American Literature, Fall Semester
Oct 31th, 2018
A Brief Introduction to Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism is a school of thought, which is very popular in the 19th century of America. However, as suggested in The Reader’s Companion to American History, its train of thought has great impact on American literature, and many important writers and reformers, including Margaret Fuller, were under the influence as well. (Von Frank1081) In the following paragraphs, this essay will explore some important points of Transcendentalism, by comparing the similarities between the two representative transcendentalist’ works,The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau.
To begin with, transcendentalists believe in the value of individuals over that of social institutions. “The one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul,- the soul, free, sovereign, active. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men. ” (Emerson 539) As one of the most representative transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson is also convinced that individuals can depend on their “inner light” to trust, to rely on and to direct themselves to the right path. In the beginning of Emerson’s famous essay, The American Scholar, he points out that men are born with a piece of Man, which can be interpreted as the supreme goodness, and each one of us are divided a special talents to support the society as a whole. For example, the “scholars” in the title of his essay is the ones that have the talents of being intellectual and should serve as the thinker of a society. Also, in Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government, he further stated that if we are compelled to the mass, like the dominant social institutions, and neglect our inner light, conscience for example, we, as individuals are dehumanized. To take soldiers, for example, according to the law, they are obliged to march on the war and kill thousands of innocent lives, which dehumanizes man’s conscience.
In addition to the belief in human goodness, transcendentalism values the power of actions, for they believe without actions, thoughts can never be proved to be truth. In Emerson’s famous work, The American Scholar, he thinks “action” is one of the important influences for a learner’s cultivation, and he even stated that “Thinking is the function, and living is the functionary.”( Emerson 350) Furthermore, as suggested by Thoreau,
” There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and the war, who yet in fact do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say they know what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom and the question of free-trade”. (Emerson 846)
That is to say inaction can make someone’s words untrustworthy, like a commercial slogan and even do nothing but negative effect on the subject mattered.
To conclude, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau believe in the goodness of individuals and the importance of actions. With the belief of inner light, one can have self-confidence and lead himself to the right path. Furthermore, with self-confidence, one should also put his thought into actions to bring real benefits to the mass people.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012.p.536-49.Print
Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012.p.843-58 . Print.
Von Frank, Albert J. “Transcendentalism,” In The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Fonerand John A. Garraty, eds. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. 1081-1083.