Transcendentalism Literary Origins in America and Influence



In many ways, this type of philosophy encouraged individuals to feel as well as to think for themselves, to determine on their own what felt good and just, and to reject external impositions of fatalism and dogma (Meese, 1985). More specifically, transcendentalist literature espoused a higher spiritual reality, a reality which could be used to live our lives in this young experimental country called America differently and more vibrantly. One of the most articulate and creative Transcendentalist writers, inspired by Emerson, was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is notable because he was a contributor to transcendentalist literature and a living experiment alike (Hoopes, 1979). In Walden, for instance, he took to the woods to live a Transcendentalist-type existence for two years and recorded his thoughts and his experiences in detail. In other works, such as the A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and The Maine Woods, he further inserted himself into environments conducive to truly a Transcendentalist lifestyle. The&nbsp.initial progenitor of American Transcendentalism, this essay will present a brief introduction to Transcendentalism in America, an analysis of Thoreau’s writings and real-life experiences, and how Thoreau’s life and writings have influenced American society. 1.1 Origins of American Transcendentalism In order to understand American Transcendentalism, it is necessary to understand the intellectual tradition which it opposed and broke from. in this, case, therefore, it is necessary to understand Unitarianism and its dominant role in Boston generally and at Harvard University more particularly (Finseth, 1995). The Unitarians represented a softer form of Christianity which emphasized the use of intellectual reason to lead an ethical life. Divine wisdom, in their view, flowed not from a Calvinistic obedience to rigid and dogmatic rules, but to the human mind’s capacity to use reason to determine consequences. Significantly, the Unitarian philosophy became dominant at Harvard College in the early 1900s. This is significant because it was at Harvard that the early American Transcendentalists congregated and studied. From a philosophical point of view, in a country still so young, it must have been a confusing time. The dominant view had been based on a rigid Calvinism, Unitarianism was on the rise, and into this confusion stepped the students and the writers who would found and articulate American Transcendentalism. One of these young writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was disappointed by what he viewed as a cold and sterile sort of intellectual rationalism. for him, there was much more to life and human existence than a calm and emotionless reasoning paradigm.