American Transcendentalism. Features of the Movement and Relation to English Romanticism

Essay 2016 5 Pages

American Studies - Literature


American Transcendentalism and English Romanticism

What do you understand by American Transcendentalism? Discuss the features of the movement with its relation to the English Romanticism.


This article provides details about two important things according to the demand of the topic. Depending on the topic, firstly I am going to define American Transcendentalism based on various sources and critiques, and then I will put my attention on the next section, describing the features of American Transcendentalism with its relation to the English Romanticism.

Defining Transcendentalism is a very hard task. Over the years, many minds have tried to define the concept of Transcendentalism. It is a word which has been variously interpreted. Charles Dickens once said that “I was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would be certainly Transcendentalism”. The word ‘Transcendent’ means ‘beyond’ and ‘above’, so Transcendentalism is a belief in the existence of divine world, beyond and above the world of sense. It also means that the word we perceive with our sense is not real at all. The actual reality lies beyond our experience of sense. So the divine cannot be known by reason or rational analysis, but it can be felt and experienced by spirit through intuition. Intuition is a sort of direct relation with God through which God guides the human being continuously. The intuition remains inherent in every human. To revive this intuition, one needs to go back to nature as God has unfolded every mystery and lessons for humans in the bosom of nature. It is one of the best ways to awake the intuition.

As transcendentalism is a product of the study of religious scriptures of the major cultures of the world, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of Transcendentalism, and other transcendentalists studied the Scriptures of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and other religions and applied the essence of them into their movement in order that the essence of all the religions might be integrated into a single umbrella. After doing so, transcendentalism finds out that being one with the ultimate Being is the main goal for every human being in all the religions. Thus humans have the capability to be pure away from all corruptions if they remain conscious about the conscience inherent in them.

Now the question is “what was American Transcendentalism?” Basically American Transcendentalism was a Religious, Philosophical, Literary and cultural movement. It started the eastern part of America which we called Boston. I already mentioned that American Transcendentalism is a Religious, Philosophical, Literary and cultural movement. Now I am going to explain elaborately how American Transcendentalism was a Religious, Philosophical, Literary and cultural movement.

American Transcendentalism as a Religious movement

American Transcendentalism firstly wanted to change some sort of reformation in Calvinist branch of Christianity. The Christianity that was practiced in Eastern part of America that time was Calvinism. Calvinism says that human beings are by nature depraved (Bible mentions it as original sin. See Psalm 51-5, Bible). Calvinism also believes that humans do not have capacity to achieve divine salvation unless God willingly accepts their offerings. Calvinism neglects all possibilities of human beings at the beginning. The educated generation of the eastern part of America, especially the graduates of the Divinity School (now known as Department of Theology) of Harvard University, raised their voice against this very concept of Calvinism.

Saying against Calvinism is called Unitarianism. They believe that humans have human’s potentiality and humans can achieve the grace for their own from God. They also believe that Jesus is not at any cost the son of God but he is just a prophet. All miracles that are attributed to Jesus are false. And they claim that they are the Christian of Bible. They who cause this movement are the persuasive of American Transcendentalism. From this movement many things came to American Transcendentalism and help to move forward this very movement.

American Transcendentalism as a Philosophical movement

Word of Kant’s transcendental idealism may have reached Emerson through Frederick Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister who had studied in Germany and knew German philosophy in its native tongue. In 1836, Hedge, Emerson, and George Ripley founded an informal group called Hedge’s Club for the purpose of motivating discussion of current topics in philosophy and theology. The group continued irregularly for about seven years and grew to include at least a dozen members. It became known as the Transcendental Club. These meetings provided sufficient opportunity for Hedge to share his knowledge of Kant’s transcendental philosophy with Emerson. American Transcendentalists were very much fond of Kant’s philosophy.

Before going to discuss about Immanuel Kant, we have to know the philosophy of John Locke, a leading philosopher of British empiricism. Empiricism says that everything should be understood in terms of experience. We know something after we experience it. John Locke said that “Human mind is as black as white paper”. As humans start their journey from their infancy to their maturity, they gain experiences from their environment. Out of their experiences they realize, they understand and they have a sort of knowledge about the surrounding and the visible things. According to Locke the basis of knowledge is experience.

Now we can come to Immanuel Kant. Kant argues that human knowledge is not depended on experience rather it is depended on intuition or revelation. This very thought of Immanuel Kant is chosen by American Transcendentalists. They also believe that still God has capacity and power to communicate with humans as He had earlier. In this way American Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement.

American Transcendentalism as a Literary movement

The impact of Transcendentalism on American literature can easily be seen today. The Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson, eternalized the idea that writers are seers. It is the writer's duty to see the world clearly, to call the world to life. Emerson called poets 'liberating gods'. Literature was a platform to liberate people, to help them see what needs to be seen: nature, spirituality, self-identity, and social injustice. The Transcendentalists were forceful critics of slavery and gender inequality. In transcendental theory, every individual has to be respected because every individual has a universal soul.

