American Transcendentalism Essay, Research Paper
Henry David Thoreau and his friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson helped form the Transcendental movement which, in turn, changed America in the nineteenth century with lasting effects into today s society. The Transcendental period in the nineteenth century was truly unique. It is not considered a religion, a philosophy, or a literary theory, although it has elements of all three of those items. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of Transcendentalism, himself often times referred to Transcendentalism as idealism. While Emerson was considered Transcendentalism s father, Henry David Thoreau was one of the very few people that actually lived out, to the fullest extent, the ideas and teachings of Emerson.
There were many key figures that made the transcendental movement work, but one of the more important was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was born in 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts as David Henry Thoreau, his christened name. His father, John, was a shopkeeper in Concord before he moved the family to Boston in search for more business opportunities. In 1823, John moved his family back to Concord where he established financial stability as a pencil manufacturer. Prior his father s success in pencil manufacturing, Henry lived his childhood in poverty. His mother, Cynthia, would take in boarders to make ends meet. Thoreau s older siblings were both schoolteachers. Helen and John Jr. contributed funds to help Henry pay his tuition at Harvard, just as their grandfather had done. Henry s total expenses at Harvard were about $179 a year.
At Harvard, a heavy emphasis was placed on classic works. Henry studied Latin and Greek grammar or composition for three of his four years. He also took courses in mathematics, English, history, and mental, natural, and intellectual philosophy. Modern languages were voluntary, and Thoreau chose to take Italian, French, German, and Spanish. Thoreau never stood higher than the middle of his class. Henry was never happy about the teaching methods used at Harvard, but he did appreciate and take advantage of the lifelong rights to the library at Harvard for which his degree qualified him. He read a great deal of metaphysical poets such as Donne, Vaughan and other British authors such as Carlye. Despite his dislike for the teaching style of Harvard professors, Henry did meet naturalist Louis Agassiz and a rhetorics professor Edward Tyrel Channing, both of which were great influences on the young Henry.
After his graduation from Harvard, Henry returned home in 1837 and took up the profession of teaching. He started out at a district school and he later taught at a school he opened with his brother John Jr. At their school, Henry and John Jr. used the progressive educational tactics of Amos Bronson Alcott. While teaching with his brother, Henry began writing. In 1841, Henry and John Jr. had to close down their school, but not all bad came from this event. After the closing of the school, Henry was offered by the Emerson family to live with them and earn his keep as a handyman while he concentrated on his writing.
From the time Henry graduated from Harvard, he knew himself to be an accomplished writer. At Harvard, he was a chronic reader of Hindu Scripture and this helped form the habit of keeping extensive journals. He had been writing poetry even earlier than that. He published essays and reviews, but due to the harsh criticism from James Russell Lowell, an influential critic, Henry s success was limited and he was forced to try to earn a living by means other than writing. Henry was regarded as a second-rate imitator of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Henry returned home to the family business of pencil manufacturing for a steady income and stability. Henry quickly became an asset to the family business when used his engineering talent to improve their product. He invented a machine that ground the plumbago for the leads into a very fine powder and developed a combination of the finely ground plumbago and clay that resulted in a pencil that produced a smooth, regular line. He also improved the method of assembling the casing and the lead. Henry s pencils were the first produced in America that equaled those made by the German company, Faber, whose pencils set the standard for quality. In the 1850s, when the electrotyping process of printing began to be used widely, the Henry shifted from pencil-making to supplying large quantities of their finely ground plumbago to printing companies. Henry continued to run the family company after his father’s death in 1859. When he was questioned about trying to improve his pencil production, he replied, Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once.
Henry also earned money through his own business as a surveyor. Henry taught himself to survey; he had, as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his eulogy, “a natural skill for mensuration,” and he was very good at the work. In addition to working for the town of Concord, he surveyed house and wood lots around Concord for landowners who were having property assessed and those wanting to settle boundary disputes with their neighbors. In 1859, he was hired by a group of farmers who filed suit against the owners of the Billerica Dam, claiming that the dam raised the water level in the river and destroyed the farmers’ meadowlands. To help support the claim, Thoreau collected evidence from many sources. He interviewed people with long experience of the river, took extensive measurements of the water level at various points along its course, and inspected all of the river’s bridges. He recorded his findings in a large chart and transferred appropriate information to an existing survey of the river that he had traced. The dispute was a bitter one, arousing ill-feeling in the town: Thoreau reported in his journal that one of those he interviewed testified in court that the river was “dammed at both ends and cursed in the middle.”
