogue and conversation with students were deemed important vehicles of learning. Controversy soon erupted over Alcott’s methods and led to the eventual failure of his school.21 His assistant at Temple School, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, became an important part of the transcendental circle through her web of connections among them and her continuing interest in experimental education. In 1840 she opened the West Street Book Shop and lending library, providing better access to the European books that were fueling much of the movement’s intellectual momentum, and providing a gathering place for those interested in the new ideas.22 Theodore Parker, the strongest biblical scholar and theologian among the transcendentalists, became a leading American expert in the German Higher Criticism of the Bible, and wrote one of the defining texts of transcendentalism in his 1841 sermon A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity. “Religious doctrines and forms will always differ, always be transient,” Parker explained, “but the Christianity holy men feel in the heart—the Christ that is born within us, is always the same thing to each soul that feels it.”23 While Emerson had completely abandoned the pulpit by 1838, Parker refused to leave his church in West Roxbury even as other Boston area Unitarian ministers expressed their disapproval of his radical views by excluding him from the tradition of pulpit exchanges.24 His daring preaching became so popular that in the mid-1840s he began to preach to a newly formed church in downtown Boston which met in the spacious Melodeon Theatre. As the national crisis over slavery intensified, Parker became recognized as Boston’s great antislavery preacher.25
The Dial: Voice of Transcendentalism
The discussions of the Transcendental Club made the need for a new journal clear. After much conversation among Emerson, Fuller, Ripley, Alcott, Hedge, and Parker, Fuller accepted the role of editor, a position that gave her an important place among the transcendentalists and also provided a platform for her own work.26 The first issue of the Dial appeared in July 1840, and the journal quickly become an important venue for the religious views and the literary experiments of the group. Emerson published several key lectures there, including “Man the Reformer” (1841) and the introductory segment of his “Lectures on the Times” (1841–1842) series. These works signaled Emerson’s growing concern with social and political issues, and the shift of intellectual direction that would lead the transcendentalists into social critique and political engagement in the 1840s and 1850s. Perhaps most notable among Emerson’s Dial publications was “The Transcendentalist” (1842), which explained and justified the movement of which he had found himself the leader. Emerson directly characterized transcendentalism as a new iteration of the ancient philosophical tradition of idealism, and allied it with Kant’s rejection of “the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses.” As Emerson portrayed it, transcendentalism was best understood as a recovery of long-held truths. “What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842.”27 He pronounced as a sign of hope “the optative mood”28 that characterized American literature, but he also portrayed the representative transcendentalist as a youth who believes in human potential and progress but faces resistance from society and is unable to find direction or fulfilling work. “The Transcendentalist” was a defense of transcendentalism, but also a sober recognition that the movement must engage and change the existing world.
While the Dial was in some senses a theological alternative to the Christian Examiner, it set itself apart through its inventive literary character. Emerson’s lectures displayed this stylistic endeavor through his dramatization of different voices within the text and his resistance to the stiffer forms of the sermon or oration. He strove for an organically flowing stream of anecdote, symbol, quotation, and direct address to the reader. These techniques were further refined in two volumes of Essays published in 1841 and 1844, which stand as the basis of his literary reputation. Other Dial contributors joined Emerson in an innovative mode, notably Bronson Alcott in a rambling assemblage of aphoristic “Orphic Sayings” that called down some satiric criticism from reviewers.29 Emerson also published several poems in the Dial and helped to make the journal an important venue for several notable young poets, including Fuller, Thoreau, Cranch, Ellery Channing (a nephew of the Unitarian leader), Ellen Sturgis Hooper, James Russell Lowell, Caroline Sturgis, and Jones Very.
