Transcendentalism and A New American Culture (1836-1860)

This exhibit will focus on the Transcendentalist movement that began in the 1830’s in New England, as well as the shift into a national culture shaped by romanticist ideals with an emphasis on literature and new ways of thinking. What started primarily as not necessarily backlash, but dissatisfaction against ideas that populated the 18th and early 19th centuries such as rationalism and unitarianism. Transcendentalists were idealists, focused on becoming self-reliant and believing in the power of the individual. They believed that social structures prevents individuals from reaching the fullest versions of themselves. They believed that all beings had value and were all created equally, which is why they were fierce opponents of the institution of slavery as well as supporters of many social movements addressing social inequality.

The purpose of this exhibit is to not only showcase the influential people and ideas of the movement, but to explore the ways in which the core ideas of Transcendentalism spread throughout the United States well beyond the movement’s eventual decline in the 1850’s. Transcendentalism is well recognized as the first uniquely American philosophical and intellectual movement in the history of the United States, and previous scholars study in depth the words of key individuals from the movement including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. But less frequently discussed are the ways in which America’s first philosophical movement was unlike any other movement before it, and essential in setting the course for a new generation of American writers, romantics, and philosophers.