Home | Literary Movements  | Timeline  |  American Authors | American Literature Sites

American Transcendentalism

For much more information than can be contained on this brief page, see  Lawrence Buell's Literary Transcendentalism and other works from the selected bibliographies on Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Overview Bronson Alcott on the steps of his School of PhilosophyAmerican transcendentalism was an important movement in philosophy and literature that flourished during the early to middle years of the nineteenth century (about 1836-1860).  It began as a reform movement in the Unitarian church, extending the views of William Ellery Channing on an indwelling God and the significance of intuitive thought. It was based on "a monism holding to the unity of the world and God, and the immanence of God in the world" (Oxford Companion to American Literature 770). For the transcendentalists, the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world and contains what the world contains.

Transcendentalists rejected Lockean empiricism, unlike the Unitarians: they wanted to rejuvenate the mystical aspects of New England Calvinism (although none of its dogma) and to go back to Jonathan Edwards' "divine and supernatural light," imparted immediately to the soul by the spirit of God.

For an excellent overview of American transcendentalism, go to Chapter Four of Paul Reuben's PAL site at California State University-Stanislaus and Ann Woodlief's Transcendentalism Web at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Related links: Tom Foran Clark's online biography of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn.

Key statements of its doctrine include Emerson's essays, especially Nature (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), "The Divinity School Address" (1838), "The Transcendentalist" (1842), and "Self-Reliance," and Thoreau's Walden (1854). Others involved in the Transcendental Club and its magazine The Dial included Margaret Fuller, editor of The Dial (1840-42), Amos Bronson Alcott, and William Ellery Channing. 

In addition to his famous "transparent eyeball" caricature of Emerson, see also Christopher Pearse Cranch's poem "Correspondences" for a succinct statement of Transcendentalist doctrines.

 Definitions Lawrence Buell, New England Literary Culture (1986)
"Transcendentalism, in fact, really began as a religious movement, an attempt to substitute a Romanticized version of the mystical ideal that humankind is capable of direct experience of the holy for the Unitarian rationalist view that the truths of religion are arrived at by a process of empirical study and by rational inference from historical and natural evidence" (46).
William Henry Channing(1810-1844)
"Transcendentalism, as viewed by its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the Living God in the soul. It was a putting to silence of tradition and formulas, that the Sacred Oracle might be heard through intuitions of the single-eyed and pure-hearted. Amidst materialists, zealots, and skeptics, the Transcendentalist believed in perpetual inspiration, the miraculous power of will, and a birthright to universal good. He sought to hold communion face to face with the unnameable Spirit of his spirit, and gave himself up to the embrace of nature's perfect joy, as a babe seeks the breast of a mother."
Charles Mayo Ellis, An Essay on Transcendentalism (1842)
"That belief we term Transcendentalism which maintains that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world. . . ."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
Ralph Waldo Emerson"Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God" (996). See also Emerson's essay "The Transcendentalist."(1842)
  • Reaction against New England Calvinism
  • Reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism
    • God as Deistic "divine watchmaker"
    • skepticism
  • Reaction against Lockean empiricism
  • Emerging ideal of American democracy
  • German philosophy
    • idealism (principle of organicism--Leibniz)
    • Kant and Neoplatonists (mind imposes form). Transcendentalism affirmed Kant's principle of intuitive knowledge not derived from the senses. According to M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, "Kant had confined the expression 'transcendental knowledge' to the cognizance of those forms and categories--such as space, time, quantity, causality-which, in his view, are imposed on perception by the constitution of all human minds; he regarded these aspects as the universal conditions of sense-experience. Emerson and others, however, extended the concept of transcendental knowledge, in a way whose validity Kant had specifically denied, to include an intuitive cognizance of moral and other truths that transcend the limits of human sense-experience" (216).
    • Schelling (emphasis on feeling; divinity and creative impulse in nature)
  • The Romantic movement, especially Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the English romantics (Emerson)
  • Unitarianism
  • Eastern philosophy