Margaret Fuller also found stimulation for literary criticism, essays, and experimental fiction in the journal. Her assessment of “Goethe” (1841) was the most important critical essay published in the Dial, establishing her as one of Goethe’s strongest American advocates and most perceptive interpreters. Defending him from religious criticism, she portrayed Goethe as an artist of the highest rank, calling particular attention to his late novel Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809) with its moving portrayal of the central character Ottilia. The Dial also gave Fuller the opportunity to move into other areas besides translation and literary criticism. Among her most mysterious and arresting works was a series of philosophical short stories, “The Magnolia of Lake Pontchartrain” (1841), “Leila” (1841), and “Yuca Filamentosa” (1842), which featured sentient and speaking plants and preternatural human figures.30 These tales carried coded self-portraits and proto-feminist themes that are important backgrounds for her pioneering essay on women’s rights, “The Great Lawsuit,” published in the July 1843 Dial and expanded later Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), the most significant feminist treatise in 19th-century America.
Margaret Fuller, Feminism, and Transcendentalism
Fuller was among the first of the transcendentalists to recognize that Channing’s ideology of self-culture carried powerful political implications. She based Woman in the Nineteenth Century on the principle of continual spiritual growth for each individual, maintaining that “the law of right, the law of growth … demands the perfection of each being in its kind—apple as apple, Woman as Woman.”31 She argued that women were prevented from the complete realization of their potential by both legal decrees and ingrained social assumptions and practices. These barriers had to be removed for the good of women, and also for the good of men, and for society as a whole.32 To further her argument she also proposed an theory of androgyny, holding that “there is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”33 This idea, radical for its moment, anticipated the deeper theorizing of gender in 20th-century American feminism. The egalitarian basis of Fuller’s feminism—full and equal rights and opportunities for every individual—can also be seen in her later writing for the New-York Tribune, which she began in 1844. Given a front-page column by Horace Greeley, Fuller championed causes such as prison and asylum reform in New York, and also wrote book and culture reviews.34 She continued to send dispatches to the Tribune during her travels in Great Britain, France, and Italy in the late 1840s, becoming a passionate advocate and engaged supporter of Giuseppe Mazzini’s efforts to unify and democratize Italy. She saw Mazzini’s new Italy as a vitally important democratic cause, linked to the same principles that were the foundation of the American republic.35
Although Fuller was the most prominent woman among the transcendentalists, the important roles of several other women have been recently elucidated. Emerson’s aunt Mary Moody Emerson, a brilliant self-taught theologian and philosopher, clearly had a formative impact on her nephew as he wrestled with the question of entering the ministry. She also left a rich correspondence and insightful Almanacks, or journals, that stand as important documents in the history of women’s writing. Phyllis Cole has described Mary Moody Emerson and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody as exemplars of “the protofeminist origins of the Transcendentalist movement” through their “shared heretical experiences of reading, vision, and ‘truth speaking.’”36 Fuller’s close friend Caroline Sturgis, who contributed poems to the Dial, played a key role in a discourse on friendship that was a central transcendentalist theme in the late 1830s. Sturgis developed a close friendship with Emerson as well as Fuller, and her correspondence offers a valuable perspective on the tension between self-reliance and devoted friendship.37 Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century developed in part from a series of “Conversations” for women, annual events that she conducted from 1839 to 1844 to encourage women’s continuing educational development and public expression. Caroline Healey Dall was an attendee and went on to become a women’s rights advocate and author of The College, The Market, and the Court (1867), a significant text in 19th-century feminist literature. Dall was a diligent journal keeper, and her seventy-five year compilation of entries is a valuable resource on transcendentalism, women’s writing, the women’s movement, and the development of American culture in the later 19th century.38
Brook Farm and Utopian Communalism
Concern over the inequalities and competitive nature of the expanding American economy generated a desire for economic alternatives among the transcendentalists. They were part of an age of utopian thinkers who understood that the rise of the industrial economy and the growth of production, wealth, and consumption brought pressing questions about the nature of work and the distribution of goods. Two dramatic trials in communal living, Brook Farm and Fruitlands, attempted to model alternatives to the entrepreneurial and consumerist economic assumptions of the American mainstream. Richard Francis has provided an informative analysis of the ideology of Brook Farm, which was strongly influenced by the Associationist theories of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier.39 Fourier centered on the concept of the phalanx, a community of individuals whose interests and skills could mesh in such a cooperative way that the distribution of work and leisure would be enriching, and the stress of competition, overwork, and want would be eliminated. George Ripley withdrew from the ministry and, with his wife Sophia Willard Dana Ripley, spearheaded the 1841 establishment