Transcendentalism is a 19th-century school of American theological and philosophical thought that combined respect for nature and self-sufficiency with elements of Unitarianism and German Romanticism. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson was the primary practitioner of the movement, which existed loosely in Massachusetts in the early 1800s before becoming an organized group in the 1830s.
The Origins of Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism has its origins in New England of the early 1800s and the birth of Unitarianism. It was born from a debate between “New Light” theologians, who believed that religion should focus on an emotional experience, and “Old Light” opponents, who valued reason in their religious approach.
These “Old Lights” became known first as “liberal Christians” and then as Unitarians, and were defined by the belief that there was no trinity of father, son and holy ghost as in traditional Christian belief, and that Jesus Christ was a mortal.
Various philosophies began to swirl around this crowd, and the ideas that would become Transcendentalism split from Unitarianism over its perceived rationality and instead embraced German Romanticism in a quest for a more spiritual experience.
Thinkers in the movement embraced ideas brought forth by philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ancient Indian scripture known as the Vedas and religious founder Emanuel Swedenborg.
Transcendentalists advocated the idea of a personal knowledge of God, believing that no intermediary was needed for spiritual insight. They embraced idealism, focusing on nature and opposing materialism.
By the 1830s, literature began to appear that bound the Transcendentalist ideas together in a cohesive way and marked the beginnings of a more organized movement.
The Transcendental Club
On September 12, 1836, four Harvard University alumni—writer and Bangor, Maine, minister Frederic Henry Hodge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian ministers George Ripley and George Putnam—left a celebration of the bicentennial of Harvard to meet at Willard’s Hotel in Cambridge.
The purpose was to follow up on correspondence between Hodge and Emerson and to talk about the state of Unitarianism and what they could do about it.
One week later, the four met again at Ripley’s house in Boston. This was a meeting of a much larger group that included many Unitarian ministers, intellectuals, writers and reformers. There would be 30 more meetings of what was called “the Transcendental Club” over the next four years, featuring a shifting membership that always included Emerson, Ripley, and Hodge.
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The only rule the meetings followed was that no one would be allowed to attend if their presence prevented the group from discussing a topic. Emerson’s essay “Nature,” published in 1836, presented Transcendentalist philosophy as it had formed in the club meetings.
This group ceased to meet in 1840, but were involved in the publication The Dial, at first helmed by member and pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller, and later by Emerson, with the mission of addressing Transcendentalist thought and concerns.
Henry David Thoreau got his start in The Dial, reporting on wildlife in Massachusetts. After its demise in 1844, Thoreau moved to Walden Pond where he wrote his most famous work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
Inspired by different utopian groups like the Shakers, members of the Transcendental Club were interested in forming a commune to put their ideas to the test. In 1841, a small group of them, including author Nathaniel Hawthorne, moved to a property named Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
The venture, helmed by George Ripley, was covered in the pages of The Dial as an idyllic one that involved farm work by day and creative work by candlelight at night.
Emerson never joined the farm. He approved of the commune but didn’t want to give up his privacy, preferring to be a frequent visitor. Thoreau refused to join as well, finding the entire idea unappealing. Margaret Fuller visited but felt the farm was destined for failure.
The farm was run by members buying shares for life-long membership, guaranteeing an annual return on their investment, and allowing members who could not afford a share to compensate with work. As farmers, they were fledglings, but Hawthorne, in particular, was thrilled by the physicality of farming life.
There was also a boarding school onsite that was the farm’s primary income source. The farm proved successful enough that in its first year, members had to build new homes on the property to house everyone. There were over 100 residents.
In 1844, following a restructuring that brought further growth, the commune began to fall into a slow decline, with members becoming disillusioned by its mission, as well as financial challenges and other problems, and squabbling amongst themselves. By 1847, this particular Transcendentalist experiment was finished.
Transcendentalism Fades Out
As the 1850s arrived, Transcendentalism is considered to have lost some of its influence, particularly following the untimely death of Margaret Fuller in an 1850 shipwreck.
Though its members remained active in the public eye—notably Emerson, Thoreau and others in their public opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—following the failure of Brook Farm, it never again materialized as a cohesive group.