Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


Emerson, Nature (1836): “Its effect is like of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me,
when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.” (14)

2 scholarly approaches to Transcendentalism:


Mid-20c: Transcendentalism as spiritually-oriented, Puritan-Unitarian descended American variant of European Romanticism

  • part of critical effort to define a distinctly American literary tradition)

  • included many authors of various periods and styles, from Jonathan Edwards to Emerson & Thoreau to Whitman & Hawthorne & Frederick Douglass during American Renaissance to 20c figures like Robert Frost or Lewis Mumford

late 20c-early 21c revision of Transcendentalism: Emerson, Thoreau, & Fuller plus larger social network of antebellum New England authors, intellectuals, and religious leaders.

Historical approach may include gender, ethnic or other multicultural studies.

  • For gender studies, the status of Margaret Fuller during the Transcendentalist era and later is a frequent concern.

Formal, intellectual, or critical:

Transcendental Form(s)

These forms, shapes, or orientations combine the elevation and universality typical of Transcendentalist thought. 


etymology: trans = across or through (+ maybe "transform") + scend = ascend, elevate

upward, elevating, or aspiring form widening spiral inclusiveness of sphere

The observer's perspective or its object rises and expands. The subject (i.e., the perceiving individual) comprehends and includes much, but the object itself may be abstracted and depersonalized.

(The cost of universal unity may be the sacrifice of realistic individuation, difference, or the other.)

Transcendental forms resemble "ideal forms" associated with Platonism or Neo-Platonic mysticism, the essences of various objects without which things would not be what they are. Neoplatonism descended to the Transcendentalists through Christianity, which incorporated various Platonic forms in its theology and metaphysics; also through studies of the Greek and Roman classical writings, essential to education in Boston; and through popular occult sciences like Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, and Spiritualism.

See also transcendental for relations to Kantian philosophy.


Thoreau's "Higher Law" in Resistance to Civil Government

I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable, and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all? . . . They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humanity; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountainhead.

Emerson's Over-Soul

Yet I desire . . . to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law. . . . [I]n groups where debate is earnest, and especially on high questions, the company become aware that the thought rises to an equal level in all bosoms, that all have a spiritual property in what was said, as well as the sayer. They all become wiser than they were. It arches over them like a temple, this unity of thought, in which every heart beats with nobler sense of power and duty, and thinks and acts with unusual solemnity. All are conscious of attaining to a higher self-possession. It shines for all. . . .

The sphere in Emerson's Nature

The eye is the best of artists. By the mutual action of its structure and of the laws of light, perspective is produced, which integrates every mass of objects, of what character soever, into a well colored and shaded globe, so that where the particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose, is round and symmetrical.

Margaret Fuller's gendered sphere in The Great Lawsuit

Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.

[Instructor's intrusion: Fuller probably could not know of the Chinese Taijitu or Yin Yang Symbol
but her description above may suggest its form and meaning--or maybe just a complex correspondence.]

Intellectually, Transcendentalism as mystic thought is rooted in Western traditions like Neo-Platonism, which influenced early Christianity, or Swedenborgianism, a religious and philosophical mystical movement from the late 1700s. All these traditions involve elevated, all-embracing perspective that resolves the conflicting phenomena of the material world to a spiritual direction or meaning.

Historically, Transcendentalism is a name for a loosely associated group of intellectuals, writers, and religious or social activists in New England in the 1830s-1850s who shared similar backgrounds, styles, and interests.

Most important figures: Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau

Next in importance: Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), Theodore Parker, Charles Ripley, Henry James Senior, Jones Very.

Sometimes other American Renaissance writers or later figures--Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Douglass, e e cummings--are included because of stylistic or thematic resemblances in their literature, plus some of this group were personally acquainted with the Transcendentalists.*


What Transcendentalists had in common:

Emerson is at the center of the movement: most Transcendentalists were his friends or professional acquaintances.

Emerson was originally a Unitarian minister. Many Transcendentalists were pastors, members, or children of Unitarian Church members. Transcendentalism may be seen as a movement or extension of Unitarianism

Unitarianism grew out of the Age of Reason. In contrast to the evangelical Christianity of the same period, Unitarianism was never a mass movement, but its members tended to be highly educated and socially active. Thomas Jefferson and other "Founders" are often identified as Unitarians or as Deists. Transcendentalism may be seen as an attempt to revive Unitarianism with greater emphasis on Romantic qualities like emotion, spirit, mystical experience, ect.