of Brook Farm. He had pressed Emerson, unsuccessfully, to join the group, but the experiment drew as many as seventy members in its early years, establishing a successful school to generate monetary support. The six-year life of Brook Farm, which dissolved in 1847, seems quite long in comparison with the seven-month life of Fruitlands (1843–1844), a smaller communal effort whose principal members were Bronson Alcott and his family (including his later famous daughter Louisa May) and the English reformer Charles Lane. Alcott was one of the most consistently reform-minded thinkers among the transcendentalists, though his capacity for fomenting political action was limited. He remained essentially an educator rather than an organizer, as his later founding of the Concord School of Philosophy suggests. The short-lived Fruitlands commune failed for lack of pragmatic planning and want of financial resources, problems that were magnified by a developing rift between Lane and the Alcott family.40 William Henry Channing, another nephew of the Unitarian leader, was a frequent visitor to Brook Farm and a devoted advocate of Associationist ideas. In his efforts at a reformist ministry-at-large in New York, Channing founded The Present, a journal in which he argued for a social reorganization that would ultimately lead to human cooperation in a unified and concordant network aimed at shared goods and harmonious efforts.41
Thoreau, Walden, and American Environmentalism
Emerson’s portrayal of the “transcendentalist” as a principled young dissenter to the ordinary demands of conventional “work” in America was brought to life by his protégé Henry David Thoreau in Walden, his memoir of an experiment in solitary and simplified living in a pondside cabin. Thoreau shared with the Brook Farmers many of the concerns about the American market economy, but his response in Walden is individualistic, emphasizing self-reliance and self-discipline rather than communal organization. He made a strict distinction between unnecessary luxuries and the absolute necessities of life, keeping his accounts to the quarter cent in order to demonstrate how much is wasted or excessive in conventional life. Thoreau wanted to escape the worship of ownership and consumption and avoid the diminishment of life that they entailed, and to find a deeper purpose through his interaction with the pond, the woods, and the creatures around him. His argument has seemed increasingly cogent as modern life has continued to grow more complex and more disconnected from the natural world.
Emerson and Thoreau contributed originating texts to the early discourse on environmentalism. Emerson took a great interest in 19th-century science, and in works such as Nature and the lesser-known “The Method of Nature” (1841) he advocated an aware and constructive human relationship with the natural world. This strand of his thinking was developed by Thoreau into an ethos of a natural life described in Walden and in a series of natural history essays that followed, including his hymn to outdoor rambles, “Walking” (c. 1862), and the lesser-known gem “Wild Apples” (1862). Of particular importance to modern environmental discussion is Thoreau’s early recognition of the importance of wilderness, the places that remained unchanged by human uses or habitation. He memorably articulated this belief in “Walking,” declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”42 Through his representation of nature as a means of spiritual awareness and his call for reverence for the wild, Thoreau’s impact on modern environmental writers such as Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, and Mary Oliver has been strong.
Transcendentalism and Antislavery
The intensifying national crisis over slavery became an imperative concern to the transcendentalists in the later 1840s and 1850s. Emerson’s gradual but ultimately deep commitment to antislavery has been carefully traced by Len Gougeon, who shows how Emerson’s research into the history and conditions of slavery in the middle 1840s, combined with his outrage over the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, transformed him into an eloquent antislavery orator.43 His first major antislavery text was an 1844 address on the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies,44 in which he describes the shocking abuses of slavery and suggests that force may have to be used to confront it. He opened his 1851 address on the Fugitive Slave Law45 by declaring “We do not breathe well. There is infamy in the air,”46 condemning the law as immoral and urging his fellow citizens to disobey it. Thoreau too found a well of eloquence in denouncing legalized slavery, most importantly in his 1845 “Civil Disobedience,” an essay based on the night he spent in jail for refusal to pay a tax in political protest. Thoreau’s essay has been admired by both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and it gained wide recognition during the antiwar and civil rights protests of the 1960s and 1970s.47 Theodore Parker was perhaps the most deeply engaged antislavery spokesmen among the transcendentalists. Like Emerson, Parker urged disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Law; he also assisted and protected fugitive slaves, and received an indictment for obstructing a federal marshal during the 1854 public uproar in Boston over the capture and return of the fugitive Anthony Burns. As Albert J. von Frank has argued, this was an important turning point in the solidification of antislavery attitudes in Boston.48 In contrast with Emerson, Parker demonstrated that a commitment to social reform could remain consistent with the role of the minister and the mission of the church. Like William Henry Channing, he prefigured the rise of the social gospel in the history of the American church, and though his theological doctrine was liberal, it remained a crucial element in his passionate critique of slavery and the systems that supported it.
