- American Transcendentalism: A History, and: The Transcendentalists
Capturing the central message of Transcendentalism in his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson stated plainly that “to be great is to be misunderstood.” If misunderstanding characterizes the general reception of those reading the Transcendentalists, then indeed American thinkers like Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, and Margaret Fuller must have been the most superior class of thinkers ever produced in America. For nearly two centuries now, from Charles Ellis’s Essay on Transcendentalism to the work of Perry Miller, William Hutchinson, Anne Rose, and Catherine Albanese in more recent decades, scholars have attempted to explicate further in order to celebrate the significance of Transcendentalist thought. Barbara Packer, professor of English at UCLA, and Philip Gura, professor of literature and culture at University of Northa Carolina at Chapel Hill, have now added to the discussion. In her appropriately titled The Transcendentalists, an expansion of her similarly titled essay that first appeared in The Cambridge History of American Literature in 1995, Packer intends to show Transcendentalism’s “continuing sway over American thought.” For Gura, author of American Transcendentalism: A History, a culminating work representing forty years of research, the Transcendentalists “remain one of the nation’s most compelling and influential intellectual coteries.” Their enigmatic thoughts “have come to define what is ‘American’” (xi). If this is true, then to misunderstand Transcendentalism is to misunderstand American identity.
Both authors certainly want to clarify, and in no insignificant degree they succeed. Gura begins with a definition. Transcendentalism espoused the idea “that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses, or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world” (10). Fellow Transcendentalist George Ripley said it more clearly: Truth “transcends the sphere of external senses . . . the supremacy of mind over matter” (143). Mind or spirit was not [End Page 488] just the highest reality, but the highest truth. To better appreciate such a definition, Gura and Packer outline the origins of the movement beginning with the religious controversies among New England Unitarians, especially as they related to the veracity of miracles and the nature of special revelation in the scriptures. Before challenging the growing materialism produced by the Market Revolution in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, religion had to be purged of its materialism. Both liberal and conservative theologians erred in trying to verify—or, in some cases, undermine—religion through the use of propositional reasoning. Language masks essence. True spirituality required movement beyond embodiment, which included transcending the encased confessional language of traditional dogma. Drawing on the emerging work of higher critical scholarship, the mysticism of Swedenborgianism, the universalism of Eclecticism, and the emotionalism of Freidrich Schleiermacher, early Transcendentalists believed that the “approximate” language of the Bible was not the true essence of the spirit: “vital theology demanded the assent of the heart” (Gura, 47). Such an assent demanded deep self-reflection.
Mistaking the embodiment of spirit or relying only on reason was not only a problem of the Christian religion, but of society in general. Spirituality was not a matter of the purely functional use of the eyes to see, but deep reflection within the individual to “see” the soul. The difference between physical and spiritual seeing, what Transcendentalists gleaned from Thomas Carlyle in his Aids to Reflection, was the difference between Understanding (theological formulae) and Reason (spiritual enlightenment). This allowed Transcendentalists a way around the rationalism of certain Unitarians but also the stagnant nature of traditional orthodoxy. Emerson, a great admirer of Carlyle, was quick to adopt this classification. “Reason,” he confessed, “is the highest faculty of the soul—what we mean often by the soul itself; it never reasons, never proves, it simply perceives; it is vision” (quote from Packer, 26). The move from Reason to Understanding, which could only be acquired by the individual...