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
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
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
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.
"A man contains all that is needful to his government within
himself...All real good or evil that can befall him must be from
himself...There is a correspondence between the human soul and
everything that exists in the world; more properly, everything
that is known to man. Instead of studying things without, the
principles of them all may be penetrated into from within
him...The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint man with
himself...The highest revelation is that God is in every
The increasing interest in Transcendentalism in New England was given
a pronounced further boost by two publications, (an American edition of)
Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus" and Emerson's "Nature" in 1836.
In September 1836 when Emerson, George Ripley and Frederic Henry Hedge
were attending the bicentennial celebration of their alma mater, Harvard
College, they found their own discussions on Transcendentalist themes
more interesting than the bicentennial activities. So interesting in fact
that they decided to meet regularly "with a few like-minded seekers" in
private homes for further discussions. The first such meeting took place
the following week in the home of George Ripley. Subsequent meetings,
which were mostly held at Emerson's home in Concord over the next seven
or eight years, took place often to coincide with Hedge's visits to Boston
from his pastorate in Bangor, Maine. Thus the group became known as the
Hedge, who was conversant in German, and in German philosophy, had actually
been a crucial figure in the early emergence of interest in Transcendentalism
and had formerly held a church ministry in West Cambridge between 1829
The club remained informal, electing no officers and having no constitution.
Its membership varied from meeting to meeting for several years. It was
also sometimes referred to as "the Symposium" but was eventually generally
known as "the Transcendental Club." Emerson in particular, however, continued
to refer to the "Hedge Club."
According to the emerging viewpoint authentic religion is "an intuition
[that] cannot be received at second hand". The importance Emerson placed
upon a direct relationship with God and nature derived from the concept
of the Over-Soul, described in his essay "The Over-Soul" (1838) as
that great nature in which we rest, ... that Unity, that Over-soul,
within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with
...the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the
organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of
comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a
light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect
and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, -- an
immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from
behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that
we are nothing, but the light is all. A man is the fasade of a temple
wherein all wisdom and all good abide...
...one of the facts we contemplate is external and fugitive, and the
other is permanent and connate with the soul. The things we now esteem
fixed shall, one by one, detach themselves, like ripe fruit, from our
experience, and fall. The wind shall blow them none knows whither. The
landscape, the figures, Boston, London, are facts as fugitive as any institution
past, or any whiff of mist or smoke, and so is society, and so is the
world. The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her,
leaving worlds behind her. She has no dates, nor rites, nor persons, nor
specialties, nor men. The soul knows only the soul; the web of events
is the flowing robe in which she is clothed...
An anonymous pamphlet, (thought to be written by Charles Mayo Ellis,
1818-1878) , which was entitled An Essay on Transcendentalism, stated
the most commonly held principles of the group.
"Transcendentalism... maintains that man has ideas, that come not through
the five senses, or the powers of reasoning, but are either the result
of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent
presence in the spiritual world," and "it asserts that man has something
besides the body of flesh, a spiritual body, with senses to perceive what
is true, and right and beautiful, and a natural love for these, as the
body for its food."
( this spirit was called the Over-soul, the conscience
or the inner light.)
The following quote from Emerson's "The Transcendentalist" (1842) may
be not entirely consistent with the actual views of Kant. Any lack of
consistency being related to the spiritual adaption made to Kant's original
philosophy by such persons as Schelling, Coleridge, Carlyle, and by Emerson
"What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism...
It is well known to most of my audience that the Idealism of the present
day acquired the name Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel
Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke,
which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously
in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important
class of ideas or imperative forms, which did not come by experience,
but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions
of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms. The
extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man's thinking have given
vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent that
whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called
at the present day Transcendental."
The Transcendental Club published a magazine, The Dial, (from a base
in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's bookshop) and some of the club's members
(including Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Sullivan Dwight) participated
with several other persons in an idealistic experiment in communal living
at Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, during the 1840s. Similarly
Bronson Alcott, and others, were involved with the smaller scale Fruitlands
community at Harvard.
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
Emerson's Representative Men,
Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and The House of Seven
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
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your
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
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.