Read this excerpt about Transcendentalism, a scholarly account taken from Harold Clark Goddard's 18-volume History of American Literature that came out between 1907 and 1921. The movement emerged in 1836 with the first gathering of the Transcendental
Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prominent contributors included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, William Henry Channing, and George Ripley. With Fuller's death in 1850, one of the movement's great advocates was silenced.
Emerson lacked the ability and interest to follow in her path. Though their hold on the public imagination was short-lived, the long-lasting influence that the Transcendentalists had on American literature cannot be discounted. Even the philosophy's
critics were forced to acknowledge the effects that the Transcendental Movement had on the world, particularly the American experience. Transcendentalism was a distinctly American expression, with concerns and ideals that did not fully translate in
England or Continental Europe. Think about how this philosophy fits into the larger "American Renaissance" and what literary characteristics it offers to the era.
New England transcendentalism was a late and local manifestation of that great movement for the liberation of humanity which, invading practically every sphere of civilized activity, swept over Europe at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.
With the fading of the Renaissance, Europe had passed into an age of criticism, during which all it had inherited and achieved in the preceding era was subjected to the test of reason. Throughout the eighteenth century especially, the existing structure of society was subtly undermined, and when, at the end of that century, it finally collapsed, the revolution which in reality had long been in preparation took on an abrupt and miraculous appearance.
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream,
cried Shelley, attempting to describe this remarkable period, and his lines are scarcely an exaggeration. Smiles and wrecks, these were the characteristic products of the time, blasted institutions and blossoming ideals.
What those ideals were – some of them soon to be realized, others destined to remain distant visions – is tolerably clear. Socially this revolution meant democracy, the assertion of the brotherhood and potential equality of men. Politically and religiously it meant the overthrow of feudal and ecclesiastical tyrannies and customs, and the setting up of liberal forms of government and belief as instruments for testing the new social doctrine. Philosophically it meant the contention, in the face of existing rationalisms and skepticisms, that man's practical and imaginative faculties play a part in his apprehension of the truth. In the realm of art and literature it meant the shattering of pseudo-classic rules and forms in favour of a spirit of freedom, the creation of works filled with the new passion for nature and common humanity and incarnating a fresh sense of the wonder, promise, and romance of life. In the scientific and industrial worlds it meant those fundamental and far-reaching changes which came with the constantly fuller recognition and adoption of the scientific method.
To the special student, each of these revolutionary movements has its separate history. But life, in spite of the student, is not a matter of water-tight compartments, and a first fact to be seized and held fast in any discussion of New England transcendentalism is that the new spirit which appeared in Europe a century and more ago was neither social, nor political, nor industrial, nor economic, nor literary, nor scientific, nor religious. It was all of them at once. It transcended every phase of life-though it is true, of course, that in this particular locality or at that particular time, in this individual or in that social atmosphere, it did take on this or that predominant emphasis or colour.
On this side of the Atlantic, for instance, it assumed at the outset a pre-eminently political character, and America, in her own Revolution and in the events which followed it, made an early and memorable contribution to that greater revolution of the human spirit of which the source and centre was in Europe. But America, save in the case here and there of an exceptional mind, remained largely unconscious, even as a matter of political theory, of the general significance for the world of what she had accomplished. Still less had she distilled from her democratic practice any fresh philosophy or faith. When, then, voices from abroad of those who were seeking a religion for the new order of things penetrated to a community which, religious to the core, had long been religiously starved, those voices were bound to be heard and answered. That is precisely what began happening near Boston shortly before the year 1830. The result was similar to what occurs, under like conditions, in the case of an individual.
Whoever has seen a young man of high mental and spiritual endowment lifted out of a provincial environment and placed suddenly in contact with the central intellectual and religious forces of his time, has a key to much of the transcendental movement in New England. The unsettling of traditional foundations, the ferment of thought and emotion, the aspirations, the excesses, the unleashing of dormant and unsuspected powers, all the effects, in fact, which attend such an experience in the case of the individual were reproduced on a wider scale when the spirit of revolutionary Europe descended upon a group of the finest minds of early nineteenth-century New England. The spirit of the eighteenth century had survived in the neighbourhood of Boston long after the eighteenth century was dead. And suddenly-so at least it seemed-this group of young men and women became intensely aware of that fact. The new ideas and ideals found their way to them through a score of channels and affected as many phases of New England life. But because of the predominant part which religion still played in that life and its traditions, it was within the religious world that the influence of the new spirit was immediate and marked. Transcendentalism was the religious conversion of early nineteenth-century New England. And because of the relative cultural eminence of New England, it became indirectly, in some measure, the religious conversion of America. Emerson's address, The American scholar, is called our intellectual Declaration of Independence. With far more fundamental truth his little volume, Nature, might be called our religious Declaration of Independence.
New England transcendentalism, then, was the product of European forces brought to bear on New England character and conditions. To analyze the movement further it will be necessary to look somewhat more closely at the nature of those conditions and that character and to study in a little more detail the outside forces which were brought in contact with them.
