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Title: Transcendentalism

- Joseph Sherlock
Period Overview
  • Post-Romanticism American literary and
    philosophic movement which flourished during the
    early and middle years of the 19th century.
  • Comes from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Successfully started a reform movement within
the Unitarian church in the early years of its
existence. Strongly believed in self-reliance
and individualism. Focused on the ideas that
true reality is spiritual and that man is
intended to be good.
  • Transcendentalist literature consisted
    primarily of short stories, essays, novels, and
  • Major authors of this period included Ralph
    Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and William Henry

Social Effects
  • Inspired in transcendentalist followers and
    readers the beliefs of individualism,
    self-reliance, and the natural good found in man.
  • Encouraged people to look beyond the physical
    aspects of their lives and more in to the
    spiritual and psychological.
  • Also increased public awareness of the evils of
    slavery and the harmful treatment of American
    Indians during that time period.
  • All of these implications were expressed
    through both novels and essays written to be both
    sold and preformed in the public eye by the

  • Prominent examples of these particular literary
    works would be Thoreaus Slavery in Massachusetts
    and Emersons Lecture on Slavery.
  • These works expressed the abolitionist goals of
    the transcendentalist movement publicly, leading
    to a greater influence on the American train of
    thought on these controversial subjects.

  • Unfortunately, not all the issues fought for by
    transcendentalists were fully supported in the
    public eye.
  • The issue of the Native Americans is a perfect
    example of this, displaying that even with the
    far reaching ideas of transcendentalist
    literature, very few readers expressed the
    negative opinions of the transcendentalists about
    this issue.

The Trail of Tears
  • These various social implications of the
    transcendentalists ultimately resulted in the
    increasingly common behavior of transcendentalist
    follows to strive to work for the greater good.
  • This new attitude gave rise to the expression
    that if human beings were to be left in a natural
    state they would seek the good, and thus the
    essential nature of human beings is that of good.
  • This led to the increasing trend of
    philanthropist acts among both seasoned
    transcendentalist follower and those who were
    simply inspired by a piece of strongly worded

Religious Influence
  • The transcendentalist literary era brought with
    it a new view of religion, one not so harsh and
    rule based like that of the Puritans, but one
    more relaxed and peaceful, with a feeling of
    responsibility among its followers to change the
    world for the better and not just themselves.

  • The transcendentalist view of God was also
    fairly different from the societal norm of that
  • In transcendentalist philosophy, God is not
    seen as a wrathful and controlling being whose
    soul purpose is to move and shake the human race
    as He sees fit. But more of an oversoul, who is
    good in every sense of the word and whose soul
    purpose is to create man and remerge with him in
    the end.

  • The religious aspects of transcendentalism also
    express no view of the formation of evil or a
    punishment for those who cross the values of the
  • Also, there is no divine creation of mankind
    expressed, the view of such situations is that
    everything on Earth (including both mankind and
    nature) is one and the same to the oversoul,
    just a manifestation of its creative power.
  • Nature itself is viewed in transcendentalism as
    something which should be respected and embraced
    for the insight it gives into the what the
    transcendentalists believed was the true
    intention for mankind to do good works.

  • With such a philanthropic view for mankind, the
    spiritual side of transcendentalism encouraged
    the realization of ones fullest capabilities,
    through the connection of yourself, nature, and
    the higher power.
  • The movements push on self-reliance was also
    expressed through this, giving rise to the idea
    of inevitable progress and a free life from
    divine control, which was a fairly unheard of
    concept for quite a while, particularly during
    the Puritan era.

Political Implications
  • The greatest political influence of the
    transcendentalist era is represented through the
    change in attitude towards human rights among
    both the voters and the high ranking political
  • In fact, Emerson once wrote a personal letter
    to President Martin Van Buren on the atrocities
    of the Trail of Tears.

Unfortunately, this letter never took much
political hold over President Van Buren and the
progress of the Trail of Tears was never halted.
However, the mistreatment of American Indians
was not the only political issue which the
transcendentalists spoke out against. For many of
the prominent transcendentalist authors as well
as their readers, were active abolitionists
during the 1850s.
  • This opposition towards slavery was often
    expressed in novels and essays which were
    commonly read aloud and preformed in public by
    the authors themselves, as well as sold to the
    common man, to reinforce the severity and urgency
    of their message.
  • These works included Slavery in Massachusetts
    (written in 1854 by Henry David Thoreau) and A
    Lecture on Slavery (written and preformed by
    Ralph Waldo Emerson)

  • Furthermore, many scholars now believe that the
    transcendentalist philosophy can be directly
    associated with that of early socialism, giving
    transcendentalist literature a bad name much
    later during the United States Red Scare.
  • However, others believe that this era made way
    for a new ideal for American democracy,
    philanthropic and progressive in nature.

Artistic Influence
  • The influence of transcendentalist philosophy
    and idealism brought a new view point on realism
    and natural art work specific to that period in
  • Divine and beautiful topics were explored but
    also the bizarre in the forms of literal
    illustration of transcendentalist topics, such as
    Emersons transparent eye expression.

  • Artwork during this period also reflected the
    political and social views of the
    transcendentalists, such as the sadness of the
    Cherokee Indians during their long walk down the
    Trail of Tears, and their eradication from all
    lands east of the Mississippi River. As well as
    the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. But
    with these solemn works also came those of
    beautiful scenes of nature, as imagined in the
    transcendentalist view of natural perfection.

These works of art often depicted scenes of
people working for the better good as well as
extremely abstract imagery with a hidden meaning
probably not understood except by those who are
familiar in the transcendentalist philosophy.
The Web of American Transcendentalism. Virginia Commonwealth University,
Spring 1999. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.
Goodman, Russell. Transcendentalism (Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy, 24 June 2008. Web. 03 Feb. 2011.
Gaither. American Literature Major Movements and
Terms. GPS Junior English. Web.
03 Feb. 2011. lthttp//
Campbell, Donna M. American Transcendentalism.
Washington State University Pullman
Washington. Dept. of English, Washington State
University, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 03 Feb. 2011.
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