Transcendentalists also placed significant emphasis on imagination. Imagination allows the mind to be resourceful, to form new ideas that are not present to the senses. As the writer or reader imagines, he transcends himself. This allows him to move beyond his personal experience, his mind and body, to consider something anew. The ability to imagine can effect change. The Transcendentalists wanted their work to have an altering effect on individuals and on society as a whole. For the Transcendentalists, man needed to live in the world, participate in it, look at it closely, and take action. The effects that have influenced the literature of that time in America made American Transcendentalism as a literary movement.

American Transcendentalism as a Cultural movement

Although Transcendentalism as a historical movement was limited in time from the mid 1830s to the late 1840s, its light of knowledge continue to increase through American culture. Beginning as a quarrel within the Unitarian church, Transcendentalism's questioning of establishing cultural forms, its urge to unit spirit and matter, its desire to turn ideas into real action developed a momentum of its own, spreading from the spheres of religion and education to literature, philosophy, and social reform. While Transcendentalism's conflict about any communal effort that would compromise individual purity prevented it from creating lasting institutions, it helped set the terms for being an intellectual in America.

It is easier to note its all-encompassing influence in culture, though, than it is to clarify its doctrines. The flexibility and imprecision of Transcendentalism was registered even by some of its most intelligent contemporaries. 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”. All the information that I have mentioned before prove that American Transcendentalism is a cultural movement.


Now I am going to discuss the final section, “the features of the American Transcendentalism with its relation to the English Romanticism”. American Transcendentalism is similar to Romanticism in many ways. However, they have some key differences as well. The beginnings of romanticist philosophy originated much earlier, around the end of the 18th century, but reached its peak of influence around 1840.

In many aspects, the philosophies were similar. Both movements were born as a reaction to strict traditions, laws and religious rules of the time. Both philosophies opposed Calvinism, a religious doctrine that states that human outcomes are fixed. Transcendentalism and romanticism placed a huge emphasis on the individual as well as inspiration from nature. Romanticism was partially a reaction against realism and objective reasoning. Similarly, transcendentalism was a reaction against overpowering religious traditions and dogma. Both encouraged the individual to discover their own truth and be ruled by that rather than obey the constructs of the time.

§ Religion

One of the major differences in the philosophies had to deal with religion and ideas of God.

Transcendentalism was primarily a religious movement, and its' followers viewpoint of God was crucial to an understanding of the philosophy. Transcendentalists believed that God was present in every aspect of life, and could be experienced through the intuition. Every person had a divine inner light that could connect them to God. Their goal was to “transcend" ordinary life to experience the symbolic and spiritual world around them. They rejected some religious dogma of the time in favor of a high spiritualized and personal understanding of God.

Romanticism, on the other hand, was not as concerned with ideas of God. Their understanding was that religion was something that had to be worked out on a personal level, and one should not subscribe to preconceived religious structures. They believed that every person was capable of evil as well as good.

§ The Source of Goodness

Romanticism had a high dependence on feelings, emotions and observations gleaned from the natural senses. This was opposed to the transcendentalists’ dependence on intuition and the guidance of the inner light. Romanticists reveled in the world around them. They had a high emphasis on nature as symbolic source of enlightenment and inspiration. The writing of the movement explored the natural world with great detail at the same time shifting into supernatural themes, reflecting the concept of nature as symbolic. The natural world was good, while humans were corruptible. The closer human beings could get to their natural state the more pure they would be. In contrast, transcendentalists believed in the inner goodness of all human beings. The more an individual could tap into their inner light, the closer to God they would become.

Although both philosophies promoted the individual, the goal of the transcendentalist was to reveal his inner light and to connect with God. The romanticist believed that man could be perfected by grasping hold of his own ideals and promoting himself.

§ Writing Style

Romanticist literature had a distinct style. Authors often wrote about moral issues, promoting individualism, emotion, freedom and creativity while rejecting reason and tradition. Writing explored both domestic issues as well as exotic and fantastical. Transcendent writing was much harder to define. Writers were grouped together based on the similar content of their writing rather than their style. Those within the transcendentalist movement also frequently disagreed with each other over main points of philosophy.

Works Cited

Ø Introduction to Romanticism:


Ø American Romanticism:


Ø American Transcendentalism: http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/amtrans.htm

Ø Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap4/4intro.html

Ø https://www.ukessays.com/essays/history/the-american-transcendentalism-movement- history-essay.php

Ø http://www.iep.utm.edu/am-trans/

Ø http://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/

Ø http://www.online-literature.com/periods/transcendentalism.php

Ø http://www.brighthubeducation.com/homework-help-literature/99608-romanticism-versus- transcendentalism/

Ø http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/ideas/definitionbickman.html Ø https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendentalism



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American Transcendentalism Romanticism Transcendentalism Philosophy Emerson



Title: American Transcendentalism. Features of the Movement and Relation to English Romanticism