Transcendentalism in Literature

Cassandra Cortez

Transcendentalism was a literary movement in the first half of the 19th century. The philosophical theory contained such aspects as self-examination, the celebration of individualism, and the belief that the fundamental truths existed outside of human experience. Fulfillment of this search for knowledge came when one gained an acute awareness of beauty and truth, and communicated with nature to find union with the Over-Soul. When this occurred, one was cleansed of materialistic aims, and was left with a sense of self-reliance and purity. Two authors who were among the leaders of the movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whose works "Nature", "Self-Reliance", and "Walden" brought America to the forefront of the transcendentalist movement. Their ideas opposed the popular materialist views of life and voiced a desire for freedom of the individual from artificial restraints. They felt that if they explored nature thoroughly, they would come to know themselves and the universal truths better.

The concept of transcendentalism is clearly expressed in the essay "Nature", by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a leader in the movement of transcendentalism and the first American author to influence European thought. His essay "Nature" tells of how one can gain insight and spiritual cleansing simply from experiencing nature. Emerson tells of how "in the woods is perpetual youth" and "in the woods we return to reason and faith." These lines exemplify the very ideals of transcendentalism. They show the deep roots a person has in nature and how one can receive knowledge of their Over-Soul by honestly enjoying the outdoors and freeing oneself of previous evils. In the following lines, Emerson remarks:

"Standing on the bare ground- my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God."

These lines display the transcendentalist belief that purity and knowledge can be obtained from a union with and understanding of nature.

Emerson also relates the concept of transcendentalism to human life in his essay, "Self-Reliance." In this aptly named essay, Emerson grapples with another part of transcendentalism, the issue of "self-reliance." He sees mankind as somewhat of a coward; that people never express their true selves. Emerson claims that humans are afraid to fail; they are pleased if successful, but are never happy with where and what they are. He expresses transcendentalist ideals by saying that a true person would be a non-conformist. Emerson puts this belief into words in the following lines:

"There is a time in every man??s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion? kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil?K."

These words are the epitome of the ideals of transcendentalism- that one must celebrate the individual in order to find himself one with the universe.

Another significant glimpse into the core ideals of transcendentalism was made by the distinguished author Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau lived in the home of essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. His most honored and enjoyed work was the story, "Walden", which gives a forthright statement of his reasons for embracing a contemplative and decidedly transcendentalist life living on the shore of Walden Pond.

In "Walden", Thoreau explains why he chose the woods:

"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 practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary."

Thoreau himself was quoted as saying, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." In "Walden", the author describes the cardinal importance of nature in one??s search of their soul. Thoreau chose to live in seclusion because he believed solitude was the best companion in order to know one??s own self. In the essay, he felt that mankind cared too deeply for material possessions; "simplify!" he implored. Thoreau claimed that humans were "ruined by luxury and heedless expense" and that success is gained when one "advances confidently in the direction of his dreams". Thoreau stressed the