Transcendentalism: in American Literature

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      The Transcendentalism movement was a literary and philosophical reaction against 18th century rationalism in American Literature. It was a manifestation of the general humanitarian trend of 19th century thought. It was opposite of the idea that man needs an intercessor for reaching the Divine and it was critical of the finalized religion. Like the physical universe itself all constructive practical activity, all great literature or all forms of spiritual awareness were viewed as an expression of the divine spirit. The oft-expressed ambition was to achieve the vivid perception of the Divine as it operates in common life. An awareness was seen as leading to personal cultivation and to a sense of history as potentiality, progressive movement. The movement was based on a New fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God. The soul of each individual was thought to be identical with the world - a microcosm of the world itself. The doctrine of ‘self- reliance’ and ‘individualism’ was developed through the belief in the identification of the individual soul with God.

      Transcendentalism was intimately connected with Concord, a small New England village 32 kilometers to the west of Boston. Concord was the first inland settlement of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony. Surrounded by forest, it was and remained peaceful town close enough to Boston’s lectures, book steres, and colleges to be intensely cultivated, but far enough away to be serene. Concord was the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. R. W. Emerson’s poem commemorating the battle, “Concord Hymn,” has one of the most famous opening stanzas in American literature: “By the rude bridge that arched /he Hood Their flag to April’s / breeze / unfurled, Here once the Jinbal I led farmers/ stood /And fired the shot heard round /The world. Concord was the first rural artist’s colony, and the first place to offer a spiritual and cultural alternative to American materialism. It was a place of high-minded conversation and simple living (Emerson and H.D. Thoreau both had table gardens). Emerson, who moved to Concord in A834 and Thoreau, are most closely associated with the town. The locale attracted also Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist, Market Fuller, the feminist writer the educator Bronson Aicott, (and father of novelist Louisa May Alcott) and the poet William Ellery Channing. The ‘transcendental’ Club was loosely organized in 1836.

      The Transcendentalists published a quarterly magazine, The Dial, which lasted four years. It was first edited by Margaret Fuller and later by Emerson. Reform efforts engaged them as well as literature. A number of Transcendentalists were abolitionists. Some were involved in experimental Utopian communities such as nearby Brook Farm (described in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance) and Fruitland. Unlike many European groups, the Transcendentalists never issued a manifesto. They insisted on individual differences on the unique viewpoint of the individual. American Transcendental Romantics pushed radical individualism to its extreme. The American writers often saw themselves as lonely explorers outside the society and convention. The American hero - like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, or Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym-typically faced risk, or even certain destruction, in the pursuit of metaphysical self-discovery. For the Romantic American writer, nothing was given. Literary and social conventions, far from being helpful, were harmful. There as tremendous pressure to discover and authenticate literary form, content, and voice - all at the same time. It is clear from the many masterpieces produced in the three decades before the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) that American writers to the challenge.

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