Transcendentalism

Anonymous

Transcendentalism was a movement in philosophy, literature, and religion that emerged and was popular in the nineteenth century New England because of a need to redefine man and his place in the world in response to a new and changing society. The industrial revolution, universities, westward expansion, urbanization and immigration all made the life in a city like Boston full of novelty and turbulence. Transcendentalism was a reaction to an impoverishment of religion and mechanization of consciousness of eighteenth century rational doctrines that ceased to be satisfying. After the success of the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, an American man emerged confident and energetic. However, with the release of nervous energy, an American was forced to look at a different angle at his place in the world and society.

The world of the nineteenth century Boston was that of emergence of new currents of thought in response to the conservative atmosphere. The wealthy upper classes (the aristocracy) were conservative and suspicious of any innovations. They dominated the society and demanded conformity to their social ideals, being suspicious of any new structure of society. The irony was that by their reliance on tradition and old beliefs (such as Puritanism) they acknowledged the harmony with cosmic law. Old values and traditions would serve as a base to Transcendentalism, although a radical movement in itself.

In the nineteenth century America plunged into the Industrial Revolution. In the eighteenth century, goods were produced in home system operations. The remarkable development of capitalism in Boston became evident after the French and Indian war of 1812. Two of huge factories privately owned in Boston were Francis Lowell's Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham and Merrimack Manufacturing Company in Lowell. As the role of women in society became more indiscriminate, young females dominated factory towns such as Lowell. They came from all over New England's farms and small towns, worked for a few years and then returned. Thus the mill populations were transient. With mechanization of textiles, new styles and fashions developed. Thus newness was becoming a virtue rather than peril.

Improvement of transportation made urbanization and westward expansion more rapid. Cumberland Turnpike was built in 1811. Erie Canal, finished in 1825, connected Hudson River with the Great Lakes. Baltimore and Ohio Steam Railroad of 1828 linked the country. The first successful steamboat, Clermont, was launched in 1807. Between 1789 and 1850 the total population of the country soared from 4 million to 23 million. The area of the country more than tripled in this period, reaching 3 million square miles, as more states were added. The trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific was completed in 1850 when California was admitted as the 31st state. Southeastern expansion was completed in 1819, when Spain gave up East Florida. Increase in population also brought about urbanization. In 1820, only 7.2% lived in cities larger than 2.5 thousand people, while by 1840 the number soared to 92.1%. Boston increased its population from 54 thousand to 120 thousand in this period. Frederick Jackson Turner captured the atmosphere precisely: "All was motion and change Restlessness was universal."

However, people often could not endure this pace of growth. There was not enough time and money for planning and building of houses. This resulted in overcrowded houses, often with more than one family living in the same room, poor sewage and lighting. This lead to an increase in crime. Ethnic conflicts often resulted in fights between street gangs, as people of the same nationality tended to live close together and battled other ethnic groups. Immigration brought racial conflicts with it just as urbanization brought slums. However, these conditions proved to be a fertile ground for reform, which was one of the reasons for rise and popularity of Transcendentalism whose members occupied themselves with social reform.

Transcendentalism is a belief in a higher reality that could be perceived. The concept of transcendence was first developed by Plato. He believed in existence of absolute goodness, one beyond description. He stated that it could be perceived only through intuition rather than logic or rationality. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later use Plato's other theory that the world is an expression of spirit to develop his theory of correspondence. Kant was the first one to state that God and soul are transcendent. The innate principles with which mind gives form to its perceptions and makes experience intelligible are