Transcendentalism was a nineteenth-century literary and philosophical movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and a small but active circle of  New England educators, religious leaders, and social reformers. The movement began as an informal Boston discussion club. However, its influence gradually rippled outward to affect the values and beliefs not only of later U.S. writers (from Walt Whitman and John Muir to Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams) but of Americans in general. And though  its role as a guiding force in American life and letters began subsiding well before the Civil War, several of its main ideas and concerns (e.g., individualism, self-improvement, spiritualism, and moral protest) are still engrained in U.S. cultural practices and political attitudes today.
". . . When every voice is raised for a new road or another statue or a subscription of stock; for an improvement in dress, or dentistry; for a new house or a larger business; for a political party, or the division of an estate;--will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable?"--Emerson, "The Transcendentalist" (1842).

    Although the Transcendentalist movement never produced a founding document or manifesto, Emerson's "Nature" essay (1836) sounded its inspirational keynote, while the Dial (a quarterly journal established in 1840 and edited by Fuller) served as its more or less official mouthpiece. The closest thing to a definition of the movement appears in Emerson's 1842 essay "The Transcendentalist," which proclaims not only what Transcendentalism is ("Transcendentalism . . . is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842") but even more emphatically what it is not: "there is no such thing as a Transcendental party."

    As one might expect from a philosophy conceived by a group of outspoken eccentrics and flinty non-conformists, Transcendentalism is notoriously hard to systematize and pin down. Nevertheless, out of the casual hodge-podge of essays, sermons, addresses, journal articles, notebook entries, and full-scale literary artifacts (especially Walden and Leaves of Grass) produced by its various sympathizers and fellow travelers, it is still possible to identify some of the movement's main sources and precursors as well as several of its central tenets and basic principles.

    Sources and Influences

    Transcendentalism is in many respects an intellectual potpourri, a New England chowder blended from a variety of philosophical and religious ingredients, both foreign and domestic. Among the earlier traditions that contributed to its development were

    Beliefs and Principles

    "Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself." (Thus Whitman at the end of "Song of Myself"; in effect breezily enlarging on Emerson's remark that "a petty consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.") The experienced reader soon learns to expect very little in the way of logic, mathematical clarity, or even ordinary consistency in the views of Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism is more an outlook or frame of mind than an actual philosophy--though it is still possible to identify a few basic beliefs and fundamental principles. To wit:

"The landscape, the figures, Boston, London, are facts as fugitive as any institution past, or any whiff of mist or smoke, and so is society, and so is the world. The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds behind." Emerson, "The Over-Soul" (1838).
Return to lecture page Quiz Return to welcome page


  Questions:  David L. Simpson ( 
The School for New Learning, DePaul University, Chicago, IL 60604 
 © David L. Simpson, 1998