He also collected specimens for Louis Agassiz, who had brought the study of natural history to Harvard after Thoreau graduated, but he was not compensated for this work. He lectured several times a year at lyceums and private homes from Maine to New Jersey. These lectures were important in his process of composition. Most of the ideas and themes in his essays and books were first presented to the public in lectures, but they were not fruitful.
In 1847, responding to a request from the secretary of his Harvard class, he described his various forms employment: “I am a Schoolmaster–a Private Tutor, a Surveyor–a Gardener, a Farmer–a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.” Though Henry always seemed to find himself with another job, he was never considered wealthy; however, Emerson did consider him rich saying, He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself.
Thoreau lived his life on the bare essentials. He grew his own food including beans, potatoes, peas, and turnips. He also ate wild berries, apples, an occasional fish if he had the opportunity to catch one, and he even cooked a woodchuck that he killed after finding it rummaging through his bean-field. His extremely naturalist personality led him to arrange his time so that he only had to work in small amounts of time and be able to survive on that income so he had more time for to broaden his life through reading, thinking, walking, observing, and writing.
Thoreau was a devoted, self-taught naturalist. He disciplined himself to observe the natural phenomena around Concord. He did this systematically and recorded his observations almost every day in his Journal. The Journal contains his initial formulations of ideas and descriptions that reoccur in his lectures, essays, and books; early versions of passages that reached final form in Walden can be in the Journal as early as 1846 (Johnson 2).
Thoreau s descriptions and interpretations of nature enriched all of his work; even his essays and lectures on political issues. His use of images and comparisons based on his studies of animal behavior, life cycles of plants, and the events of changing seasons is best displayed in his best-known book, Walden. Thoreau wrote this book during his pilgrimage at Walden Pond on Emerson s property. He lived in a little shanty, which he had built himself. He began his stay in limited isolation on July 4, 1845 as a tribute to his late brother John Jr. The fact that his stay at Walden started on Independence Day was no coincidence. It is symbolic of his escape from the judging ways of the Concord society.
In Walden, Thoreau showcases his simple, self-sufficient way of life in order to free himself from the self-imposed social and financial constraints. He also stresses that everyone should create a more intimate relationship between human beings and nature as a remedy to the deadening influence of an increasingly industrialized society (Johnson 3). Thoreau said of his stay at Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” When neighbors talked of emulating his lifestyle, he was dismayed rather than flattered. “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, besides that before he has fairly learned it I may have found another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue in his own way, and not his father’s, or his mother’s, or his neighbors instead. The youth my build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from that which he tells me he would like to do. It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we preserve the true course,” said Thoreau of his neighbors in Walden. Comments such as these caused much of his community to look down upon his lifestyle and works. He was even considered as a hermit by many.
Walden concludes in the springtime, the time of both spiritual and natural rebirth. When he left Walden in 1847, it was not because the experiment had failed or because he had tired of the simple life, but rather because, for Thoreau, it had been a completely fulfilling success, and it was now time to move on: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one,” he wrote in the conclusion of Walden.
All of Thoreau s writing, except his poetry, is expository. He wrote no fiction whatsoever and much of his work is built on the blueprints of his journeys and expeditions. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and the essays A Winter Walk, A Walk to Wachusett, and An Excursion to Canada, are all structured as traditional travel narratives (Johnson 3).
A great majority of Thoreau s published books and essays were first presented as lectures. His imagery takes the reader along on his experiences to new places, sharing the meditations it inspires, and finally returning the reader to Concord with a deeper understanding of both native and foreign places and of the journeying self. Thoreau s other essays take his readers on different kinds of journeys; through the foliage of autumn as in Autumnal Tints, and through the cultivated and wild orchards of history in Wild Apples, and through the life-cycle of a plot of land as one species of tree gives way to another in The Succession of Forest Trees (Johnson 4).
Thoreau focused mainly on two subjects in all of his works. Primarily his focus was on nature, and secondly on the question of how people should live. He wrote a complete series of essays that dealt with the issues of personal exploration and resurrection. A new wave of reform movements swept across New England in the 1830 s and 1840 s involving issues ranging from women s rights temperance, from education to religion, from diet to sex. Thoreau was not a supporter of these reforms. The only movement Thoreau could find an alliance with was abolitionism. “But idealist as he was, standing for abolition of slavery, abolition of tariffs, almost for abolition of government,” stated Emerson of Thoreau’s abolitionist way in his essay “Thoreau.”
