Transcendentalism was a literary movement in the first half
of the 19th century. The philosophical theory contained such
aspects as self-examination, the celebration of individualism, and
the belief that the fundamental truths existed outside of human
experience. Fulfillment of this search for knowledge came when
one gained an acute awareness of beauty and truth, and
communicated with nature to find union with the Over-Soul. When
this occurred, one was cleansed of materialistic aims, and was left
with a sense of self-reliance and purity. Two authors who were
among the leaders of the movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson
and Henry David Thoreau, whose works “Nature”,
“Self-Reliance”, and “Walden” brought America to the forefront of
the transcendentalist movement. Their ideas opposed the popular
materialist views of life and voiced a desire for freedom of the
individual from artificial restraints. They felt that if they explored
nature thoroughly, they would come to know themselves and the
The concept of transcendentalism is clearly expressed in the
essay “Nature”, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a leader
in the movement of transcendentalism and the first American
author to influence European thought. His essay “Nature” tells of
how one can gain insight and spiritual cleansing simply from
experiencing nature. Emerson tells of how “in the woods is
perpetual youth” and “in the woods we return to reason and faith.”
These lines exemplify the very ideals of transcendentalism. They
show the deep roots a person has in nature and how one can
receive knowledge of their Over-Soul by honestly enjoying the
outdoors and freeing oneself of previous evils. In the following
“Standing on the bare ground- my head bathed by the blithe
air and uplifted into infinite space- all mean egotism
vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing; I see
all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me;
These lines display the transcendentalist belief that purity and
knowledge can be obtained from a union with and understanding of
Emerson also relates the concept of transcendentalism to
human life in his essay, “Self-Reliance.” In this aptly named essay,
Emerson grapples with another part of transcendentalism, the issue
of “self-reliance.” He sees mankind as somewhat of a coward; that
people never express their true selves. Emerson claims that humans
are afraid to fail; they are pleased if successful, but are never
happy with where and what they are. He expresses
transcendentalist ideals by saying that a true person would be a
non-conformist. Emerson puts this belief into words in the
“There is a time in every mans education when he arrives at
the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that
he must take himself for better, for worse, as his kernel
of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil.”
These words are the epitome of the ideals of
transcendentalism- that one must celebrate the individual in order
to find himself one with the universe.

Another significant glimpse into the core ideals of
transcendentalism was made by the distinguished author Henry
David Thoreau. Thoreau lived in the home of essayist and
philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. His most honored and enjoyed
work was the story, “Walden”, which gives a forthright statement
of his reasons for embracing a contemplative and decidedly
transcendentalist life living on the shore of Walden Pond.
In “Walden”, Thoreau explains why he chose the woods:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to
front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not
learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was
not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice
resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”
Thoreau himself was quoted as saying, “In wilderness is the
preservation of the world.” In “Walden”, the author describes the
cardinal importance of nature in ones search of their soul. Thoreau
chose to live in seclusion because he believed solitude was the best
companion in order to know ones own self. In the essay, he felt
that mankind cared too deeply for material possessions; “simplify!”
he implored. Thoreau claimed that humans were “ruined by luxury
and heedless expense” and that success is gained when one
“advances confidently in the direction of his dreams”. Thoreau
stressed the importance of the individual, saying “If a man does not
keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a
different drummer.” His ideas were the foundation of
transcendentalism- individualism, knowledge of nature, and the
Transcendentalism was one of the most important movements
of the 19th century. The theory embodied ideals that, if taken to
heart, had the potential to create a better understanding of the soul.

If a person could connect their individual soul with the universe,
they could fulfill their potential in life. One achieved this through
many different ways, ways that are explained and discussed in the
three works mentioned before. Transcendentalism was a
fundamental movement that was forever immortalized by
innovative authors and works of literature.

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