Transcendentalism in Literature, Major Writers, Works, and Themes

Introduction:The mid-19th century literary and philosophical movement known as transcendentalism was idealistic. The first gatherings of visionaries, thinkers, scholars, and authors to debate spiritual concepts took place in New England in 1836. The organisation was referred as the Transcendentalists in the Boston newspapers that advertised their gatherings which often took place at house of George Ripley. Transcendentalism was first conceived as a theological notion based on the principles of American democracy. When a group of Boston clergymen—among them Ralph Waldo Emerson—decided that the Unitarian Church had grown too conservative, they supported a new philosophical system that placed more value on the innate wisdom of the human soul than on church doctrine and law.

In Nutshell: All humans have equal knowledge that "transcends", that is, goes beyond the five senses.

Influence of Sufism and Hinduism

The traditions and beliefs of Islamic Sufism and Hindu pantheism had a significant impact on transcendentalist ideas. They read the texts that European authors had translated in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of religion and faith. They also sought an all-encompassing belief and the genuine meaning of divinity. Asian philosophy is evidently influential in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau kept a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text, beside his bedside when he wrote Walden. He refers to Walden Pond as "his Ganges River" (a sacred river in India) in one of his notebooks, where he sought refuge in the manner of the old ascetic sages of India. The release of a book about Buddha involved another transcendentalist named Bronson Alcott.

Short Overview

  • People are naturally good.
  • The universe is constructed as the individual is. Therefore, “Know thyself.”
  • Nature is a living mystery, symbolic and full of signs.
  • The institutions of society, including organised religion and politics, are corrupting.
  • Humans should try to be autonomous and self-sufficient rather than a part of them.
  • Organized religion should not be the source of spirituality.
  • Experience and insight are more significant than rationality.
  • Nature is stunning and should be thoroughly cherished without human interference.

  • Theory of Oversoul and Beliefs

  • That there is an Universal Soul, an Oversoul, that encompasses the life-force of all humanity.
  • All humans are one in Oversoul.
  • The rational man "transcends" his baser inclinations and innate animalistic tendencies. This is how you can truly reunite with the Oversoul spiritually.
  • Since we are all a part of the Oversoul, the human soul, known in Hinduism as Atman, rejoins It at the point of death.
  • Each man is to appreciate his fellow man because we are all a part of the Oversoul ("Love your neighbour...").
  • The Oversoul can be found anywhere, although it is more prevalent in pristine, unspoiled parts of nature.
  • Like all of us, Jesus was a part of God, but he lived a more transcendentalistic existence than any of us.
  • Monster, as Emerson stated in his Divinity School Address. It doesn't go with the rain and the blowing clover. Truly, something natural—even a mouse—is more miraculous than something strange.
  • Evil is only a deficiency, a lack of good. One ray of light can pierce the darkness, proving that light is more potent than darkness.
  • Predestination, or fate, does exist, but it typically works against humanity. Man's role is to use "self-reliance" to fight these external forces.

  • Transcendentalist Values


    This is an idealist movement that emphasises the use of imagination and creativity, which the Age of Reason had veered far from. The goal of idealism in the transcendentalist school of thought was to keep applying the original, creative concepts from the earlier Romantic Movement. Transcendentalists sought to liberate society from the rigid constraints of the Age of Reason and create a more perfect, pleasurable setting.


    Transcendentalists claimed that established institutions in society, such as politics and religion, had a negative impact on people's inherent goodness. They also thought that people are at their best when they are totally independent and "self-reliant," which is why Emerson wrote the essay with the same name. One of the core principles of transcendentalism is the idea that one should think independently of society's norms. One is encouraged by this idea to think for himself freely, in accordance with his own principles rather than those of others.

    Divinity of Nature

    They held that people must connect with nature because it is sacred and necessary for survival. Nature was something that transcendentalists loved and didn't believe anyone could control. Transcendentalists contend that if a person has a deep connection to nature, he will be able to comprehend his oversoul and, thus, be able to live a prosperous, fulfilling life without being constrained by social convention.

    Major Writers

    Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)

  • Born May 25, 1803, in Boston.
  • Graduated from Harvard University in 1821.
  • Served as Unitarian pastor before he stepped into transendentalism.
  • Influenced by Immanuel Kant and held the view that wisdom was inherent in all humans. Edward Ericson sums up Emerson’s philosophy of religion:
    ‘‘His Transcendentalist philosophy was a religion of the spiritually emancipated mind and heart, unbounded by church or party.’’

    Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)

  • Born May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts.
  • Transcendentalist feminist.
  • She joined the Transcendental Club.
  • Her feminist work is Women in the Nineteenth Century
  • She edited the transcendentalist publication The Dial for two years.

    Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

  • Born May 13,1819, in West Hills, New York.
  • Best known for his work Leaves of Grass
  • He applauded democracy and American populism.
  • Broke away from Victorian values.
  • Known for his sexual language.
  • He wrote a poem O Captain! My Captain! for Abraham Lincoln.
  • He supported abolitionist movement.

    Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

  • Born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts.
  • Published only two books A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854)
  • He wrote an essay Civil Disobedience which was inspired by nature.
  • In an essay introducing Thoreau in the Heath Anthology of American Literature, critic Wendell P. Glick summarizes:
    Thoreau’s ‘Transcendental’ premises led him to take a negative view of the dominant values of pre-Civil-War-America. He wrote disparagingly of the destruction to the natural environment . . . he deplored the implications of the rise of industrialism . . . he condemned the institution of black slavery.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)

  • Born July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts.
  • First publication: Twice-Told Tales (1837)
  • Joined Fruitlands utopian community.

  • Major Works

  • Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller.
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
  • Nature (Essay) by Emerson.
  • Leaves of Grass (anthology of poems) by Walt Whitman.
  • The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • Major Themes

    Transcendentalism's literary works frequently address five themes. They are nature importance, self-reliance, freedom of thinking, nonconformity, and confidence. Many of the works of various renowned authors from this era contain these themes. Authors like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were influential during this time.

    Important Note: You can share your ideas and join the conversation below!

    Cookie Consent
    We serve cookies on this site to analyze traffic, remember your preferences, and optimize your experience.
    It seems there is something wrong with your internet connection. Please connect to the internet and start browsing again.
    AdBlock Detected!
    We have detected that you are using adblocking plugin in your browser.
    The revenue we earn by the advertisements is used to manage this website, we request you to whitelist our website in your adblocking plugin.
    Site is Blocked
    Sorry! This site is not available in your country.