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Transcendentalism and Its Legacy


Transcendentalism and Its Legacy December 13, 2010 What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Transcendentalism and Its Legacy

Transcendentalism and Its Legacy
  • December 13, 2010
  • What lies behind us and what lies before us are
    small matters compared to what lies within us.
  • Emerson

Dead Poetsback to 1989
  • Sounding a barbaric YAWP http//
  • O Captain, my Captain http//
  • How does the director (Peter Weir) seem to hope
    a viewer will receive these scenes?

The Transcendentalist Response to Puritanism
  • Jonathan Edwards sought the images and shadows
    of divine things in nature, but could not trust
    his discoveries because he knew man to be cut off
    from full communion with the created order
    because of his inherent depravity. But Emerson,
    having decided that man is unfallen (except as
    his sensibilities have been blunted by
    civilization), announced that there is no
    inherent separation between the mind and the
    thing, that in reality they leap to embrace each
    other (Perry Miller, From Edwards to Emerson
    in Errand into the Wilderness (1956))

A short-lived movement,an enduring institution
  • Transcendentalism never became a social code in
    the way that Puritanism did (it was not merely a
    religious creed or theology but a program for
    society think Protestant work ethic)
  • One side of Puritan nature hungered for the
    excitement of finding delight and ecstasy in the
    doctrine of regeneration and providencethe
    other, for the ideal of social conformity, law
    and order, regulation and control (Miller

Emily Dickinson, once more
  • Flashback to Al Why is the speaker in
    Dickinsons poem say I am afraid to own a Body
    / I am afraid to own a Soul / Profound
    precarious Property / Possession, not optional
    Does her reluctance scorn Walt Whitmans
    brazenness in his proclamation in Song of Myself
    I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of
    the Soul can the reader in any way see a
    virtual literary affront in these two pieces?
  • Flashback to Zoe Dying! Dying in the night!
    Won't somebody bring the light So I can see which
    way to go Into the everlasting snow? And "Jesus"!
    Where is Jesus gone? They said that Jesus --
    always came -- Perhaps he doesn't know the House
    -- This way, Jesus, Let him pass! Somebody run to
    the great gate And see if Dollie's coming! Wait!
    I hear her feet upon the stair! Death won't hurt
    -- now Dollie's here!

From Puritanism to Unitarianism
  • Unitarianism first flourishes alongside the
    capitalistic, practical interests of 18th century
    society men are self-determining agents and not
    passive recipients of infinite power (Miller
  • Linking the Protestant work ethic to capitalism
    I respect in a rich man the order of
  • -Mary Moody Emerson
  • The ideal of social control is institutionalized
    in Unitarianism. Dogmas are stripped away and the
    orthodox theology that teaches that God and
    nature are not one, that man is corrupt,
    dissolves. A path is laid for Emerson to
    celebrate the presence of God in the soul and in
    nature (Miller 196).

Transcendentalism for a New Age
  • A sermon, revisiting major Transcendentalist
    influences on the Unitarians, given by Jane
    Rosecrans, February 6, 2005, at the Unitarian
    Universalist Community Church in Glen Allen, VA
  • A theology of self-culture in his address on
    self-culture, William Ellery Channing defined it
    by writing, "To cultivate any thing, be it a
    plant, an animal, a mind, is to make it grow.
    Growth, expansion is the end. He, therefore, who
    does what he can to unfold all his powers of
    capacities, especially his nobler ones, so as to
    become a well-proportioned, vigorous, excellent,
    happy being, practices self-culture."

Emerson as anti-mentor
  • More than any other major writer, Emerson
    invites you to kill him off if you dont find him
    useful. This makes him one of the most unusual
    authority figures in the history of western
    culture, the sage as anti-mentor. That in turn
    makes him a fascinating case study not only of
    iconoclasm toward pedagogical and cultural
    authority, but also of the challenges of bringing
    ones practice into line with such a theory
    (Buell 292).

