Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Five: Transcendental Theory and Practice, an American Romanticism

Yet another major cultural shift would occur in America well after the birthing pangs of becoming a new nation were beginning to pass. Though the United States may have severed political ties with England, evolving European influences would continue to greatly impact these shores and the varied writings produced here. Behind the rise of American Transcendentalism there lies the European-born movement of literary romanticism. An understanding of romanticism is necessary not only to fully comprehend the background of transcendentalism in this country but also to understand its influences on the creative literature that the United States would produce in the early to the late nineteenth century.

Kathryn VanSpanckeren introduces the period well in the two opening segments of her chapter on this subject. As she notes,

Romantic ideas centered around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature, and metaphors of organic growth. Art, rather than science, Romantics argued, would best express universal truth.

This is a far cry from Franklin's scientific deism and Locke's reliance upon the senses to properly comprehend the universe.

Lilia Melani provides this background.

[In romanticism,] the imagination was elevated to a position as the supreme faculty of the mind. This contrasted distinctly with the traditional arguments for the supremacy of reason. The Romantics tended to define and to present the imagination as our ultimate "shaping" or creative power, the approximate human equivalent of the creative powers of nature or even deity. It is dynamic, an active, rather than passive power, with many functions. Imagination is the primary faculty for creating all art. On a broader scale, it is also the faculty that helps humans to constitute reality, for (as Wordsworth suggested), we not only perceive the world around us, but also in part create it. Uniting both reason and feeling (Coleridge described it with the paradoxical phrase, "intellectual intuition"), imagination is extolled as the ultimate synthesizing faculty, enabling humans to reconcile differences and opposites in the world of appearance. The reconciliation of opposites is a central ideal for the Romantics. Finally, imagination is inextricably bound up with the other two major concepts, for it is presumed to be the faculty which enables us to "read" nature as a system of symbols.

"Nature" meant many things to the Romantics. As suggested above, it was often presented as itself a work of art, constructed by a divine imagination, in emblematic language. For example, throughout "Song of Myself," Whitman makes a practice of presenting commonplace items in nature--"ants," "heap'd stones," and "poke-weed"--as containing divine elements, and he refers to the "grass" as a natural "hieroglyphic," "the handkerchief of the Lord." While particular perspectives with regard to nature varied considerably--nature as a healing power, nature as a source of subject and image, nature as a refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization, including artificial language--the prevailing views accorded nature the status of an organically unified whole. It was viewed as "organic," rather than, as in the scientific or rationalist view, as a system of "mechanical" laws, for Romanticism displaced the rationalist view of the universe as a machine (e.g., the deistic image of a clock) with the analogue of an "organic" image, a living tree or mankind itself. At the same time, Romantics gave greater attention both to describing natural phenomena accurately and to capturing "sensuous nuance"--and this is as true of Romantic landscape painting as of Romantic nature poetry. Accuracy of observation, however, was not sought for its own sake. Romantic nature poetry is essentially a poetry of meditation.

Ann Woodlief concisely defines elements of American romanticism and that generation's reaction to the prior Age of Reason in these ways:

Connected to [the search for new spiritual roots] was the rise and professionalization of science, which seemed to many to conflict with religion. Many felt a psychic dislocation, that the bottom had dropped out of their world since traditional values and conventional reality were just not enough for them. They tried to impose meaning individually, for institutions and dogmas seemed to possess little truth. Philosophically, they reacted against the materialistic educational theories of Locke and rationalism. They found Truth more a matter of intuition and imagination than logic and reason. They rejected the mechanistic view of the universe so dear to Franklin and Deists and opted for a more organic view, seeing the world more as dynamic and living.

Aesthetically, the romantics were also in a state of revolt, primarily against the restraints of classicism and formalism. Form, particularly traditional literary forms, mattered much less than inspiration, enthusiasm, and emotion. Good literature should have heart, not rules, although it is never so simple as that.

There were specifically American components to the romanticism of our authors. They were particularly aware of nature, especially its wild aspects, and were beginning to comprehend that it was being lost as fast as they were appreciating it. The physical frontiers were being conquered in this time of "manifest destiny" and there was little [local] wilderness to explore (and exploit). They turned to artistic, metaphysical, and intellectual frontiers to recapture the ecstasy of exploration and discovery.

Reaction was a major, but not the only, mode for these romantics. They confronted the distinctively American pressures for conformity and definitions of success in terms of money. They spoke out, to some degree, against slavery, promoting the ideals of Jacksonian democracy, that "any man can do anything" (if he's white and educated). They sought to create a distinctive American literary voice; it was time for the cultural revolution to follow the political one. They felt compelled to declare cultural and individual independence from Europe, even though they had little idea of what form that could take.

See the rest of her intuitive essay at:

The majority of these romantic characteristics made their way into or greatly influenced American transcendentalism.

Henry A. Beers depicts American transcendental influences in this manner.

It has been said that, on its philosophical side, New England transcendentalism was a restatement of idealism. The impulse came from Germany, from the philosophical writings of Kant, Fichte, Jacobi, and Schelling, and from the works of Coleridge and Carlyle, who had domesticated German thought in England. In Channing's Remarks on a National Literature, quoted in our last chapter, the essayist urged that our scholars should study the authors of France and Germany as one means of emancipating American letters from a slavish dependence on British literature. And in fact German literature began, not long after, to be eagerly studied in New England. Emerson published an American edition of Carlyle's Miscellanies, including his essays on German writers that had appeared in England between 1822 and 1830. In 1838 Ripley began to publish Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, which extended to fourteen volumes. In his work of translating and supplying introductions to the matter selected, he was helped by Ripley, Margaret Fuller, John S. Dwight, and others who had more or less connection with the transcendental movement.

The definition of the new faith given by Emerson in his lecture on the Transcendentalist, 1842, is as follows; "What is popularly called transcendentalism among us is idealism. . . . The idealism of the present day acquired the name of transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself, and he denominated them transcendental forms." Idealism denies the independent existence of matter. Transcendentalism claims for the innate ideas of God and the soul a higher assurance of reality than for the knowledge of the outside world derived through the senses.

Finally, Paul Rueben provides an informative lecture on key concepts of this movement, in his "American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." He points out these summary elements of transcendentalism:

Questions and Considerations

Compare and contrast ideas from the Age of Enlightenment/Rise of Nationalism to key elements of Romanticism and Transcendentalism.

In the unending debate in this country on issues of individualism and self-reliance, as opposed to social and civic cooperation, where do Emerson and Thoreau seem to comment on this subject and what do they advocate?

Try to briefly summarize the importance that Nature plays in human endeavors for Emerson.

What are the three duties of Emerson's American Scholar?

What would Henry David Thoreau say about American society today (extrapolating from his attitudes about his own day and age)?

Briefly summarize Thoreau's key concepts in his essay on Civil Disobedience.

Works Cited

Beers, Henry A. "Chapter Four: The Concord Writers." Initial Studies in American Literature. Chautauqua Press, 1891.

Melani, Lilia. "Romanticism." A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, English Department, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, 2009.

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. 2011.

VanSpanckeren, Kathryn. "The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Essayists and Poets." Outline of American Literature. Revised Edition. Info USA, U.S. Department of State. 2006.

Woodleif, Ann. "American Romanticism." American Transcendental Web. Virginia Commonwealth University. 2001, August 18.

Other Resources

Segment on Emerson and Eastern Philosophy at East Meets West











Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University