Discussion of the Literature
The book that established the modern academic reputations of Emerson and Thoreau was F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941).49 Matthiessen identified five key authors—Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—whose work in the 1850s embodied an American quest for democratic aspirations and new forms of expression. While the limits of Matthiessen’s analysis have been widely recognized, especially his neglect of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Margaret Fuller, his book placed transcendentalism at the center of the American literary canon. Perry Miller’s The Transcendentalists: An Anthology was the formative modern study of the transcendentalist movement, combining key theological texts with lucid commentary to establish transcendentalism as a fundamentally religious movement. Lawrence Buell’s Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (1973) provided an important account of the transition from theological discourse to literature in transcendentalist writings. Two excellent recent histories of the movement, Barbara L. Packer’s The Transcendentalists (2007) and Phillip Gura’s American Transcendentalism (2008) emphasize the Romantic genealogy of the movement (Packer) and its social context and impact (Gura). Dieter Schulz’s Amerikanischer Transzendentalismus (1997) is an insightful analysis of the three transcendentalist key figures, Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau. Joel Myerson’s The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism (1984) is a comprehensive collection of bibliographical essays on the movement and each of its major figures. Wesley T. Mott’s two-volume Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism is an important reference guide.50 Important collections of critical essays on transcendentalism include Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts (1999), edited by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright and drawn from a 1997 conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society; The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, edited by Joel Myerson; and a recent collection on women and transcendentalism edited by Jana Argersinger and Phyllis Cole, Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism.51
The literary careers of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller each pose important critical questions. In his influential Freedom and Fate (1953), Stephen E. Whicher argued that Emerson entered a period of literary decline in the 1840s in which the bolder and more optimistic proclamations of his early work gave way to a tone of acquiescence to fate and its limits. In Emerson and the Conduct of Life (1993), David M. Robinson responded to Whicher by reevaluating Emerson’s later writings on ethical engagement and the conduct of life.52 The publication of Emerson’s later lectures, including his 1848 London lectures on the intellect and natural history, has also brought attention on his later phase.53 This turn toward late Emerson has focused critical attention on works such as “Experience” (1844), “Fate” (1860), and the antislavery writings. Robert D. Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) stands as the most comprehensive and authoritative account of Emerson’s intellectual development. Albert J. von Frank’s An Emerson Chronology (1994) is an indispensable biographical resource.54 Important works that mark the bicentennial of Emerson’s birth in 2003 include Lawrence Buell’s Emerson (2003) and two essay collections, Emerson Bicentennial Essays (2006) and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Bicentenary Appraisals (2006). Emerson’s global influence is explored in a recent essay collection, A Power to Translate the World: Emerson and International Culture (2016).55
Thoreau’s reputation has also undergone a similar adjustment. Walden was the principal concern of Thoreau studies until the 1980s, but critics such as H. Daniel Peck, Lawrence Buell, Laura Dassow Walls, Bradley P. Dean, Robert Milder, Richard J. Schneider, and David M. Robinson have shed light on the natural history observations recorded in Thoreau’s extensive Journal and other field notes. There is now a growing critical consensus that his Journal rivals Walden in intellectual importance, and that his stature cannot be meaningfully assessed without taking account of his work as a naturalist.56 The central work in this critical movement is Buell’s The Environmental Imagination (1995), which persuasively describes Thoreau as a formative voice in the American environmental discourse. Robert D. Richardson’s Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986) stands as the most comprehensive and authoritative account of Thoreau’s intellectual development.57
