Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

Course No. 2598
Professor Ashton Nichols, Ph.D.
Dickinson College
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Course No. 2598
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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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 60.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting lectures on remarkable U.S. thinkers. I listened to these lectures several times while commuting. And although I was acquainted with key writings of the major figures, I learned a great deal from the lectures and found them very stimulating. The lecturer spoke clearly, the pace was good and the organization logical. I just sent them to my sister as a gift I am sure she will enjoy.
Date published: 2018-11-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Captivating and Informative This is a fine TC course on an elusive topic. Professor Nichols does an excellent job in making comprehensible a movement which “…emphasized the divine in nature, the value of the individual and of human intuition, and an ideal spiritual reality that “transcends” sensory experience…provid[ing] a better guide for life than narrowly empirical or logical reasoning.” Rather than a systematic philosophy, Transcendentalism is a “… cluster of concepts set forth by a number of individuals…” (Course Guidebook, Page 146). Most prominent among the Transcendentalists, naturally, are Emerson and Thoreau, but Professor Nichols brings a great number of other contemporaries to the fore to show the variety and impact of Transcendentalism on mid-nineteenth century America and beyond. To his credit, Professor Nichols spends time on a number of the Transcendentalism’s critics, notably Herman Melville (who satirized them for their overly optimistic outlook) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (who pointed out their impracticality and lack of a sense of evil), and discusses some of the movement’s true eccentrics. Nevertheless, we are treated to a wide range of individuals and ideas that fall under the Transcendentalist rubric, all done is an easy to follow manner and set in historical and cultural contexts. Though I thought I knew a fair amount about the movement already, I not only got an excellent refresher, but also gained a better understanding of Transcendentalism. This includes tracing its roots in the Unitarian Church’s liberal theology, to the inclusion of such seemingly unlikely figures as former slave Frederick Douglass (focused on the movement’s commitment to abolition) and reclusive poet Emily Dickinson (whose preoccupation with death balances with Emerson’s exuberant optimism). Professor Nichols’ treatment of such movement concerns and path-breaking activities in education, women’s rights, abolitionism and many other topics are excellent. Noteworthy as well is Professor Nichols’ final two lectures on how Transcendentalism affected the wider American society and culture over time. Many of those concerns have truly modern cast to them. Bringing the story into the twentieth century, for instance, we see the direct and acknowledged influence of Thoreau on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and how Transcendentalism has a continuing influence into the twenty-first century. This 2006 TC course has a very helpful 160-page guidebook with not only fine lecture summaries but also a glossary, timeline, biographical notes, and annotated bibliography.
Date published: 2018-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enthusiastic lecturer, well presented narrative I am a doctoral candidate in the Humanities, focusing on the National Guard of the United States and moral duty as a citizen of a democratic republic. Who better than Ermerson and Thoreau to review?! Thanks for the lectures -- fascinating to hear about the Alcotts and the others, too.
Date published: 2018-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from enlightening I wasn't expecting to like this course as much as I did. I was in particular interested in all the women associated with the movement and some of the educational innovations born from Alcott's experiments.
Date published: 2017-10-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Where is the Context? Professor Nichols clearly knows this material and his enthusiasm for the subject is commendable, but there is really no context for a student today. He states that Trancendenatlism/ Emerson and Thoreau were reacting against the religion of the day i.e Calvinism and Unitarianism? But what was Calvinism or Unitarianism in 1840/New England/America? The professor never defines the ruling orthodoxy so it becomes impossible to see the uniqueness or rebelliousness of Emerson. Thoreau's writings although considered poetic, descriptive,insightful about himself still leaves me with the overall question of "so what"? Where Professor Nichols in explaining Walden Pond, he uses words like non conclusive and I wonder incoherent, contradictory. Thoreau experiences a reverie that lasts all day. Is this detachment an indicator of a spiritual meditation? A 19th century mindfulness? Why do I care Thoreau daydreamed all day, because he wrote beautifully about it? He read the Vedas, really? Are there Thoreau writings reflecting an influence of the Vedas? Did he even understand the Vedas other than they were non-christian? The Transcendental movement in the 19th century is considered a Philosphical era. I just don't really get why.