History of the Unitarian Church:

17th century: Puritanism (Congregational Church) >

late 18th century, early 19th century: Congregationalism (Trinitarian) + Unitarian

1830s-1850s: Unitarianism > Transcendentalism


How do we get from Puritanism to Transcendentalism?

Puritanism” is generally a bad word in modern discourse, and “hip” literary people usually shun Puritanism reflexively. But students of American literature and culture have to build a respectful relationship with the Puritans for the following reasons:

1. Puritans were highly literate people. If you’re a student of early American literature and culture, New England has far more records and texts to study than any other part of the USA. New England has continued to produce the most important writers to American literature. (Beyond the American Renaissance, think Robert Frost, e e cummings, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Pynchon.)

2. If most literary people are less than gung-ho about America’s possible image as an aggressively capitalist, imperialist nation, New England is among the only parts of the country founded for reasons other than economic opportunity a consistent home for movements involving Abolition of slavery, Women’s Rights, Pacifism, religious tolerance, and environmentalism.


How did the Puritans turn into “Yankee Liberals?”

Puritanism in New England. A “hot” church or religious movement “cools off.”

17th century: Puritanism as part of Protestant Reformation. Boston as the “City on a Hill,” the “City of God” > Salem Witch Trials

18th century: Enlightenment, Age of Reason. As education spreads, the western world opens to increasing knowledge of other religions besides Christianity and regret over excesses of religious behavior (e. g., Salem Witch Trials). “Unitarianism” appears as an attempt to recognize the “unity” of God throughout nature and the world and to “rationalize” religious behavior (e. g., to improve ethics and social justice rather than prepare for the hereafter).

Historical Note: Unitarianism is never a large, mass movement; its influence derives from social prestige and intellectual depth. At the same time that Unitarianism is emerging as a “cool” religion, “hot” religions such as Methodism, Southern Baptistry, Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists are starting to bubble up all over the country. (“Hot” religions tend to emphasize individual salvation and the wellbeing of their religious community; “cool” religions tend to emphasize social justice on a larger scale.)

Peak period of Unitarianism: late 1700s, early 1800s.

Emergence of Transcendentalism: 1830s-50s.

Is Transcendentalism a religion? Obviously some religious themes, but never organized enough institutionally to become a religion of its own. You could call it a religious movement, but not a religion.

Why can public schools study Transcendentalism and not Baptistry or Mormonism?

  • literary prestige

  • ”universality” of religious themes and images—its range of reference isn’t restricted to one religion

  • no conversion motive: rather than draw a person to a particular way of thinking, Transcendentalism seeks for each individual to come to terms with whatever’s at work inside.

  • Why religious conservatives can still gripe: Transcendentalism can sound like “New Age” thinking in its imagery of self-liberation and its diverse religious traditions—though New Age writing tends to be much lazier. Also, Unitarianism and Transcendentalism can be said to resemble “secular humanism” in terms of de-emphasizing a supreme divine authority beyond the human realm.
  • Unitarianism and Transcendentalism may serve a secular government-religious people nation like USA by modeling a religious-sounding language that is officially neutral and inclusive.

Genres: mostly non-fiction and poetry. Non-fiction may extend from Emerson’s essays to Thoreau’s intellectual memoirs to Fuller’s blend of essay and autobiography to sermons by Transcendentalist pastors.

Sometimes other American Renaissance writers are included because of stylistic or thematic resemblances in their literature, plus some of this group were personally acquainted with the Transcendentalists.*

*Whitman is the most frequent inclusion. His reading of Emerson was essential to his intellectual growth (“I was simmering, simmering, simmering . . . . Emerson brought me to a boil.”). When Whitman mailed Emerson a first edition of Leaves of Grass, Emerson wrote him back: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson’s essay “The Poet” appears to anticipate the changes Whitman makes in American poetry.

*Hawthorne and Melville are sometimes categorized as “Dark Transcendentalists” (compared to Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman as “Light Transcendentalists”). Hawthorne knew Emerson and lived in Concord (home of Emerson and Thoreau), and some of Hawthorne’s and Melville’s symbols and themes may resemble those of Transcendentalism. But he and Melville were more critical than supportive of Transcendentalism, and they primarily wrote fiction rather than the genres associated with Transcendentalism.

*Occasionally, listings will include American Renaissance writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Frederick Douglass among the Transcendentalists. Doubtless these authors read Emerson and other Transcendentalists, and some resemblances can be found between their patterns of thought and imagery and those of the Transcendentalists. But in such applications “Transcendentalism” becomes so broad that the term loses any historical specificity and begins to blur differences for the sake of emphasizing unity—which sounds like what the Transcendentalists were often about!