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.