Fuller’s literary prominence has skyrocketed since the 1970s as interest in both women’s writing and transcendentalism have intensified. The full range of her significant work surpasses the conventional boundaries of the “literary” to include her letters, her series of public Conversations with women, and her writing for the New-York Tribune. The book on which her reputation principally rests is Woman in the Nineteenth-Century (1845), of great importance for its forceful presentation of the case for the rights of women.58 The book is complex in structure and dense in allusion to representative women in history, literature, and myth. It is, generically, an essay, but like those of Emerson or Thoreau, its form is organic and in some places experimental. While Woman in the Nineteenth Century will remain tightly linked to Fuller’s reputation, Robert N. Hudspeth’s six-volume edition of the Letters of Margaret Fuller (1983–1994) has been an immense addition to Fuller scholarship. Known for her brilliant and compelling skills of conversation, these letters take us as close as possible to Fuller’s voice, and often demonstrate the case for the letter as a central genre of transcendentalism. Her letters, in conjunction with journalistic dispatches from Italy in the late 1840s, also document the dramatic final phase of her life when she embraced the 1848 rebellion in Rome, the first phase of the Italian Risorgimento.59 A subject of numerous recent biographies, Fuller’s historical importance was first confirmed by Bell Gale Chevigny’s interpretive anthology The Woman and the Myth (1976), and further enhanced in the perceptive biographies of Charles Capper (1992, 2007) and Megan Marshall (2013). Margaret Fuller and Her Circles (2013), edited by Brigitte Bailey and colleagues, is an important recent essay collection originating in the 2010 Fuller Bicentennial conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society. For a useful compilations of early responses to Fuller see Joel Myerson’s Fuller in Her Own Time (2008).60
Emerson’s influence on later writers and philosophers has been a major category of transcendentalist scholarship. Harold Bloom has presented Emerson as the fount of a visionary tradition in American poetry that encompasses Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and many others.61 In philosophy, Russell Goodman and James M. Albrecht have shown important points of convergence between Emerson and William James, the founder of pragmatism. Friedrich Nietzsche, a devoted reader of Emerson’s early essays, has also been studied as an intellectual descendant of Emerson by Herwig Friedl and others. The most significant philosophical reappraisal of Emerson as a modern philosopher has been Stanley Cavell’s perceptive readings of Emerson in the context of major continental philosophers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger.62
Primary Sources and Links to Digital Materials
Joel Myerson’s Transcendentalism: A Reader (2000), cited earlier, is the most comprehensive and authoritative anthology of transcendentalist writings. The four volumes of the Dial, important primary sources, are available online (Dial magazine). Most of the key primary sources for the field are the published writings of the major transcendentalist figures, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Parker. Emerson’s works are available in two editions: the older Centenary Edition (1903-04), and the recently completed Harvard edition of Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1979-2015). The 1906 Walden Edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau is also available online, and The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, an authoritative scholarly edition, which so far includes Walden and much of the Journal, is in progress by Princeton University Press. While a modern comprehensive edition of Fuller’s writings is needed, her writings for the New-York Tribune have been recently edited in Margaret Fuller, Critic: Writings from the New-York Tribune, 1844-1846 and “These Sad But Glorious Days”: Dispatches from Europe, 1846-1850, both cited earlier. Her principal works can be found in several modern anthologies.63
Arsić, Branca. On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:
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(1.) Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (Boston: Starr King, 1955).
(2.) William Ellery Channing, “Unitarian Christianity,” in William Ellery Channing: Selected Writings, edited by David M. Robinson (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 70–102, quotation from 95.
(3.) See David M. Robinson, Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 7–21, 35–40. On Emerson’s sermons, see also Wesley T. Mott, The Strains of Eloquence: Emerson and His Sermons (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989).
(4.) Frederic Henry Hedge, “Coleridge’s Literary Character,” in Transcendentalism: A Reader, edited by Joel Myerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 78–97, quotation from 88.
