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 4.1 out of 5 by 70.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Surprisingly Good For all its quixotic idealism, transcendentalism left an enduring legacy on the American psyche. Specifically, this course helped me to discover many of the origins of my own ideas on education, women's rights, child development, civil rights, religion, and general outlook. In addition, I got to meet many interesting historical figures along the way about whom I had previously only known as a name or a passing reference. Quite frankly, the course was far more interesting than I had expected it would be. As for the presentation style, though Professor Nichols' is a fairly methodical lecturer, he is never boring, and my interest never flagged during the entire course. If you are interested in learning about an important part of the intellectual, social and political legacy bequeathed to the 20th century by the 19th century, I highly recommend this course. It is certainly one that I'll be revisiting in the future.
Date published: 2011-06-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mixed Emotions I discovered from this course that I have a love/hate relationship with transcendentalism. Much of my life has been spent in the explicit pursuit, discovery and embodiment of transcendentalist ideals, yet for all its open ended, nature-based, eclectic and transcendent aspirations it also seems so silly, selfish, self-aggrandizing and even reactionary! It comes across as a movement (surprisingly small yet larger than life in legacy) of inspired yet naive and muddled thinkers and thinking. This course of Professor Nichol’s 24 lectures is equally conflicting for me. While I appreciate his enthusiasm, knowledge and detailed explanation of the people, time and places involved (especially the lectures on Emerson and Thoreau in mid 19th century Concord Mass.), I more often found them frustratingly fluffy and full of conjecture and repetition (it could have easily and more interestingly all been said in 12 lectures), read with not a hint of spontaneity, and thus mostly tedious to get through. And while I wouldn't presume to dispute the historic details of the people and events he covers I could recognize he often had the context misrepresented (with his own idealistic bias, as in his sweeping and inaccurate statement that in the pre-Civil War South it was illegal to be a free black person, when in fact there were free blacks there as well as blacks successful enough to have become slave owners themselves). The Transcendentalist’s foundation in idealistic Unitarianism, while noble seeming, was also intellectually inconsistent and overly sentimental/emotional - as in their strong emphasis on the individual, while also favoring Socialist/collectivist social organization (incompatible and contradictory ideals!). The short lived collective living Utopian experiment of Fruitlands is a classic example of such muddled impractical thinking, and the fact that it was a clear failure (didn’t even last through their first winter), and consisted of the devoted/obedient women and children doing all the work while the men wandered around engaged in philosophic discussion, shows deeper underlying problems with these thinkers and the ideas they were generating. Prof. Nichols never looks into this (instead calling Fruitlands a success, just for having been attempted!), or gives much analysis of the Transcendentalists contemporary critics (Melville and Hawthorne each wrote whole books in response to the movement), instead just offering his own uncritical enthusiastic praise. I’d have enjoyed a more rigorously balanced (academic!) view of their ideas and historical context, and it probably would have increased my respect for the Transcendentalists because there is much to appreciate in their spirit of open minded inquiry, and recognition of the sublime and divine in each being and throughout Nature. I almost get the feeling they were the first blush of American beat poet/bohemian sensibilities (albeit a prudish 19th century East Coast version), but then again they were just so self-righteously goody-goody and meddling in their desire to bring enlightenment to America (Enlightenment-Lite). Frustrating…yet fascinating. Yet… as much as I wouldn’t recommend this course, I've been inspired to start rereading Thoreau and appreciate his radical anarchic individualism (“…I believe, - ’That government is best that governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”). Now, for all that naive idealism there’s a timeless idea (and the all-American method of civil disobedience) I can get behind!
Date published: 2011-06-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from After Emerson and Thoreau, just so-so This isn't bad, but I struggled to stick with it after the discussions on Emerson and Thoreau. The other figures in this course aren't nearly as interesting.
Date published: 2010-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Course This is one of the best courses I have bought from the Teaching Company - I really enjoyed it. The professor was excellent and did a great job explaining the material and making it interesting. I enjoyed thinking about the relevance to modern day America. I highly recommend this.