The religious evolution of New England from the period of the Puritan theocracy to the beginning of the nineteenth century is on the whole, with a certain change of scale and retardation of movement, strikingly similar to the religious development during the same period abroad, a fact which, at the outset, renders futile any hope to estimate with exactness how far the two movements were parallel, how far the one was influenced by the other.
New England took no plunge, as England did, from the moral heights of Puritanism into the abyss of Restoration licentiousness. But there was a descent, which, if more gradual, was not on that account less real. Seventeenth-century Puritanism held within itself the germ of its own disintegration.1 Already, by the second generation, under the law of psychological reaction and the exacting material demands of a pioneer community, "the decay of godliness in the land" had become conspicuous, and it seems difficult not to regard Salem witchcraft as the reductio ad absurdum of the extreme religious spirit. The revulsion of feeling that followed that outburst of superstition, the increasing interest in commercial and political questions, the gradual introduction of English rationalistic doctrines, the growing influence of the philosophy of Locke and of the literature of the "classical" school, all these causes, and many others, combined to accelerate the change in spiritual atmosphere, and it was not long before there was prevalent, especially in the neighbourhood of Boston, much of that temper of prose and reason which we habitually associate with the eighteenth century. With this changing mood, "heresies" began to creep into the religious world: Arminianism, Arianism, and other dissolvents of Calvinism. Interest in "morality" began to infringe on interest in theology. A line of increasingly "liberal" ministers occupied prominent Boston pulpits.2
The career of Jonathan Edwards serves, by contrast, to tell the story of what was happening.3 He, if anyone, was fitted to stem the tide of encroaching secular interests. The Great Awakening, that transitory religious revival of the second generation of the eighteenth century which is in many ways the American counterpart of the Methodistmovement, was designed to remedy the spiritual deadness of the time. But it merely widened the opening gulf in the religious world. The New Calvinists, as the followers of Edwards were called, went on to develop a theology of their own, while the liberals, constantly in closer touch with English thinking, grew more and more radical, until, as the two schools diverged, the term Unitarian was finally applied to them. Though 1785, the year in which King's Chapel in the revision of its liturgy tacitly denied the doctrine of the Trinity, is often selected as the beginning of the Unitarian movement, and though the actual schism between the Unitarian and the Trinitarian churches did not come till 1815, it is convenient, if not strictly accurate, to speak of the whole evolution of American liberalism in the eighteenth century as the Unitarian movement.
Throughout that century the position of the New England liberal had been an increasingly strong one, the typical Unitarian of the time being a man of tolerance, of intellect, of cultured tastes, of unexceptionable private morality and notable civic virtue. Emotional or spiritual in temperament, however, he was not. When, therefore, the intense fervour and the new ideals of revolutionary Europe began to make their way to New England, the Unitarian (like the orthodox Calvinist of a century before) began to find himself in an untenable position, transformed by the altered spirit of the age from a radical into a conservative. A number of Unitarian clergymen, notably the Rev. Joseph Stevens Buckminster (1784-1812), seem to have had an inkling of new things, but Buckminster died at the age of twenty-eight, and it was left to William Ellery Channing to be the first Unitarian to show something like a full appreciation of the significance for religion of the changing spirit of the time. Channing is the bridge between Unitarianism and transcendentalism.
Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1780. His early religious environment was Calvinistic but not illiberal, his parents being orthodox in belief but tolerant in spirit. The stern Calvinism of Dr. Samuel Hopkins, Edwards's pupil, the minister to whose preaching Channing listened as a boy, shocked his delicately sensitive nature, and was doubtless one of the influences that by reaction led to his liberal religious views. During his college days at Harvard Channing's early tendency toward revolt was strengthened and his seeking for intellectual independence encouraged. Contact in his reading with radical English writers of the eighteenth century gave a direction to his thinking which, in spite of marked mental growth in later years, was never fundamentally altered.
On leaving Harvard he acted for nearly two years as tutor in a Virginia family, imbibing in the course of this experience an intense hatred of slavery. During this period, too, he became acquainted with the works of Rousseau, Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and from that time the kinship of many of his ideas with those of French Revolutionary origin can be clearly traced, though in passing through his serene and profoundly Christian mind those ideas often became scarcely recognizable.
On returning north Channing studied theology, becoming in 1803 minister of the Federal Street Society, Boston, a pulpit from which, until his death in 1842, he preached, in a spirit of singularly mingled benignity and power, sermons of constantly increasing influence that emphasized consistently the spiritual and practical as opposed to the doctrinal aspects of Christianity. Ultimately his fame even crossed the ocean, a number of his essays and reviews being translated and widely read, especially in France. The eminence he attained was due fundamentally to the gracious, almost saintly, character behind both his written and his spoken words; and it is worth remembering that all he did was accomplished in the face of a physical condition that made him essentially an invalid.
