Transcendentalism - The New England American Literature

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      THE TRANSCENDENTAL PHILOSOPHY.—The literature and thought of New England were profoundly modified by the transcendental philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the most celebrated expounder of this school of thought. The English philosopher, Locke, had maintained that intellectual action is limited to the world of the senses. The German metaphysician, Kant, claimed that the soul has ideas which are not due to the activity of any of the senses: that every one has an idea of time and space although no one has ever felt, tasted, seen, eaten, or smelled time or space. He called such an idea an intuition or transcendental form.

Transcendentalism in American Literature

      The student of literature need not worry himself greatly about the metaphysical significance of transcendentalism, but he must understand its influence on literary thought. It is enough for him to realize that there are two great classes of fact confronting every human being. There are the ordinary phenomena of life, which are apparent to the senses and which are the only things perceived by the majority of human beings. But behind all these appearances are forces and realities which the senses do not perceive. One with the bodily eye can see the living forms moving around him, but not the meaning of life. It is something more than the bodily hand that gropes in the darkness and touches God's hand. To commune with a Divine Power, we must transcend the experience of the senses. We are now prepared to understand what a transcendentalist like Thoreau means when he says:—

 "I hear beyond the range of sound,
 I see beyond the range of sight."

      The transcendentalists, therefore, endeavored to transcend, that is, to pass beyond, the range of human sense and experience. We are all in a measure transcendentalists when we try to pierce the unseen, to explain existence, to build a foundation of meaning under the passing phenomena of life. To the old Puritan, the unseen was always fraught with deeper meaning than the seen. Sarah Pierrepont and Jonathan Edwards were in large measure transcendentalists. The trouble was that the former Puritan philosophy of the unseen was too rigid and limited to satisfy the widening aspirations of the soul.

      It should be noted that in this period the term "transcendentalist" is extended beyond its usual meaning and loosely applied to those thinkers who (1) preferred to rely on their own intuitions rather than on the authority of any one, (2) exalted individuality, (3) frowned on imitation and repetition, (4) broke with the past, (5) believed that a new social and spiritual renaissance was necessary and forthcoming, (6) insisted on the importance of culture, on "plain living and high thinking," and (7) loved isolation and solitude. An excellent original exposition of much of this philosophy may be found in Emerson's Nature (1836) and in his lecture on The Transcendentalist (1842).

      THE ECSTASY OF THE TRANSCENDENTALISTS.—Any age that accomplishes great things is necessarily enthusiastic. According to Emerson, one of the articles of the transcendental creed was a belief "in inspiration and ecstasy." With this went an overmastering consciousness of newly discovered power. "Do you think me the child of circumstances?" asked the transcendentalist, and he answered in almost the same breath, "I make my circumstance."

      The feeling of ecstasy, due to the belief that he was really a part of an infinite Divine Power, made Emerson say:—

 "I see the spectacle of morning from the hill-top over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. 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."

      The greatest of the women transcendentalists, MARGARET FULLER (1810-1850), a distinguished early pleader for equal rights for her sex, believed that when it was fashionable for women to bring to the home "food and fire for the mind as well as for the body," an ecstatic "harmony of the spheres would ensue." To her, as to Emerson, Nature brought an inspiring message. On an early May day she wrote:— "The trees were still bare, but the little birds care not for that; they revel and carol and wildly tell their hopes, while the gentle voluble south wind plays with the dry leaves, and the pine trees sigh with their soul-like sounds for June. It was beauteous; and care and routine fled away, and I was as if they had never been."

      The transcendentalist, while voicing his ecstasy over life, has put himself on record as not wishing to do anything more than once. For him God has enough new experiences, so that repetition is unnecessary. He dislikes routine. "Everything," Emerson says, "admonishes us how needlessly long life is," that is, if we walk with heroes and do not repeat. Let a machine add figures while the soul moves on. He dislikes seeing any part of a universe that he does not use. Shakespeare seemed to him to have lived a thousand years as the guest of a great universe in which most of us never pass beyond the antechamber.

      Critics were not wanting to point out the absurdity of many transcendental ecstasies. AMOS BRONSON ALCOTT (1799-1888), one of the leading transcendentalists, wrote a peculiar poem called The Seer's Rations, in which he speaks of

 "Bowls of sunrise for breakfast,
 Brimful of the East."

      His neighbors said that this was the diet which he provided for his hungry family. His daughter, Louisa May, the author of that fine juvenile work, Little Women (1868), had a sad struggle with poverty while her father was living in the clouds. The extreme philosophy of the intangible was soon called "transcendental moonshine." The tenets of Bronson Alcott's transcendental philosophy required him to believe that human nature is saturated with divinity. He therefore felt that a misbehaving child in school would be most powerfully affected by seeing the suffering which his wrongdoing brought to others. He accordingly used to shake a good child for the bad deeds of others. Sometimes when the class had offended, he would inflict corporal punishment on himself. His extreme applications of the new principle show that lack of balance which many of this school displayed, and yet his reliance on sympathy instead of on the omnipresent rod marks a step forward in educational practice. Emerson was far-seeing enough to say of those who carried the new philosophy to an extreme, "What if they eat clouds and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man."

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