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Transcendentalism and Its Representatives

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Henry David Thoreau was a famous American transcendentalist who turned to the environment for inspiration. Thoreau built a cabin at Walden Pond and lived there alone for a little over two years before he published his book, Walden, which was about his time spent living in isolation and his different feelings on society. He wanted to live a life of simplicity and believed that the government should not exist because it forced people to conform.

The one year that Thoreau spent at Harvard, he wore a green coat instead of the black coat that was required, proving that he would not allow anyone to control him. He also wrote Civil Obedience, which is a personal account about the time that he spent in jail for refusing to pay taxes that helped support the Mexican-American war. He encouraged everyone to question if they had doubts. Before his death in 1962, Thoreau continued to stand up for his beliefs by helping slaves escape to Canada in order to gain freedom.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Father of Transcendentalism”, was the leader of the Transcendentalist movement in the mid-19th century. He was a thinker ahead of his time, against slavery, and he stressed self-reliance, optimism, self-improvement, self-confidence, and freedom. Emerson helped to from The Dial, a major magazine for Transcendental beliefs. He first became a teacher and then a minister who rejected Calvinism, the theological system of John Calvin and his followers marked by strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humankind, and the doctrine of predestination. He absorbed the Christian religion of Unitarianism: the belief that there is one God, not Trinity (Mother, Father, and Holy Spirit).

A major turning point in his life was the death of his wife, which caused him to question his faith and leave the pulpit. He continued to believe in the divine and even commonly referred to it in his writing. Emerson believed that humans are born with a divine way of thinking and that the human mind was the most important force in the universe. In 1833, Emerson brought about the idea of the over-soul, a universal spirit to which all beings return to after death, or in other words, every being is a part of God’s mind. Emerson’s work went on to influence many other famous Transcendentalist thinkers, such as Thoreau, Alcott, and Fuller.

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller was a social reformer, leader in the women’s movement, and a Transcendentalist in the 1840’s. She edited The Dial, a popular Transcendentalist magazine, for two years until Emerson took over. It appealed to people who wanted “perfect freedom” and “progress in philosophy and theology”. Fuller published Women in the Nineteenth Century, proclaiming that a new era was changing the relationships between men and women. Her philosophy began from the principle that all people could develop a life-affirming relationship with God. In 1948, she eventually became the literary critic of the New York Tribune and traveled to Italy to report on the revolution. Margaret Fuller’s story is so inspiring to me because people believed that she couldn’t succeed due to her being a female, but she definitely proved them wrong as she became the first woman to display her Transcendental beliefs.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, though he did not fit well there due to his disagreement with the Democratic Party and his editorials being too radical. Qualities of Whitman’s style included free verse poetry, use of catalogs (listing things), repetition, and parallelism. He was influenced by the Transcendentalist idea that nature reflected the spiritual world and that God was present in everyone and everything. The main point of his Leaves of Grass was that the past is a part of the future. Whitman was devoted to both the body and the soul, believing that people are divine, indeed.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was an American poet who wrote nearly 2000 poems, although only seven were published in her lifetime. She withdrew from society at a young age, rarely leaving her bedroom and living in isolation. This taught her to rely on herself, rather than looking to others for guidance. Dickinson lived a simple life due to her nonconformity. In her poems, she appears to search for the universal truths and investigate sense of life, immortality, God, and faith. Following in Emerson’s footsteps, Dickinson saw man’s spirit symbolized in nature. What inspires me most about her is that she wrote poetry for herself, not for others. All of her poems were published without her consent, even though she wrote them as a private escape from reality.

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