An aesthetic of the suggestive fragment
  • Can we find examples of Emerson providing only
    suggestive fragments which his listeners must
    complete? How does he, as Buell observes, avoid
    histrionics..trying when lecturing not to
    obtrude his physical personhood? (312)
  • theatrical performances

An Emersonian Present
  • First among the gifts he can give his
    readers is the freedom to criticize our
    condition effectively (Buell 325).
  • A loftier goal than nationalism Emerson, in
    praising Milton, writes, Better than any other
    he has discharged the office of every great man,
    namely, to raise the idea of Man in the minds of
    his contemporaries and of posterity (qtd. in
    Buell 331).

Readerly Self-Reliance
  • How would Emerson have wanted to be read? What
    might it mean to avoid historicizing his work?

Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe
  • Hawthorne had a close personal relationship with
    many Transcendentalists, though mocked their
    impracticality (see The Blithedale Romance
    (1852)) But it was impossible to dwell in
    Emersons vicinity, without inhaling, more or
    less, the mountain-atmosphere of his lofty
    thought, which, in the brains of some people,
    wrought a singular giddinessnew truth being as
    heady as new wine (from Mosses on an Old Manse,
    in Buell 525).
  • Melville could not accept that human nature is
    good and the universe is benevolent (see The
    Confidence-Man (1857))
  • Poe is not as anti-transcendental as Melville but
    depicts a much darker, psychological modern world
    of spirit than any of the Concord

Thoreaus (and Emersons) legacy and influence
  • Anti-materialism Man is rich in proportion to
    the number of things he can afford to let alone
  • An emphasis on non-conformity that will influence
    modernist poets like Stevens and Frost, and
    novelists like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and
  • Ecocriticism (mixed genre of interpretation that
    links writing about place with an understanding
    of the natural world and an emphasis on
    ecological awareness)

Thoreaus (and Emersons) legacy and influence
  • See Charlotte Forton and Caroline Dall on
    African-American regimens led by T.W. Higginson
    (and Robert Gould Shaw) during the Civil War
    (Buell 531, 552)
  • Non-violent resistance Whether expressed at a
    sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into
    Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Montgomery,
    Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, it
    is an outgrowth of Thoreaus insistence that evil
    must be resisted and no moral man can patiently
    adjust to injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • For April Where do we hear Thoreaus Civil
    Disobedience in MLKs Letter from a Birmingham

Thoreaus legacy and influence
  • A face-to-face democracy How shall he ever
    know well what he is and does as an officer of
    the government, or as a man, until he is obliged
    to consider whether he shall treat me, his
    neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a
    well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber
    of the peace (CD 235)
  • Theresa What does Evan Carton mean when he says,
    Civil Disobedience exposes and undoes the
    psychological training that in one way or another
    we have all internalized? (570)

Thoreaus legacy and influence
  • Nothing is so much to be feared as fear. Sound
    familiar? Thoreau wrote this in his journal in
    1851 (less than a year after the passing of the
    Fugitive Slave Act).
  • The Walden Woods Project http//
  • (Celebrity members include Sting, Annie Dillard,
    and Meryl Streep)

Implications for Your Writing
  • The emergence of the non-fiction essay as an
    American literary prose genre in the 19th century
  • the fallacy of normative prose
  • Essay derives from the French infinitive
    essayer, "to try" or "to attempt." In English
    essay first meant "a trial" or "an attemptit
    remains an alternative meaning.
  • Writing as experiment (taking account of
    ourselves, in a Thoreauvian sense)

Selections for further reading
  • Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination
    Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of
    American Culture (Harvard UP, 1995)
  • Dickenson, Donna. Margaret Fuller Writing a
    Womens Life (St. Martins, 1993)
  • Gradzins, Dean. American Heretic Theodore Parker
    and Transcendentalism (University of North
    Carolina Press, 2002)
  • Gura, Philip F. and Joel Myerson, eds. Critical
    Essays on American Transcendentalism (G.K. Hall,
  • Howe, Irving. The American Newness Culture and
    Politics in the Age of Emerson (Cambridge UP,
  • Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power Creative
    Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century (Northern
    Illinois UP, 1996)
  • Reynolds, David. John Brown, Abolitionist The
    Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War,
    and Seeded Civil Rights (Knopf, 2005)
  • Richardson, Robert. Thoreau A Life of the Mind
    (Berkeley UP, 1986)
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