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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

Course No. 2598
Professor Ashton Nichols, Ph.D.
Dickinson College
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Course No. 2598
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version features more than 200 graphics to enhance your studies, including historical images of events and portraits of the diverse group of intellectual activists, literary figures, and social reformers discussed in this course, from Emerson to Frederick Douglass to Emily Dickinson. There are also on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

Where did the America we know today—so different in its fundamental views about almost every aspect of life as to be unrecognizable to our countrymen of two centuries ago—really come from?

How, for example, did the colonial idea of the classroom as a place devoted to "breaking the will" and "subduing the spirit" of students, change to that of a vibrant, even pleasurable experience—including innovations such as kindergarten and recess—with children encouraged to participate actively in their own education?

What forces eventually enabled our nation to see slavery as morally abhorrent and unequivocally wrong , when we had once passed a law permitting the capture and return of escaped slaves who managed to make their way to the "free" North?

How did the struggle for women's rights—not just for the right to vote but also to have control over their own aspirations and destinies—gain the momentum to unleash changes still felt today?

Why did the once-unassailable power wielded from the pulpit begin to weaken in the 1800s? Why did certain theologies become more liberal and increasing numbers of people choose less dogmatic expressions of faith—or even no faith at all?

What are the roots of our love for nature, of the near-spiritual experience so many of us now find in the ripple of a stream in the morning sun or the thunderous roar of ocean waves?

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, what is the source of our distinctly American way of experiencing ourselves—confident in our value as individuals, certain of our ability to discover personal truths in the natural world, self-reliant in the face of uncertainty and change?

Answers to questions like these are found in and around Boston and the town of Concord, Massachusetts, which became, little more than five decades after the American Revolution, the epicenter of a profoundly influential movement that would reshape many beliefs and make possible the America we know today.

That movement is Transcendentalism. Drawing on an array of influences from Europe and the non-Western world, it also offered uniquely American perspectives of thought: an emphasis on the divine in nature, on the value of the individual and intuition, and on belief in a spirituality that might "transcend" one's own sensory experience to provide a more useful guide for daily living than is possible from empirical and logical reasoning.

A Movement that Transformed America

The extraordinary members of this informal movement provided intellectual and moral leadership for many social transformations: the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, freedom of religious thought and practice, educational reform, and more. The influence of their ideas continues today in many aspects of our culture, from efforts to preserve large tracts of wild nature to civil disobedience around the world.

But although the ideas that contributed to New England Transcendentalism had many roots, the strength of its impact came from the intellectual energy of two remarkable individuals: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most important figure behind Transcendentalism in America, and Henry David Thoreau, his most influential disciple.

The Power of the Individual

"Without Emerson and Thoreau," notes Professor Ashton Nichols, "the United States would not have developed into the nation it has become. We would not believe in the power of the individual to the extent that we do, nor would we see nature at the center of one view of the American psyche. ... If Emerson gave us a new view of America and American thinking, Thoreau gave us a new way of living and a new vision of each individual."

In Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement, Professor Nichols introduces us to these two remarkable thinkers and a diverse group of intellectual activists, literary figures, and social reformers whose ideas, often considered radical in the decades before and after the Civil War, would remake American society.

Among those you'll meet:

  • Liberal theologian Theodore Parker. He made the pulpit a forum for social activism and, as a staunch opponent of slavery, would sometimes preach with a pistol in the pulpit, knowing that the fugitive slaves who often attended his massive rallies of 2,000 or more were likely to attract slave-catchers.
  • Educator Amos Bronson Alcott. A self-taught teacher and educational reformer, he did away with corporal punishment and even extended his own hand for students to hit to demonstrate his position that classroom confusion was likely to be the teacher's fault.
  • Writer Margaret Fuller. The brilliant writer, editor, and voice for women's rights was also the most influential of the female Transcendentalists and one of the first female foreign correspondents. She was onboard a ship that sank within sight of Fire Island, New York, and a saddened Emerson dispatched Thoreau in hopes of at least recovering Fuller's manuscripts from the wreckage. Thoreau reported finding only unidentifiable human remains on the desolate beach.

