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Transcendentalism and american literature


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Presentation for English 491, for the University of Phoenix. Professor Julie Miller.

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Transcendentalism and american literature

  1. 1. Jade DavisEnglish 491May 6, 2013Prof. Julie Miller
  2. 2. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines transcendentalism as “aphilosophy that emphasizes the a priori conditions of knowledge andexperience or the unknowable character of ultimate reality or thatemphasizes the transcendent as the fundamental reality” but for theindividuals that were involved in the transcendental movement itmeant so much more, it was a way of life.“Although Transcendentalism as an historical movement was limitedin time from the mid 1830s to the late 1840s and in space to easternMassachusetts, its ripples continue to spreadthroughout American culture. Beginning as a quarrel within theUnitarian church, Transcendentalism developed a momentum of itsown as it questioned established cultural forms, tried to reintegratespirit and matter, and attempted to turn ideas into concrete action. Itspread from the spheres of religion and education toliterature, philosophy, and social reform. While theTranscendentalists ambivalence about any communal effort thatwould compromise individual integrity prevented them fromcreating lasting institutions, they helped to set the terms for being anintellectual in America.” (Bickman, 2000)
  3. 3. Ralph Waldo EmersonHenry David ThoreauHenry Wadsworth Longfellow
  4. 4.  Nature Self-reliance Dial
  5. 5. “Ralph Waldo Emerson is arguably the most influential American writerof the nineteenth century-the writer with whom numerous othersignificant writers of the time sought to come to terms.” (Baym, p.488)Emerson was the trend setter of his time, his writing inspired an entiregeneration. His writing, Self-reliance, which teaches us to trustourselves, his other work Dial, which was a quarterly periodical that wasan outlet for new ideas in the transcendental movement, and mostimportantly Nature which influenced a number philosophers and writers.”Emerson’s immediate reward was having the book become the unofficialmanifesto for a number of his like-minded friends, who, over the nextfour years, would meet irregularly and informally in Emerson’s study.”(Baym, p.490) Emerson is also considered to be the “Father” of theTranscendental movement because, as a Boston minister in the Unitarianchurch he started to develop this new philosophy, one that encouragedthe wisdom of the human being over the church. Also Emerson was oneof the key figures in establishing the Transcendental club which was agroup of individual that meat to discuss the rethinking of spirituality.
  6. 6.  Walden Civil Disobedience
  7. 7. The Transcendental movement was a movement that mostly affected the liberalNew Englanders and Henry David Thoreau was one of the writers taken in by themovement and was most influenced by the Ralph Waldo Emerson, in fact in 1836Emerson became a friend and mentor to Thoreau. “Thoreau understood that theUnited States was breaking free of the intellectual chains of Europe. He took hismentor Ralph Waldo Emersons spirit of self-reliance and built on it. He also builton the philosophy of transcendentalism--the intellectual movement thatcelebrated heightened consciousness, the power of inspiration, and the divinity ofthe individual--and melded it with environmental concerns and abolitionism.Individualism, anti-materialism, environmentalism” (Bruno, 2005) Thoreau’s mostnotable work, Walden, was transcendentalism put into action. ““In the pantheon ofAmerican literary icons, Thoreau is our sternest disobedient. He stood alone onhis conscience against a nation of temporizers, coming out from a society thatcould kidnap escaped slaves and steal land from a fellow republic. More, he tooksuch commitment to its extreme, preferring the isolation of virtuous self-relianceto participation in a compromising social contract. Yet in Walden, his narrative ofwithdrawal, he insistently characterizes his time alone in the woods by means ofmetaphors of town life.” (Newman, 2009) Thoreau urges people to look inward tofind fulfillment which is one of the fundamental principles of the transcendentalmovement. Also Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in which he discusses socialcommentary.
  8. 8.  A Psalm of Life
  9. 9. “As literary modernism took hold in the twentieth century, Longfellow came to theseen as unadventurous, timid poet; but such as assessment unfairly diminished theachievement of a writer who saw value in working with (rather than against)established forms and traditions. Viewed in relation to his own culture and his ownpoetic aspirations, Longfellow established a metrical complexity outlook that beliedhis persona as a soothing white-bearded fireside poet.” (Baym, p.643)Longfellow, unlike Emerson and Thoreau was not a trailblazer in the transcendentalmovement, but none the less his works reflected a respect and love for nature andthe transcendental philosophy. Longfellows work A Psalm of Life is a poem thatencourages people to live life and not waste a moment.
  10. 10. The transcendental movement which was a philosophy that dealt with spiritualityand religion was short lived and predominantly centralized in the Americanliterary community but it created a great impact on world literature as a whole.The transcendental movement opened the conversation in regards totruth, knowledge and the American experience.
  11. 11. Baym, N. (Ed.). (2008). The Norton anthology of American literature (Shorter 7th ed., Vol.1). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.Bickman, M. (2000). Transcendentalism. In W. T. Mott (Ed.), Dictionary of LiteraryBiography: Vol. Vol. 223. The American Renaissance in New England. Detroit: GaleGroup. Retrieved from, D. (2005). Natural Life: Thoreaus Worldly Transcendentalism. The WilsonQuarterly, 29(1), 125+. Retrieved from Wadsworth Longfellow: Americas Beloved Poet. (2013). Retrieved from Davis Thoreau Photos. (2012). Retrieved from
  12. 12. Newman, L. (2009). Thoreaus Natural Community and Utopian Socialism. In K. D.Darrow (Ed.), Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism (Vol. 208). Detroit: Gale.(Reprinted from American Literature, 2003, September, 75[3], 515-544) Retrievedfrom Waldo Emerson Photo. Retrieved from (2013). Retrieved from of American Transcendentalism VCU Department of English. (2010). Retrievedfrom Blog, . (2013). Nature and Self Reliance quiz. Retrieved from