Date published: 2017-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More to Transcendentalism than I thought Before this course when I thought of Transcendentalism I thought of Thoreau. Maybe Emerson would come to mind if I was pressed, but even then mostly because he inspired Thoreau. I surely thought of civil disobedience and of Thoreau's influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Having spent my young adulthood during the hippie era in eastern Massachusetts I remember all to well the alternative lifestyles some of my peers viewed as justified by Transcendentalism. There you have it. That's what Transcendentalism meant to me. This course has greatly enriched my view. According to Professor Nichols Transcendentalism has touched and changed nearly every aspect of our modern lives. It played a crucial role in the anti-slavery movement. The men and women discussed in this course influenced education, religion, politics, women's rights, and all that in addition to their contributions to the literary arts. The professor's view is so expansive as to include John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry among the profound influences of Transcendentalism. That is not to say Professor Nichols exaggerates Transcendentalism's influences. He is very meticulous in providing details of the people and the acts that support his view. On the down side I did not find Professor Nichols style compelling. At first I was not sure I would like it. As the lectures progressed however, I realized how much I was learning. This course greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation for Transcendentalism. That's my review but I can't resist adding one more rambling thought. According to Professor Nichols, Transcendentalism is not a philosophy. I agree, but that begs the question, what is a philosophy? If I may dare a simple definition tuned to the present purpose: a philosophy captures a world-view that is comprehensive, logically coherent, and responsive to criticism. I am thinking of Emanuel Kant when I give that definition. According to these lectures, Emerson leaned on Kant's strict philosophical arguments to build his world-view. Kant was probably the most disciplined philosopher of all time. That seems like a strong foundation. Transcendentalism tries to be a comprehensive view of how to live a good life. That's further credence for it being a philosophy. However, individual Transcendentalist are free to form their own world-view within the general framework that loosely characterizes Transcendentalism without the need to subject those views to the formal logic and coherence critique from other philosophers. That, at least, implies that it falls short of being a philosophy. Not meeting the standard does not mean you aren't doing philosophy. I do not think Existentialism nor Nietzsche's world-view would truly meet that standard but they are still considered philosophies. Then I listened as Professor Nichols quoted Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..." Professor Nichols is right. Emerson was not a philosopher. Transcendentalism is not a philosophy.
Date published: 2016-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Look at America's Bloomsbury Group This course far surpassed my expectations. I purchased this (audio) course primarily for perspective on Thoreau, a hero of mine. But I found it fascinating to learn also about his extended circle, which seems to me a counterpart of Britain's Bloomsbury Group, albeit in an earlier century. Both groups had central figures and peripheral ones, included eccentric individualists, and shared some central concerns that spanned literature, philosophy, politics or economics, and social criticism. It took me a while to get used to the professor's speaking style, as he has slightly exaggerated elocution and projects his voice as if to reach the back room of the lecture hall. However, his narration was very clear and easy to follow, with next to no distracting stumbles. Two things I especially appreciated in this course were 1)the ideal balance struck among biographical information, discussion of the thinker's ideas, analysis of his/her style and thoughts on his/her impact; and 2)the professor's ability to quote a short passage from a thinker, which gave a taste of his/her literary style, and then tease important implications from that passage. I recommend this course to anyone interested in distinctly American strains of thought and literature, as well as people wanting to understand more about the impact of Emerson and Thoreau from their time to today.
Date published: 2016-09-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mislead Title of Course I have purchased 20 Great Courses DVDs and this product was not titled correctly. The majority of this course concerns the Unitarians and the anti-slavery movement in the United States. The professor's hatred for slavery is very apparent even to the point of being emotional. I agree with his sentiment but it doesn't belong at the lectern given the title of the course.
Date published: 2016-06-01
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