Explore the Lives of Emerson and Thoreau

Many courses relate the principles of Transcendentalism and discuss the crucial contributions of these two extraordinary men, Emerson and Thoreau. But what motivated them? Who and what were their chief influences?

You'll learn, for example, of the profound impact on Emerson of the death of his first wife. You'll learn that he was influenced by a deep understanding of classical texts. He read Buddhist and Hindu sacred writings at a time when most Americans were not aware of their existence, and he translated Dante. You'll also see how this thoroughly well-read person never lost contact with those who were less well educated. Professor Nichols tells a story of a washerwoman who was fond of attending Emerson's lectures, even though, she said, she could not understand his ideas. Why did she attend? Because she liked "to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is."

And you will see a Thoreau who, though often thought of as the "hermit" of Walden Pond, was also a profoundly dedicated abolitionist—like so many other Transcendentalists. When John Brown led the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, was captured, and subsequently executed, it was Thoreau who delivered a stirring eulogy, citing Brown as a "Transcendentalist above all" who "did not recognize unjust human laws but resisted them as he was bid. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature," he said, concluding that Brown was "the most American of us all."

The Impact of Transcendentalism

Yet as important as the dynamic figures you'll meet is Professor Nichols's own multifaceted approach—essential in a course examining Transcendentalism. Rather than focusing on a handful of well-known figures, or on a single issue such as slavery, religion, philosophy, or literature, he has created a course meant to instill a new appreciation of the individuals who made up the movement and of the movement's impact on America. You come away not with an arid list of abstract ideas, but with a real understanding of aspects of American life before the Transcendentalists' ideas took hold, of the contemporary reactions provoked by those ideas, and of the long-lasting changes they inspired, many of which are still with us today.

Professor Nichols's rich background—he worked as a journalist before going on to study, teach, and write about poetry, fiction, history, and nature writing—makes him an ideal teacher for a course that extends across so many subjects and so many remarkable individuals.

