Ralph Waldo Emerson is the Top Dog of Transcendentalism. The Godfather. The Big Cheese. The biggest, oldest, most huggable tree in the forest, if you're starting to think like a Transcendentalist. The whole movement got going largely because of his efforts. He was the son of a Unitarian minister who himself became ordained as a Unitarian minister, until he got disgruntled with Unitarianism.
But that doesn't mean he turned his back on the spiritual world. Emerson wanted us to be better in touch with our inner selves, God, and nature. He was instrumental in elaborating some of the most important Transcendentalist concepts in essays and books like "Self-Reliance" and "Nature."
And don't forget, this guy was also a founding member of the Transcendental Club, which was the hub of Transcendentalist thinkers and writers beginning in 1836. Yup, that's where to find Waldo.
In this 1841 essay, Emerson argues that we need to learn to be a lot more individualistic—yep, you guessed it: rely on ourselves. That doesn't just mean cooking our own meals and doing our laundry instead of getting Mom to do it—it's about freeing ourselves from the fetters of social convention and the opinions of others.
Only by following our own individual path and our own inner instinct will we be able to distinguish truth from falsehood and good from evil. And an added bonus is that we'll be much happier for it. Sweet!
Emerson's essay exemplifies the Transcendentalist virtue of individualism. These guys and gals really believed that folks have to think for themselves. And in "Self-Reliance," Emerson shows us exactly why that's so important.
Is it a book? Is it an essay? It's both, naturally! (Har har.) Emerson's, um, book-length essay is all about—yes, guessed again!—the power of nature. And it sure as dandelions isn't just about green grass and blue skies. Nature can actually lead us to God, and to our true selves.
Emerson's essay was way influential (not to mention controversial) when it was first published. So much so that it became one of the founding documents of the Transcendental Club, which was founded the same year. The essay would also have a huge influence on Henry David Thoreau, who read it as an undergrad at Harvard. And the tree began to sprout!
In "Self-Reliance," Emerson advises us to trust ourselves. After all, it's the only way to achieve self-reliance. If all the greats did it, he said, then so can you!
Moving onto "Nature," where Emerson argues that everything is connected. Beauty, he even says (thinking of the sunset sort of beauty), is "one expression for the universe." And you better believe it's an expression that unites us all when we ooh-and-ahh as the sun goes down.
Henry David Thoreau is the fella who brought you civil disobedience and Walden Pond, and he's the other big name associated with Transcendentalism. Like his fellow Transcendentalists, Thoreau was into nature. He was also big on individualism. In fact, he was so individualistic that he decided to go off and live in the woods on his own. For years and years. Pretty free-spirited, we'd wager.
Thoreau's also known as a social reformer. He was an outspoken abolitionist who wrote a lot about that terrible institution—slavery—that was still in place back in the first half of the nineteenth century. He also wrote about ponds, being in jail, and how to live really, really simply. Forget running water, forget toasting your bread in the morning, and you can sure as heck forget about your smartphone.
Walden, published 1854, is a book that chronicles Thoreau's experience living alone in a cabin in the woods of Massachusetts near a pond of that name. Ironically, the pond is now a big-deal tourist attraction for folks visiting Massachusetts, which is pretty much exactly the sort of conformity, consumerism, and nature-disrespect Thoreau would have hated. Take that, TripAdvisor.
Anyway, Thoreau built the cabin himself, then spent years living there without talking to a soul. He had birds for company, at least. He probably taught them to say "Polly want social reform."
Anyway, the book reflects many of the key Transcendentalist themes, including the importance of individualism, the necessity of maintaining a connection to nature, and spirituality. And don't forget the talking birds.
We have this essay by Thoreau to thank for the concept of "civil disobedience." We all know what that is: when we disobey our government because its laws aren't fair laws, so we take a stand to show what fairness really is.
The most famous practitioner of civil disobedience is probably Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who used acts of civil disobedience to protest segregation and the treatment of African Americans during the Civil Rights era).
Well, we bet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read Thoreau's essay. It's in this essay that Thoreau first argues that we owe no allegiance to our government if it misbehaves itself. For instance, if it allows for the enslavement of people (as the U.S. government did when Thoreau was writing)—after all, better to disobey the legal laws while upholding your morals.
In Walden, Thoreau argues that individualism is good for us. Only when we learn to rely on ourselves (hey, sound familiar? Echoes of Waldo…) will we be able to become wise. He's even cool with getting lost in the woods—hey, getting lost is one of the best ways to find yourself.
Where would the Civil Rights movement be if it weren't for Thoreau? In "Civil Disobedience," he says that sometimes we have to disobey our governments when they do things that aren't just (see quote #3 here). Plus, he's not so into slavery either. Quite the man for stickin' it to the man.
As much as names like Ralph Waldo and Henry David get tossed around in Transcendental land, you best not believe that all those Transcendentalists were men. Because Margaret Fuller was a woman who 100% held her own in the Transcendentalist circle, otherwise pretty dominated by dudes like Emerson and Thoreau. Bully for her.
Fuller is an important Transcendentalist for a couple of reasons. First, she was one of the first members of the Transcendental Club, founded in 1836. Plus, she edited The Dial (you know, the Transcendentalist journal) for two years, from when it was founded in 1840 'til 1842.
