Transcendentalism in America The transcendentalist movement hit America full force by the mid 19th century, crafting a passionate spiritual idealism in its wake and leaving a unique mark on the history of American literature. Transcendentalism stems from the broader Romanticist time period, which depends on intuition rather than reasoning. Transcendentalism takes a step further into the realm of spirituality with the principle that in order to discover the divine truth that the individual seeks, he or she must transcend, or exceed, the “everyday human experience in the physical world” (“Elements of Literature: Fifth Course” 146).
Nature, the physical world, is seen as a doorway to the divine world; beings can cross over into this divine world by not only observing nature, but also looking within themselves. As a result, individuality and self-assurance are seen as virtues, since they come from the heart of the individual. William Cullen Bryant and his poem Thanatopsis, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, and Walt Whitman’s A Noiseless Patient Spider all display fundamental characteristics of Transcendentalism.
William Cullen Bryant was a famous American poet of the 1800s, integrating major themes of transcendentalism into his poems and short stories. Thanatopsis is one of Bryant’s most famous works, and combines the themes of nature, death, and the unity of these two with humanity. He starts by personifying nature, and claims he has a unique relationship with “her” and all her different “forms”, referring to sights that adorn the landscape. Valleys, brooks, and plant life are all her different forms.
Bryant explains that nature speaks differently to an individual according to their mood: “Communion with her visible forms, she speaks/A various language; for his gayer hours/She has a voice of gladness, and a smile” (2-4). When that individual’s attitude changes, so does nature’s character: “and she glides/Into his darker musings, with a mild/And healing sympathy, that steals away/Their sharpness, ere he is aware. ” (5-8). Nature seemingly heals the individual’s pain before they are conscious of it. Bryant then transfers to the melancholy thoughts of death.
He states that when we die, we will become one with nature. He describes all the ways the earth will reuse us in the soil, for the trees, and we will become as indifferent as rocks that scatter about the world. Therefore, we should not feel disheartened towards death. He continues to persuade the reader not to worry, for everyone will one day lie down “in one mighty sepulcher” (37) together. He ends on the note that we should not greet death with hopelessness, as if entering a prison, but embrace it as if it were just an opportunity to lie down and sleep dreamily.
Transcendentalism is a sector of romanticism, and therefore, like romanticism, can be said to encompass the philosophy of “reverence for nature” (Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia). Many transcendentalist believers took to nature to gain inspiration and descend into a state of divinity. Wildlife was connected to God, and by embracing the wild you embraced spirituality itself. Living in an untamed environment and functioning in the works of nature was the essence of transcendentalism.
Bryant perceives the personified Nature as a celestial being that takes many forms in the world, and he calls out to those who see her similarly. In his first line he addresses “To him who in the love of Nature holds/ Communion with her visible forms”(1-2). He is calling out to those who hold a special relationship with Nature’s various spectacles. He continues to admire nature’s wisdom, urging readers to “Go forth, under the open sky, and list/To Nature’s teachings, while from all around/ Earth and her waters, and the depths of air/Comes a still voice” (14-17).
One author notes “ ‘Thanatopsis’ then exhorts anyone overcome with morbid thoughts of human mortality to venture into Nature for the sake of uplifting lessons to be derived from the elements of air, earth, and water that constitute the universe” (Curley). Another characteristic of the transcendental literary time period is human mortality, and this is the main concern in Thanatopsis, which literally translates into “a meditation on death”. As one critic puts it, Thanatopsis grants “consolation for human mortality through mankind’s unity with nature” (Curley).
Death, no matter what time period it is observed in, can be daunting to an individual. Since death is a part of nature, transcendentalism embraces it as a cycle of life. Thanatopsis is intertwined with the perspective of nature, it is Nature’s lessons that ease the fear of death: “Nature then begins to speak, and does so for the remainder of the poem, directly addressing the person oppressed by human mortality with a reminder that while the body will dissolve in the grave, one’s identity will be lost in its commingling with the elements. ” (Price).
