New England Transcendentalists

Who were the New England Transcendentalists?

They are considered to be the American counterparts to European Romantics, who valued emotion as much or more than reason and stressed the importance of individual and private yearnings. The distinctively American form of Romanticism, as seen in the novels of Herman Melville (1819-1891), the prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the poetry of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), and the essays of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), emphasized the condition of the solitary and courageous private person in nature. As well, there were distinctly philosophical transcendentalists, such as Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888).

Who was Amos Bronson Alcott?

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) was the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. He founded a school and a utopian community called "Fruitlands." As a transcendentalist, he combined Platonism, German mysticism, and American Romanticism. He largely followed the teachings of the leading Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, who preached a gentle form of religious belief and practice, against Calvinism. Alcott's publications include New Connecticut, Tablets (1868), Concord Days (1872), and Sonnets and Canzonets (1882). Most of his other work is still unpublished, except for his vague "Orphic Sayings" that appeared in The Dial, and which is representative of transcendental thought.

What was Henry David Thoreau's philosophical contribution?

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a naturalist, writer, school teacher, and pencil maker (he invented the pencil with an eraser on its end). He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, attended Harvard, and then returned to Concord. He was not a political reformer but is famous for his civil disobedience in not paying the poll tax (he felt it supported slavery and the Mexican-American War, both of which he found objectionable) and for helping runaway slaves escape.

Thoreau is best known for the two years he spent in a hut he built on Walden Pond, an experience he describes in Walden (1854). His lifestyle there and protest against materially driven lives of "quiet desperation," set an aesthetic ideal for many American intellectuals in generations to come. Thoreau's love of nature and ideals of simplicity were in themselves a form of revolt against industrial life and have been reclaimed in intellectual revolts against post-industrial life.

However, Thoreau's striking intellectual contribution is not the ideal of "roughing it" in nature, because his time at Walden Pond, punctuated as it was by frequent visits from his literary friends, as well as his own habit of walking back into town, was hardly a withdrawal from society. Indeed, the hardships he endured scarcely compared with the hardships of pioneers and homesteaders farther west, who lived in rural poverty out of necessity rather than choice.

By contrast, Thoreau set a different example for a different American group of strivers. He combined a naturalistic aesthetic of simplicity with cultural criticism and intellectual creativity. This "life of the mind in the woods" stands in stark social class and regional contrast to the genuinely hard-scrabble background of

several of the early twentieth century pragmatists, as well as with their efforts

A stamp depicting naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau (iStock).

A stamp depicting naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau (iStock).

What happened to Henry David Thoreau's hut?

Areplica of Thoreau's hut can now be visited. It is adjacent to Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Visitors can also walk around that three-mile circumference, across which Thoreau wrote that he liked to have "big conversations" with his guests. But none of this is the real thing.

After Thoreau left his hut to stay at Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803-1882) house, it was moved around Brooks Clark Farm as a structure for storing corn. It was finally placed in the northwest pasture of the farm to memorialize Thoreau and left there until 1867, although the windows were gone by then. In 1868, the roof was taken off to cover a pig yard, and in 1885 the floor and some other wood from the hut were used to make a shed off the barn. The remainder of the hut was then taken apart to replace planks in the barn. Others say that these boards were used to remodel the farm house.

to build a broad community and support democratic social interactions through writing and public speaking. But both Thoreau's privileged love of nature and the pragmatists' more common touch represent a cultural sea change from much of the thought discussed in the salons, drawing rooms, and formal church-like architectural settings of Europe.

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