His wide-ranging approach links directly to the themes of the course; the path of lifelong self-education is yet another legacy left to us by Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2006
  • 1
    Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalism
    An introduction to the two remarkable individuals whose lives and ideas form the basis of all that follows in this course, and without whom the United States would not have developed into the nation it has become. x
  • 2
    The Roots of American Transcendentalism
    Though American Transcendentalism would inaugurate a uniquely American way of thinking, it drew on many sources, with roots in both European and non-Western systems of thought. x
  • 3
    Emerson and the Idea of America
    We look at Emerson's remarkable life and times, and how they contributed to the works that would help produce a philosophical vision of America. x
  • 4
    Emerson and Transcendentalism
    More than any other figure, Emerson is the intellectual father and emotional godfather of American Transcendentalism. Though many other thinkers would contribute, it was Emerson's lectures and published essays that would give form to this sometimes amorphous range of ideas. x
  • 5
    Emerson’s Influence
    Emerson was a visionary thinker whose thoughts were adopted by others almost immediately. But his ideas also continued to influence educational theory, theological and religious practice, and political debate over time. x
  • 6
    Thoreau—An American Original
    Emerson's foremost disciple gave us a new way of living and a new vision of each American individual; he put Emerson's central ideas into play in ways that continue to shape American politics, populism, and popular culture. Thoreau also had an incalculable impact on nature writing and environmentalism. x
  • 7
    Thoreau at Walden and Beyond
    We look at the so-called "hermit" of Walden Pond in biographic detail, striving also to reveal the continuing effects of his thinking and writing on students, teachers, naturalists, and political theorists. x
  • 8
    Thoreau's Politics
    Thoreau's politics—central to an evolving view of democracy, freedom, and the role of the individual—are ultimately about conscience: the right to answer to a higher law than the rules of any social, religious, or political system. x
  • 9
    William Ellery Channing and Unitarianism
    We step back in time to consider a theologian and minister whose ideas would change the history of his denomination and were crucial forerunners of concepts that Emerson and others would later adopt. x
  • 10
    Theodore Parker—Social Reform in the Pulpit
    This lecture considers one of the most practical and active members of the Transcendentalist group; Parker was an influential voice and leader in causes ranging from the reform of parish ministry to widespread social activism. x
  • 11
    Amos Bronson Alcott
    Though his daughter, Louisa May, became far better known by subsequent generations, Amos Bronson Alcott deeply influenced not only his own era, but ours as well, leaving an educational legacy still with us today. x
  • 12
    Louisa May Alcott
    We think of her primarily as the author of Little Women, but Louisa May Alcott was also an influential member of the Transcendentalist circle as a thinker, writer, and social activist. x
  • 13
    Margaret Fuller and Rights for Women
    We meet a soaring intellect, effective voice for women's rights, and energetic achiever—successful as a writer, editor, and foreign correspondent before her tragic death at age 40. x
  • 14
    Transcendental Women
    This lecture explores a group of women who had a direct and powerful impact on Transcendentalist thought, from the three remarkable Peabody sisters to less well-known women, including radical abolitionist Lydia Child and indefatigable social activist Caroline Dall. x
  • 15
    Moncure Conway—Southern Transcendentalist
    We look at a figure whose life represented the complex history of Transcendentalism and who also reveals why it was primarily a Northern movement. x
  • 16
    Transcendental Eccentrics
    Transcendentalism produced more than its share of eccentrics; some of their viewpoints have helped to create a uniquely American version of eccentricity. x
  • 17
    Transcendental Utopias—Living Experiments
    Transcendentalism was not simply about those major and minor figures that developed and promulgated its doctrines. It was also about a series of attempts at new ways of living that had a powerful impact on 19th-century thinking. x
  • 18
    Transcendentalism and Education
    The link between Transcendentalism and education was a close one. Many leading Transcendentalists served as teachers or educators, either briefly or for most of their careers, and others, like Emerson, had a direct influence on important educational reformers. x
  • 19
    Thoreau, Abolition, and John Brown
    The trial and execution of John Brown produced extensive commentary and debate in abolitionist and Transcendentalist circles about violent versus nonviolent action, the power of the individual, and the historical reality of change that might not always occur gradually. x
  • 20
    Frederick Douglass
    He was not strictly a member of the Transcendentalist Circle, Frederick Douglass—fugitive slave, abolitionist, freethinker, self-educated writer, lecturer, activist, and advisor to presidents—lived a life that was seen by many as an embodiment of Transcendentalist ideals. x
  • 21
    Emily Dickinson
    Though she, too, might not have called herself a Transcendentalist, Emily Dickinson's work cannot be fully understood without reference to the people who surrounded her in Transcendentalist circles in Massachusetts. x
  • 22
    Walt Whitman
    Seeing himself as the embodiment of "The Poet" Emerson sought for America, Whitman wrote poems that reveal direct links to the powerful ideas that were circulating throughout America, especially in New England. x
  • 23
    Transcendentalism's 19th-Century Legacy
    Transcendentalism reached a much wider audience than contemporary literary figures. Its abstract ideas often translated directly into practical solutions to social problems ranging from religious institutions to school classrooms. x
  • 24
    The Legacy in the 20th Century and Beyond
    Although few, if any, would claim to be Transcendentalists today, the movement has directly influenced literary, social, and political movements. Modern America still owes a significant debt to Transcendentalism's greatest figures, remarkable voices whose ideas have lasted far beyond their own lives. x

