ROMANTICISM: Romantic Period in America 1828-1865.
Mid-century glory days; American Renaissance; Poe, Emerson,
Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman; Masterworks establish
the canon of American Romanticism – a canon which has been contested
(who is included/excluded—how does the eye of the critic shape the
interpretation of canon/period?)
INWARD DIVINITY: Belief
in natural goodness of man, that man in a state of nature would behave
well but is hindered by civilization. Faith in something inherently
good and transcendent in the human spirit, an inward divinity in no
need of salvation, or even of formal creed -- but rather in need of
EMPHASIS ON THE SELF: High
value placed on finding connection with fresh, spontaneous in nature
and self. The physical frontiers were being conquered in this
time of "manifest destiny" and there was little wilderness to explore
(and exploit). They turned to artistic, metaphysical, and intellectual
frontiers to recapture the ecstasy of exploration and discovery.
EMOTION OVER REASON: Reaction
against logic and reason; generalized suspicion of science and
dispassionate logic, though the fervor of this anti-science sentiment
varied with the author and artist. Sincerity, spontaneity,
and faith in emotion as markers of truth.
NATURE: Nature as a source of
instruction, delight, and nourishment for the soul; return to
nature as a source of inspiration and wisdom; celebration of man’s
connection with nature; life in nature often contrasted with the
unnatural constraints of society. Faith in the spirituality
and the symbolic importance of nature.
CELEBRATION OF LOW/RUSTIC:
Anglo-French celebration of common and rural life provided a model for
American writers, who sought a way to satisfy a cultural need for lore
- a mythology suitable to a new nation. As the "Fireside Poets"
(especially Bryant, Whittier, Longfellow) became enormously popular in
American households, they promulgated a celebration of simple living,
intuitive wisdom, innocent love, and community folklore.
Affirmation of the values of democracy and the freedom of the
SUBLIME: Aspiration after the
sublime and the wonderful, that which transcends mundane
limits. The sublime, the grotesque, the picturesque, and
the beautiful with a touch of strangeness all were valued above the
Neoclassical principles of order, proportion, and decorum.
RECYCLE ANTIQUATED FORMS:
Interest in the “antique”: medieval tales and forms, ballads, Norse and
Celtic mythology; the Gothic.
Belief in perfectibility of man; spiritual force immanent not only in
nature but in mind of man.
ORGANIC FORM: Belief in organic
form rather than Neoclassical rules; development of a unique form in
1830s New England; The Dial; Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret
Fuller, Bronson Alcott, et al
Transcendentalism was a philosophical, literary, social, and
Reaction against Unitarianism as a new orthodoxy of smug social
conformity that denied the spiritual and emotional depths of experience
German and English Romanticism provided inspiration towards the search
for some deeper 'truth.'
Complex response to the democratization of American life, to the rise
of science and the new technology, and to the new industrialism.
Influences: Plato, Kant, Coleridge, Puritanism and Jonathan Edwards,
Elements of Transcendentalist belief:
- The transcendentalist "transcends" or rises above the lower
animalistic impulses of life (animal drives) and moves from the
rational to a spiritual realm.
- The human soul is part of the Oversoul or universal spirit to
which it and other souls return at death.
- Every individual is to be respected because everyone has a
portion of that Oversoul (God).
- This Oversoul or Life Force or God can be found everywhere.
- God can be found in both nature and human nature.
- Jesus also had part of God in himself - he was divine as everyone
is divine - except in that he lived an exemplary and transcendental
life and made the best use of that Power which is within each one.
- More important than a concern about the afterlife, should be a
concern for this life - "the one thing in the world of value is the
active soul." - Emerson
- Death is never to be feared, for at death the soul merely passes
to the oversoul.
- Emphasis should be placed on the here and now. "Give me one world
at a time." - Thoreau
- Evil is a negative - merely an absence of good. Light is more
powerful than darkness because one ray of light penetrates the dark.
- Power is to be obtained by defying fate or predestination, which
seem to work against humans, by exercising one's own spiritual and
moral strength. Emphasis on self-reliance.
- Hence, the emphasis is placed on a human thinking.
- The transcendentalists see the necessity of examples of great
leaders, writers, philosophers, and others, to show what an individual
can become through thinking and action.
- It is foolish to worry about consistency, because what an
intelligent person believes tomorrow, if he/she trusts oneself,
tomorrow may be completely different from what that person thinks and
believes today. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little
minds." - Emerson
- The unity of life and universe must be realized. There is a
relationship between all things.
- One must have faith in intuition, for no church or creed can
- Reform must not be emphasized - true reform comes from within.
“The American Scholar” and “Self Reliance,” were written by RWE
in his early 30s, when he had reason to reiterate the need to act
independently in the face of personal disaster, and to resist the lure
Personal history gives insight to RWE’s privileging of the self.
RWE stressed the importance of the individual, but he was always losing
people and being let down by others.
Emerson’s essays are optimistic about human potential, and advocate a
peace to be found through the enactment of principles. This
insistence of the self as reaction to an early life of loss, rejection.
