The Birth of Transcendentalism
During the 1830s, a new form of literature emerged along side of the Romantics (Poe, Hawthorne, Bryant): This was called Transcendentalism.The movement was based on German philosophical concepts, so similar to RM, American writers “borrowed” from other cultures/literary movements.TCD had philosophical, literary, and social implications. This was not just literature like Poe. This had some kind of impact—albeit over 180 years later…This movement occurred in Boston in the 1830s. Its roots were in theology.The movement was a reaction against old Protestant churches. No more Puritans and hell fire and brimstone-type writing/preaching. This was calmer and enlightened.TCD was a religious radicalism and revolt against rational conservatism—the Puritans (hence why Hawthorne was a quasi-TCD-ist). TCD’s purpose was to go back to the Enlightenment era and change Unitarian Christianity. TCDs despised the rise of technology and science. (Again, Hawthorne crosses the line from RM to TCD sometimes.)
What is Transcendentalism?
TCDs questioned humanity in relation to Nature: How DOES man relate to Nature?TCDs were concerned with the senses of wonder, anti-rationalism, and the privacy of the individual conscience.TCDs sought the truth. The only way to find the truth was through a vehicle. Through that vehicle, one would move above—TRANSCEND—the usual and achieve the CERTAIN KNOW, otherwise known as the OVERSOUL.NATURE was that vehicle.Nature is a metaphor for the human mind: the human mind must engage with Nature to understand the spirituality of one’s own mind. Only through Nature can one know one’s nature. SO, the way to achieve the CERTAIN KNOW was to literally GO OUT into Nature and abandon ALL material possessions. (Materialism clouds one’s judgment.) Once the mind is clear of entanglements, one will experience a “TRANSCENDENCE” and know one’s self. TCDs tried to forgo ALL superfluous items and focus on the necessities. To us, this would mean giving up ALL possessions that cater to science, technology, hygiene (to a point), transportation, money. A house, food, and a few necessary items were all one needed to live a pure life.TCDs would never condone the advances we have today. Thoreau would be displeased if he saw a computer or a cell phone…especially how isolated people are as a result. To him, all these “necessities” are more of an inconvenience than a convenience. These traps of technology burden us to have and want more. We are better without them. “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” Thoreau would resound.
TCD died almost as soon as it was conceived (in the US, anyway). However, in the 1960s, people known as “hippies” rediscovered TCD. Soon, hippies were known as “tree huggers” since they had a reverence for Nature.
And how does this relate to me…?
Today’s environmental movement is based on the 1830s TCD author Henry David Thoreau. Many environmentalists quote Thoreau and view him and his book Walden as the ultimate environmental wake-up call to save the ecosystem.TCD was the party of the future. The movement died in 10 years because no one was willing to forsake their possessions.
Henry David Thoreau was THE main author and promoter of TCD. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the other author.HDT was an avid follower of TCD; Emerson made the movement popular. Ironically, Emerson was unwilling to follow HDT’s lead and “ditch it all” and live in Nature.
Emerson viewed life differently—he viewed it from the safety of his mansion amongst his vast wealth from the widow babe he bagged.HDT actually practiced what he preached. He was not afraid to shed the materialistic shackles and head to Nature.HDT was the first peaceful protestor. MLKing and Gandi followed HDT’s lead.Thoreau did not pay his taxes because he protested the Mexican/American War and would not support a country that supported slavery.He went to jail for one night for not paying his taxes (Emerson bailed him out the next day). “Civil Disobedience” was the product of that experience, a forerunner of King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” Thoreau believed Nature was an immediate reality: to know Nature, one had to experience it. To experience Nature, one had to be free of all materialistic fetters and rebel against man’s institutions. Once one did that, one could learn Nature and, in turn, the Certain Know. HDT is the original rebel so many hippies idolized. He hated the government and technology.
To rediscover the meaning of life, HDT went to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.He gave up every material possession and built a cabin at Walden.He stayed at the pond for two years, two months, two weeks, two days to rediscover the meaning of life and to see if what he was living was life.Walden is a book about his experiences and what he learned.The book is divided into many allegorical parts: Economy, Clothing, Shelter, Food, and Furniture.
Ironically, developers almost destroyed Walden Pond in the 1990s. A shopping mall was to be built on the very spot Thoreau stayed.Don Henley of The Eagles formed a band to raise money to stop the developers from killing an American icon. To this day, Walden is a state reservation and the wildlife and vegetation are heavily protected by conservation officers.Efforts to restore Walden to its original state are rigorous, almost fanatical! (That did not stop me from taking a rock and some flowers, though…)
E.B. White’s “Walden” is a comparison of Walden in HDT’s time and the 1930s.Writer Colin Beavan penned “No Impact Man.” Beavan dared to leave no carbon footprint—in the middle of New York. He disposed of all unnecessary items and products that leave a carbon footprint. He attributes HDT as one of his mentors.
My Walden Experience, 1998
I went to Walden Pond in August 1998. I did not want to go because I had a difficult time reading Walden (I am sure I fell asleep many times). Yet, I felt I owed it to myself to go.That experience was one I will never forget. I did not give Thoreau justice in my younger English major college days. Now that I have taught HDT all these years, I have a deep respect for what he did.
I was astounded by the aura of the pond. I would like to visit this place again (with a side trip to Salem, of course) and pay homage to one of my most respected authors, Henry David Thoreau.
Only now do I understand.
This is a cairn, a pile of rocks people have left at the sight of the cabin. People have scribbled letters to Thoreau on these rocks. They have also highlighted pages of Walden and left them on the pile.
HDT was wise beyond his years. Many quotes you know are from Thoreau.
This is one example of what people leave on Thoreau's cairn. In awe of Thoreau and what he accomplished, visitors leave whatever they feel expresses their gratitude and appreciation of Walden.