Thoreau expressed his views and opinions on political issues the best way he could, through his writing. His most famous essay is Civil Disobedience, published in 1849 as Resistance to Civil Government. The incident that provoked Thoreau to write this essay took place in July of 1846, while he was still living on Emerson s property at Walden Pond. He went into town to have a pair of shoes repaired, but he was arrested upon his entrance of the town for not paying a poll tax assessed to every voter. He spent the night in jail and was released the day after once, what is believed to be his aunt, paid the amount in back-taxes he owed. Already against slavery and the fact that his tax dollars were going to be used to support the Spanish-American War, which he was totally against, Thoreau was inspired to write this essay. This essay has had lasting effects on other passive resistance leaders like Mahandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. John F. Kennedy Jr. was also impacted by this political piece. Thoreau wrote this piece to spread his feelings we should governed more by nature than government itself. He felt that the government should only take his money if he agreed with what they were going to do with it. Thoreau also explored the individual s right to dissent from a government s policies in accordance with his or her own conscience in his later political essays which include: Slavery in Massachusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown, and Life without Principle (Johnson 4).
Thoreau led a life with a history of sub-par health. He came down with tuberculosis in 1860. It claimed his life on May 6, 1862. Throughout the nineteenth century, Thoreau was considered as a doscure, a second-rate imitator of Emerson, however, critics of the twentieth century have placed Thoreau with Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville as the best authors of the nineteenth century. He is even ranked among the greatest figures in American literature. His reputation didn’t come full-circle until the 1930’s and even more so in the 1940’s when F.O. Matthiessen studied the imagery in Walden and encouraged more attention to his style. In the years prior to his death, he and Emerson gradually grew apart. Emerson regarded a large portion of Thoreau’s life a waste, but he still considered him an excellent writer and a sincere friend.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was the most crucial of all the transcendentalists. He is considered the father of Transcendentalism. Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, William, was a minister of a liberal Congregationalist parish. Emerson was raised by his father to become a Puritan minister in New England. William Emerson died when Ralph was only 8 years old, leaving the family in financial straits. He had four brothers for which his mother had to care for. His mother still found ways to provide for the five boys to get the education that was a family tradition. All but one of the brothers graduated from Harvard College. Emerson himself entered Harvard at the age of fourteen, while living in the President’s house, and his board was paid by waiting on tables in the commons. He was always among the brightest in his class but wasn t very talkative. He often read books not prescribed by his professors. He won prizes in English composition, and at his graduation, in 1821, delivered the poem for the class.
After leaving Harvard, Emerson taught for several years, at first in a suburban school for girls, kept by his brother William, where the young instructor wasn t pleased with his teaching colleagues. It was at this time that he composed one of his most widely known poems, Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home (Emerson: A Student’s History 12). Emerson was also employed in a characteristic New England “academy” in the country near Lowell. His manner in the schoolroom was impressive; his self-control was perfect, he never punished except with words. His last experience as a schoolmaster was in Cambridge.
In 1823, Emerson began studying for the ministry. Descended from a long line of ministers, deeply spiritual in nature and equally a passionate seeker after truth, full of ideals of helpfulness and philanthropy, this was the natural course; but his activities in this profession were brief. He was ordained in 1829 as associate pastor of the Second Church in Boston, the historic Old North, which in the preceding century had flourished for sixty years under the ministry of the Mathers, father and son. It was now one of the important pulpits of Unitarianism. The young minister, who in a few months became the sole incumbent, took an active interest in public affairs; he was a member of the school board and was chosen chaplain of the State Senate. He invited anti-slavery lecturers into his pulpit and helped philanthropists of all denominations in their work. Three months after his ordination, however, Emerson found himself fettered even by the liberal doctrines of the Unitarians; and in 1832, disapproving the continuance of the Lord’s Supper as a permanent rite, he presented his scruples in a sermon to his parishioners. His views not receiving their support, he quietly withdrew from the church (Emerson: A Student’s History 17).
Emerson s young wife, Ellen, a mere girl of seventeen when Emerson married her soon after his ordination, died in 1831. The strain of this mourning, combined with that of his separation from his church, affected his own health, and on Christmas Day, 1832, Emerson, urged by his friends to take a sea voyage, sailed from Boston on a small vessel bound for the Mediterranean. He visited Italy, France, and England; and apparently found his greatest satisfaction in the opportunity thus afforded to meet the noted men whom he had long wished to see. It was on this trip that inspired Emerson to become a naturalist after viewing a botanical exhibition in Paris (Emerson: A Student’s History 19).
