Transcendentalism is fascinating not just for the compelling figures and ideas that made up the movement but also for the glimpse it affords us into the nineteenth century New England from which it sprang. While Transcendentalist thinkers got their inspiration in German philosophy, English poetry, and Far Eastern spirituality, the central ideas of Transcendentalism are very much products of New England. And while their impact has been felt around the globe, these Transcendentalist precepts were first aired from the pulpits of Unitarian churches and lecture halls across New England; around the planning tables of utopian societies; and in the various books, articles and journals printed and housed in what was the nineteenth century cultural capital of the young country, Boston.
The Old Manse
Perhaps the best way to understand Transcendentalism is to start where they did, in the study of an old minister’s house by a slow moving river in a town just nineteen miles outside of Boston. It was there, in 1836, a young man named Ralph Waldo Emerson, living in his grandfather’s house, wrote the book that became the foundation Transcendentalism, Nature.
In it, Emerson is clear about the benefits of leaving both the actual rooms in which we live and our set ways of thinking, and striding out into nature:
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — a mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
It was in this passage from Nature that Transcendentalism first came alive for me, and I structured A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England around what I view as Transcendentalism’s central quest: to forge an original relationship with the universe or, as Emerson puts it, to behold “God and nature face to face.”
So, the question is how did this group of writers, philosophers, poets, activists and dreamers conduct their quests? Where did they go for that “face to face” interaction? How does one forge one’s own unique relationship with the universe?
Forging One’s Own Unique Relationship With the Universe
Obviously, they went to Concord. They went to visit and converse with Emerson. They came to walk the paths around the town and draw inspiration from nature. In Boston, Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore on West Street was another place they went to forge that relationship with the universe. They spent time here bouncing ideas off each other and searching for a better way before wandering up Tremont Street to School Street and the Old Corner Bookstore and the Parker House hotel.
Nathaniel Hawthorne went to Brook Farm and joined their utopian community in an unsuccessful effort to find his unique relationship. Bronson Alcott packed his family up and created Fruitlands utopian community just west of Concord in Harvard, Massachusetts…if only until winter came.
Emily Dickinson declined to travel much beyond her own home for God and the universe but found them among her garden plants and in the view from her second story room.
Perhaps the most well known method of forging an original relationship with the universe was the move to Walden Pond and attempt to “front only the essential facts of life” as Thoreau did from 1845 to 1847. His experiment in living the Transcendentalist quest, along with the record of it we know as Walden, has had perhaps the greatest impact of any of the Transcendentalist writings.
A Lake in the Woods
Perhaps there is no more telling example of the Transcendentalist legacy than the two square miles of Massachusetts surrounding and including Walden Pond. The lake itself and its shoreline are now part of a state reservation, with the Thoreau Institute tucked up among the woods south of the lake. Beyond that, the land is a patchwork of protected land, open fields and development. However, that is not to say that all is idyllic and tranquil. Route 2, Massachusetts’ main east/west thoroughfare north of the turnpike runs its four lanes of traffic less than a quarter mile from the site of Thoreau’s cabin. The exceedingly popular public beach at Walden Pond can see nearly a million visitors a year, only a fraction of whom are there because of Thoreau.
In sum, Walden Pond is an amalgamation of homage to Thoreau and his legacy; a beloved and much used natural place for swimming, fishing, and hiking; and a cautionary tale of shortsighted regional and urban planning. The same can be said for much of New England in general.
Transcendentalism has perhaps fared much better than the landscape which inspired it. While its heady ideas and radical philosophies seemed less thrilling as the industrial age got fully under way and many of its leading lights faded and died, Transcendentalism’s inherent optimism, recognition of our interconnectedness, and deeply-held appreciation of the natural world holds as true today as they did when Emerson first put pen to paper.
In fact (in a rough segue), one can still go to hear about Transcendentalism. I will be speaking at the All Souls Church in Manhattan this coming Thursday, February 26 about the Transcendentalists and my book, A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England. For more information about the event at All Souls Church and some of my other events, you can go to my Red Room page. I hope you will join me. If you can’t make it, please feel free to leave a comment here on my blog, Open Page – Open Road.
All the images seen here belong to R. Todd Felton.
NOTE: DO NOT FORGET. LEAVE A COMMENT HERE OR ON TOMORROW’S POST BY R. T. FELTON, AND YOU COULD WIN A COPY OF HIS “WALKING BOSTON.”