Although Channing is usually spoken of as the. greatest Unitarian of his time, his sermon on Unitarian Christianity, preached at the ordination of Jared Sparks at Baltimore in 1819, being often called the creed of that denomination, he was, if we are to give him that name, a Unitarian of an entirely new type, and his works are full of indictments of what Emerson later called "the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism".
"Unitarianism", we find him writing, for instance, "has suffered from union with a heart-withering philosophy. ... I fear that we must look to other schools for the thoughts which thrill us, which touch the most inward springs, and disclose to us the depths of our own souls".
Now, religion ought to be dispensed in accommodation to this spirit and character of our age. Men desire excitement, and religion must be communicated in a more exciting form .... Men will not now be trifled with.... They want a religion which will take a strong hold upon them.
"And they desire the same quality in their literature", he says elsewhere, "a poetry which pierces beneath the exterior of life to the depths of the soul".
Manifestly, as these references to changing standards in philosophy, religion, and literature make clear, a new spirit was abroad in the land, and though Channing himself had caught much of it from other and earlier sources, it is certain that German philosophy and literature, some of it directly, much more of it indirectly, was, by the third decade of the century, becoming a chief influence in its dissemination.
The impetus toward things German had come, about 1819, with the return to America from Gottingen of George Ticknor, George Bancroft, and Edward Everett, young men, all of them, of brilliant parts. The interest thus aroused was fostered by the coming to Harvard a few years later, as instructor in German, of Charles T. Follen, a political exile. From about this time, some direct knowledge of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, of Schleiermacher, of Goethe and Schiller – of Goethe probably more than of any other German writer-gradually began to make its way into New England, while the indirect German influence was even greater, coming in part through France in the works of Madame de Stael, Cousin, and Jouffroy, but much more significantly through England, in subtle form in the poetry of Wordsworth, more openly in the writings of Coleridge,4 and, a little later, in the essays of Carlyle.
This interest in German thought and in English romantic literature, moreover, was but the beginning of a wider literary and philosophical awakening which brought with it increasing attention to general European literature, a revitalized attitude toward the classics, and considerable exploration in the realms of Neo-Platonic philosophy and Oriental "Scriptures".
It is natural that those who began to feel the vital effect upon their own religious convictions of this new spirit in philosophy and literature should have found one another out. This they had done many months before any regular gatherings were contemplated. It was not until 1836 that these were begun when on 19 September-after a still smaller preliminary conference-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Henry Hedge, Convers Francis, James Freeman Clarke, and Amos Bronson Alcott met at the house of George Ripley and formed an organization to aid an exchange of thought among those interested in the "new views" in philosophy, theology, and literature. Among those who joined the group at later meetings were Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Orestes A. Brownson, Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Jones Very, Christopher P. Cranch, Charles T. Follen, and William Henry Channing. For a number of years, following 1836, this group, generally referred to as the Transcendental Club, continued occasionally to come together.
Of the less familiar names among its members, several, in a fuller treatment of the subject, would deserve discussion: Hedge and Clarke, for instance, Unitarian clergymen, the former a man of wide reading and sound scholarship who did much to spread a knowledge of German philosophy, the latter a leader of his denomination and of some contemporary standing as an author; Brownson, one of the most forceful but erratic figures of the time, minister, editor, politician, and novelist-beginning life as a Presbyterian and becoming in turn Universalist, Unitarian, transcendentalist, and Roman Catholic; Very and Cranch, two of the poets of the period, the former probably the extreme mystic of the whole group, a victim for a time of religious mania, the latter a picturesque figure, painter, musician, and ventriloquist, as well as poet. Some of these men attained considerable eminence in their own time, but for the present discussion these passing comments on them must suffice.
It is characteristic of the extreme individualism of the movement that the Transcendental Club was never a really formal organization. The transcendentalists, though most of them were Unitarians, did not leave the fold and form a new church-though such an event as Emerson's withdrawal from the ministry in 1832 is symbolic of a general spiritual secession then taking place. But in spite of the absence of definite organization, there was essential unity of belief among the dissenters. This belief is as well embodied as anywhere, perhaps, in Emerson's little treatise Nature, a work which, appearing the same year the Club was formed, may be fittingly considered the philosophical "constitution" of transcendentalism, all the more so since the same author's better known Phi Beta Kappa Oration, The American scholar (1837), and his profoundly influential Divinity School address (1838) are merely applications of the doctrine of Nature to the realms of letters and theology.
Into any detailed discussion of what that doctrine was, into any minute exposition, in other words, of the transcendental philosophy, it is impossible here to enter. A glance, however, may be taken at a few of its central and controlling features.
