Study Guide

Transcendentalism Characteristics

  • Essay

    Transcendentalism is a literary movement that has essay-writing at its heart. That's because some of the most important texts of the movement were essays. Go figger! Through the essay form, writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and folks like 'em conveyed some of the most important ideas of the movement.

    In essays like Emerson's "Nature" or "Self-Reliance," Transcendentalist writers sought to convince their audiences of their perspective on stuff. The essay form fit this aim because essays could be published in periodicals or delivered as lectures, a double-whammy that helped in reaching wide audiences.

    But even though we may not think of the essay as a conventionally "literary" genre, the Transcendentalist writers turned it into an art form. The best Transcendentalist essays are as well crafted and eloquent as any poem or work of fiction out there.

    Chew on This

    Did you get that Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most important Transcendentalist authors and also a brilliant essay-writer? This ShmoopTube clip can tell you a little more about his famous, huge, mind-blowing essay called "Self-Reliance."

    Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" inspired civil rights activists from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mahatma Gandhi. Why was it so powerful? The stuff he's got to say about injustice and his own imprisonment (check out quotes #3 and 4) is pretty deep.

  • Poetry

    A lot of the Transcendentalist writers wrote poetry as well as essays. If essays allowed them to present their Transcendentalist ideas in a clear, coherent form, poetry allowed them to express the more mystical, more intuitive aspect of their ideology.

    Poetry, after all, is based on the power of imagery and language. Poetry is suggestive, and it allowed Transcendentalist writers to suggest the nature of the "truths" and insights that they tried to explicate in their essays, but which went beyond the rational mind.

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    The ultra-famous poet Walt Whitman was associated with the Transcendentalists. In his poem "Song of Myself," we'll find a lot of emphasis on individualism, a common Transcendentalist theme. Not to mention tons of self-celebration, whether you think that's an ego trip or some real pretty verse.

    Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass highlighted many of the Transcendentalists' favorite themes, including nature—and not just nature that Walt Whitman was taking a self-loving walk through. Worth a peek!

  • Intuition

    The Transcendentalists believed that folks can understand truth through intuition. That is, we don't arrive at truth by donning a lab coat, putting on goggles, and conducting an experiment in a lab. Well OK, maybe we can arrive at some (scientific) truths that way, but that's not what the Transcendentalists were out for. They believed that there's a whole realm of experience that is beyond logical or rational deduction. And we're not just talking The Twilight Zone.

    According to the Transcendentalists, the only way to access that realm of experience and knowledge is to trust in our intuition. Our inner voice. Our gut. We may not have any proof that God exists, for example, but we may feel that He, or She, or They, or We, does (/do).

    So hey, why not believe? And as a bonus, we might even end up in Heaven. Or at least see some pretty waterfalls on the way.

    Chew on This

    In "Self-Reliance" Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us to trust our own instincts and thoughts. If you don't believe us, see the awe-inspiring quote #4 right up here.

    In "Walden," Henry David Thoreau challenges us to question "common sense" and find a deeper, more intuitive sense of knowledge. See what he's got to say right here.

  • Correspondence

    Everything, according to the Transcendentalists, is connected. The universe contains all of us, and each of us contains the universe in our soul. Isn't that like The Force? Or just some hippy New Age idea? Either way (or, um, neither), it's central to Transcendentalist thought.

    The fact of the matter is, the Transcendentalists believed that what's inside us mirrors what's outside us, and vice versa. The inward and the outward correspond, in other words. If we're happy and smiling, then the sun shining is going to reflect our internal mood. And if it's raining, well, rain can be happy too, can't it?

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    According to Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Nature," goodness, truth, and beauty all correspond to one another. And that's what quote #2 all about.

    In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman emphasizes the correspondence between the soul and the body, heaven and hell. And quote #3 here will show ya all about that.

  • Individualism

    Individualism is a really important idea, and a way of life, for the Transcendentalists. They believed that a big reason people feel unhappy or dissatisfied is that they try too hard to conform. And hey, we can't help it: we live in society, and when we see everyone around us buying trendy T-shirts and big glasses and iPhones, we feel that we have to do it too, even if we think the Android might have better features.

    So the Transcendentalists insisted that we needed to ditch all of those social pressures that make us want to conform. We need to follow our own path. If we want to drop our jobs as bankers and spend the rest of our lives fly-fishing, then why not? As long as it makes us happy.

    As long as we our true to ourselves and to our own individuality we can't go wrong. Doesn't that sound like the American Dream?

    Chew on This

    Ralph Waldo Emerson challenges us to trust ourselves and follow our own individual path in his famous essay "Self-Reliance." And why trust? Well after all, "every heart vibrates to that iron string!" Duh.

    In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau argues that we need to lose the world in order to find our true selves. Yep, that's right—off you go to quote #3.

  • Nature

    Those Transcendentalists sure loved taking long walks, hugging trees, and sniffing flowers. Like, they really loved nature. They felt that industrialization—which was sweeping through the country at the time that they started writing, with Mac products close behind—was taking people away from nature. And that was a bad thing. Even if your 6 has a really sweet camera.

