|Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David
Thoreau, American Romanticism, American Renaissance
New England, What is Transcendentalism?, Transcendental Club
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During "The First Great Awakening" (1730 - 1770) a large proportion of colonial Americans took up with a revitalization of evangelical religious piety. This renewed Affirmation of Faith had largely arisen to counter the rationalistic currents of the Age of Enlightenment. The evangelisation associated with the First Great Awakening supported the view that being sincerely religious meant trusting the heart rather than the head, meant prizing feeling more than thinking, and meant relying on the Bible as THE souce of Divine Revelation rather than on human reason.
It happened that many people, particularly those of wealth and education in relatively settled areas of New England adopted a more "rational" approach to faith and adhered to Unitarianism or Deism. Unitarians tended to regard the Great Awakening as being prone to emotional excesses. Whilst the faith these Unitarians was doubtless sincere it often seemed, as time passed, to members of their own rising generation, to be somewhat dry and unable to satisfy deep spiritual yearnings.
This then is the situation where the story of New England Transcendentalism more clearly begins.
Back in the Old World a heady "Romanticism" in arts and letters was displacing neoclassical Enlightenment values. Where "The Enlightenment" saw typical individuals "Romanticism" saw unique individuals. Where "The Enlightenment" prized rationality and science as routes to progress "Romanticism" preferred emotion, imagination, and intuition. Overall a cultural preference, by the "progressives" of one generation, for a mechanistic and rational world view was increasingly displaced by a cultural preference, as expressed by a more broad group of "progressives" in the rising generation, for a more organic, more emotional, and more imaginative form of society.
Alongside the emergent preference for Romanticism was a form of philosophic justification of the value of feeling and intuition as provided by Immanuel Kant (with adaptions as provided by such persons as Schelling and Coleridge).
Kantian Idealism held that there was a Moral Law within people that shapes their impressions and that there was a set of innate principles with reference to which the mind gives form to its perceptions and interprets life experiences. Kant was sure that he had effected a "Copernican Revolution," persuasively suggesting that is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible. Kant said there were experiences that could be acquired through "intuitions of the mind;" he referred to the "native spontaneity of the human mind." This introduced the human mind as an active originator of experience rather than a passive recipient. It also leaves the way dramatically open for the mind to be viewed as a creative, intuitive, and interpreting organism rather that a reactive and logical machine.
In Puritan and Unitarian New England the rising generation, who often felt that their inherited tradition of faith was insufficiently spiritually rewarding, became aware of Kantian Idealism, as adapted by others, into becoming an approach where the individual human being could hope to enjoy authentic spiritual experiences and intuitions. Reality could thus be experienced in a higher way than through the physical senses or through reason.
In 1829 James Marsh published an American edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection. This book, which almost single-handedly laid the ground work for the New England Transcendentalism movement, fused the material and the spiritual, and advanced the crucial distinction between the Reason and the Understanding. Marsh added his own "Preliminary Essay," underscoring the distinction between "the understanding," that distinctly Lockean faculty of rationalizing from the senses and "the Reason," those higher intuitions valued not only by German idealists but by mystics through the ages.
Soon afterward, Frederic Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister equally conversant with German thought, wrote for that denomination's journal, The Christian Examiner, a laudatory article on Coleridge that Hedge claimed was "the first word, so far as I know, which any American had uttered in respectful recognition of the claims of Transcendentalism." This article made a very great impression on Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called it "a living leaping Logos."
Added to all of this, the scriptures of the Eastern faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism were increasingly discovered (by those of European culture) and valued, translated, and published so that they were more widely available. The Harvard-educated Emerson and others read Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and examined their own religious assumptions against these scriptures. In their perspective, a loving God would not have led so much of humanity astray; there must be truth in these scriptures, too. Truth, if it agreed with an individual's intuition of truth, must be indeed truth.
On Christmas Day, 1832, Emerson left the United States for a tour of Europe where he made the acquaintance of such literary notables as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth and John Stuart Mill.
Something of the enthusiam for Transcendentalism that had become confirmed in Emerson at this time is perhaps reflected in the following extracts from a diary that he kept during his return voyage to the U.S.
The period of American Romanticism is also known as the American Renaissance. There was a fairly astonishing period of literary creativity in Transcendentalist New England circles between 1850-1855. The classics and masterpieces produced in these years include:-
Emerson's Representative Men,
Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and The House of Seven Gables,
Melville's Moby-Dick and Pierre,
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin,
Thoreau's Walden, and
Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
A clear directness of connectivity between Transcendentalism and this phase of artistic creativity can be appreciated by quoting the opening and closing lines of Walt Whitman's most celebrated poem "Leaves of Grass."
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you ...
... You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres
In time Transcendentalism came to seem less relevant to people who had formerly taken a keen interest in it. This alteration was partly a case of Transcendentalism having seemed to say all that it had to say and also a case of the emergence of Social Realities that channeled people's attention elsewhere.
There was the dramatic conflict of opinion over the Abolition of Slavery and States Rights that culminated in the American Civil War. Society, in the north eastern states, was also becoming much more urban and industrialised, there were issues of workers' rights, womens' rights, the position of minorities and so forth.
The more innocent times that had allowed Henry David Thoreau to indulge in an idyllic communion with a more natural existence on the shores of Walden Pond and had also allowed (failed) attempts at utopian communal living such as at Brook Farm and Fruitlands were seen as becoming a thing of the past.
People now demanded a social "Realism" in artistic and literary movements. Romantic literary forms seemed too idealised and grandiose in heroism and tragedy to reflect real life. Imagination was seen as being at odds with a necessity to accurately depict everyday reality and to examine fully ethical dilemmas, choices, and consequences.