The New International Encyclopædia/Transcendentalism

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TRANSCENDENTALISM. A term applied in philosophy to Kant's system and to those like it in maintaining that there can be knowledge of transcendental elements. On account of the literary reputation of Emerson and of his colleagues in the Transcendental Club (organized in 1836), and in the Brook Farm (q.v.), the terms Transcendentalism and Transcendental School are now frequently used by English-speaking peoples to designate the views of these thinkers. The so-called Transcendental Movement in New England was mainly confined to that region, and especially to Massachusetts, and, in point of time, to the decades from 1830 to 1850. In its origin it dates much further back, and in its effects it can scarcely be said to be entirely extinct to-day. In character it was partly philosophical, thus connecting with German and French thought; partly economic, thus connecting with French and English schemes of social reform; partly literary, thus connecting with the poetry of such dissimilar characters as Wordsworth and Shelley, and with the gospel of Carlyle; partly theological in a loose sense, thus connecting with Unitarianism; but on the whole, as Emerson averred, primarily spiritual, thus connecting with and finally coalescing in contemporary movements for regeneration of every kind. Putting the matter another way, we may perhaps say that New England Transcendentalism was in the main a result of a revolt from the formalism both of Unitarianism and of Calvinism, which coalesced with a loose system of intuitional philosophy borrowed from Germany, and with the romantic revolt from classicism in literature, as well as with a contemporaneous American movement for securing the benefits of foreign culture (illustrated in Irving and Longfellow among non-Transcendentalist authors), and which finally more or less merged in the great anti-slavery agitation. But any effort to sum up in a single sentence the elements of such a movement for social and individual regeneration must be both clumsy and misleading, and it will be necessary to dwell briefly on each element. Transcendentalism in New England was involved in the Great Awakening of a century before, for both were spiritual manifestations, the earlier of which did much to shake the hold of rigid Calvinism and to introduce the religious emotionality and liberalism that were later to culminate in men like William Ellery Channing (q.v.) and Theodore Parker (q.v.). Within twenty years after the Awakening, Arminianism and Arianism, through the agency of the Deists and other British writers, had made many converts, especially in eastern Massachusetts. Jonathan Mayhew (q.v.) is typical of these early liberals or Unitarians. The followers of Jonathan Edwards struggled valiantly against the innovators, and held most of New England for orthodoxy, but by 1785 there was a distinctively Unitarian church (King's Chapel) in Boston, even if thirty years were to elapse before this name could be definitely fastened on the seceders from Calvinism. This change of faith was not effected without heart-burning and a development of religious unrest among New Englanders, which made the acceptance of new philosophical ideas, new literary standards, and new social theories all the easier when the time was ripe. The appointment of Unitarian professors at Harvard, resulting in the founding of Andover (q.v.) and the preaching of such men as the younger Buckminster (q.v.) and Channing, undoubtedly prepared the way for Emerson (q.v.) and Alcott (q.v.), for Ripley (q.v.) and Parker.

But although by 1825 Unitarianism had won a decisive victory in Boston and its environs, it was not destined to maintain its ascendency for anything like so long a period as its foe, Calvinism, had done. It, too, showed a tendency to formalism, both in thought and in taste, and impressionable souls soon broke away into new paths of philosophy, theology, and literature. Some little knowledge of Kant and his successors, of Schleiermacher, and of Goethe, had been obtained by a few persons prior to 1830. Before 1840 the labors of George Ripley, F. H. Hedge (q.v.), and other translators had considerably increased this knowledge; in consequence, the influence of German thought upon New England Transcendentalism cannot be ignored, although it is easily exaggerated. French thought, as illustrated by Cousin, and more by Fourier, was less influential, but that there was a decided taste for foreign literature which gave an impetus to the contemporaneous movement for a greater and freer spiritual life seems to be clearly established. This meant dissatisfaction with eighteenth-centiiry standards and with the colonial character of American literature, and thus involved the founding of The Dial (q.v.). Nor in this connection should we forget the interest displayed by some Transcendentalists in the Oriental Scriptures, in Neo-Platonism, and in more or less occult literature. But behind the revolt from formal Unitarianism and the craving for new forms of philosophy and literature that characterized many young persons in New England between 1830 and 1840, there was the general uplift of the world's spirit that showed itself in revolutions and in other ways, and there was also on the part of aspiring souls a contempt for the vulgarity and selfishness of American political and business life during the Jacksonian epoch. It is no wonder that New England, which was old and homogeneous enough to produce thinkers and writers, and not merely men of action and affairs, was nevertheless unable to develop orderly schools of thought and literature, and seemed for a time given over to extremists and faddists of all sorts.