Not only that, Fuller was also an important social reformer and activist. She was especially outspoken on women's rights. Way to go, Transcendentalista!
Fuller's book is about the dreary situation of—that's right—American women in the nineteenth century. The government sure didn't grant the ladies a lot of rights at the time. They couldn't vote, they didn't have the same access to inheritance as men did, and they were more often than not forced to be housewives, toiling away for their husbands and families—and they didn't even have access to things like equal education, their own club sports teams, or reality TV. Now those were for real desperate housewives.
In her book, Fuller makes the argument that women in the nineteenth century weren't much better off than slaves. And she argues that some serious social and political reform had to take place in order for the situation of women to improve. And it was about a lot more than which cable channels they should get access to.
This essay, first published in The Dial in 1843, is like a forerunner to Fuller's book Woman in The Nineteenth Century. In it, Fuller expresses her anger at the plight of women, more or less working up to the larger claims she makes in her book a couple years later.
By the time Fuller published the essay, she was no longer the editor of The Dial. But she continued to be an active contributor to the journal, and not only that journal, but big-name newspapers, too. And she was quite the journalist, going on to become one of the first female foreign correspondents for a newspaper, The Tribune, in 1846. Those were key steps toward precisely the sort of equality she was arguing for.
Margaret Fuller's social reformist feminism is at the heart of her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century. You can see the buildup to a lot of ideas in contemporary feminism, along with plenty of echoes of that Transcendentalist spirit we just can't get enough of.
And Fuller didn't stop there with her writing about women's rights. Her essay "The Great Lawsuit," first published in The Dial, gives you even more proto-feminist fodder.
Was Whitman "officially" a Transcendentalist? That's a hot debate in some circles, believe it or not. But we're including him in the list of the Top 5 for a whole load of reasons. First of all, he was deeply influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In fact, in the preface to the 1855 edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, he states that he's the poet that Emerson had been waiting for.
Arrogant, much? Nah, it all worked out—in turn, Emerson was a huge fan of Walt Whitman.
Plus, we'll find a lot of the big Transcendental themes in Whitman's poetry. Whitman is all about nature. He's big on individualism. And he's also big on spirituality. His poetry, and his worldview, tick a lot of Transcendentalist boxes. No wonder Emerson was so down with it.
One of Whitman's most famous poems, this work exemplifies a lot of Transcendentalist themes. First close-reading clue? "Myself" is in the title of the poem, which hints to us the fact that individualism, and the individual spirit, is a big theme in the work. Heck, it's even worth singing about.
But the poem is also about how we're all connected to one another, and to nature. In other words, it's also a poem about connection and correspondence. We should be true to ourselves, but we should also always be aware of the bonds that bind us—to each other, to nature, to God.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson first read Leaves of Grass in 1855, he wrote to Whitman the following words: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Pretty big praise, coming from the Head Honcho of Transcendentalism himself.
Leaves of Grass, Whitman's magnum opus, which he kept revising throughout his life, is a poetry collection that encompasses a lot. At the heart of the book, as we might guess by the title, is an emphasis on nature. Nature, in case it had slipped your mind, is one of the favorite themes of the Transcendentalists.
Whitman's "Song of Myself" is a celebration of individualism. It's got plenty to say about identity in general, too
Whitman had grand ambitions for his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, when it was first published in 1855. He thought it could sow the seeds of unity in his racism-torn land with the "expansiveness of his voice." Pretty high hopes, Walter.
Like Emerson, Christopher Pearse Cranch started off as a Unitarian minister. But as his interest in Transcendentalism developed—because of his friendship with Ralph himself and some other Transcendentalists—he dropped the ministry and took on the world of poetry and art.
Even though he's not one of the better-known Transcendentalists, Cranch was an important part of the Transcendentalist group in Massachusetts. His poetry exemplifies many important Transcendentalist themes. Which themes? You've got to have a darn good guess by now—yup, it's nature, individualism, and spirituality.
Hey look, the poem title is one of Transcendentalism's fave catchwords! As you may be able to surmise, Cranch's poem has a thing or two to do with relationships. Specifically, the ones between us, God, and nature. The speaker of the poem suggests that we can only really truly know God by studying nature. You can think of it as God being written in nature.
The poem also exemplifies the Transcendentalist idea of "Correspondence." Everything, according to the speaker of this poem, corresponds to everything else. As he states, "everything has its own correspondence/ Folded within it of old, as in the body the soul." Pretty deep, huh?
Here's another one that has to do with all the big beautiful links in the world. This one's got a more specific God focus. We are an extension of God, and God is an extension of us. One big happy family. After all, God is our "father," and our "mother," depending how you think of it.
What's important about this poem is that you don't have to look too hard to spot Cranch's familiar emphasis on the idea of "Correspondence." Because the poem's about how we both reflect God and are reflected in Him/Her. That's right, we correspond. So this once again points to the Transcendentalist notion that things mirror each other: in this case, we mirror God, and God mirrors us.
Cranch's poem "Correspondences" deals with that favorite Transcendentalist theme, nature—not to mention all its links to other stuff. And come on, who doesn't like nature? Cranch's speaker in this poem really loves it.
In Cranch's poem "I in Thee, and Though in Me," we can see the Transcendentalist idea of "correspondence" in full action. We mirror God, and God mirrors us. Convenient, ain't it?