Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau,
and American Transcendentalism
If one advances confidently in the direction of
his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which
he has imagined, he will meet with a success
unexpected in common hours. He will put some
things behind, will pass an invisible boundary…
If you have built castles in the air, your work
need not be lost; that is where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them…
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
What is American Transcendentalism?
 Idealistic philosophy, spiritual position, and literary
movement that advocates reliance on romantic intuition
and moral human conscience
 Belief that humans can intuitively transcend the limits of
the senses and of logic to a plane of “higher truths”
 Value spirituality
 Direct access to benevolent God
 Not an organized religion or ritual
 Divinity of humanity, nature, intellectual pursuits, social
 Roughly 1830s-1850s
What is conformity? In what ways and for what reasons do 
schools promote conformity? How can one be an individual in
a conformist society? How does conformity benefit society?
Where does Transcendentalism come from?
 Spirit of Revivalism: Like the Great Awakening,
Transcendentalism is one of many spiritual revivals.
 Rise of Unitarianism: Liberal churches in the decline of
Calvinist Puritanism looked at Christian theology as humancentered rather than God-centered.
 Romanticism: The emphasis on the individual and nature
becomes a spiritual connection called the over-soul.
Who are the Transcendentalists?
 The influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson
 Unitarian Intelligentsia rises up around Harvard and
Yale: upper class ministers have the money and leisure
to pursue philosophical learning.
 Young liberal and active students question a lack of
involvement and attention on reform movements
 Boston Reform Movements:
 Suffrage and Women’s Issues
 Abolition
 Labor: Industrialism and Fear that Individuality will be lost
 Hedge’s Club, then the Transcendental club.
“Transcendentalism was, at its core, a philosophy of naked
individualism, aimed at the creation of the new American,
the self-reliant man, complete and independent”
– Paul P. Reuben
“I was given to understand that whatever was
unintelligible would be certainly transcendental.”
– Charles Dickens
“I should have told them at once that I was a
transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way
of telling them that they would not understand my
– Henry David Thoreau
The Philosophy of Transcendentalism
 Emphasis on self-reliance – achieved through exercising one’s
own moral and spiritual strength
Human senses are limited; they convey knowledge of the physical
world, but deeper truths can only be grasped through intuition
Observations of nature illuminate the nature of human beings
God, man, and nature are united in the oversoul
The individual is the center of the universe; therefore, all
knowledge begins with self-knowledge.
Nonconformity is key; individual should reject society in order to
remain true to one’s own sense of self.
Concern is for this life, not the afterlife. Emerson states, “The one
things of value in the world is the active soul.”
The Sublime in Nature
Heightened psychological state
Overwhelming experience of awe, reverence, comprehension
Achieved when soul is immersed in grandeur of nature
Sense of transcendence from everyday world
The Over-Soul
 Through self-reliance and a transcendent experience with
the sublime in nature, one can reconcile body and soul as
a part of the Over-soul or Universal Soul, the source of
all life.
 Transcendentalists try to form new society based on
metaphysical awareness, they want to purify society by
purifying hearts and minds
 Transcendentalists are lonely explorers or pilgrims
outside society and convention
Romanticism Refresher
 Reaction against Rationalism and the
 Poetry and art cannot be a thing of logic; down
with strict rhyming, strict meter, and structure.
 Art emphasizes inspiration, spontaneity, and
 In NATURE and CHILDHOOD we see
universal, spiritual truths
Romanticism Refresher
 Nature is the key to self-awareness; if you open yourself
to nature, you may receive its gifts: a deeper, more
mystical experience of life
 Nature offers a kind of grace, a salvation from mundane
evil of everyday life
 External world of nature actually reflects invisible,
spiritual reality
 Self-reliance: seek the truth in immediate perceptions of
the world
The Transcendental Club (ironic?)
 A group of like-minded thinkers that rises up around Concord,
Massachusetts—kind of artists’ colony
Most are wealthy and liberal – so they have the time and leisure to
ponder philosophical matters
Transcendentalist Club begins
in 1836—writing, reading,
reform projects
The Dial: published by the the
Transcendentalist Club from
Utopian communities—
groups to escape American
Brook Farm
Emerson and his break from Unitarianism
Emerson comes from a line of
Unitarian ministers.
He breaks with the church after the
death of his first wife.
He begins to question God and the
church, which he feels is too
intellectualized, too removed from
direct experience of God
Seeing is Believing
“Standing on the bare
ground,— my head bathed in
the blithe air, and uplifted into
infinite space, — all mean
egotism vanishes.
I become a
transparent eye-ball;
I am nothing; I see all; the
currents of the Universal Being
circulate through me; I am part
or particle of God.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836
How could a person be a modern
Transcendentalist? What choices would a
person make? What would be the benefits?
The costs?
Journal extension – Can we live in the
world and retain the solitude of our own
mind? How do we avoid being sucked
into consumed society and pressures?
Time and space are awash here
Juxtaposition: the act of placing two things (often abstract ideas) side
by side for comparison or contrast
Example: The juxtaposition of luxury and deprivation in Countee
Cullen’s “Saturday’s Child” emphasizes the desperate divide that the
hopeless see as impossible to overcome.
who is the better man?
“It is easy in the world to
live after the world's
opinion; it is easy in
solitude to live after our
own; but the great man is
he who in the midst of
the crowd keeps with
perfect sweetness the
independence of
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I thrive best on solitude.
If I have had a companion
only one day in a week
(unless it were one or two I
could name), I find that the
value of the week to me has
been seriously affected. It
dissipates my days, and
often it takes me another
week to get over it.”
-- Henry David Thoreau
the better man debate
Despite their many similarities in belief, Emerson and
Thoreau see the way that a person opposes society in some
fundamentally different ways, and they express their beliefs
in different ways. As well, Lawrence and Lee portray the
men in very different lights – each man with his strengths
and weaknesses.
Using your knowledge of the characters and your
inferences of what their actions reveal about their identity
and values, decide…
who is the better man? and why?