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The New England Transcendentalists

Text by: Amy Carpenter

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. 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? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts.
Thus began one of the most foundational essays in American history —“Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson published “Nature” anonymously in 1836. Two days later, he and a few other like-minded intellectuals met in Boston as part of a revolutionary new group called the Transcendentalist Club. This club would meet for only four more years, but its philosophy would continue to grow in influence through the next few decades. These philosophers’ tenets, which came to be known as transcendentalism, gave birth to a new identity for the relatively infant United States.

Transcendentalism, which began in the New England region of the United States, was a uniquely American part of the 19th century’s Romantic movement. Transcendentalists believed in the interconnectedness of all things and people. They believed that a person could (and should) arrive at truth by communing directly with nature. They challenged the classical view that truth could only be known through logic and empiricism, asserting that man’s intuition would lead him to truth. Contrary to the prior religious belief that man was a savage and born in sin, they viewed humanity as noble, born good but corrupted by experience. Transcendentalists believed that man could “transcend” the menial, low things of life and become as the gods. Man himself could be a creator. They also believed in the freedom of all men, advocating women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

Many transcendentalist poets and writers have had an immense influence on American culture--indeed, upon the world. Among these are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a Unitarian minister who died when young Emerson was only seven years old. Emerson sought to follow in his father’s footsteps by attending Harvard Divinity School, afterward becoming a Unitarian minister himself. He disagreed with Unitarian teachings, however, and left the church in 1832. Over the next year, he travelled Europe, meeting poets and philosophers and forming his own view of life. It was during this time that the seeds for his transcendental philosophy were planted in his mind.

Eventually, Emerson became a lecturer. He often offended the religious establishment with his views on humanity and the nature of Jesus Christ. He was also well known for his knowledge of natural history. Emerson was a prolific poet. His essay, “Nature” is sometimes difficult to understand, not only because of its philosophy but because of Emerson’s poetic language. In his poem The Rhodora, Emerson expresses his views on man’s connection to nature.

On being asked, whence is the flower?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

If New England could have an official regional flower, it would be the rhodora. As its name implies, it is a relative of the rhododendron and azalea. It blooms in late spring, its verdant leaves only appearing after the flower falls to the earth. One can imagine Emerson out for a walk with a friend. Perhaps they happened upon a single blossom floating in the water, and his companion asked where he thought that flower might have come from. He could have answered as the scientist. He could have talked about the seed, the sun, the rain, and the flower’s habitat. Instead, he saw in that single flower a connection to a greater power, the power of a Creator. He saw a greater truth than the simple mechanics of how a flower grows. This was the transcendental philosopher.

In 1837, another transcendentalist philosopher and writer, a young man named Henry David Thoreau, moved to the small village of Concord, Massachusetts where Emerson had settled down. Emerson became a friend and teacher to the young Thoreau. His influence on Thoreau would prove monumental.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was born David Henry (he unofficially switched his middle and first names later) in 1817 in Concord. His father was a pencil maker — ironic, since Thoreau would later use the pencil to write his most magnificent thoughts. He studied at Harvard from 1833 to 1837, returning to Concord to teach school. Eventually, he moved in with Emerson to teach Emerson’s children and help with chores around the house.

At the suggestion of Emerson, Thoreau began keeping a journal in 1837. He would faithfully keep this journal throughout the rest of his life. He used the journal he kept while living on Walden Pond when he wrote his most famous work, Walden.

Walden is a peaceful, still pond near Concord. Thoreau bought land on the pond and decided to move there in July 1845. He built a small cabin and spent over two years observing nature and drawing conclusions about life from his experience. Thoreau saw profound beauty in the simple, everyday things. Once he wrote about going into the woods to find firewood, comparing wood’s value to that of gold. Then his musings turned to his hearth fire. “I sometimes left a good fire when I went to take a walk in a winter afternoon… My house was not empty though I was gone. It was as if I had left a cheerful housekeeper behind. It was I and Fire that lived there; and commonly my housekeeper proved trustworthy.” This is just one example of the kinship Thoreau developed with nature.