Date published: 2010-06-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well-Done Overview; A Bit Much Hagiography Prof. Nichols provides a well-organized survey of Transcendentalism, particularly suitable for those (like me) with minimal prior knowledge. In addition to the history of the movement, he covers the individuals, their philosophies, the practical changes towards which they worked, and the short-term and lasting effects of Transcendentalism on American culture and society. Prof. Nichols also repeatedly and appropriately emphasizes that Transcendentalism was not a coherent and integrated system, either philosophically or in its effects, but rather a loose network of like-minded thinkers with differening but overlapping concerns and views, who shared perhaps most prominently and fundamentally a belief in the "divinity" and value of each individual, as an individual. My criticisms of the course are small relative to my appreciation, but still, I think, significant. Most important is the lack of systematic critique. It is clear that Prof. Nichols is a great admirer of the transcendalists in general, and of Emerson and Thoreau in particular. While he does provide some reference to their foibles - Emerson was overly "abstract" and Thoreau clearly had some socialization issues - his discussion of their lives and work shades strongly into overt hagiography and lacks any deep consideration of their weaknesses. Certainly there is much to admire in a group which promoted abolitionism, women's rights, and a progressive (for the time) approach to education, among other worthy goals. But there were problems as well. For example, Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience", for all its eloquence and powerful emotional impact on, among others, Gandhi and King, is philosophically an incoherent and self-contradictory mess, and would be disasterous to attempt put into effect as written. More fundamentally, Prof. Nichols never consides the possible negative side of the Emersonian worship of self-reliance and the Individual, which becomes the strongest thread in the fabric of Transcendentalism. To the extent that these thinkers truly had the powerful impact on American identity which Prof. Nichols asserts, it may be argued that they are partly responsible for the development of "American exceptionalism" - the belief that Americans are different from and superior to other cultures - and our cult of individualism - the attitude that it is each man (and woman) for himself, and that there is no societal responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves. It should at least have been considered whether, if these are negative outcomes, their roots in Transcendentalism make that movement very much of a mixed blessing. Nevertheless, I do recommend this course, with these reservations, as a worthwhile and generally well-done overview of this important aspect of our history.
Date published: 2010-04-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good overview I enjoyed this course as an introduction to American Transcendentalism. The lecturer did a good job giving an overview of the philosophy and its key figures. My only quibble is that it could have done a better job of balancing the history of the people involved and explaining the ideas themselves. There was plenty of the former but not enough of the latter for my taste. I was left with an enjoyable history of great individuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.
Date published: 2009-09-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I visited Concord, MA a few years ago and sauntered along Authors Ridge in the old Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where along a short path Thoreau, Alcott, Emerson and other Transcendentalists lie near one another.. The experience piqued my interest in this course. I found it informative and enjoyable. The presentation was to me objective. The professor did not seem to have any philosophical agenda to push. He explains that as with the Bible, Shakespeare (and I say Bob Dylan) you can find support among the Transecendentalist writings for about any position you want to take. Still, this group of writers has cast significant influence on our intellectual history and on actions of historical figures as well. They are well worth an acquaintance. A somewhat annoying drawback was in the professor's delivery (I bought the audio version). He at times sounds stiff and mechanical. He also often uses this rising inflection at the end of his sentences which reminds me of an insecure adolescent girl. Overall, though, it was a good course. I listened through it twice and picked up insights both times. If you are inclined toward the subject, then you probably will too.
Date published: 2009-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The time flew ... ... as I listened to this course. I felt I could trust the professor, and that he gave me an honest and fair evaluation of American Transcendentalism. I did not find myself always on guard against clever, politically correct filtering of historic material. At the end of each lecture, I was eager to get to the next one. I look forward to listening to this course several more times.
Date published: 2009-05-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good but no laff track please I've been enjoying the content of the lecture series. It's my first foray in depth into the world of Transcendalism, although I've been peripherally involved for a long time. The overall tone and presentation is good, and the material is at about the right amount of depth and breadth. The only small issues I have are Prof. Nichols's rather frequent use of "It is the case that ...", which is a content-free space-filler, and the use of the same canned applause at the beginning (and presumably, end) of each lecture (I checked in an audio editor; it's identical data). This is both unnecessary and, being faked, somewhat insulting to the listener. (I do hope this is not a feature of all The Teaching Company items.)
Date published: 2009-03-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Anecdotal and biographical After the first few lectures, this course seemed long on stories and short on ideas.
Date published: 2009-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I learned about Emerson and Thoreau from a Vietnam vet who told me that they saved his life. After this course they are giving purpose to mine.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Religious connections of individuals was not as clear as I would have liked.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is a spledid review of the topic- quite thorough but also quite fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is now one of my favorite courses.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A well-organized tour of 19th century thought, writing and social movements which continue to affect our world today.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Awesome course! I never guess how much the transcendentalists helped make out modern world.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Some professors lack a degree of animation or enthusiam for their subjects. Others are great!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I had concerns when I ordered this that it would be vague. I was happy to discover that the opposite was true. The lecturer was clear, concise, and actually fun to listen to. I was sorry when the course was completed.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The information was excellent and well prepared. A complete understanding of the transcendentialist movement was achieved.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This lecture series wasn't my favorite topic area. I didn't find Prof. Nichols vocal delivery to be engaging. I can be interested in almost anything, and really didn't find this series up to the the teaching company's usual quality.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Nichols did a very good job of pulling all the various ramifications of this movement together and add interesing pieces I hadn't known before.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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