The word "transcendental" in its philosophic sense goes back to Kant and the Critique of pure reason, though in New England, as elsewhere, the term lost its narrowly technical application and borrowed at the same time a new shade of meaning from the Critique of practical reason. Kant had taught that time and space are not external realities but ways in which the mind "constitutes" its world of sense. The same is true, he had contended, of cause and effect and the other categories of the mind. Furthermore, as he brought out in his second Critique, the ideas of God, of freedom, and of immortality are inevitable intuitions of the practical nature of man, and these intuitions, since man is essentially a practical and moral being, have therefore not a merely sentimental but a real validity. From these and other Kantian conceptions a broad generalization was made, and the word "transcendental" came to be applied, in New England, to whatever in man's mental and spiritual nature is conceived of as above experience and independent of it. Whatever transcends the experience of the senses is transcendental. Innate, original, universal, a priori, intuitive-these are words all of which convey a part of the thought swept under the larger meaning of the term. To the transcendentalists the name John Locke stood for the denial of innate ideas. "Sensationalism" was the prevalent description of the doctrine of his Essay. Transcendentalism, on the other hand, reaffirmed the soul's inherent power to grasp the truth, and upon this basis went on to erect a metaphysical structure similar in its main outlines to the leading Platonic and idealistic philosophies of the past.
According to this view of the world, the one reality is the vast spiritual background of existence, the Over-Soul, God, within which all other being is unified and from which it derives its life. Because of this indwelling of divinity, every part of the world, however small, is a microcosm, comprehending within itself, like Tennyson's flower in the crannied wall, all the laws and meaning of the whole. The soul of each individual, therefore, is identical with the soul of the world, and contains, latently, all that that larger soul contains. Thus the normal life of man is a life of continuous expansion, the making actual of the potential elements of his being. This may occur in two ways: either directly, in states which vary from the ordinary perception of truth to moments of mystical rapture in which there is a conscious influx of the divine into the human; or indirectly, through the instrumentality of nature. Nature is the embodiment of spirit in the world of sense – it is a great picture to be appreciated, a great book to be read, a great task to be performed. Through the beauty, truth, and goodness incarnate in the natural world, the individual soul comes in contact with and appropriates to itself the spirit and being of God.
From these central conceptions all the other teachings of the transcendentalists are derived: their doctrines of self-reliance and individualism, of the identity of moral and physical laws, of the essential unity of all religions, of the negative nature of evil; their spirit of complete tolerance and of absolute optimism; their defiance of tradition and disregard for all external authority.
It must not be understood, however, that metaphysics was a central interest of the transcendentalists. They were not system makers. The idealistic philosophy was to many of them more a spirit and attitude of mind than a consciously reasoned-out theory of the world, and it is as such a pervading spirit that its virtue still survives. As an explanation of the mystery of existence the transcendental philosophy makes little appeal to our own hard-headed and scientific generation; but no one, assuredly, with any measure of spiritual and poetic perception can give himself sincerely and unreservedly to one of the literary masterpieces of the transcendental school, to one of the greater essays of Emerson for example, the Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, or The over-soul, without a consciousness, as he puts down the volume, of having passed for the time into a higher sphere of being, without a deepened conviction of the triviality, the relative unreality, of material concerns, without a sense of spaciousness, of clarity, of nobility, of power, a feeling that that much abused word "eternal" has suddenly put on a very real and concrete meaning. Against such an actual experience no mere argument can avail. Nor does the emotion thus evoked end in a vague mystical exaltation. It leaves, rather, whether the reader profit by it or not, a distinct sense of its bearing on the daily conduct of life. This spirit of uplift, together with the moral impulsion it imparts, is the heart of New England transcendentalism.
But the transcendentalists were not always at the level of their masterpieces, and from the outset two results of a movement whose essence was so intangible and ideal were practically inevitable: first, that it should be misunderstood and misinterpreted by those who viewed it from outside; and second, that it should lead to excesses among the initiated themselves which would lend colour and, in a measure, justification to its critics. So quickly, indeed, did these results appear that to the public the word "transcendental" soon came to mean, to all intents and purposes, "transcending common sense", and this use of the term gained added sanction from the difficulty of distinguishing sharply between transcendentalism and other currents of social and religious unrest then pulsing through New England. Some notion of the varieties of "dissent" and "reform" contending at that time for public attention is conveyed in Emerson's description of the Chardon Street Convention which was held in Boston in 1840:
Madmen, madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers.
Surely these were wild and "transcendental" times!
Of the members of the Club it was Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, who was particularly singled out as a target for the shafts of a jesting and unsympathetic public. The stories told of him, to be sure, were often outright inventions or gross exaggerations. But we do not need to go beyond the testimony of his daughter to discover considerable basis for the popular conception of his character. Alcott, in fact, becomes an especially significant figure as embodying in excessive degree the mystical tendency of the transcendentalists together with those extravagances and eccentricities which often accompany the mystic's habit of wrapping himself up in the clouds of his own speculation and aspiration.
Alcott was born in Connecticut in 1799. After a fragmentary education he went to Virginiaplanning to teach but was compelled to earn his living by peddling. For four or five years this was his chief vocation, and it is interesting to note that toward the end of this period he came in contact with North Carolina Quakers, whose religious views seem to have influenced his thinking. Following this he returned to New England and for nearly fifteen years devoted himself in the main to school-teaching, putting into practice with considerable success, especially in his last and most famous school at the Masonic Temple in Boston, radical educational theories, some of which seem to have anticipated kindergarten methods now in vogue and which earned for Alcott the title of the American Pestalozzi.