Thoreau also wrote a poem about the smoke that would wind its way upward on many cold days and nights:

Light-winged Smoke, Icarian bird,
Melting they pinions in thy upward flight,
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light and blotting out the sun;
Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.  

Again, we see the transcendentalist philosopher personifying nature and approaching deity through something as simple as smoke winding up to the sky from a hearth fire.

During his stay in the little cabin in the Walden woods, Thoreau was arrested for failing to pay his taxes. He refused to pay them out of protest of the Mexican-American war and the continuance of slavery. He spent a night in jail and was let out the next day when “some one interfered, and paid the tax.” Thoreau wrote about his experience in another far-reaching work, “Civil Disobedience.” In this essay, he asserts that the government should be run by men’s consciences rather than the majority rule. In fact, in Thoreau’s ideal utopian society, government would not govern at all—men would govern themselves. He emphasizes the importance of protesting the government — withdrawing support of candidates and refusing to pay taxes — when the government does wrong. This is “civil” disobedience — not open war against the government, but conscientious protest. This, too, is the transcendentalist reminding us of the inherent good of man through his ability to self-govern and live by his conscience.

By 1852, Thoreau was still living in Concord, Massachusetts, although he had moved out of his little cabin on Walden Pond a few years earlier. He and Emerson made friends with a neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would also become an influential member of the Transcendentalist movement.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, site of the 17th century Puritanical witch trials. His great-great-grandfather was John Hathorne*, the ruthless and cruel judge of the witch trials. Hawthorne’s ancestral past and upbringing certainly influenced his writing, especially his most famous work, The Scarlet Letter. This story is about a young woman named Hester who comes to colonial America ahead of her much-older husband. Her husband never arrives, and all assume he is lost at sea. Hester becomes pregnant (obviously by another man since her husband is not around). To make sure everyone knew of her adultery, the Puritans sentence her to wear a scarlet “A” on her chest for the rest of her life. She refuses to reveal the identity of the father, who is, in fact, the local minister (to make matters worse). Eventually, Hester’s husband appears and attempts to learn the identity of the child’s father. When he finds out, he tries to exact his revenge by tormenting the young minister, who dies before the revenge is fully carried out.

The Scarlet Letter reveals a part of Hawthorne that was most decidedly un-transcendentalist. It is a dark tale that uses as its foundation the inherent evil of man. Despite this, however, Hester herself rises above humanity’s base nature. She forgives, repents, and transcends her mistakes with charitable actions. Her daughter, a product of both love and sin, grows up to be happily married and moves away to Europe to live a fulfilling life away from the judgmental Puritans.

Hawthorne was more transcendental in his views on nature. He and his wife (also a transcendentalist) both enjoyed gardening. He often found communion with nature through his garden. In his short story, “Snow Flakes” from Twice Told Tales, Hawthorne describes the beginning of winter as the entrance of a wintery king:

Now, throughout New England, each hearth becomes an altar, sending up the smoke of a continued sacrifice to the immitigable deity who tyrannizes over forest, country side, and town. Wrapped in his white mantle, his staff a huge icicle, his beard and hair a wind-tossed snow-drift, he travels over the land, in the midst of the northern blast… On strides the tyrant over the rushing rivers and broad lakes, which turn to rock beneath his footsteps. His dreary empire is established; all around stretches the desolation of the Pole. Yet not ungrateful be his New England children,--for Winter is our sire, though a stern and rough one,--not ungrateful even for the severities, which have nourished our unyielding strength of character. And let us thank him, too, for the sleigh-rides, cheered by the music of merry bells; for the crackling and rustling hearth, when the ruddy firelight gleams on hardy Manhood and the blooming cheek of Woman; for all the home enjoyments, and the kindred virtues, which flourish in a frozen soil.

Hawthorne’s view of winter as both a tyrant and a benefactor is part of the classic transcendentalist philosophy that nature (and truth) is understood through the lens of the human soul. Nature is like a double-sided coin. It is the same coin, but when examined from a different point of view, there is a different story altogether. Experience and paradigms can change a person’s interpretation of nature and truth.