If the Transcendental movement was ever organized, this did not take place until 1836 (September 19th), when Emerson, Hedge, Alcott, and others formed the so-called Hedge or Transcendental Club. Little came of this organization until The Dial was started in 1840, and Brook Farm (q.v.) founded in 1841. Neither enterprise was fully successful, but both were very influential upon literature and thought, though not greatly upon action. Under Margaret Fuller (q.v.) and Emerson The Dial was a hospitable receptacle for the verses of the Transcendentalist poets — C. P. Cranch (q.v.) , the younger W. E. Channing (q.v.), and others, whose merits are slowly being recognized — and for many of the best papers of the two editors, and of Thoreau (q.v.). It did not create or recreate American literature, but it undoubtedly stimulated important writers. Brook Farm was laughed at by the hard-headed, and not effectively supported by many of the leading Transccndentalists themselves, but it set up a beneficial ideal of “plain living and high thinking,” it furnished Hawthorne material for his Blithedale Romance, and it doubtless leavened the utilitarian spirit of the country and the age.

No writer upon New England Transcendentalism has failed to remark upon the exceedingly elusive character of the movement. It is difficult to disengage its elements, to delimit it in point of time, to say what it really accomplished, to determine what it became. If it had been fully organized the case would have been different for the student, yet the results would probably have been less fortunate, both to the Transcendentalists themselves and to the American people at large. Not being hampered by organization, by formulas, by the apparatus of propagandism, the Transcendentalists were better able to serve a more specific cause of greater moment — that of Abolition. They were also enabled to follow the bent of individual genius after having experienced, as Wordsworth had before them, the stimulating effects of having lived in a visionary period, when it was bliss merely to be alive, and when to be young was very heaven. Emerson became the favorite moralist of his countrymen, and an important poet; Alcott gave full vent to his eccentricity, and ended as the patron saint of the Concord Philosophers; Margaret Fuller had a brilliant and only too short career as a critic and woman of letters; Ripley by his reviews in The Tribune and his services with C. A. Dana (q.v.) as an encyclopædist showed that a Brook Farmer was capable of valuable, if homely, work in the cause of letters and science; Thorcau revealed nature to his countrymen, and became a high priest of individualism, as well as a writer of truly classic prose; Theodore Parker died just before the beginning of the crusade of which he was perhaps the greatest preacher. Last, but not least, thousands of men and women throughout New England were inspired by Transcendentalism to devote themselves to every form of philanthropy, including educational and temperance reform, to acquire a varied and genuine culture, and to become public-spirited citizens. The era of the Transcendentalists was in many respects an American Renaissance, the effects of which were not confined to this country, but were spread, chiefly through the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Channing, to England and to some extent to the Continent of Europe. That their ideas were vague and often transcended reason, not to say common sense, that their literary work was largely amateurish, that their extravagances gave much occasion to legitimate ridicule, that their so-called movement was the forerunner of religious and social manias of all sorts, can scarcely be gainsaid; but it is equally idle to deny the loftiness of their aims and the importance of their works.

Consult the various lives of Emerson, Ripley, Channing, J. F. Clarke, Parker, Margaret Fuller, Alcott, Thoreau, etc. Also Cooke, Unitarianism in America (Boston, 1903); id., The Poets of Transcendentalism (ib., 1903); Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (New York, 1876); Swift, Brook Farm (ib., 1900); T. W. Higginson, Old Cambridge (ib., 1900).