Emerson Transcendentalism


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Ralph Waldo Emerson and American Transcendentalism: 

Ralph Waldo Emerson and American Transcendentalism English 441 Dr. Karen Roggenkamp

American Transcendentalism: 

American Transcendentalism Idealistic philosophy, spiritual position, and literary movement that advocates reliance on romantic intuition and moral human conscience Belief that humans can intuitively transcend the limits of the senses and of logic to a plane of 'higher truths' Value spirituality (direct access to benevolent God, not organized religion or ritual), divinity of humanity, nature, intellectual pursuits, social justice Roughly 1830s-1850s

Spirit of Revivalism: 

Spirit of Revivalism Transcendentalism can be read as one of many spiritual revivals American culture fostered in antebellum years Image: Religious Camp Meeting, J. Maze Burbank, c. 1839

Rises out of two key intellectual and spiritual traditions:: 

Rises out of two key intellectual and spiritual traditions: European Romanticism American Unitarianism Image: Second Church of Boston, where Emerson held first ministerial position

Roots in European Romanticism: 

Roots in European Romanticism Begins Germany, late 18th century England: 1798 – 1830s Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc. America: 1820s – 1860s Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, etc. Image: William Wordsworth


Romanticism Reaction again 'overly-rational' Enlightenment philosophy, art, religion, literature Poetry / art not a thing of logic, strict rhyming, strict meter, highest classes Art – inspiration, spontaneity, 'naturalness' In NATURE and CHILDHOOD we see universal, spiritual truths Image: Grasmere Village, Hill Country, Great Britain


Romanticism Nature the key to self-awareness Open self to nature andamp; you may receive its gifts: a deeper, more mystical experience of life Nature offers a kind of 'grace'—'salvation' from mundane evil of everyday life Image: Mont Blanc

Nature and Romanticism: 

Nature and Romanticism External world of nature actually reflects invisible, spiritual reality Self-reliance: seek the truth in immediate perceptions of the world Then one can reconcile body and soul (which is part of 'Universal Soul' or 'Oversoul,' source of all life) Image: Niagara Falls, Thomas Cole, 1829

The Sublime: 

The Sublime Heightened psychological state Overwhelming experience of awe, reverence, comprehension Achieved when soul is immersed in grandeur of nature Sense of transcendence from everyday world Image: Wanderer, Caspar David Friedrich

Romanticism in America: 

Romanticism in America Arrives in America 1820s Center around Concord, Massachusetts—kind of artists’ colony 'Transcendentalist Club' 1836—writing, reading, reform projects Utopian communities—groups to escape American materialism

Concord, Massachusetts, 1850s: 

Concord, Massachusetts, 1850s

Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott HomesConcord, Massachusetts, 1850s: 

Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott Homes Concord, Massachusetts, 1850s

Rises out of two key intellectual and spiritual traditions:: 

Rises out of two key intellectual and spiritual traditions: European Romanticism American Unitarianism Image: Second Church of Boston, where Emerson held first ministerial position

Roots in American Unitarianism: 

Roots in American Unitarianism Emerson a Unitarian minister Unitarianism (Christian denomination) rises in late 1700s; formalized by William Ellery Channing, early 1800s Liberal church—broken from strict New England Congregationalism Reject total depravity of humanity Believe in perfectibility of humanity Reject idea of 'angry God'—focus on benevolent God UNITY of God rather than TRINITY of Father, Son, Holy Spirit

Emerson’s Break from Unitarianism: 

Emerson’s Break from Unitarianism Too intellectualized, too removed from direct experience of God Extend and radicalize Unitarian beliefs in benevolent God, closeness of God and humanity Bring these spiritual ideas to life If Unitarians believe that truth comes only through empirical study and rationality . . . Transcendentalists take that idea andamp; add in romanticized mysticism—humankind capable of direct experience of the holy (Laurence Buell)

Transcendentalism as Spiritual Revival: 

Transcendentalism as Spiritual Revival Ironic refiguring of Puritanism, without the theological dogma Transcendentalists lonely explorers (pilgrims) outside society and convention Trying to form new society based on metaphysical awareness Trying to purify society by purifying hearts and minds Nature a spiritual manifesto Image: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Spiritual Revival : 

Spiritual Revival Transcendentalism is 'a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the Living God in the soul. Is [is] a putting to silence of tradition and formulas, that the Sacred Oracle might be heard through intuitions of the singled-eyed and pure-hearted.' (William Henry Channing)

Spiritual Revival: 

Spiritual Revival 'That belief we term Transcendentalism . . . maintains that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses of the powers of reasoning, but are either the result of direct revelations from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world.' (Charles Mayo Ellis, 'An Essay on Transcendentalism,' 1842)

Spiritual Revival: 

Spiritual Revival 'Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.' (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836)

The Transparent Eyeball: 

The Transparent Eyeball Image: Christopher Pearse Cranch, parody of lines from Nature, 1838

Reading Nature: 

Reading Nature Easier to see Emerson clearly from a distance, but everything gets foggy if you get too close Emerson: 'Do not give me facts in the order of cause and effect, but drop one or two links in the chain, and give me with a cause, an effect two or three times removed.'

Reading Nature: 

Reading Nature Goal: Reclaim/redefine 'culture'—bring it back to life Prose poem—read both for what it says literally and what it suggests about what cannot be said clearly Three underlying assumptions: Primacy of the soul Sufficiency of nature Immediacy of God

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