Monday, October 14, 2019
The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence Buell
An excellent guide to the movement as a whole
While Transcendentalism was an extremely important development in the history of American literature and philosophy, likely few readers today could define the movement beyond calling up the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. A few enlightened souls might stretch so far as to mention Margaret Fuller. Despite its name recognition, Transcendentalism is a very difficult school of thought to pin down. Many of the Transcendentalists themselves, and Emerson in particular, denied the existence of any “school” or “movement,” likening the group to an amorphously diverse congregation of vaguely like-minded individuals. Nevertheless, Transcendentalism was a genuine movement with concrete philosophical precepts and an agenda for social change. In the 2006 book The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, editor Lawrence Buell not only amasses an excellent collection of writings but also delivers a thorough demystification of this crucial and confusing period of development in American thought.
Buell opens the book with an enlightening introduction that outlines the history of American Transcendentalism, its intellectual origins, and a summary of the philosophical views common to its members. The movement originally arose when a number of liberal Unitarian ministers including Emerson, influenced by German philosophers, departed from the strict confines of the Unitarian church to found their own independent congregations. These heretics embraced a more pantheistic conception of deity in which a divinity exists in all human beings. This philosophy emphasized the sacredness of the individual, who, to live up to the divinity within, must follow his or her own path to personal actualization and spiritual fulfillment. An intimate experience of nature, as evident from the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, was a means toward accomplishing this, as was a love for one’s fellow man exerted through virtuous social activism. Emerson at first was reluctant to get involved in social issues, wishing to keep Transcendentalism on a purely intellectual plane, but over time the movement’s members became more outspoken as advocates for religious liberty, educational reform, feminism, and the abolition of slavery.
The writings included here are a mix of essays, journal entries, memoirs, letters, aphorisms, utopian constitutions, articles from the group’s journal The Dial, and a generous helping of poetry. Many of the selections are relatively brief, well-chosen excerpts from longer works, but a few major manifestoes are reproduced in their entirety, such as Emerson’s “Nature,” “Divinity School Address,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar,” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” This collection goes well beyond the two household names to feature many of the movement’s lesser-known movers and shakers. Highlights include Fuller’s feminist manifesto “The Great Lawsuit,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay on nature and health “Saints, and Their Bodies,” Theodore Parker’s antislavery writings “The Function of Conscience” and “The Fugitive Slave Law,” and the poetry of William Ellery Channing II and Jones Very. Buell also includes commentary, some of it critical, from notable writers outside the movement such as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. In all cases, Buell provides excellent introductions that provide insightful historical context.
Not every selection in this volume is a pleasure to read, as some of the writers are deliberately obscure and overly mystical in their delivery. As a whole, however, this is an excellent collection that provides a fascinating and comprehensive education into the history, literature, and philosophy of the Transcendentalists.
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