    For the Transcendentalists, nature is the place where we not only find ourselves, but where we can be ourselves. Unlike mean ole society, nature doesn't put any pressure on us to behave in a certain way or conform to social standards. If we run naked through a field, the grass isn't going to tell us "Put on some clothes!" Whereas our neighbors in the city would probably say that. Even if you're going streaking through the quad Old School style.

    Nature doesn't judge us the way people do. And for that reason it's where we can be most free.

    Plus, the Transcendentalists believed that nature gives us access to God. It's by contemplating the wonder of nature that we can connect to God. Nature's power, in other words, reflects God's power. So whether you're in it for God or for streaking through the meadows, Transcendentalism can show you where it's at.

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    Ahh…the joys of a soft breeze on a bright, bright sunshiny day. Henry David Thoreau tells us all about that sorta thing all over his book Walden. Though he wasn't much for streaking.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson takes a leaf off the same tree and says we should all take the time to look up at the stars at night. Staring at nature always does us good (see quote# 9). Don't be a doubter!

  • Unitarian Church

    Unitarianism was the main religious movement in New England at the time that Transcendentalism began spreading in the region in the 1820s and 1830s. Remember, Unitarianism is a liberal branch of Christianity that emphasizes reason and the importance of rational thought and intellect in distinguishing between right and wrong, good and evil.

    Many Transcendentalists started off as Unitarians. But they rebelled against the religious movement because they felt that it placed too much emphasis on rationality and reason as a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment.

    The Transcendentalists believed that religion shouldn't be a matter of calmly coming up with some ethical equation and working out what's right and wrong. Religion, and spiritual experience, was tons more complicated than that. We need to use our intuition, not just our reason. Go for a walk in the park, you'll see.

    Chew on This

    Ralph Waldo Emerson was the son of a Unitarian minister, and even followed in daddy's footsteps to get himself ordained as a Unitarian minister. At least, until he decided that he wasn't crazy about some of the aspects of Unitarianism. Emerson's religious upbringing can tune you in to some of the ups and downs of the era.

    As you can see, Transcendentalism developed as a reaction against Unitarian Church orthodoxy. And the debate was a hot one when it came to the bonds amongst Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalism and the Unitarian Church.

  • Social Reform

    The Transcendentalists weren't just out for religion: they were social and political rebels. They believed that society, as it stood, needed some serious retooling. Treatment of women? Appalling. Slavery? Get rid of it. Conformism? Yep, that's part of the problem too.

    Let's get specific: some of the most famous Transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau, were committed abolitionists who wrote, lectured, and campaigned against slavery. Way to go, bros.

    As for women's rights, this was another big issue the Transcendentalists liked to make noise about. Margaret Fuller, a writer who was also one of the leading Transcendentalists, wrote about the subjugation of women and fought for women's rights. Can't miss, sis.

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    As we say, Henry David Thoreau was big on social reform. He believed that if our government doesn't act justly, we should disobey it. Most of us have probably heard tell of his whole "Civil Disobedience" schtick.

    And oh boy, if you think Henry Davey didn't practice what he preached, think again. Thoreau's beliefs in social reform and civil disobedience landed him in jail because of his protest against slavery. He gets deep on that injustice in quote #3 right here.

  • The Transcendental Club

    In many ways, the Transcendental Club was at the heart of the Transcendentalist movement in New England. The Club formed in 1836, when Ralph Waldo Emerson, along with his buddies George Ripley, George Putnam, and some other folks named George, got together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for some real serious chats.

    It was during the meetings of the Club that many of the important Transcendentalist ideas were developed. Sure, the members of the Club didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye on everything, but they shared certain ideas and values—for instance, the Unitarian Church. Lots of them weren't so happy with it. And the other reform and rights stuff we've been going on about—that was a pretty easy common denominator too.

    So, many of the most important writers in the movement were members of this Club at some point or another. And that's where the bulk of these ideas came to sprout.

    Chew on This

    Ralph Waldo Emerson was a founder and a key member of The Transcendental Club, and he talked the house down about it in his "Self-Reliance" essay.

    Guy-not-named-George alert! Bronson Alcott was an educational reformer who was also one of the early members of The Transcendental Club. This ShmoopTube clip will fill you in on his contributions to getting the movement up and rolling.

  • The Dial

    The Dial was the journal that members of the Transcendental Club founded in 1840. They wanted a platform to bring their ideas to the general public, but since they were having a hard time getting their essays and articles published in conventional periodicals, they decided to up and start their own.

    The Dial only lasted between 1840 and 1844 (it was revived years later, but we're talking basics here). That was because the Transcendentalists didn't find as many subscribers as they'd hoped, and the journal didn't exactly bring in the big bucks.

    Still, for those four years the journal served as the primary publication of the Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote the introduction to the first issue in 1840, called it a "journal in a new spirit." Which spirit? The Transcendental spirit, of course.

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    Henry David Thoreau contributed loads of articles, essays, and other works to The Dial after it was founded in 1840. You best believe that the founding of the journal was a pretty key moment in the timeline of Thoreau's life.

    Speaking of timelines, The Dial was a big ole deal for our buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson, too. In 1942 he took over editorship of The Dial from Margaret Fuller. Unfortunately, the magazine folded two years later. Nonetheless, a pretty transcendent moment for our friends—get it??