Many transcendentalists like this idea of the human body becoming one with nature, giving back to the place from where it originated, such as in Bryant’s words: “Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim/Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again/And, lost each human trace, surrendering up/Thine individual being, shalt thou go”(22-25). The main reason transcendentalists do not dread mortality is the solace that “the body will dissolve in the grave, one’s identity will be lost in its commingling with the elements” (Curley). Additionally, Bryant offered further explanations as to why death should be accepted, rather than fled from.
Humanity itself is not permanent, and no man has ever been immortal; Bryant amplifies this truth: “All that breathe/Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh/When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care/Plod on, and each one as before will chase/His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave” (60-64). To this, one critic comments “an individual’s death merges with the mortality of the entire human race anywhere in time, anywhere in place, and therefore, merely fulfills the universal human destiny…The living may be carefree or sad, but in the end they share the same mortal fate” (Curley).
Ralph Waldo Emerson also exemplified various themes of transcendentalism in his work. Emerson’s The American Scholar encourages individualism, nonconformity, originality, and reliance on the inner spirit. He discusses different sources that the human mind should rely on, such as nature, literature, and action. He embraces an understanding of oneself. Emerson criticizes those who focus too much on the great minds of the past, rather than being inspired by them, and don’t actually think for themselves.
He explains that work leaves an individual empty, almost becoming a simple machine, like the growing factories in America. Emerson directs this speech at a particular issue: America’s influence from European literature. This came to bother Emerson, who believed in inspiration from oneself. The individual is so special. This speech directly targets America’s unknown identity during this time, which he wishes to establish by inspiring each and every “American scholar”.
An important aspect of transcendentalism in The American Scholar was individualism and self-confidence: “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him” (The American Scholar). Individualism is what spins the planet of creativity; to Emerson, without it human beings would not be able to achieve their full potential. In order for a person to free their individuality, they would have to first disengage from society itself. Emerson believes that society limits an individual’s capacity.
One critic notes that Emerson sees the American scholar as a reformation project, where one must have “an idealized portrait of intellectual life rooted in the liberated humanity of the individual thinker. In practice this means an outright rejection of conformity and groupthink, including the uncritical acceptance of established creeds and dogmas” (Yang). Before the transcendentalism period hit America, industrialization had taken a toll on the American people; work was the central focus, and it left many tired and empty.
Emerson observed, “Equated with their occupational function, people become tool-like, with a corresponding social arrangement that reinforces this state of affairs. He views this deformation as inherent in the mercantile and manufacturing culture then emerging in the United States. This social fragmentation not only inhibits human potential… its soul-destroying consequences are dehumanizing” (Matuozzi). Another more obscure issue that Emerson dealt with was America’s tendency to hang on to past great writers and philosophers, rather than coming to revelations with their own minds.
As Emerson put it, “Books are written on it [the world] by thinkers, not by Man Thinking, by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books” (The American Scholar).
One critic explains this quote: “Emerson criticizes those scholars who allow themselves to be dominated by the past great minds to the extent that they think for the historical figures rather than for themselves, thereby becoming bookworms instead of “Man Thinking” (Yang). While looking to historical figures is oftentimes needed to understand what a person needs to do in their life, it does more harm than good to sculpt yourself into that exact person. It is confidence in oneself that is needed for transcendentalist philosophy to prevail. A central theme in The American Scholar is striving for wholeness. Since this private aspiration is linked with an individualist ethic and often clashes with social norms and public institutions, Emerson’s project would seem to require a powerful will… the harmonization of will, intellect, and soul is difficult, perhaps the chief impediment to the full realization of self-reliance and self-trust…In the end, Emerson’s espousal of self-reliant individualism in The American Scholar is an unwavering rejection of whatever blunts creative human potential.