(5.) Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 166.
(6.) Perry Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), 106.
(7.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, edited by Robert E. Spiller et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971–2013), 17.
(9.) Andrews Norton, “Letter to the Editor, Boston Daily Advertiser,” in Transcendentalism: A Reader, edited by Joel Myerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 161.
(10.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, edited by Robert E. Spiller et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971–2013), 52.
(13.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Robert E. Spiller et al., vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971–2013), 82.
(16.) David M. Robinson, “Poetry, Personality, and the Divinity School Address,” Harvard Theological Review 82 (1989): 185–199.
(17.) Joel Myerson, “A History of the Transcendental Club,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 23 (1977): 27–35, quotation from 34.
(18.) Nancy Stula, At Home and Abroad: The Transcendental Landscapes of Christopher Pearse Cranch (New London, CT.: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 2007); Frederick De Wolfe Miller, Christopher Pearse Cranch and His Caricatures of New England Transcendentalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951); Ora Frishberg Saloman, Beethoven’s Symphonies and J. S. Dwight: The Birth of American Music Criticism (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995).
(19.) Fuller, S[arah] Margaret, trans., Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of his Life, Translated from the German of [Johann Peter] Eckermann. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1839.
(20.) Robert D. Habich, Transcendentalism and the Western Messenger: A History of the Magazine and Its Contributors,1835–41 (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985).
(21.) John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (New York: Norton, 2007), 55–85.
(22.) Bruce A. Ronda, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
(23.) Theodore Parker, A Discource on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, in Transcendentalism: A Reader, edited by Joel Myerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 360.
(24.) Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 237–260.
(25.) Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker (2d ed., Boston: Beacon, 1947), 151–275.
(26.) Joel Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980), 36–39.
(27.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Transcendentalist,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, edited by Robert E. Spiller et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971–2013), 201.
(29.) Joel Myerson, “‘In the Transcendental Emporium’: Bronson Alcott’s ‘Orphic Sayings’ and the Dial,” English Language Notes 10 (1972): 31–38.
(30.) Jeffrey Steele, Transfiguring America: Myth, Ideology, and Mourning in Margaret Fuller’s Writings (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001).
(31.) Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Larry J. Reynolds (New York: Norton, 1997).
(32.) David M. Robinson, “Margaret Fuller and the Transcendental Ethos: Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” Publications of the Modern Language Association 97 (1982), 83–98; David M. Robinson, “Margaret Fuller, Self-Culture, and Associationism,” in Margaret Fuller and Her Circles, edited by Brigitte Bailey, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick Wright (Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2013), 77–99, 260–265.
(34.) Margaret Fuller, Margaret Fuller, Critic: Writings from the New-York Tribune, 1844–1846. Edited by Judith Mattson Bean and Joel Myerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
(35.) Larry J. Reynolds, European Revolutions and the American Renaissance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 54–78; Margaret Fuller, “These Sad But Glorious Days”: Dispatches from Europe, 1846–1850, edited by Larry J. Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); Charles Capper and Cristina Giorcelli, eds., Margaret Fuller: Transatlantic Crossings in a Revolutionary Age (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007).
(36.) Phyllis Cole, “Woman Rights and Feminism,” in Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, edited by Joel Myerson, Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, and Laura Dassow Walls (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 222–240, quotation from 224. See also Nancy Craig Simmons, ed., The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993); Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
(37.) Kathleen Ann Lawrence, “Soul Sisters and the Sister Arts: Margaret Fuller, Caroline Sturgis, and Their Private World of Love and Art,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 57 (2011): 79–104.
(38.) Caroline H. Dall, The College, The Market, and the Court (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1867); Caroline Wells Healey Dall, Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-Century Woman, edited by Helen R. Deese (Boston: Beacon, 2005).
(39.) Richard Francis, Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community in Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007); Sterling F. Delano, Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004).
(40.) Richard Francis, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).
(41.) David M. Robinson, “The Political Odyssey of William Henry Channing,” American Quarterly 34 (1982): 165–182.
(42.) Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Excursions, edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer (The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 185–222, quotation from 202.
