Key People and Works
Widely recognized as the founder of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson played a key role the development of the movement as well as publishing a magnitude of essays that shaped the core beliefs of transcendental thinking. His first essay, Nature, was published in 1836 and set the basis for the whole mindset of Transcendentalism, emphasizing the connection between the individual, God, and nature. This was also the same year that held the first meeting of the Transcendental Club. These were the early days of the movement, where a group of other like-minded New England scholars would meet frequently in Emerson’s home to discuss politics, philosophy, and their general disappointment in the state of American culture. Apart from the club, Emerson also published two series of essays stressing core Transcendental beliefs including arguably his most famous works, Nature, Self-Reliance, and The Over-Soul (3).
Perhaps the most famous excerpt from Self-Reliance reads,
“a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood” (4).
Henry David Thoreau also made major contributions to Transcendentalism with his published works, most especially for his book Walden, an account of his time spent at Walden Pond. While reflecting on life away from the constraints of society, Thoreau describes the reasoning behind his stay at Walden:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion” (5).
Thoreau also wrote an essay titled Civil Disobedience, an account of a night he spent in jail over his opposition to the institution of slavery as well as the Mexican-American War. He wrote that individuals need to stand behind beliefs they know to be true, even if these values do not cooperate with those of the government or higher authority (6). His ideas were heavily influential to leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, who frequently cited Thoreau’s importance of refusing to play a role in an unjust government.
A champion of women’s rights and progressive thought, Margaret Fuller contributed to the spread of Transcendentalism from its beginnings at Emerson’s home until her death in 1850, which non-coincidentally marks the beginning of the movement’s decline. Fuller was a good friend to both Emerson and Thoreau, and was the first woman invited to attend the Transcendentalist Club. As her companionship with Emerson grew, she was invited to become the editor of The Dial, a journal/magazine intermittently published between the years 1840-1844. The Dial was the established collaborative work of the New England Transcendentalists, and Fuller’s work with the journal established her place as one of the biggest contributors to the movement.
Fuller is perhaps best known for her book Woman In The Nineteenth Century, originally a contribution to The Dial but later published on its own. She discusses in depth the woman’s role in American Democracy at the time, and the book is widely recognized as the first piece of Feminist literature in the United States, paving the way for the following generation to take massive steps in the path of women's rights (7).