In 1834, Ralph Waldo Emerson became a resident of Concord. For a year he lived with his mother in the old-fashioned gambrel-roofed house, built as a parsonage for his grandfather, who in his time had served the Concord church. It was this house which subsequently came to be occupied by the novelist Hawthorne, and was given fame in the title of his Mosses from an Old Manse. In 1835, Emerson was married to Miss Lidian Jackson, of Plymouth, and settled in the house, then on the edge of the town. There was, too, a circle of intimate friends about him, some, like Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, attracted thither by the presence of one generally recognized as the ablest prophet of transcendentalism. The young and talented Thoreau, a disciple, although a very independent one, early engaged his interest. In 1842, Hawthorne came to Concord, and for five years dwelt in the Old Manse. Occasionally, too, there appeared fantastic dreamers with queer schemes of social reformation in their heads who sought out Emerson in his retreat as if to consult the oracle at some sacred shrine. Altogether, the little New England town became closely identified with that strong intellectual movement which Emerson, more than any other American writer had inspired (Emerson: A Student’s History 21).
In 1840, Emerson published the Dial, a magazine for which he used to circulate not only his works, but also his entire group of transcendentalist followers. The Dial was conceived as “a medium for the freest expression of thought on the questions which interest earnest minds in every community;” (Emerson: A Student’s History 23).
Emerson’s poetry, as well as his prose works, from the time period of the Dial shows a steady decline in his idealism. “Society and Solitude,” published in 1870, marked the beginning of Emerson’s decline as an essayist (Emerson: A Student’s History 24). Emerson died in Concord on April 27, 1882, at age 78 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow.
Transcendentalism was an influential philosophy that surfaced in the late eighteenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth century. Many experts feel it is incorrect to refer to this movement as a philosophy because it was much more than just a philosophy. It was also a religious, literary, theological and social movement (American Transcendentalism 2).
The first transcendentalist ideas and chief source for its growth later on, was the Critique of Pure Reason, written by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1781. According to Emerson’s understanding of Kant, Transcendentalism becomes a union of solipsism, under which the only verifiable reality is thought to be the self, and materialism, under which the only verifiable reality is the quantifiable external world of objects and sense data (American Transcendentalism 4.) It was this piece that inspired Emerson to write Nature, the essay that articulates the true philosophical underpinnings of the movement. It was Kant s work that made Emerson realize that the people and churches of the nineteenth century had become too materialistic. Emerson said of society in his essay, The Transcendentalist; As thinkers, mankind have divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness (American Transcendentalism 4).
Transcendentalism originated as a radical religious movement opposed to the rationalist, conservative institution that Unitarianism had become. Ironically, a great deal of the movement s early followers were or had been Unitarian ministers, including Emerson who came from a long line of Unitarian ministers. The early transcendentalists had felt Unitarianism had become too demanding both spiritually and emotionally. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face, we through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe, questioned Emerson (American Transcendentalism 5). He wanted people to be open-minded and idealistic. He believed that people should find inspiration and ecstasy in nature and use that as the way to show tribute and respect to God. Emerson placed extreme emphasis on idealism, and often referred to transcendentalism as idealism, What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842, he wrote in The Transcendentalist, (American Transcendentalism 5).
The emphasis on idealism came about due to the fact that too many people found their knowledge through experience and observation, or empiricism as Unitarianism had taught. Transcendentalism taught that reality existed only in the spiritual world, and that what a person observed n the physical world was only the appearances, or impermanent reflections of the spiritual world. They explained that people learned about the physical world by using empiricism, but to understand the spiritual world and reality, one had to use another kind of power called reason. The transcendentalists defined reason as the independent and intuitive capacity to know what is absolutely true (Clendenning 295).
Emerson still believed the physical world served humanity by providing useful goods and by making human beings aware of beauty. Clendenning said, “Emerson wanted people to learn as much as they possibly through experience and observation as well, but this was secondary to the truths seen through reason. The transcendentalists believed that human beings had to find truth within themselves therefore, they greatly stressed self-reliance and individuality. They claimed society was a necessary evil. They argued that to learn all that is right, a person must ignore custom and social codes and rely on reason. They wanted people to use intuition more than traditional beliefs,” (295).
The transcendentalists assumed a universe divided into two essential parts, the soul and nature. Emerson defined the soul by defining nature: all that is separated from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE, (American Transcendentalism 6).
A fundamental Transcendentalist principle was the belief in the reliability of the human conscience. This idea was based upon the conviction of the immanence, or indwelling, of God in the soul of the individual. We see God around us because He dwells within us, wrote William Ellery Channing in 1828; the beauty and glory of God s works are revealed to the mind by a light beaming from itself (Clendenning 295).
The Transcendentalism wave died out in the 1860’s, but it has had lasting effects until today. Though its spread wasn’t very far, it made Concord an intellectual capital.