Hawthorne, while on good terms with Emerson and Thoreau, had an even more lasting and close friendship with another transcendentalist, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and graduated in the same class in 1825.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Unlike Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, Longfellow was not born in Massachusetts. Instead, he came from another New England city — Portland, Maine. Born in 1807, Longfellow always wanted to be a writer, but his sensible and practical father wanted him to choose a more reliable profession, such as law. Instead, he got a job as a professor at Bowdoin College. He explored Europe for three years to prepare for this professorship, learning seven different languages. Later he was offered a job at Harvard and again travelled to Europe for training. His studies in Europe greatly influenced his writing and thinking, which Emerson often criticized him for.

Longfellow began his professorship at Harvard in 1836. Although he found his job difficult and mundane (he described it as feeling like the life was being “crushed” out of him), Longfellow had his most productive writing years while at Harvard. He was so successful at writing that he was eventually able to resign his professorship and become the United States’ first self-sustaining writer.

Longfellow was an American patriot, and he loved the history of his beloved New England. He wrote “Song of Hiawatha,” an epic poem more based on legend than any real person. In his later years, he also wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” about the patriot, Paul Revere, who waited for his friend at the bell tower to give the lighted signal of the British invasion of Boston — “One, if by land, and two, if by sea.” Paul Revere stormed out on his horse to warn the inhabitants of the surrounding towns so that they would have time to prepare for the British troops’ invasion. These poems were not transcendentalist in nature, but were more in line with the European Romantic movement. 

Longfellow’s transcendentalist leanings are more evident in his nature poetry. Having grown up in a mariner city, he often found communion with the sea. In his poem “Seaweed,” Longfellow finds a connection between a poet’s words and the seaweed which floats onto the shore from unknown climes.

When descends on the Atlantic
   The gigantic
Storm-wind of the equinox,
Landward in his wrath he scourges
   The toiling surges,
Laden with seaweed from the rocks: 

From Bermuda's reefs; from edges
   Of sunken ledges,
In some far-off, bright Azore;
From Bahama, and the dashing,
   Silver-flashing
Surges of San Salvador; 

From the tumbling surf, that buries
   The Orkneyan skerries,
Answering the hoarse Hebrides;
And from wrecks of ships, and drifting
   Spars, uplifting
On the desolate, rainy seas;-- 

Ever drifting, drifting, drifting
   On the shifting
Currents of the restless main;
Till in sheltered coves, and reaches
   Of sandy beaches,
All have found repose again. 

So when storms of wild emotion
   Strike the ocean
Of the poet's soul, erelong
From each cave and rocky fastness,
   In its vastness,
Floats some fragment of a song: 

From the far-off isles enchanted,
   Heaven has planted
With the golden fruit of Truth;
From the flashing surf, whose vision
   Gleams Elysian
In the tropic clime of Youth; 

From the strong Will, and the Endeavor
   That forever
Wrestle with the tides of Fate
From the wreck of Hopes far-scattered,
   Tempest-shattered,
Floating waste and desolate;-- 

Ever drifting, drifting, drifting
   On the shifting
Currents of the restless heart;
Till at length in books recorded,
   They, like hoarded
Household words, no more depart.

As is the case with Longfellow’s “Seaweed,” so it is with many of the thoughts and writings of the transcendentalists. They cast their ideas out into the sea of human thought, letting them float as seaweed on the minds and hearts of thousands of people. Some disregarded their philosophy, but many, many others incorporated it into their lives. The transcendentalists taught America to be intellectually independent of their European motherland. They inspired creativity and sparked religious reform with their theories on the nature of man and God. Thoreau is looked upon as the father of modern-day environmentalism. They touched upon the soul of early America, embracing the unknown wilds of nature and discovering their most inner beings in its embrace. Most importantly, they fanned the flame of an optimistic, new country, insisting that man could do more, could be more, and could thereby transcend even the stars themselves.

 

*Nathaniel Hawthorne added a “w” to his last name, perhaps to distance himself from his great-great-grandfather.