Emerson’s early misfortune only seems to strengthen his resolve and the
optimism of his essays. Could this be a level of
over-“compensation” that at times can ring somewhat false.
- Strict New England upbringing. Father a Unitarian Minister
at the most prestigious church in Boston: First Church. “My
recollections of early life are not very pleasant.” A home in
which affection was restrained, and expectations of achievement were
- His father dies before reaching the age of 45, when RWE is 4
years old, leaving the family dependent on the kindness of others (a
kindness not always forthcoming).
- Mother’s attempts to run a series of boardinghouses leaves family
sometimes without heat or food, and require frequent moves from place
- RWE shares an overcoat with his brother (they can’t afford
two!—and they live in a cold place.)
- Begins study at Harvard at age 14, and works his way through as a
waiter/messenger, and through a combination of scholarships.
- Upon graduation from Harvard in 1821 (age 18) he has no options
and must seek work (to help support his family) at a school for young
ladies. Writes in his journals: “I am a hopeless schoolmaster,
just entering upon years of trade, to which no distant limit is placed.”
- Once he gets into Harvard Divinity School after a number of years
of teaching, his eyesight fails and he can’t read or write, and also
begins to show some warning signs of TB due to the dampness of his
- At the pinnacle of his success, his home burns down in 1872 and
friends raise the money to rebuild it.
There’s also an aspect of Horatio Alger in Emerson’s early work.
Grieved throughout his life for a series of deep personal losses – this
is a man who lives with loss and is continually beset by new losses.
Loss is the limitation on Emerson’s boundless optimism as expressed in
the early essays.
The first series of essays, published in 1841, are characterized by
expansiveness, but the second series, published in 1844, speak with a
growing knowledge and experience of the limiting conditions of
life. The first series is alive with the assurance of inspiration
and power, the second series confronts the facts of ebbing power and
- Loss of his father when RWE is four years old.
- Loses his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, who he married in
1828, to TB after 17 months of marriage. Unable to believe that
in death he is unable to reach her; in Mar 1832 he opens her coffin.
- 1842: Loses his son Waldo at age 5 from a sudden illness of
Scarlet Fever (“My divine temple, which all angels seemed to love to
build, and which was shattered in a night, I can never rebuild … Yet
the nature of things, against all appearances and specialities
whatever, assures us of eternal benefit. But these affirmations
are tacit and secular; if spoken they have a hollow and canting
sound. And thus all our being, dear friend, is evermore
adjourned” (from letters, in McAleer, 379).
- Opens his son’s coffin in 1857 – his son is now merely dust.
- Experience: “Grief too will make us idealists” and “In the death
of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful
estate, -- no more. I cannot get it nearer to me … [it] falls off
from me and leaves no scar.”
- Death of two brothers, Edward and Charles – terrible grieving –
he goes to work on the essay “Nature”
He is a neo-Platonist, a yea-sayer – but with age grows increasingly
unable to sustain this position.
When he writes about grief in his essays, it is in an optimistic sense,
not an emotional sense.
This distancing from the darker side of nature.
His grief for his first wife emerges in his second marriage (marries
Lydia Jackson several years later). He idealizes Ellen and takes
Lydia for granted – he is ultimately unable to come to terms with the
loss of Ellen, who he puts on a pedestal as the perfect wife, as
contrasted against his second wife. Perhaps Lydia is his
Professionally his career is marked by a painful break with the
Unitarian Church – the source for his belief in the importance of
Grappling with his father’s legacy – the AS and SR show that he is
taking the right to pursue his own ideas even as they diverge from the
- Father a Unitarian minister at First Church, and RWE expected by
entire family to follow in his father’s footsteps.
- Refused to administer communion to his congregation at Second
Church; instead he resigns.
- Movement from concept of sky-god to concept of “god within” and
- Deeply invested in the classics, and yet also believes that
“creeds are a disease of the intellect” (SR)
- Causes controversy in his Divinity School Address; he is not
invited to speak at Harvard again for another 30 years.
“For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.”
- “The Guide is a tyrant” (AS).
Personal history gives context to his orientation as an idealist – an
orientations sorely tested by not only the treatment of American
Indians, but also the fact of slavery
Faith that the universe has its own order and the belief in
non-violence VS. a sense of pervasive injustice and the acceptance of
the need for war.
- April 1838 – Agonizes over the Cherokee expulsions in Georgia,
writes an open letter to President Van Buren protesting this action.
- Supports John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (1859), a militant
In the journals, Emerson talks about fate as a “burning wall which
hurts those who run against it” (Journal 305). RWE runs up
against his own burning wall after leaving older Christian doctrines
and the paternal legacy:
--the closedness of the Unitarian Church
--cruel losses of wife, child and brother
--slavery, genocide, war
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Early Nineteenth Century - American
Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American
Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap4/4intro.html
Warren, Robert Penn, Cleanth Brooks, and R. W. B. Lewis. "A National
Literature and Romantic Individualism." in Romanticism. eds. James
Barbour and Thomas Quirk. NY: Garland, 1986, 3-24. Boller, Paul F.
American Transcendentalism, 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry. NY:
Courtesy Debra White-Stanley
University of Arizona, 2004