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Transcendentalism. - Joseph Sherlock. Period Overview . ~ Post-Romanticism American literary and philosophic movement which flourished during the early and middle years of the 19 th century. ~ Comes from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

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- Joseph Sherlock

Period overview

Period Overview

~ Post-Romanticism American literary and philosophic movement which flourished during the early and middle years of the 19th century.

~ Comes from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.


~ Successfully started a reform movement within the Unitarian church in the early years of it’s existence.

~ Strongly believed in self-reliance and individualism.

~ Focused on the ideas that true reality is spiritual and that man is intended to be good.


~ Transcendentalist literature consisted primarily of short stories, essays, novels, and poetry.

~ Major authors of this period included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and William Henry Channing.




Social effects

Social Effects

~ Inspired in transcendentalist followers and readers the beliefs of individualism, self-reliance, and the natural good found in man.

~ Encouraged people to look beyond the physical aspects of their lives and more in to the spiritual and psychological.

~ Also increased public awareness of the evils of slavery and the harmful treatment of American Indians during that time period.

~ All of these implications were expressed through both novels and essays written to be both sold and preformed in the public eye by the author.


~ Prominent examples of these particular literary works would be Thoreau’s Slavery in Massachusetts and Emerson’s “Lecture on Slavery”.

~ These works expressed the abolitionist goals of the transcendentalist movement publicly, leading to a greater influence on the American train of thought on these controversial subjects.


~ Unfortunately, not all the issues fought for by transcendentalists were fully supported in the public eye.

~ The issue of the Native Americans is a perfect example of this, displaying that even with the far reaching ideas of transcendentalist literature, very few reader’s expressed the negative opinions of the transcendentalists about this issue.

The Trail of Tears


~ These various social implications of the transcendentalists ultimately resulted in the increasingly common behavior of transcendentalist follows to strive to work for the “greater good.”

~ This new attitude gave rise to the expression that if human beings were to be left in a natural state they would seek the good, and thus the essential nature of human beings is that of good.

~ This led to the increasing trend of philanthropist acts among both seasoned transcendentalist follower and those who were simply inspired by a piece of strongly worded literature.

Religious influence

Religious Influence

~ The transcendentalist literary era brought with it a new view of religion, one not so harsh and rule based like that of the Puritans, but one more relaxed and peaceful, with a feeling of responsibility among it’s followers to change the world for the better and not just themselves.


~ The transcendentalist view of God was also fairly different from the societal norm of that era.

~ In transcendentalist philosophy, God is not seen as a wrathful and controlling being whose soul purpose is to move and shake the human race as He sees fit. But more of an oversoul, who is good in every sense of the word and whose soul purpose is to create man and remerge with him in the end.


~ The religious aspects of transcendentalism also express no view of the formation of evil or a punishment for those who cross the values of the oversoul.

~ Also, there is no divine creation of mankind expressed, the view of such situations is that everything on Earth (including both mankind and nature) is one and the same to the oversoul, just a manifestation of its creative power.

~ Nature itself is viewed in transcendentalism as something which should be respected and embraced for the insight it gives into the what the transcendentalists believed was the true intention for mankind: to do good works.


~ With such a philanthropic view for mankind, the spiritual side of transcendentalism encouraged the realization of one’s fullest capabilities, through the connection of yourself, nature, and the higher power.

~ The movement’s push on self-reliance was also expressed through this, giving rise to the idea of inevitable progress and a free life from divine control, which was a fairly unheard of concept for quite a while, particularly during the Puritan era.

Political implications

Political Implications

~ The greatest political influence of the transcendentalist era is represented through the change in attitude towards human rights among both the voters and the high ranking political figures.

~ In fact, Emerson once wrote a personal letter to President Martin Van Buren on the atrocities of the Trail of Tears.


~ Unfortunately, this letter never took much political hold over President Van Buren and the progress of the Trail of Tears was never halted.

~ However, the mistreatment of American Indians was not the only political issue which the transcendentalists spoke out against. For many of the prominent transcendentalist authors as well as their readers, were active abolitionists during the 1850s.


~ This opposition towards slavery was often expressed in novels and essays which were commonly read aloud and preformed in public by the authors themselves, as well as sold to the common man, to reinforce the severity and urgency of their message.

~ These works included Slavery in Massachusetts (written in 1854 by Henry David Thoreau) and “A Lecture on Slavery” (written and preformed by Ralph Waldo Emerson)


~ Furthermore, many scholars now believe that the transcendentalist philosophy can be directly associated with that of early socialism, giving transcendentalist literature a bad name much later during the United States’ Red Scare.

~ However, others believe that this era made way for a new ideal for American democracy, philanthropic and progressive in nature.

Artistic influence

Artistic Influence

~ The influence of transcendentalist philosophy and idealism brought a new view point on realism and natural art work specific to that period in time.

~ Divine and beautiful topics were explored but also the bizarre in the forms of literal illustration of transcendentalist topics, such as Emerson’s “transparent eye” expression.


~ Artwork during this period also reflected the political and social views of the transcendentalists, such as the sadness of the Cherokee Indians during their long walk down the Trail of Tears, and their eradication from all lands east of the Mississippi River. As well as the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. But with these solemn works also came those of beautiful scenes of nature, as imagined in the transcendentalist view of natural perfection.


~ These works of art often depicted scenes of people working for the better good as well as extremely abstract imagery with a hidden meaning probably not understood except by those who are familiar in the transcendentalist philosophy.



“The Web of American Transcendentalism.”

Virginia Commonwealth University, Spring 1999. Web. 04

Feb. 2011.


Goodman, Russell. “Transcendentalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of

Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of

Philosophy, 24 June 2008. Web. 03

Feb. 2011. <>

Gaither. “American Literature Major Movements and Terms.”

GPS Junior English. Web. 03 Feb. 2011.


Campbell, Donna M. “American Transcendentalism.” Washington State University

– Pullman Washington. Dept. of English, Washington State University,

21 Mar. 2010. Web. 03 Feb. 2011.


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