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Transcendentalism In American Literature

Transcendentalism in American Literature

In the early 1800s, a group of writers and thinkers congregated in New England with revolutionary ideas about the role of the individual in the world as a whole. Society at this time was largely Puritan, with religion maintaining a strong grip over the choices a person makes. Transcendentalists, however, rejected this in favor of self-reliance and intuition, believing that each person, male or female, was capable of spiritual development. While many transcendentalists are known for their written contributions, a great many of them spread their ideals through speeches and sermons.

In American literary history, the writings of transcendentalists flourished. The main authors in the American Transcendentalist movement were:

These authors were responsible for perpetuating the ideas of the transcendentalists, and their contributions have left an indelible mark on the American literary tradition. Many of the most famous writings of transcendentalists were rooted in their own personal experiences. Thoreau's Walden, for example, was his autobiography, focused on his simple life in the natural world. Later, his essay entitled "Civil Disobedience" found origins in Thoreau's desire to protest taxation in Concord, Massachusetts. Other issues of the time that influenced Transcendentalist writings included the abolition of slavery, seen in Emerson's "Lecture on Slavery" and the burgeoning women's rights movement, seen in Woman in the Nineteeth Century, by Margaret Fuller.

What Does Transcendental Mean

Transcendentalism comes from the Latin, meaning "overpassing." More relevant to the movement, however, is Webster's standard definition - to rise above, to go beyond the limits, to overcome, to outstrip or outdo in some attribute, quality or power - but, especially, "to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of" At the outset, Transcendentalism had everything to do with triumphing over the negative and restrictive aspects of Unitarianism.

By the 1830s, Unitarianism, then prevalent in Eastern Massachusetts, had reduced what began as a rationalist critique of Calvinist Orthodoxy to what many young ministers came to feel was a "religion of the commercial class." Transcendentalists sought to assert the primacy of the spiritual and transcendental, centered around a more intuitive life of the spirit, over that of the material and empirical, epitomized by the Unitarian emphasis on forms and observances and the dry rationalism of John Locke.

This manifested itself in several basic tenets, Transcendentalists prized individualism as essential to life itself, rejecting what was "acceptable" or "proper" and encouraging non-conformity. Intuition was favored over reason and realism. Transcendentalists believed form should follow function - not just in design and the arts, but also in life itself. And originality was superior to talent - i.e. original work of perhaps lower quality was superior to a gifted replication of an inspired original. They also believed lives should be spent in continuous self-improvement.

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