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Transcendentalism Image Courtesy Library of Congress. Key Figures. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894) Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Key Dates. 1836 ▪ Transcendental Club is founded; Emerson publishes Nature

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key figures
Key Figures
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
  • Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894)
  • Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)
  • Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
key dates
Key Dates

1836▪Transcendental Club is founded; Emerson publishes Nature

1837 ▪Emerson delivers “The American Scholar” to the Phi Beta kappa Society of Harvard College

1838 ▪Emerson delivers “The Divinity School Address” at Harvard College

1840 ▪Emerson publishes “Self-Reliance”

1840–41▪Margaret Fuller edits The Dial

key dates4
Key Dates

1841–46▪Brook Farm

1842▪Margaret Fuller publishes “Plan for the West Roxbury Community” [Brook Farm] in The Dial

1842–44▪Emerson and Thoreau edit The Dial

1845▪Margaret Fuller publishes Woman in the Nineteenth Century

1846▪Thoreau jailed for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest of the Mexican War and slavery

1849▪Thoreau publishes Civil Disobedience

key facts about transcendentalism
Key Facts about Transcendentalism

The Transcendental Club

  • Informal meetings of the Transcendental Club began in 1836 in Concord, MA, in the home of Rev. George Ripley for “exchange of thought among those interested in the new views in philosophy, theology, and literature.”
  • Early members included Ripley, Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, Convers Francis, James Freeman Clarke, and A. Bronson Alcott. Later, they were joined by Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, William Ellery Channing, Jones Very, and others.
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

The Transcendental Club

  • They called themselves The Symposium or Hedge Club, after Henry Hedge, who helped to initiate meetings.
  • With good-natured ridicule, neighbors referred to them as Transcendentalists because of their lofty discussions.
  • The intense individualism of the members permitted only the most informal of structures. There were no officers, no dues, no imperative meetings.
  • The club sponsored two major activities: The Dial and Brook Farm
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

The Dial

  • The Dial, a quarterly publication, was issued sixteen times between 1840 and 1844.
  • The first editor was Margaret Fuller (1840-41), followed by Emerson with the assistance of Thoreau (1842-44).
  • The subscription list, small at the start, dwindled, causing The Dial’s demise.
  • Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and other Transcendentalists introduced new poems and essays in The Dial.
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Brook Farm (1841-1846)

  • Brook Farm was established in 1841 on a 200-acre farm in West Roxbury, MA, as a Utopian community to foster self-realization.
  • George Ripley was a leader in its founding. Among those who associated with Brook Farm are Theodore Parker, Channing, Hawthorne, Fuller, Charles A. Dana, and Albert Brisbane.
  • Emerson did not participate in the social experiment, believing that he would be exchanging one prison for another, for “in the arrangements at Brook Farm, as out of them, it is the person, not the communist, that avails.”
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Brook Farm (1841-1846)

  • Struggling, Brook Farm collapsed in 1846 when the uninsured central building burned.
  • Hawthorne satirized Brook Farm in his novel The Blithedale Romance (1852).
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

The social experiments of Brook Farm and Fruitlands (1843) were founded on the following transcendental principles:

  • self-realization and individual freedom
  • fair labor, a sharing of benefits and burdens
  • women’s rights
  • the abolition of slavery
  • the belief that a human community could be supportive of the individual first and then the whole.
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism and Romanticism

  • Transcendentalism is at the heart of the Romantic movement in America.
  • Transcendentalism energized an already lively movement.
  • Transcendentalism influenced all major Romantic writers after 1840.
  • Transcendentalism inspired many American authors to greatness, even those, like Hawthorne and Melville, who disagreed with many Transcendental theories and concepts.
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism and Romanticism

Like the Romantics, the Transcendentalists:

  • emphasized the importance of intuition over reason
  • objected to the restraints of tradition and convention
  • had a deep reverence for nature
  • were anti-institution and anti-authoritarian
  • believed in the dignity of the common person and common labor
  • advocated social reforms and a national literature
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism and Romanticism

The Transcendentalists stressed individualism, perhaps to a greater extent than the Romantics.

  • Individualism infused Transcendental concepts of politics, spirituality, social reform, and literature.
  • Individuals are innately good and, for most transcendentalists, divinity dwells within.
  • The individual’s relationship with God was personal and did not require church intermediation or ritual.
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Transcendental Individualism

To know what is right, I need not ask what is current practice, what say the Revised Statues, what say holy men of old, but what say conscience? what God?

– Theodore Parker

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

– Emerson

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Key Facts about Transcendentalism


  • Transcendentalism can be studied as an epistemology—a way of knowing.
  • Most Transcendentalists believed that individuals can intuitively transcend the limits of the senses and of logic and directly receive higher truths unavailable through common methods of knowing and self-realization.
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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal me in life-–no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. 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 particle of God.

—Emerson, Nature (p. 884)

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Key Facts about Transcendentalism

Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball”

The “transparent eye-ball” might be Emerson’s definitive image for the spiritual and self-reliant potential of the individual, as all boundaries (ego, body, things) are removed to unify the self fully with nature. He has reached an elevated state where God, nature, and he are one.

read ing

See The American Tradition in Literature 11e

  • Read “Transcendentalism” (pp. 362–64).
  • Look through the Chronology (bottom pp. 299–300).
  • Read the headings and selections for Emerson (pp. 365–453), Fuller (pp. 466–78), and Thoreau (pp. 478–560).
  • Read the heading (pp. 898–901) and selections for Whitman, especially Song of Myself (pp. 915–55) and “The Sleepers” (pp. 978–84).