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Your professor

Ashton Nichols

About Your Professor

Ashton Nichols, Ph.D.
Dickinson College
Dr. Ashton Nichols is Professor of English Language and Literature and Walter E. Beach '56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A graduate of the University of Virginia, where he was both a DuPont Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Professor Nichols spent three years as an award-winning journalist before returning to the university for his M.A. and Ph.D. in...
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Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 48 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Enlightening and Enjoyable After recently stumbling across some Thoreau that I found particularly resonating, I looked to this course for further context. I had thought that I was fairly familiar with American Transcendentalism and the directions of thought attributed to this movement, and some of its proponents. Little did I know … … of the intellectual heavyweights who would later be identified as Transcendentalists and their passionate devotion to the ideas, causes and actions which would exemplify their movement, while espousing appreciation of individuality and, for many, a close link between spirituality and nature. … of the tremendous impact that these 19th Century heroes and heroines would have on the society of their time and for future generations … in the areas of education, religion, politics and social changes … battling mightily, through ongoing lectures and conversation and through journalism, on behalf of the oppressed … becoming a real force in the cause of equality … especially concerning civil rights and women’s suffrage. I found Professor Nichols to be quite pleasant, and I liked his presentation and the content of the lectures, enjoying those on some of the minor figures as well as the better known in this Massachusetts-based group of influentials. The guide book was one of the best that I've seen. Every lecture was valuable to me. I spent more time with this course than usual, however, as, with each lecture, I read the works recommended or other work I found relevant – which consisted of some of Emerson, all of Thoreau’s books and some of his essays, all three of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies (the last one would probably have sufficed, as it contains most of the material in the first two before adding quite a lot to update to his last years) and other writings, and then, further exploration and enjoyment of the works of Walt Whitman and of Emily Dickinson – They’ve both lost their places on my bookshelves for a good while. For the additional time spent in reading and studying, I was well rewarded. I am delighted with what I have learned in this course and because of this course. Thank you, Professor Nichols. Before ending, I’d like to quote something from Emerson (in this course) that I found especially appealing: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” Finally, Professor Nichols’ closing statements: “Even a series of lectures like this one links us back to the Transcendentalists’ belief in the value of lifelong self-education. The growth of each human mind expands a self-reliant person who is of value to the entire universe." September 6, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good Survey of a Challenging Topic As an English Lit major in college and as a later reader of New England's writers, I've struggled to get a handle on transcendentalism. The focus of 24 lectures on just this topic helped me sort our what it was and what it wasn't. I would think this would helpful to any American who may misunderstand or misuse the terms "self-reliance" and "civil disobedience" among other American mythologies. The professor did well to explain how this movement fell short of a philosophy in the academic sense but how the ideas of this group of writers went on to influence much of America's core ideas about itself. Be warned: this is a lot of detail about one literary movement. Might be boring for someone looking for a larger survey of early-American Lit. I enjoyed it. August 17, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by Mostly disappointed I've listened to 20-25 of the Great Courses. Some were fantastic, some were just pretty good, but this is the first one I had to make myself finish. (It cost too much not to finish it.) The content was somewhat interesting, but I thought it was way too much of a catalog of the various transcendentalists with too little discussion of their ideas. The presentation was painful to listen to. In particular, the lecturer has a habit, whenever a sentence has two clauses in it, of going way up in pitch at the end of the first clause, as if asking a question under duress. It was so annoying that whenever I recognized that I was hearing a dependent clause that was going to be followed by an independent one, I started wincing in anticipation of the upspeak. July 20, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good Overview of Transcentalism Nichols is an excellent lecturer. He does a good job of presenting the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and those transcendentalists who came into contact with Emerson and Thoreau. The lectures on Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker were particularly good. Nichols puts things in good perspective for people, such as myself, who are generally familiar with Emerson and Thoreau and not as familiar with many other transcendentalists. It's too bad that Nichols did not cover other writers influenced by the transcendentalists, such as Adin Ballou. In many ways, Ballou's ideas on non-violence were more influential than Thoreau's and Ballou's Hopedale community thrived for many years. April 1, 2015
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