Transcendentalism in Literature

transcendentalism (American literary and philosophical movement)

transcendentalism (trăn´sĕndĕn´təlĬzəm) [Lat.,=overpassing], in literature, philosophical and literary movement that flourished in New England from about 1836 to 1860. It originated among a small group of intellectuals who were reacting against the orthodoxy of Calvinism and the rationalism of the Unitarian Church, developing instead their own faith centering on the divinity of humanity and the natural world. Transcendentalism derived some of its basic idealistic concepts from romantic German philosophy, notably that of Immanuel Kant, and from such English authors as Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Its mystical aspects were partly influenced by Indian and Chinese religious teachings. Although transcendentalism was never a rigorously systematic philosophy, it had some basic tenets that were generally shared by its adherents. The beliefs that God is immanent in each person and in nature and that individual intuition is the highest source of knowledge led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, and rejection of traditional authority.

The ideas of transcendentalism were most eloquently expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in such essays as "Nature" (1836), "Self-Reliance," and "The Over-Soul" (both 1841), and by Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden (1854). The movement began with the occasional meetings of a group of friends in Boston and Concord to discuss philosophy, literature, and religion. Originally calling themselves the Hedge Club (after one of the members), they were later dubbed the Transcendental Club by outsiders because of their discussion of Kant's "transcendental" ideas. Besides Emerson and Thoreau, its most famous members, the club included F. H. Hedge, George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and others. For several years much of their writing was published in The Dial (1840–44), a journal edited by Fuller and Emerson. The cooperative community Brook Farm (1841–47) grew out of their ideas on social reform, which also found expression in their many individual actions against slavery. Primarily a movement seeking a new spiritual and intellectual vitality, transcendentalism had a great impact on American literature, not only on the writings of the group's members, but on such diverse authors as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

See anthologies ed. by G. W. Cooke (1903, repr. 1971) and P. Miller (1950; 1957, repr. 1981); O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876, repr. 1972); J. Porte, Emerson and Thoreau (1966); M. Simon and T. H. Parsons, ed., Transcendentalism and Its Legacy (1966); L. Buell, Literary Transcendentalism (1973).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Transcendentalism in Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

CliffsNotes Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism By Leslie Perrin Wilson IDG Books Worldwide, 2000
American Literature and the Dream By Frederic I. Carpenter Philosophical Library, 1955
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Transcendental Dream"
The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry By Joseph Warren Beach Macmillan, 1936
Librarian’s tip: Part Two "Transcendentalism"
Columbia Literary History of the United States By Emory Elliott; Martha Banta; Terence Martin; David Minter; Marjorie Perloff; Daniel B. Shea Columbia University Press, 1988
Librarian’s tip: "The Transcendentalists" begins on p. 364
The Reception of American Transcendentalism in Russia By Osipova, Elvira American Studies International, February 2003
The Frontier in American Literature By Lucy Lockwood Hazard Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1927
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "The Golden Age of Transcendentalism"
Bridges to Fantasy By George E. Slusser; Eric S. Rabkin; Robert Scholes Southern Illinois University Press, 1982
Librarian’s tip: "The Apparition of This World: Transcendentalism and the American 'Ghost' Story" begins on p. 90
The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance By Arthur Versluis Oxford University Press, 2001
Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930 By Monika M. Elbert University of Alabama Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Gender Valences of Transcendentalism: The Pursuit of Idealism in Elizabeth Oakes-Smith's 'The Sinless Child'"
A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1850s in America By Robert L. Gale Greenwood Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "Transcendentalism" begins on p. 381
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