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Transcendentalism and Romanticism in American Literature. English III College Prep Mrs. Snipes. Transcendentalism Defined:.

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transcendentalism defined
Transcendentalism Defined:
  • The term refers to a literary and philosophical movement in America based on a belief that the transcendental—or spiritual—reality, rather than the material world, is the ultimate reality, and that knowledge is not solely derived from experience and observation. One must learn about the world not only through reason but through intuition.
reason intuition
Reason = the independent and intuitive capacity to know what is absolutely true.

Intuition = the direct perception of truth, fact, etc. independent of any reasoning process; a keen and quick insight.

Reason & Intuition
tenets of transcendentalism
The Transcendentalists upheld the essential goodness of humanity, the glories of nature, and the importance of free individual expression.

Transcendentalism emphasized the idea that individuals should act according to their innermost personal beliefs, or spiritual convictions, rather than the dictates of society.

Tenets of Transcendentalism:
Closely related to this idea is that of the integrity of the individual—the idea/belief that each person is inherently good, capable of making rational decisions, and worthy of respect from every other human being.
the role of nature
The Transcendentalists believed in living close to nature and taught the dignity of manual labor.

They emphasized the beauty and importance of the natural world.

They believed that by contemplating objects in nature the individual could transcend this world and discover union with God and the Ideal.

The Fulfillment of human potential was attainable through mysticism and communion with nature.

The Role of Nature:
Henry David Thoreau, one of the dominant writers of this period, wrote: “All good things are wild and free.”
philosophical influences
Philosophical Influences:
  • In opposition to the rational tendencies of the age, Transcendentalism incorporated elements from many philosophies and religions.
Transcendentalism is closest to the philosophy of Idealism, which held that material objects do not have a real existence of their own. Rather, these objects are diffused parts or aspects of God, the over-soul, a term coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson meaning an ultimate spiritual unity that encompasses all existence and in which each human being has an equal share.
As the ultimate spiritual force, the over-soul encompasses all existence and reconciles all opposing forces in the world.

Material objects, therefore, mirror or reflect and ideal world.

Transcendentalism arose in reaction/ opposition to Rationalism, a theory that the reason in itself is a source of knowledge superior to sensory perceptions.

Transcendentalists thought that Rationalism, from which modern science had sprung, denied the profound sense of mystery found in nature and humanity.

Deism = a movement advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century, denying the interference of the creator with the laws of the universe.
  • Unitarianism = stresses individual freedom of belief, the free use of reason in religion, a united world community, and liberal social action. Unitarians rejected Calvinistic notions of Original Sin and Determinism in favor of beliefs in the basic goodness and innate free will of the individual.
  • Quakers = emphasized the direct relationship between God and the individual without the mediation of a minister.
rousseau s influence
Rousseau’s Influence:
  • The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) argued that civilization was creating a race that was out of step with nature.
  • Civilization stripped people of their natural instincts.
  • “Everything is good when it leaves the creator,” he argued, “everything degenerates in the hands of men.”
Rousseau believed human beings had innate intuitive powers; that is, they instinctively knew how to deal with the outside world.
  • He felt that so-called “primitive” people, those who lived closer to and in harmony with nature, had a greater, more refined intuition than “civil” human beings.
  • Rousseau believed that there were basic principles, such as liberty and equality, which were innate to human beings.
  • Rousseau’s ideas were influential to many, from the American and French revolutionaries to romantic writers.
organized religion
Organized Religion:
  • Although the major writers of this period came from Protestant backgrounds, they found themselves at odds with the dominant religions of the time.
  • Though they strongly felt the need of intellectual companionship and emphasized spiritual living, they felt that every person’s relation to God was to be established directly by the individual, rather than through a ritualistic or organized church.
They held that human beings were divine in their own right, an opinion opposed by the doctrines of the Puritans.
  • Self-trust and reliance were to be practiced at all times, because to trust self was really to trust the voice of god speaking intuitively within us.
  • They felt that current thought had reduced God to a clockmaker, who, having once built and wound up the universe, now sat back and observed it detachedly. The individual in this scheme was likewise reduced, as Thoreau, put it, “to a cog” or wheel in this cosmic machine.
political social landscape
Politically, America was uncharted territory.

The American Revolution left a nation of loosely connected states the very real task of creating a workable democracy.

Most Transcendentalists were, by nature, reformers, but these reforms were attempts to regenerate the human spirit, rather than to prescribe to particular movements.

Social conformity, materialism, commercialism, and what they believed to be a lack of moral commitment angered and frustrated the transcendentalists.

As basic American values were threatened by encroaching industrialization, reform groups sprang up.

Support for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery became popular at this time.

Political & Social Landscape:
Public schools began.
  • Utopian communities and communes were founded and established.
The Nation’s population doubled between 1790 and 1830 and doubled again before 1870.
  • Socially, America was a study in contradictions.
  • On the one hand, the large majority of Americans made their living by farming or by providing products and services to farmers.
  • On the other hand, a growing number began to leave the farms to take jobs in factories and textile mills, especially in the East.
Henry David Thoreau condemned industrial capitalism and the growing mechanism of work. To Thoreau, the “progress” of civilization was ruining the frontier spirit.

Transcendentalists such as Thoreau believed that humankind could find truth and happiness in nature.

The economists of the day disagreed, believing that, rather than preserving nature, it was more important for people and government to advance human commerce.

America’s westward expansion increasingly attracted immigrants from all over the world.

Dynamic advances were made in science and technology: new farm machines, roads, railways, and the telegraph inspired a sense of optimism across the country.

Yet, there were some serious side effects of this progress: harsh working conditions and ugly mill towns were reflections of the nations growing industrialization.

Skilled craftsmen were replaced by machines tended by lower paid women and children.

Children were working 10-12 hours a day in factories and no longer had the freedom to pursue an education or develop their potential.

principle writers of this period
Principle Writers of this Period:
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • William Cullen Bryant
  • John Greenleaf Whittier
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Walt Whitman
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Phillips, Jerry and Andrew Ladd. Romanticism and Transcendentalism (1800 – 1860). New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2006.
  • The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th Ed. Vol. 1. Nina Baym, Editor. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.
  • The United States in Literature. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1991.