Wherever circumstances threaten the value of autonomy, the outspoken message of The American Scholar will offer encouragement, proving a clear alternative to debilitating conformity and spiritual alienation. ” (Matuozzi) Emerson also expands on the idea of action. Without it, transcendentalism would be nothing but talk of reformation. It would do no good to anyone in the world. Transcendentalist ideas were based on constantly living, rather than constantly contemplating. Emerson sees that action is relevant to human potential. The scholar immerses him- or herself in the world rather than fleeing it. The world is an occasion to gain valuable knowledge through focused, mindful participation. ” (Matuozzi). The critic is directly stemming from a statement made in The American Scholar by Emerson: “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. (The American Scholar). A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman has a key trait of the characteristics of transcendentalism as well. The first stanza of the poem starts out by describing one isolated spider. Whitman describes the actions of this spider, as it flings its filaments, or silk webs, into the air. The arachnid is doing this in the hope of latching on to some sort of solid, stable surface. This would ensure it an easy groundwork for setting up the rest of its web. The observer in the poem remarks that he can see this spider as it repeats this tedious task over and over again.
In the second stanza, Whitman changes perspectives, instead focused on a human mortal. In the first stanza, the poet saw the desolate world the spider resided in. “I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated/Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding” (2-3). In the second stanza, the poet takes this lone spider and turns the creature into a metaphorical form of the human soul. He describes how his own soul is “Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them” (8).
Just like the spider, uncertain of its future, the human soul also wanders about aimlessly, hoping to grasp something stable that it can cling to. It is just as lonesome. This literary piece adds to the transcendental theme of the unknown. Oftentimes, people find themselves drifting along in life, not knowing where they are headed. “A miniscule spider, attempting to chart a boundless vacuity with grossly inadequate equipment, becomes a living symbol of the pathetic plight of human mortality. The human soul, too, must deal with the unknown. (Scherle). We search for a purpose, a meaning in our lives that will stabilize us. “The experience of the spider becomes a metaphor symbolizing the soul’s quest for the unification of earthly and heavenly existence…the person visualizes in the spider’s action a reflection of the pathetic yet heroic struggle he is waging to find immortality. ” (Scherle). Without purpose, a person can stray from a better path; transcendentalists found comfort in knowing that the unknown is connected with some mystical higher being.
As one critic notes, “The sense of human insignificance is monstrous” (Scherle). Along those lines, Whitman shows that finding that sole purpose can be a long and tiresome task. Oftentimes it is repetitive and dismal, and the outcome is unspecified. “Everything (immortality) is hanging on a silken thread, which is being tossed tentatively and figuratively into an unidentified, undefined ‘somewhere’” (Scherle). Whitman sees his soul in “Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space” just as the spider “stood isolated” in a “vacant vast surrounding” (2-7).
What the critic realizes is that “A Noiseless Patient Spider is a poem about loneliness…this is a loneliness that grows out of an inherent tendency of the body and soul to attempt to unite with an elusive divine entity in order to gain immortality” (Scherle). Whitman uses the transcendental “concept of nature as a wayseer for human truth” (Scherle). Transcendentalism is portrayed through the literary works of William Cullen Bryant and Thanatopsis, Ralph Waldo Emerson and The American Scholar, and Walt Whitman and A Noiseless Patient Spider. Thanatopsis exemplifies themes of nature and death.
Transcendentalists immersed themselves in the natural world to connect with the divine otherworld. The American Scholar argued that in order to transcend the human body into a spiritual realm, you must first disengage from society. A Noiseless Patient Spider explains the isolation and uncertainty we have throughout our lives. We search for purpose and reason, never knowing what to expect. Transcendentalism was a unique literary time period in America that consisted of a love for nature, the divine, and the individual human mind. Works Cited Page * “Romanticism. ” HarperCollins Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. 1996). ebscohost. Web. 18 Mar 2013. * Price, Victoria. “Thanatopsis, Poems. ” Salem Press Masterplots. (2010). ebscohost. Database. 18 Mar 2013. * Curley, Thomas M. “Thanatopsis, Poems. ” Salem Press Masterplots II. (2010). ebscohost. Database. 18 Mar 2013. * Scherle, Phillis J. “A Noiseless Patient Spider, Leaves of Grass. ” Salem Press Masterplots II (2002). ebscohost. Database. 18 Mar 2013. * Matuozzi, Robert N. “A Noiseless Patient Spider, Leaves of Grass. ” Salem Press Masterplots (2010). ebscohost. Database. 18 Mar 2013. * Yang, Vincent. “The American Scholar. ” Salem Press Magill’s