Alcott's fundamental educational conceptions were Platonic, and he exhibited an astonishing but entirely characteristic consistency in carrying out his most radical ideas. He believed in the plenary inspiration of childhood, and his method may be described as an attempt to realize in practice the thought of Wordsworth's ode on the Intimations of immortality.
The publication of some of his conversations with his pupils, owing to their references to the phenomena of birth, brought adverse criticism and tended to impair the prosperity of the school. Finally, on his refusal to dismiss a coloured child whom he had received as a pupil, patronage was withdrawn and he was compelled to give up the enterprise.
After the failure of his school Alcott first tried his scheme of public "conversations", with little financial success, however. In these years, too, he showed an interest in many of the reform movements of the day, the temperance cause, woman's rights, the anti-slavery agitation. Moving with his family to Concord in 1840, he tried for a time to stick to farm work, but his taste for transcendental thought was too strong and he again began holding conversations and giving lectures. Shortly after this he removed to a farm in the town of Harvard, where, with two English friends, he instituted the community of Fruitlands.
The ideals of this miniature Utopia were extreme. The diet was strictly vegetarian, even milk and eggs being tabooed. Water was the only beverage. The "aspiring" vegetables, those which grow into the air like the fruits, were allowed, but the baser ones, like potatoes and beets, which grow downward, were forbidden. When cold weather came the experiment had proved itself, materially at least, a complete failure. This was too much for Alcott, who, losing for once his perennial serenity and turning his face to the wall, asked only to be allowed to die. He had a brave wife, however, who eventually brought him to his senses.
Following the failure of Fruitlands, the Alcotts had a long struggle against poverty first in Concord and later in Boston, Mrs. Alcott apparently being the financial mainstay of the family, her husband contributing what little he could earn from his conversations. The journal of Louisa May Alcott covering this period gives us many intimate glimpses into the life of "the pathetic family", and while the father is revealed as a man of extreme impracticality and even of unwitting selfishness, his extraordinary gentleness of temper and his unfailing optimism under adversity are not less conspicuous. When, a few years later, Miss Alcott gained literary distinction, the family was freed from financial embarrassment. The latter part of Alcott's life brought the Concord School of Philosophy and the realization of his long-cherished dream to see himself the American Plato surrounded by a group of admiring disciples.
It is singularly difficult to arrive at a just estimate of Alcott. The whole affinity of his mind was mystical, Neo-Platonic and Oriental writers being his favourite authors. The rarified nature of his subject-matter combined with a certain deficiency in power of literary expression makes his published works inadequately representative of the man, and the critic pauses between the belief that admiring contemporaries grossly overrated the ability of an active and elevated but withal rather ordinary mind, and the opposite view that Alcott had a touch of real genius in him, a kinship in due degree with the inspired talkers of literary history. Carlyle's famous description of him gives us part of the truth:
The good Alcott: with his long, lean face and figure, with his grey worn temples and mild radiant eyes; all bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age; he comes before one like a kind of venerable Don Quixote, whom nobody can even laugh at without loving.
But Emerson probably came nearer than anyone else to doing justice to both sides of Alcott's nature when he called his friend a "tedious archangel".
If Alcott embodied the extreme mystical and esoteric side of transcendentalism, the Brook Farm Association represents its social and experimental aspect.
George Ripley (1802-1880), the leader of this enterprise, was a graduate of Harvard and a Unitarian minister. A wide and increasing knowledge of European writers, however, gradually led his interest from theology into the sphere of social reform. He accordingly gave up his pastorate, and in 1841 he and his wife and a number of loyal friends established the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education on a farm at West Roxbury, nine miles from Boston. The association was a joint-stock company and financially it was inaugurated and conducted with considerable practical sagacity. On its theoretical side the enterprise, while the product in a general way of the speculations and example of Owen and Fourier, was not, especially at the beginning, in any precise sense an experiment in socialism. The hope of its founders was merely to make Brook Farm a self-supporting group of men and women, where all should share in the manual labour, the leisure, and the educational and cultural advantages, a place of "plain living and high thinking" where life might be lived in an atmosphere of fraternity, free from the strife and burdens of ordinary competitive society. That the attempt was far from being unsuccessful is revealed by many anecdotes which have come down showing the hearty and genuine spirit which prevailed among its members, a spirit to the happy influence of which on their later lives more than one of the survivors of the enterprise has borne witness.
The adoption in 1844, with some modifications, of the principles of Fourier seems, however, to have put an end to some of the more Arcadian features of Brook Farm; and this, together with the fact that the efforts of inexperienced farmers on a rather poor farm yielded insufficient financial return, was enough to doom the experiment to ultimate failure. The disbanding of the members was immediately occasioned by the burning in 1846 of the unfinished "phalanstery", upon which seven thousand dollars had already been expended and which was wholly uninsured.
