American Transcendentalism: A Commentary



What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Literature has always been a means to express and explore ideas. Literature is a mirror of the soul. The poems, novels, and essays bear witness to the thoughts, deeds, and lives of people across time. Such variety in literature is apparent in the different literary movements that have been littered across American history. One such literary movement is Transcendentalism.

The Transcendentalism Literary Movement flourished in the middle of the nineteenth century or around the 1830’s. The movement involved many spiritual ideals, thus the name – to transcend or to go beyond – beyond earthbound thoughts and actions.

One of the beliefs held by Transcendentalists is that the soul of an individual is the soul of the world. This means that whatever happens to the world happens to the individual and vice versa. In other words, the individual and the world is one. Another belief is that people and nature are inherently good. However, Transcendentalists believe that “organized religion and political parties” are evil and will corrupt the purity of the people’s goodness. To them, a person’s individuality and independence is the key to staying pure and good.


Emerson Transcends

Ralph Waldo Emerson had been a key figure during the Transcendentalism Period. He wrote essays that expressed the need to distance oneself from obligations dictated by society and to reflect on the importance of being self-reliant, on learning to think and act for oneself, instead of behaving merely as the norm dictates.

The Transcendentalism Period is powerful in a sense that its works invited the reader to reflect intensively on his life, on his thoughts, actions, and his importance in the world. Emerson once wrote that reason is “the highest faculty of the soul”. Transcendentalism expresses that other activities such as attending parties, gaining high intellectual degrees, becoming wealthy, and gaining fame are useless and destructive to the soul. In Emerson’s, “The American Scholar”, he closes the essay with:

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ...Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

What Transcendentalism Teaches Us

Emerson’s essay calls for each individual to stop thinking like next-door-neighbor – to break away from the need to conform and waste money on earthly pleasures. Emerson beckons his readers to pay heed to more important things – to treasure values such as self-reliance and independence.

Henry David Thoreau, another renowned Transcendentalist, exalts metaphysical thoughts and ideas in his “Walden”, at the same time praising the simple beauty and spirituality that can be found in nature.

Transcendentalism is unique in that it hardly focuses on the style or form of the literary work. Rather its focus is on the content of the literary piece. Transcendentalism is not just a literary movement. It is philosophical and spiritual. It is not just style. It is thought and idea. Aptly named, Transcendentalism calls for us to transcend everyday thoughts into the realm of thoughts of bigger and more essential things.

Even in the 21st century, Transcendentalist works are largely read, most likely because they remind us to, once in a while, distance ourselves from the hustle and bustle of the fast-paced modern world and to take time to reflect on our lives and our purpose in the world.


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DrBillSmithWriter profile image

DrBillSmithWriter 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

A truly fascinating subject. Thanks for sharing. Some of it I love; some of it I wonder about. Still working on it… ;-)

Maximum A profile image

Maximum A 2 years ago Author

Hehe. Thanks, Dr. Bill.

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