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Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. Prominent transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Christopher Pearse Cranch, Convers Francis, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Henry Hedge, Sylvester Judd, Elizabeth Peabody, George Ripley, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Jones Very .
Ralph Waldo Emerson published Nature in 1836 which represented a new way of intellectual thinking in America. “The Universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Spirit is present everywhere.” This new voice led American Romanticism to a new and mature period, the period of New England Transcendentalism. This was the most significant development of American literature in the mid-19th century. “New England Transcendentalism” or “American Renaissance” (1836---1855) was the first American intellectual movement, which exerted a tremendous impact on the consciousness of American people. As Lawrence Buell states, “To proclaim transcendentalism’s impact, however, is easier than to define it, for the movement was loosely organized and its boundaries were indistinct” (Elliott 364).
New England Transcendentalism was, in essence, romantic idealism on Puritan soil. It was a system of thought that originated from three sources. FirstWilliam ElleryChanning (1780---1842) was an American Unitarian clergyman. His Unitarianism represented a thoughtful revolt against orthodox Puritanism. Unitarianism believed God as one being, rejecting the doctrine of trinity, stressing the tolerance of difference in religious opinion, and giving each congregation the free control of its own affairs and its independent authority. It laid the foundation for the central doctrines of transcendentalism.
Secondly, the idealistic philosophy from France and Germany exerted enormous impact on American intellectuals. Thirdly, oriental mysticism as revealed in Hindu and Chinese classics reached America in English translations. As a result, New England Transcendentalism blended native American tradition with foreign influences.
Dissatisfied with the materialistic-oriented society and eager to save the soul with a doctrine of the mind, some American intellectuals were so thirst for new ideas that they formed an informal discussing group, the Transcendental Club, with some thirty men and women of Boston and Concord in 1836. They were strongly influenced by the new German idealism and delighted in abstract discussion. They met irregularly over the next four years at Ralph Waldo Emerson's home in Concord for the purpose of discussing the new ideas of life and society. This club was the first and most famous of a series of forums that served during the next few decades as social gathering points. It became the movement's magnetic center. From 1835 to 1836, they advocated their views and principles in various magazines. Besides, they even published their journal. The Dial (1840-1844).
The term “transcendentalism” is derived from the Latin verb transcendere meaning, to rise above, or to pass beyond the limits. Transcendentalism has been defined as the recognition in man of the capacity of acquiring knowledge transcending the reach of the five senses, or of knowing truth intuitively, or of reaching the divine without the need of an intercessor. As the leader of this movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson interpreted transcendentalism as “whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought,” and as “idealism as it appears in 1842.” He believed that the transcendental law was the “moral law” through which man discovered the nature of God as a living spirit. The major concepts that accompanied transcendentalism can be summarized in the following six points.
(1) It stressed the power of intuition, believing that people could learn things both from the outside world by means of the five senses and from the inner world by intuition. But the things they learned from within were truer than the things they learned from without, and transcended them. It held that everyone had access to a source of knowledge that transcended the everyday experiences of sensation and reflection. Intuition was inner light within.
(2) As romantic idealism, it placed spirit first and matter second. It believed that both spirit and matter were real but that the reality of spirit was greater than that of matter. Spirit transcended matter, and the permanent reality was the spiritual one. It stressed essence behind appearance.
(3) It took nature as symbolic of spirit of God. All things in nature were symbols of the spiritual, of God’s presence. Nature was alive, filled with God’s overwhelming presence. Everything in the universe was viewed as an expression of the divine spirit. Behind physical objects was a universal soul. Nature was God’s enlightenment towards human beings. Therefore, it could exercise a healthy and restorative influence on human mind. Nature was ennobling and people were somehow better for being out in the woods or meadows. So people should come close to nature for instructions. Nature not only showed humanity its own materiality but taught human morality. Nature’s beauty was the beauty of human mind. The two were joined together. With this organic view in mind, it stressed unity of humanity and nature.
(4) It emphasized the significance of the individual and believed that the individual was the most important element in society and that the ideal kind of individual was self-reliant and unselfish. It held that there was a greatness in all human beings that needed only to be set free. People should depend on themselves for spiritual perfection. As the individual soul could commune with God, it was, therefore, divine. With the assumption of the innate goodness of humanity, it held that the individual soul could reach God without the help of churches or clergy. While stressing individuality, it rejected the restraints of tradition and custom.
(5) Emerson envisioned religion as an emotional communication between an individual soul and the universal “Oversoul”. The “Oversoul” as called by Emerson was an all-pervading unitary spiritual power of goodness, omnipresent and omnipotent, from which all things came and of which everyone was a part. It existed in nature and in humanity alike and constituted the chief element of the universe. Generally, the Oversoul referred to spirit of God as the most important thing in the universe. Since the Oversoul was a single essence, and since all people derived their beings from the same source, the seeming diversity and clash of human interests was only superficial, and all people were in reality striving toward the same ends by different but converging paths. Thus was affirmed the universal brotherhood of humanity, and the ultimate resolution of all social problems. The harder each person strove to express his or her individuality, the more faithfully he or she followed the inner voice, the more surely would the aims of his or her life coincide with those of his or her neighbor.
Therefore, transcendentalism can be best understood as a somewhat late and localized manifestation of romantic movement in literature and philosophy.
Transcendentalism was also an ethical guide to life for a young nation of America.
New England Transcendentalism is important to American literature at least for two reasons. On the one hand, it is represented by two major writers of the country----Emerson and Thoreau. On the other hand, a new group of writers under the influence of Emerson and Thoreau began to apply transcendental ideas in their works.
The transcendentalist movement had a small membership and only lasted for a few years, but it has exerted great impact in the country. As time passes, the term “Transcendentalism” has lost its derogatory sense and become the condensation of American romantic movement in literature of the period. It lasting importance is great. Transcendentalism, however, was never a systematic philosophy. It borrowed from many sources and reconciled few of them. Whenever the demand of logic became too insistent, it turned to mysticism. It became a rationale for the pressure toward expansionism that was already turning people’s minds to the conquest of the West. It resulted far more often in rampant individualism than in a democracy of mutual helpfulness and equal opportunity. The denial of the reality of evil tended to make moral indignation an irrelevant emotion. The failure of transcendentalism as a moral force in American life was its denial of its real spiritual origin. People used it to justify their acquisitiveness and left it up to the principle of compensation to balance the rest of the account.