Brook Farm, being the most tangible and visible product of this whole New England movement, has come to stand in the public mind for a perfect incarnation of the transcendental spirit. This is an error. Brook Farm was characteristic of transcendentalism in its belief that the material factors of life should be subservient to the spiritual and ideal and in its conviction that right thinking would lead toward better social conditions – in the end, indeed, to a perfect society. But it is important to notice that Ripley alone of the original members of the Transcendental Club had an active share in the enterprise and that while Emerson, Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller were interested and on the whole sympathetic visitors, they were too thoroughly individualistic, too distrustful of the institutional factor in life, to be completely satisfied with the experiment. In not a few respects incidents more characteristic, in their individualism, of the transcendental spirit were Alcott's sojourn with his friends at Fruitlands and, still more so, Thoreau's experiment on the shore of Walden Pond.5
An achievement more intimately connected than Brook Farm with the Transcendental Club and the leading transcendentalists was The Dial,6 the literary organ of the movement, the first number of which appeared in 1840 with Margaret Fuller as editor, and George Ripley as assistant editor. The Dial never approached financial success, and it was only through real devotion and sacrifice on the part of its editor and of Elizabeth Peabody that it was issued as long as it was. Miss Fuller resigned the editorship after two years and Emerson assumed it for a like period, after which it was discontinued.
Whatever defects The Dial may have had, a comparison of its pages with the dusty contemporaneous numbers of, let us say, The North American review is not to its disadvantage and lends some weight to the assertion of its main contributors that they were dealing with subjects of deeper than passing interest. The journal discussed questions of theology and philosophy; it contained papers on art, music, and literature, especially German literature; translations from ancient "Oriental Scriptures" ; original modem "scriptures" in the form of Alcott's Orphic Sayings; and finally, a good deal of verse. In this latter connection one of the most interesting features of The Dial to the present-day reader is the opportunity and encouragement it afforded to the literary genius of Thoreau. In addition to his and Emerson's, there were, among others, metrical contributions from Lowell, Cranch, and William Ellery Channing, the younger, the last-named one of the poets of transcendentalism, now best remembered for the single line,
If my bark sinks, 'tis to another sea.
The Dial, needless to say, did not satisfy the public. Dozens of parodies, especially of the Orphic Sayings, were forthcoming, and (in the words of Colonel Higginson)
epithets, too, were showered about as freely as imitations; the Philadelphia "Gazette", for instance, calling the editors of the new journal "zanies", "Bedlamites", and "considerably madder than the Mormons".
Alcott, on the other hand, considered its policy tame and compromising. Whatever, between these extremes, our own estimate of its intrinsic merit may be, we shall not be likely to overrate its significance in the history of American literature or the importance of the part it played in our literary emancipation. Its volumes stand as a reminder that the transcendental movement was, among other things, a literary renaissance – the enthusiasm for art and literature which appeared in New England after the long esthetic starvation of the Puritan ascendency being comparable in kind if not in degree to the immense artistic expansion of Western Europe after a thousand years of medieval Christianity.
No one of the leading transcendentalists illustrates this aspect of the movement more completely than does the first editor of The Dial, Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850).
The character of Margaret Fuller's childhood and early training is the key to much in her later career. She was brought up by a father whose stern temperament and uncompromising notions on education made him peculiarly unfitted to understand and mould the delicately sensitive nature of his daughter. Under the mental tasks he imposed upon her, her health became impaired and she was overstimulated intellectually and emotionally. All the early part of her life was a struggle against the sentimentalism and self-consciousness which her early education had engendered. As a young woman she was proud and imperious, at times overbearing, in her nature. She could use her tongue sharply and sarcastically, a quality which, combined with a high temper and a tendency to tell the truth, made her many enemies; and gradually, as she became more widely known, out of these hints that she herself supplied, there emerged in the public mind a distorted conception of her personality – a view that still lingers-which made her out a woman of insufferable vanity and masculinity, a veritable intellectual virago. Along with Alcott she became a chief butt of coarse and unsympathetic critics.
As a matter of fact, however, the unloveliest features of Margaret Fuller's personality were but the reverse sides of sterling virtues, and it is to her lasting credit that she lived to master and in the main to outgrow her early defects. The family duties devolving upon her at the death of her father, the sacrifice of long-cherished plans for foreign travel, a brief period of teaching, her work as editor of The Dial-these experiences gave her needed self-control and contact with practical problems, and the figure that emerges from them some years later as literary critic of The New York Tribune and social and philanthropic worker is an exceedingly able, sensible, and admirable woman.
From her early years, Margaret Fuller read omnivorously (at a rate like Gibbon, Emerson once said). Her linguistic equipment was good, and there is little question that she came to know Continental literature, that of Germany especially, more fully and appreciatively than any other of the transcendentalists. Her choice as editor of The Dialtherefore was natural. She also put her literary acquirements to use – as did Alcott his educational theories and mystical lore-by holding conversations on Greek mythology and other subjects. While these at the beginning were not free from amateurishness and a narrowly self-cultural ideal, they had deeper qualities, the promise of powers more fully revealed in her Woman in the nineteenth century (1845) and her collected Papers on literature and art (1846), which, in spite of their decidedly uneven quality, reveal her on the whole as one of the best equipped, most sympathetic and genuinely philosophical critics produced in America prior to 1850.