(43.) Len Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990); Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, edited by Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).
(47.) Lawrence Rosenwald, “The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience,” in A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau, edited by William E. Cain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 153–179. Thoreau’s essay is also known by its original title, “Resistance to Civil Government.” See Fritz Oehlschlaeger, “Another Look at the Text and Title of Thoreau's ‘Civil Disobedience.’” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 36 (1990): 239–254.
(48.) Albert J. Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
(49.) F. O. Matthiessen, The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941).
(50.) Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973); Barbara L. Packer, The Transcendentalists (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007); Phillip Gura, American Transcendentalism (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008); Dieter Schulz, Amerikanischer Transzendentalismus: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1997); Joel Myerson, ed., The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism (New York: Modern Language Association, 1984); Wesley T. Mott, ed., Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism (2 vols.; New York: Greenwood, 1996).
(51.) Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright, eds., Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society and Northeastern University Press, 1999); Jana R. Argersinger and Phyllis Cole, eds., Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014).
(52.) Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953); David M. Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
(53.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843–1871, edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (2 vols.; Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001); Laura Dassow Walls, “‘If Body Can Sing’: Emerson and Victorian Science,” in Emerson Bicentennial Essays, edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (University of Virginia Press, 2006), 334–366; David M. Robinson, “British Science, the London Lectures, and Emerson’s Philosophical Reorientation,” in Emerson for the Twenty-First Century: Globalism and the Circularity of Influence, edited by Barry Tharaud (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 285–300.
(54.) Albert J. von Frank, An Emerson Chronology (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994).
(55.) Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2003); Bosco and Myerson, Emerson Bicentennial Essays; Barry Tharaud, ed., Ralph Waldo Emerson: Bicentenary Appraisals (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2006); David LaRocca and Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso, eds., A Power to Translate the World: Emerson and International Culture (Dartmouth: Dartmouth College Press, 2016).
(56.) H. Daniel Peck, Thoreau’s Morning Work: Memory and Perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and Walden (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990); Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1995); Laura Dassow Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995); Robert Milder, Reimagining Thoreau (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Bradley P. Dean, ed., Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript (New York: Norton, 2000); Richard J. Schneider, ed., Thoreau’s Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000); David M. Robinson, Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
(57.) Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
(58.) Phyllis Cole, “Fuller’s Lawsuit and Feminist History” in Bailey et al., Margaret Fuller and Her Circles, 11–31, 248–254.
(59.) The Letters of Margaret Fuller, edited by Robert N. Hudspeth (6 vols.; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983–1994).
(60.) Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings (Rev. ed., Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994); Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life. Volume 1: The Private Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life; The Public Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013); Bailey et al., eds., Margaret Fuller and Her Circles; Joel Myerson, ed., Fuller in Her Own Time (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008).
(61.) Harold Bloom, Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971); Harold Bloom, Figures of Capable Imagination (New York: Seabury, 1976).
(62.) On Emerson and pragmatism see Russell Goodman, American Philosophy before Pragmatism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); James M. Albrecht, Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). On Emerson and Nietzsche see Herwig Friedl, “Emerson and Nietzsche: 1862–1874,” in Religion and Philosophy in America, edited by Peter Freese (Essen: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1987), vol. 1, 161–182; Michael Lopez, Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996). There is also a special issue of ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 43 (1997) on Emerson and Nietzsche, edited by Michael Lopez. For Cavell’s writings on Emerson, see Stanley Cavell, Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, edited by David Justin Hodge (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); David M. Robinson, “Stanley Cavell, ‘Aversive Thinking,’ and Emerson’s ‘Party of the Future’,” in Stanley Cavell, Literature, and Film: The Idea of America, edited by Andrew Taylor and Áine Kelly (New York: Routledge, 2013), 42–56. See also the chapter “Emerson as a Philosopher?” in Buell, Emerson, 199–241, for a well-considered overview of his connection to pragmatism and his link with Nietzsche.
(63.) Jeffery Steele, ed., The Essential Margaret Fuller (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Mary Kelley, ed., The Portable Margaret Fuller (New York: Penguin, 1994); Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Larry J. Reynolds.