Henry David Thoreau and Transcendental Reformation

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Emerson and the other Transcendentalists were the radicals of their time. The first quarter of the nineteenth century was a pivotal time for America. Emerson himself had written that "There are always two parties, the party of the Past and the party of the Future." The Transcendentalists, of course, were the Party of the Future. While they were never an organized group, the Transcendentalists were able to create an American "renaissance," a movement that generated a reevaluation of values. As one writer has put it:

"Reversing the European historical order, the Transcendental 'reformation,' announcing a gospel of spiritual self-sufficiency, came before the literary 'renaissance,' an awakening maturation, and release of radical energies. The Transcendentalists set themselves against what they considered to be the materialism, conformity, and played-out liberalism of American religion and society.... Transcendentalism arrived as social and religious protest. Transcendentalism, as Emerson articulated it during the 1830s and 1840s, deplored materialism. A religious, ethical, and aesthetic response to nationalism, a homegrown counterpart of European Romanticism with elements drawn from Eastern philosophy, this "latest form of infidelity" [as the conservative theologian Andrews Norton had called it], proved to be the animating Force without which, as Margaret Fuller said, there could be no 'American literature.'" [The Harper American Literature, vol. I, pp. 955-56]

The transcendentalists, in short, with Emerson as their spokesperson, provided a positive response to two questions that had been the chief concern of American authors: l) Did America provide a favorable cultural climate for writers, artists, and intellectuals? 2) Was America capable of making a literature of its own fit to stand with the literatures of England and the other countries?

Henry David Thoreau is considered today as one of the major Transcendentalists. He is known today chiefly as either the friend of Emerson or as a supreme nature writer, one chiefly associated with Walden Pond. If Emerson is the Father of Transcendentalism (William Ellery Channing being the Grandfather), then Thoreau might be regarded as the rebellious son.

Thoreau was born and raised in Concord, Massachussets, into what has been called a "poor but honest family." His father owned a pencil factory, in which Thoreau worked at times. He attended Concord Academy, learned surveying, and in 1837, after graduating from Harvard, taught for a brief time in the public school system. He soon left that position because he could not inflict bodily punishment on unruly students--something the local schoolmaster was expected to do. He then set up a private school with his brother and taught there for four years, until his brother's illness and death. Emerson had moved to Concord when Thoreau was 17 years old, and the two became friends. Their friendship led to Thoreau's membership in the Transcendental Club and contribution to the Dial.

Between 1841-1843, Thoreau lived with the Emerson family working as a handyman. At this time he also became friends with others living in and around Concord: Margaraet Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Ellery Channing, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. By the mid-1840s, it was clear to Thoreau and all those that knew him that he was a loner. He was one who marched to a different drummer. He was to spend the rest of his life writing and lecturing about subjects that interested him most, especially Nature and what one critic has called "the cosmography of the imagination." He continued to write and talk about this cosmography until he died of tuberculosis in 1862. At his funeral service, Emerson delivered the eulogy, praising Thoreau but also lamenting that he had failed to reach his full potential.

Thoreau did not write much compared to many of his contemporaries. His works are relatively few. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River (1849) records an actual journey he took with his brother John in 1839. …