Following Miss Fuller's removal to New York, the realistic element in her work grew stronger, her interest in social and political questions increased, and particularly during her three years in Italy from 1847 to 1850-where she was married to the Marquis Ossoli-did her intimate contact with the struggle for Italian freedom broaden and deepen her nature. In fact her career seemed just entering on its most useful phase when it was tragically cut short by her death in the wreck off Fire Island in 1850 of the ship that was bringing her back to New York, a disaster in which her husband and child also perished.
Though her later promise was thus unfulfilled, Margaret Fuller had already accomplished much.
"It has been one great object of my life", she once declared, "to introduce here the works of those great geniuses, the flower and fruit of a higher state of development, which might give the young who are soon to constitute the state, a higher standard in thought and action than would be demanded of them by their own time. ... I feel with satisfaction that I have done a good deal to extend the influence of the great minds of Germany and Italy among my compatriots".
She had, in truth, accomplished this, and her words are suggestive of one of the greatest achievements of the transcendental movement on its literary side.
If Margaret Fuller is the literary critic of transcendentalism, Theodore Parker (1810-1860) is its theologian and reformer. Parker was a graduate of Harvard and of the Harvard Divinity School, and held pastorates near or in Boston during the whole of his ministerial career. He carried to its extreme form the theological reaction from eighteenth-century Unitarianism begun by Channing, his South Boston sermon in 1841 on The transient and permanent in Christianity being generally considered a milestone not only in the history of transcendentalism but in the development of American theology.
Parker, though his nature was not lacking in qualities of engaging simplicity and kindliness, was a man of warlike and aggressive temperament, of indomitable energy whether in thought or action, "our Savonarola", as Emerson called him. During the earlier part of his life, much of his tremendous power of activity was expended upon books, and he became a man of immense erudition, the most widely read member of the transcendental group. His learning, however, savoured a little too much, as Lowell suggested, of an attempt to tear up the whole tree of knowledge by the roots, and he surely misconstrued his own nature when he declared "I was meant for a philosopher, and the times call for a stump orator". His mind was in reality more practical than metaphysical in its cast, and it was with the turning of his interest to the slavery question and especially with the arousing of all the fires of his nature at the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law that the tremendous will power and earnestness of the man came out to the full. During the years of this controversy, he interspersed an endless mass of correspondence, lectures, sermons, and addresses with deeds of conspicuous moral and physical courage. He was chairman of the executive committee of the Vigilance Committee, sheltered fugitive slaves in his own house and aided their escape in all ways possible, was indicted but never brought to trial in connection with the famous Burns Affair, and came into intimate relations with John Brown. It was the strain of labours of this sort that led to his premature death in 1860.
These anti-slavery activities of Parker came, of course, after the crest of the transcendental movement, but they are mentioned here as an illustration of that tendency in transcendentalism, already noted in connection with Brook Farm and the life of Margaret Fuller, to pass from its early sentimental and romantic stage into a phase of social or political activity. Parker's life reveals with special clearness the link between transcendentalism and the abolition movement. There is probably little likelihood of exaggerating the relation between a philosophy which taught the divinity of every human soul and the agitation for the freedom of the Southern slaves.
Although the transcendental philosophy was of course only one of many forces that led to abolitionism in New England, the connection between the two is a powerful reminder that, in spite of its underlying unity of spirit, transcendentalism was an exceedingly varied and complex movement. Even the present rapid survey of a few of its characteristic incidents and leading figures has served perhaps to emphasize that fact.
In Channing, for instance, to glance back for a moment, we perceive it as a force mellowing and humanizing the stern Calvinistic tradition and touching with emotion the prosaic rationalism of the Unitarians. In Emerson it shines forth as an unfailing sense of the unity of the soul with God and nature, a religious aspiration constantly translated into incentives toward the noble conduct of life. In Alcott we behold it at first touching education and the child, then volatilizing into clouds of Oriental mysticism. In Margaret Fuller we catch its significance as a literary renaissance, an effort for culture, for criticism, passing over at last into an effort for social betterment – which latter note is struck earlier and more resoundingly in the social Utopianism of Ripley and the other Brook Farmers. In Parker it takes on particularly the form of extreme theological radicalism, a radicalism successfully undergoing the test of practical application in the abolition movement. In Thoreau it is present – in none of the group more ethereally – as a spiritualized feeling for nature, a fine dissolvent of convention, a pervasive and contagious influence toward natural and simple living.
