Transcendentalism is a philosophical and literary movement that occurred in the 30s and 40s of the nineteenth century (Philips et al. 30). It has a potent impact on American literature due to the changes in belief systems. The movement also expressed the essential moral of the American experience.
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In the context of the American literature, transcendentalism indicated a belief that the material world guided by intuition rather by reason offers wider opportunities for considering the invisible, spiritual world in which beliefs and truths stand behind the material representation. The movement, therefore, played an enormous role in shifting attitudes to religion, society, and morale.
Its philosophical roots could be found in the Puritan representation of the supernatural and the divine. Within this context, the supporters of transcendental movements considered a man to be the center of the world, whose nature should not be corrupted by social and political institutions. The movement expressed protest against the traditionally accepted vision on culture.
The emergence of new transcendental ideas reshaped the American literature introduced in the works by Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman in such a way that it contributed to the excellence and maturity of the literary world and led to the later period of the American Renaissance.
Transcendentalism and romanticism were two adjacent movements whose philosophies were closely interconnected. Although it appeared much earlier in the eighteenth century, romanticism had also achieved its highest peak of influence and development in 1840 (Philips et al. 16). Apart from temporal coincidence, both movements had several similar philosophical and ideological conceptions.
In particular, both movements were created as a protest against established religious laws, traditions, and culture. They also opposed a religious movement called Calvinism that asserted the predetermination of human fate. Further, supporters of the two movements placed a significant emphasis on the anthropological center and its strong connection with nature.
It should also be stressed that romanticism emerged as opposition against objective reasoning. Similar to romanticism, transcendentalism protested against the prevalence of dogma and religious traditions. Finally, both movements encouraged humans to rely on themselves. Each, therefore, was empowered to find his/her truth and path in life.
Despite the evidence similarities, the movements had diverse outlooks on religion, particularly on the conception of God. In this respect, transcendentalism relies basically on religious systems because God was essential for understanding the dogmas of their philosophy (Philips et al. 32). Moreover, transcendentalists strongly believed in the omnipresence of God in every sphere of human life.
In contrast, romanticism was less concerned with the concept of divinity (Philips et al. 18). Their comprehension of religion was confined to a personal level. In other words, romanticists strongly believed in the capability of individuals to confront both their right and wrong actions.
A person-centered approach to perceiving the reality, as well as the focus on the institution and its importance for humans became the central conception of the movement. Guided by Emerson, particularly by his essay called Nature, the movement propagated non-traditional appraisal of nature, as well as a place of humans in it.
Emerson work directly refers to the underpinnings of transcendentalism, which is brightly represented in the following passage: “From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind” (Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 550).
The following lines prove the entity of man with nature. It is, therefore, logical for Emerson to refer to nature as to the “Universal Being” (Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 550). The natural world is endowed with a spiritual meaning which can be conceived from beyond. While explaining the meaning of the Universal Being, Emerson asserts, “The aspect of nature of devout.
Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bent bead and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship” (560). Once again, the author does not focus directly on the central position of God but represents humans who are guided by the divine laws embedded in nature.
Apart from deliberation on the unity of man with nature, Emerson highlighted three spiritual dilemmas related to the place of nature in a man’s world about nature, as well as how a man experiences nature. Also, the philosopher attains much importance to the way an individual develops. In this respect, Emerson assumed that the spirit of nature and divinity is expressed through man.
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In this essay called Self-Reliance, the writer stated, “To believe your thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, – that is genius” (Self-Reliance 13). In other words, an individual should not rely on the externally existing belief system because of his ability to self-cognize and appraise the world based on personal attitudes and beliefs.
Transcendental concepts are brightly illustrated in the book Walden written by another outstanding transcendentalist Henry Thoreau. In this work, the writer focused on individual independence from a societal belief system, spiritual discovery, and exploration of individual self-reliance.
The autobiographical style of exposition was closely connected with the criticism of the Western’s material and consumerist culture, which did not contribute to natural revival. In particular, Thoreau argued, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, …discover that I had not lived” (n. p.).
The passage broadly uncovers the main idea of the book. In particular, the author highlights its opposition against the social institutions corrupting human minds and limiting individuals’ spiritual pathways. Referring to the origins, of nature, therefore, was the key solution to the problem of unveiling the actual purposes of human life. The human instincts should be prioritized to help individuals address their original needs and concerns.
Despite deep deliberations on the connection between man and nature, Thoreau did not refer to religious issues but made an accent on criticizing the materialistic world, which is deprived of spirituality and main virtues. Whitman is another brightest representative of the transcendental movement whose progressive ideas also went beyond the frames accepted for that period.
Leaves of Grass is considered to be the most controversial poetry collection in which specific emphasis is placed on allegorical and metaphorical representations of the world. Like Emerson, the poet attained much importance to the increased role of humans in nature. Whitman also emphasizes the role of the spirit and the mind.
In particular, The Song of Myself reflects the core of Whitman’s vision of poetry and life. The transcendental features of the poem are represented in the following lines: “The lunatic is carried out at last to the asylum a confirmed case, He will never sleep any more as he did it in the cot in his mother’s bedroom” (Whitman 28).
Dead Poets Society is a drama film revealing an inspiring story about an English teacher and his unconventional approach to teaching poetry. The film also propagates Walt Whitman’s poetry revealing free and revolutionary thinking.
Poets’ deliberations on the sense of life are identical to those adhered by John Keating. In particular, Walt Whitman called for the entire society to open up people’s mind and develop alternative views on the surrounding world. These conceptions are congruent with the transcendental ideology.
In conclusion, it should be stressed that the transcendental movement was oriented on revealing the hidden potential of man, as well as his close affiliation to nature. The supporters of this movement encouraged to consider the spiritual the core of human essence because it relates heavily to its nature and intuition.
The brightest representatives of the movement – Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman – managed to trigger the main ideologies and trends in transcendental movement. Though their views on the philosophy slightly differed, the philosophers reshaped the American literature and gave it a second life.
Aside from philosophic foundations, the writers and poets of transcendentalism were much concerned with social institutions and their negative influence on human self-perception. Rather, they strongly believed that a human is a self-reliant and independent personality who is capable of making individual choices.
Similar aspects are represented in the film Dead Poets Society where the protagonist relies on the ideologies of Walt Whitman.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Self-Reliance. US: Arc Manor, 1995. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. US: Taylor & Francis, n. d. Print.
Philips, Jerry, Ladd Andrew, and Anesko, Michael. Romanticism and Transcendentalism: 1800-1860. US: Infobase Publishing, 2006. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: By Henry David Thoreau. US: Mobile Reference. 2009. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First Edition (1855). US: Digireads.com, Publishing, 2008, Print.