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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

Professor Ashton Nichols Ph.D.
Dickinson College
Course No.  2598
Course No.  2598
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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

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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
  • 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

Lecture Titles

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Ashton Nichols
Ph.D. Ashton Nichols
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 English. The recipient of teaching awards that include both the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and the Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching, Professor Nichols's books include The Revolutionary I: Wordsworth and the Politics of Self-Presentation, as well as a teaching anthology, Romantic Natural Histories: William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, and Others. His scholarly publications cover a range of topics that include Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Thomas Pynchon, Seamus Heaney, African exploration narratives, Victorian poetry, and travel writing; he has published his own fiction and poetry. Professor Nichols is also the producer of A Romantic Natural History: 1750-1859, a hypertext project that has been recognized for excellence by both The New York Times and the BBC in London. In recent years he has delivered keynote addresses and lectures in nations around the world, including China, England, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Cameroon, and Morocco.

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Reviews

Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 43 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by American 19th Century self-help DVD review. As the title implies, Dr. Nichols' EMERSON, THOREAU, AND THE TRANSCENDENTALIST MOVEMENT, is as much the story of a movement than it is an account of its two key founders: Emerson and Thoreau. Think of it as an initial intellectual explosion creating concentric ripples that weaken as they spread to influence a widening range of people — artists, activists, journalists and politicians — many of whom felt no allegiance to the founders. "Founders" is misleading in this case. Emerson and Thoreau were not systematic thinkers and often disagreed with each other. They created no association or headquarters. Nor did they select successors. What they did was recast old concepts they felt were outdated in new, more "fertile" directions. Intellectuals are like that. Some create highly coherent systems that merely systematize inherited concepts. Others express new sensibilities that "solve" old conundrums in ways that feel like an epiphany, at least for a while. Emerson and Thoreau fit this second type. ____________________ Both distrusted dualistic thinking. But for my purposes, 4 opposing concepts serve best to explain the ideas explored in MOVEMENT. SCIENCE v. RELIGION: Emerson felt that Puritan-style Calvinism had boxed itself into irrelevancy through dogmatic thinking. Somehow the new insights offered by science had to be incorporated into spirituality, and spirituality into science. To complicate matters further, Emerson had a mystical streak. He respected intuitive leaps arising from a close relationship with nature. NATURE v. SOCIETY: Following the romantics, Emerson saw sparks of the divine in nature, in children and in our innermost selves, uncontaminated by education. The primary concern of society through its educational system is the creation of wealth and status by means of conformity. Recapturing our connection with the divine requires an ability to step back and trust our intuitions. CHRISTIANITY v. UNIVERSAL SPIRITUALITY: After reading Hindu and Buddhist classics in translation, Emerson could not accept the traditional view that all non-Christians were dammed. A God that thought like that could not be divine. Emerson's focus instead was on points religions shared in common, stripped of tribal ignorance. Of course, his god, permeating everything like water in a wet sponge, seemed too abstract and indifferent to mainstream listeners. No miracles, no intercessions, just being — nature by another name. SELF-RELIANCE v. TRADITION: Because our innermost nature is good, individuals who trust their intuitive morality and their spontaneous connection with nature will naturally oppose unjust social institutions that oppress specific groups, be they women or other races. We must first achieve the autonomy needed to reconnect with your true self, then share your beliefs with others. __________________ Presented as philosophy, none of this is very rigorous or systematic. And it only gets worse through lectures 9 - 24 as the "movement" meanders across a string of writers, preachers, activists, and borderline crackpots. But as a record of changing sensibilities, Transcendentalism was a momentous signpost. I'm thinking of this course in connection with another TTC product — Dr. Allitt's AMERICAN RELIGIOUS HISTORY. In that course, a central theme is America's lack of state-supported religion. As a result, every new generation of preachers must reinterpret Christianity to fit the shifting values of their flock. Fail to change with the times or properly "sell" your version of God, and your followers gradually disperse. The same goes for all brands of American self-help or therapy. Emerson was something new — an independent intellectual who made a living through his books and lectures. In a sense, he was the Tony Robbins of his time, except that the self-help vocabulary then was still largely Christian. Nevertheless, the trend towards more secular, more here-and-now redemptive answers is evident. This need to sell God or self-help at every step made the U.S. a great laboratory for "human growth" philosophies. Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese or European ideas were imported, stripped of their fatalistic and "boring" parts, recast in a very optimistic light, and sold as age-old wisdom straight from the mystic past. And there is nothing wrong with that. The Christian message has been going through the same process for ages. Except that in America, it happened more quickly. There was no state support for a single interpretation, no Inquisition, no Christian headquarters. ______________ To sum up, as philosophy this course is not very interesting. But things improve greatly if you think of it as the history of a particular self-help ideology in a country vitally interested in new forms of personal growth. PRESENTATION was OK; relatively academic without being weighed down by jargon. However, this is not passive entertainment. Lectures 9 - 24, in particular, demand patience unless intellectual history fascinates you. Audio versions are sufficient. The guidebook was good. For the strongly motivated February 7, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Great first half but then bogs down in detail This course is worth reviewing for its treatment of Emerson and Thoreau. However, it quickly bogs down in a treatment of what most would consider to be minor figures and players afterwards. There are some exceptions to this, however: the lectures on Dickinson and Whitman are very interesting. Lectures 1 through 8 were very well done and worth completing. Lectures 9 through 18-19 covered much more minor details and characters that have had less of a direct legacy to philosophical thought. If this is your first foray into Transcendentalism, you will leave this course with a much better understanding of the unifying tenets and principles that help construe transcendalist philosophy--I know that I did. However, the middle of the course bogs down in a treatment of the application of transcendental ideas to social and educational reforms and the resultant effects on these institutions. This was much less compelling. Overall, the course would have been stronger if it were a 12 lecture course, or if more attention and lectures were devoted to Thoreau and Emerson and less to the minor figures, but I still completed the course with a much enhanced understanding of Transcendentalism. May 6, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Excellent overview This course is a delightful and informative introduction to the world of transcendentalism. The presentation is very good, although not outstanding. Content is not a rigorous philosophical tour of transcendentalism; it is an overview best suited to interested non-philosophers. The historical context and the historical consequences are a major part of the content. Thus it is comprehensive in its coverage of transcendentalism. It is well worth the time and money for anyone interested in a basic understanding of this important American philosophical movement. The video version of the course was nice, but it would work just fine in audio only. February 2, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by I am writing this review to counter one that mentioned that the lectures were, I believe he/she said, "unlistenable." I found myself delighted each time I started the engine of my car. I confess it has been some 6 months since I listened to the course, but I enjoyed the approach of the professor immensely: he painted a good picture of the philosophy of the Transcendentalists, and he personalized each lecture with anecdotes about each of the major players. I thought at the time that it was one of the most enjoyable of the two dozen courses I have (Daniel Robinson Tyler Roberts, and Allen Guelzo are also among my favorites). I take the time to write this just to contradict the other reviewer. I imagine the professor's voice may have been part of the complaint. But not everyone is blessed with a voice like Bob Dylan! November 29, 2012
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