These considerations, together with the implication of such names as Hawthorne, Dana, Curtis, and a dozen others, show how impossible it is not only to define the nature but to fix the limits of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was, in fact, simply the focus and energizing centre of that larger area of illumination and activity which is coextensive with the whole movement of literary and spiritual expansion that transformed New England during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. For purposes of historical and critical discrimination, to be sure, it is convenient, as we have done, to treat transcendentalism as a distinct and separate movement. But in reality it was not. In reality it was so blended with wider currents of spiritual change that the relation between the two can never be precisely determined. All that can be asserted with any certainty is that the fundamentally religious complexion of New England life makes it a fair presumption that the religious phase of the whole development was as nearly central and determinative as any.
It is equally difficult, as may now be seen more clearly than at the outset of our discussion, to separate the European and the American contributions to transcendentalism. That spirit of freedom, of individualism, of revolution, of romance, which was abroad throughout the Western world during this period, took on a peculiar local colour in New England. Distilled in the New England alembic, French Revolutionary dogmas, German philosophy, Oriental mysticism, assume a semblance that often makes them scarcely recognizable. Yet, however fresh the utterance, an alert sense can usually detect, if not its particular source, at least its general European kinship.
When Emerson in the opening pages of Nature exhorts his countrymen to come forth and live their own lives, reminding them that "the sun shines to-day also", we catch echoes of Rousseau's "Man is born free; and is everywhere in chains". When Thoreau proclaims an intention "to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up", we feel that here is the homely New England version of Shelley's cry to the West Wind:
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!
When Thoreau, on another occasion, writes that he was not aware "that the capacity to hear the woodpecker had slumbered within me so long", the words have all the spontaneity of underived utterance, and yet who can deny that the peculiar turn of that expression goes back through German or we know not what other channels to Plato and still remoter Eastern sources?
This mention of the East is suggestive of all the weaknesses of transcendentalism: its tendency to neglect proximate and to refer everything to primal causes; its attempt to attain the spiritual not by subduing but by turning its back on the material; its proneness to substitute passivity and receptiveness for alertness and creative force; its traces of a paralysing pantheism and fatalism; its ineffectualness; its atrophy of will. More than a touch of each of these qualities transcendentalism indisputably has; but if this were all there were to it, we should brand it as one more vain revival of a philosophy of life long since proved futile.
But who can doubt that there is in it also something the precise opposite of all this, the strange union of which with its Oriental elements makes it precisely the unique thing it is? Who can doubt that in speaking the last word of transcendentalism we should come back from India, even from Europe, to Concord and Boston? For, at bottom, it is the strong local flavour of it all, a smell of the soil through the universal generalizations, a dash of Yankee practicality in the midst of the Oriental mysticism, a sturdy Puritan pugnacity and grasp of fact underneath its serenest and most Olympian detachments, that gives this movement its reality and grip, and rescues it in large part not only from the ineffectiveness of the East but from the sentimental, the romantic, and the anarchic excesses of many of its related European movements.
These men were no mere dreamers. Emerson resigning his pulpit rather than administer the Lord's Supper or pray when he did not feel like praying, Thoreau going to jail for a refusal to pay his taxes, Alcott closing his school sooner than dismiss a coloured pupil (yes! even Alcott planting "aspiring" vegetables), Parker risking reputation and life in the anti-slavery crusade-these are typical examples of the fact that when these men were put to the test of acting up to their principles they were not found wanting. The Puritan character was the rock on which transcendentalism was built.
How inherent in the religious development of New England that character has been may be seen by glancing at three of her foremost spiritual figures: Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James (James, curiously enough, though a New Englander only by adoption, being scarcely less representative of the most recent phase of New England religious evolution than Emerson and Edwards were of two of its earlier stages). Edwards, the last great apostle of theocratic dogmatism; Emerson, the prophet of a generation of romantic aspiration; James, the pragmatic philosopher of a scientific and democratic age-how far apart, at first thought, they seem! And not merely far apart, but often hostile. Emerson gave much of his best effort to demolishing the remnants of the Calvinistic structure Edwards had done so much to fortify. James's career was one long assault on that philosophy of the Absolute which is the intellectualized counterpart of the religion of the Over-Soul. The respective attitudes of the three men toward nature well illustrate their differences. To Edwards, in spite of his feeling for natural beauty, nature is essentially evil and is consistently set over against grace, which is of God. To Emerson, God and Nature are merely two aspects of a single spirit. To James, endlessly interesting as the natural world is in its instrumental capacity, in any ultimate sense nature is merely "so much weather". And yet, under analysis, such distinctions turn out to be partly nominal and relatively superficial, for, deeper than all their differences of doctrine, there is a community of spirit among these men, a something central and controlling in them all, something which in its day was the driving force of transcendentalism, the innate idealism and individualism of the New England mind.
1 See Book I, Chap. III.
2 See Book I, Chap. IV.
3 See Book I, Chap. v.
4 There is practically no question that of all these influences the works of Coleridge stand first in importance, and it is due to this fact that New England transcendentalism, in so far as it is a philosophy, bears a closer resemblance to the metaphysical system of Schelling (whose influence on Coleridge is well known) than to that of any other thinker.
5 See Book II, Chap. X.
6 See also Book II, Chap. XX.
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