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Transcendentalism

Uploaded by mfields on Oct 31, 2004

Although Transcendentalism as a historical movement was limited in time from the mid 1830s to the late 1840s and in space to eastern Massachusetts, its ripples continue to spread through American culture. Beginning as a quarrel within the Unitarian church, Transcendentalism’s questioning of established cultural forms, its urge to reintegrate spirit and matter, its desire to turn ideas into concrete action developed a momentum of its own, spreading from the spheres of religion and education to literature, philosophy, and social reform. While Transcendentalism’s ambivalence about any communal effort that would compromise individual integrity prevented it from creating lasting institutions, it helped set the terms for being an intellectual in America.

It is easier to note its pervasive influence, though, than it is to clarify its doctrines. The fluidity and elusiveness of Transcendentalism was registered even by some of its most intelligent contemporaries. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, writes: “He is German by birth, and is called Giant Transcendentalist, but as to his form, his features, his substance, and his nature generally, it is the chief peculiarity of this huge miscreant that neither he for himself nor anybody for him has ever been able to describe them. As we rushed by the cavern’s mouth we caught a hasty glimpse of him, looking somewhat like an ill-proportioned figure but considerably more like a heap of fog and duskiness. He shouted after us, but in so strange a phraseology that we knew not what he meant, nor whether to be encouraged or affrighted.” On an American visit, Charles Dickens was told “that whatever was unintelligible would certainly be transcendental” and Edgar Allan Poe instructs a young author to write the Tone Transcendental by using small words but turning them upside down. A Baltimore clergyman noted that “a new philosophy has risen, maintaining that nothing is everything in general, and everything is nothing in particular.”

While these quotations imply that Transcendentalism had a language problem compounded of foreign borrowings and oracular jargon, the underlying difficulty in comprehension is that it was both a cause and a result of a major paradigm shift in epistemology, in conceptualizing how the mind knows the world, the divine, and itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson, its leading exponent, described both this shift...

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Uploaded by:   mfields

Date:   10/31/2004

Category:   American

Length:   15 pages (3,402 words)

Views:   6601

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