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New England Transcendentalism

Backdrop to Events

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 placing value on feeling moreso 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.

"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 man."

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 Club."
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 - 1835.
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 all other...

...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... 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 himself.
"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.

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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 books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

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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.

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