Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 1. New England Transcendentalism a Phase of World-Wide Movement

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. Transcendentalism

§ 1. New England Transcendentalism a Phase of World-Wide Movement

NEW ENGLAND transcendentalism was a late and local manifestation of that great movement for the liberation of humanity which, invading practically every sphere of civilized activity, swept over Europe at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.

With the fading of the Renaissance, Europe had passed into an age of criticism, during which all it had inherited and achieved in the preceding era was subjected to the test of reason. Throughout the eighteenth century especially, the existing structure of society was subtly undermined, and when, at the end of that century, it finally collapsed, the revolution which in reality had long been in preparation took on an abrupt and miraculous appearance.

  • Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
  • Like wrecks of a dissolving dream,
  • cried Shelley, attempting to describe this remarkable period, and his lines are scarcely an exaggeration. Smiles and wrecks, these were the characteristic products of the time, blasted institutions and blossoming ideals.

    What those ideals were—some of them soon to be realized, others destined to remain distant visions—is tolerably clear. Socially this revolution meant democracy, the assertion of the brotherhood and potential equality of men. Politically and religiously it meant the overthrow of feudal and ecclesiastical tyrannies and customs, and the setting up of liberal forms of government and belief as instruments for testing the new social doctrine. Philosophically it meant the contention, in the face of existing rationalisms and skepticisms, that man’s practical and imaginative faculties play a part in his apprehension of the truth. In the realm of art and literature it meant the shattering of pseudo-classic rules and forms in favour of a spirit of freedom, the creation of works filled with the new passion for nature and common humanity and incarnating a fresh sense of the wonder, promise, and romance of life. In the scientific and industrial worlds it meant those fundamental and farreaching changes which came with the constantly fuller recognition and adoption of the scientific method.

    To the special student, each of these revolutionary movements has its separate history. But life, in spite of the student, is not a matter of water-tight compartments, and a first fact to be seized and held fast in any discussion of New England transcendentalism is that the new spirit which appeared in Europe a century and more ago was neither social, nor political, nor industrial, nor economic, nor literary, nor scientific, nor religious. It was all of them at once. It transcended every phase of life—though it is true, of course, that in this particular locality or at that particular time, in this individual or in that social atmosphere, it did take on this or that predominant emphasis or colour.

    On this side of the Atlantic, for instance, it assumed at the outset a pre-eminently political character, and America, in her own Revolution and in the events which followed it, made an early and memorable contribution to that greater revolution of the human spirit of which the source and centre was in Europe. But America, save in the case here and there of an exceptional mind, remained largely unconscious, even as a matter of political theory, of the general significance for the world of what she had accomplished. Still less had she distilled from her democratic practice any fresh philosophy or faith. When, then, voices from abroad of those who were seeking a religion for the new order of things penetrated to a community which, religious to the core, had long been religiously starved, those voices were bound to be heard and answered. That is precisely what began happening near Boston shortly before the year 1830. The result was similar to what occurs, under like conditions, in the case of an individual.