In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transcendentalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Histories
  • Reference Works
  • Periodicals

American Literature Transcendentalism
David M. Robinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0086


Transcendentalism was a religious, literary, and political movement that evolved from New England Unitarianism in the 1820s and 1830s. An important expression of Romanticism in the United States, it is principally associated with the work of essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson; journalist and feminist theorist Margaret Fuller; Unitarian minister and antislavery advocate Theodore Parker; and essayist, naturalist, and political theorist Henry David Thoreau. In their initial phase, the transcendentalists extended the Unitarian theological rebellion against Puritan Calvinism, moving toward a post-Christian spirituality that held each man and woman capable of spiritual development and fulfillment. They developed literary as well as theological forms of expression, making perhaps a stronger impact on American literary and artistic culture than they did on American religion. When Emerson delivered two controversial addresses at Harvard, “The American Scholar” (1837) and the Divinity School Address (1838), he emerged as the central figure of a loose coalition of ministers and aspiring authors who questioned religious doctrines, such as the New Testament miracles and the supernatural nature of Jesus, and embraced German Romantic writers and the British Romantics. Sharpened by the controversy that erupted after Emerson’s Divinity School Address, theological and literary thinking among the transcendentalists developed in three interrelated directions in the late 1830s and 1840s. Parker and Emerson continued to extend their theological explorations, with Parker calling in 1841 for a religion based on “permanent” rather than “transient” principles. Emerson and Thoreau began to absorb the spiritual sensibility of Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which were becoming available more widely in translation. Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau gave the movement a literary character, based on Emerson’s innovative prose, Fuller’s translations and critical studies of Goethe, and Thoreau’s autobiographical narrative Walden (1854). The transcendentalists also responded to the politically turbulent 1840s and 1850s, devoting themselves to issues of social reform. Fuller published her groundbreaking women’s rights treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845, and Thoreau published his influential essay “Civil Disobedience” in 1849, describing his night in the Concord jail as a protesting tax resister. With national tensions rising over slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, Parker became Boston’s great antislavery preacher, and both Emerson and Thoreau wrote ringing antislavery addresses. By the early 1860s, following the outbreak of the Civil War, the transcendentalists had helped formulate the principles that would reshape American culture well into the 20th century.

General Overviews and Histories

For half a century after its publication, Miller 1950, an annotated anthology of transcendentalist writings, also served as the movement’s best history. Miller’s extended introductions explained the controversies surrounding the rise of the movement and brought emphasis to many of its lesser known figures. Miller 1950 remains of continuing usefulness, but two recently completed histories of transcendentalism, Gura 2007 and Packer 2007, are now the authoritative histories. Myerson 1977 traces the meetings of the Transcendental Club, in which members of the loosely organized group exchanged ideas and plans. Capper and Wright 1999 provides historically grounded perspectives on themes and authors in the movement. Taylor 2010 places key transcendentalists in an account of New England conceptions of American intellectualism. Cameron 1973 represents the extensive scholarly works of Kenneth Walter Cameron and has been particularly valuable for making little-known 19th-century materials available.

  • Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Reading. New York: Haskell, 1973.

    Originally published in 1941 (Raleigh, NC: Thistle Press). Cameron’s pioneering study of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reading is listed here as a representative selection of his voluminous work on transcendentalism, most of it published under Transcendental Books, his imprint. Cameron was especially capable in recovering and reprinting sources for works of Emerson and Thoreau. For further information see the listing for Cameron at WorldCat.

  • Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright, eds. Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society and Northeastern University Press, 1999.

    These twenty essays drawn from a 1997 conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society constitute the best available compilation of scholarly essays on transcendentalism. The introductory essay by Charles Capper (pp. 3–45) is an informative survey of the historiography of transcendentalism, and Lawrence Buell’s concluding essay (pp. 605–619) charts the place of transcendentalism in American literary history.

  • Gura, Phillip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

    A history of transcendentalism as most importantly a social movement, one of a series of attempts to democratize American society more completely. Gura emphasizes the inherent tension between self-fulfillment and social change in transcendentalist thinking.

  • Hutchison, William R. The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Originally published in 1959. Hutchison focuses on the theological and ecclesiastical background of transcendentalism, noting the ministerial roles of Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and others, and describing their efforts to awaken and reform the New England Unitarian churches.

  • Miller, Perry. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

    Miller’s anthology of transcendentalist writing is now useful principally for the penetrating introductions to the texts, which provide an excellent historical framework for the controversies surrounding the movement.

  • Myerson, Joel. “A History of the Transcendental Club.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 23.1 (1977): 27–35.

    Charts the meetings of the Transcendental Club between 1836 and 1840 to discuss theology, literature, and politics. Myerson provides the names of attendees, meeting places, and subject matter when available, and he sets the meetings in the context of the controversy over the rise of transcendentalism.

  • Packer, Barbara L. The Transcendentalists. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

    Packer traces transcendentalism from its “Unitarian Beginnings” through its literary and reform phases to its conclusion in “The Antislavery Years.” She is particularly insightful on the transcendentalists’ philosophical critique of the epistemology of John Locke and on the influence of British Romanticism, especially the work of Thomas Carlyle, in shaping the movement.

  • Taylor, Andrew. Thinking America: New England Intellectuals and the Varieties of American Identity. Lebanon: University of New Hampshire Press, 2010.

    Taylor considers Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller as key figures in a New England intellectual tradition that aspired to define the relationship between the individual thinker and American society. Their thought is compared with the later philosophers William James and George Santayana.

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