Transcendentalism in American Literature

A theological, intellectual, and literary movement known as transcendentalism emerged in the eastern United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. In opposition to empiricists and rationalists, the transcendentalists had doubts about knowledge derived from either perception or rationality. They asserted that knowledge should come from personal revelation and intuition rather than through human skepticism.


Early nineteenth-century New England is where transcendentalism first emerged. It developed out of a disagreement between “Old Light” opponents, who prized reason and rationality in their religious approach, and “New Light” theologians, who thought that religion should emphasize an emotional experience.

These “Old Lights” were characterized by their conviction that there was no trinity of father, son, and holy spirit as in orthodox Christian theology and that Jesus Christ was a mortal. They initially became known as “liberal Christians” and subsequently as Unitarians.

The beliefs that would become Transcendentalism separated from Unitarianism over its alleged rationalism and adopted German Romanticism in an effort to pursue a deeper spiritual experience. A number of thinkers started to swirl around this group. The movement’s thinkers accepted concepts put forward by the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Hegel, the poet Coleridge, the Vedas, and religious innovator Emanuel Swedenborg.

A few crucial ideas are emphasized by transcendentalism:

  • All things are connected to one another.
  • How important nature is
  • Individuals’ place in society
  • Machine vs. Man

Transcendentalists promoted the concept of having a firsthand understanding of God and held that having spiritual insight might occur without the aid of a middleman. They supported idealism, emphasizing the natural world and rejecting materialism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott were significant figures in the transcendentalist movement.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Emerson’s views on the value of the individual fell under the category of what he referred to as “self-reliance.” Everywhere Emerson turned, he observed that people lived their lives based on tradition that were constrained by social norms and religious conventions. In Emerson’s opinion, people were busy becoming what they are not. The past, religion, and societal structures were all shackles that Emerson wished to be freed from. So that each person might discover their true selves. He says, “History is an impertinence and an injury; Our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us…” He insisted that we must rely only on our own instincts as we live from the inside out. That is why, Emerson thought “nothing is last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”.

Emerson was a “pantheist”. A pantheist is the person who supports the idea that God created everything, from the minutest sand grain to the stars. He also believes that we all possess the divine spark. So when we listen to ourselves or follow ourselves then we are not being selfish but we are following our divine will. The person, according to Emerson, “is a God in ruins.” Emerson believed that the earth’s mountains, grains, and stars show how closely nature, God, and humanity are related. They are one. They also help Emerson see the value of every person as a component of God.

Emerson emphasizes the importance of the ordinary. In his works like “The American Scholar” and “The Poet”, Emerson argued that even an ordinary American was a suitable subject for writing. According to him, the transcendentalist God is present everywhere, and it is the poet’s responsibility to make this visible. “There is no object…”, he stated, “… so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful… Even a corpse has its own beauty.”

Henry David Thoreau:

Thoreau also saw technology as a pointless diversion. He recognized the useful advantages of new discoveries, but he also cautioned that these discoveries couldn’t address the underlying problems with achieving personal pleasure. Instead, according to Thoreau, we should look to the natural world, which is rich with spiritual meaning. He believed that waterfalls, forests, and animals have intrinsic value in addition to their aesthetic appeal and ecological significance. The greatest way to comprehend ourselves is by seeing ourselves as a part of nature. We must consider ourselves as nature seeing into nature rather than seeing ourselves as an outside force or the ruler of nature.

According to Thoreau, citizens have a moral duty to oppose governments that defend laws that are blatantly unjust or hypocritical. Thoreau then embraced what he referred to as civil disobedience. protesting unjust laws in a nonviolent way. Thoreau shows us how to confront a shockingly enormous, intricately intertwined, and ethically challenging modern society. He encourages us to be genuine by dealing with the world, not merely by ignoring material life and its distractions but by taking part in the world and pulling out our support for the government when we see it is acting wrongly. His writings have stood the test of time and serve as a constant reminder of how crucial it is to live free from the distractions of money, technology, and other people’s perspectives.

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