  • Emanuel Swedenborg
    (from Emerson)
  • Transcendentalism posits a distinction between "Understanding," or the normal means of apprehending truth through the senses, and "Reason," a higher, more intuitive form of perception. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge cites Milton's Paradise Lost on the difference between reason and understanding (Book V, ll. 479-490). In this passage from Paradise Lost, Raphael instructs Adam and Eve on the distinction between heavenly and earthly perception:
    • So from the root
      Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
      More aery, last the bright consummate flow'r
      Spirits odorous breathes: flowr's and thir fruit
      Man's nourishment, by gradual scale sublim'd
      To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
      To intellectual, give both life and sense
      Fancy and understanding, whence the Soul
      Reason receives, and reason is her being,
      Discursive, or intuitive; discourse
      Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours
      Differing but in degree, of kind the same.
    According to Emerson, reason is "the highest faculty of the soul--what we mean by the soul itself; it never reasons, never proves, it simply perceives; it is vision." By contrast, "The Understanding toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues, near sighed but strong-sighted, dwelling in the present the expedient the customary" (L1:412-413).
  • Microcosm and macrocosm: each part of nature contains all within it. "Nature is a sea of forms radically alike. . . ." ; "Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world."
  • Principle of analogy, of perceiving correspondences: "[M]an is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects."
  • Emblematic Nature: "Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact."
  • Universal soul ("Oversoul"): "Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related."
  • The principle of organicism; the concept of the circle.
  • Transcendentalism, like other romantic movements, proposes that the essential nature of human beings is good and that, left in a state of nature, human beings would seek the good. Society is to blame for the corruption that mankind endures. Hawthorne's juxtaposition of the red rose, the flower of nature, and the rusty, blackened prison, the "black flower" of society, exemplifies this perspective. This view opposes the neoclassical vision that society alone is responsible for keeping human beings from giving in to their own brutish natures. Transcendentalism also takes the Romantic view of man's steady degeneration from childhood to adulthood as he is corrupted by culture: "A man is a god in ruins."
  • Perfectionism and optimism.

  • See also the Romantic concept of the sublime, especially the ideas of Edmund Burke.
    Orestes Brownson, a philosopher and contemporary of Emerson's, raised objections to Emerson's thought that are remarkable because he neither defends Lockean epistemology nor seems worried (as were conservative thinkers) about the "murderous instincts" of the lower classes. Although he retracted much of this later because he felt sympathy for Emerson (who was under attack for these ideas), here are some of his initial impressions:
    "But we give it up. We cannot analyze one of Mr. Emerson's discourses. He hardly ever has a leading thought, to which all the parts of his discourse are subordinate, which is clearly stated, systematically drawn out, and logically enforced. He is a poet rather than a philosopher--and not always true even to the laws of poetry."

    Reviewing the "Divinity School Address," Brownson said that we are told "to obey our instincts" and to scorn to imitate even Jesus. But "How shall we determine which are our higher instincts and which our lower instincts? We do not perceive that he gives us any instructions on this point. . . . We are to act out ourselves. Now, why is not the sensualist as moral as the spiritualist, providing he acts out himself?"

    Brownson accuses Emerson of "transcendental selfishness": "Are all things in the universe to be held subordinate to the individual soul? Shall a man take himself as the center of the universe, and say all things are for his use, and count them of value only as they contribute something to his growth or well-being?" According to this system, "I am everything; all else is nothing, at least nothing except what it derives from the fact that it is something to me."

    © 1997-2010. Donna M. Campbell. Some information adapted from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997).
    To cite this page on a Works Cited page according to current MLA guidelines, supply the correct dates and use the suggested format below.  If you are quoting another author quoted on this page, either look up the original source or indicate that original quotation is cited on  ("Qtd. in") this page. The following is drawn from the examples and guidelines in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. (2009), section 5.6.2.
    Campbell, Donna M. "American Transcendentalism." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. Date of publication or most recent update (listed above as the "last modified" date; you don't need to indicate the time). Web. Date you accessed the page.


    About this site