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(32) Transcendentalism and its Influence in American Literature.

A m e r i c a n  R o m a n t i c i s m

[See "Background for Topics 31-33..."]


R a l p h  W a l d o  E m e r s o n  ( 1 8 0 3 – 8 2 )

L i f e :

- grew up in a family incl. a heritage of 9 successive generations of notable New En. ministers

- enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School

- involved with Unitarianism = rejected the Calvinist legacy of J. Edwards and the Great Awakening, shifted from the individual’s depravity to individual’s moral capabilities

- disapproved the worshipping of ‘the dead forms of our forefathers’ in favour of more intuitive and personally revelatory relig. experience

- resigned his ministry: ‘in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry’ >> Eur. >> Concord (MA)

W o r k :

- generally consid. the chief spokesman for transcendentalism

- an ambitious and dynamic lecturer

- drew the lectures from his extensive journals: commented on the controversies of the time, private and public persons, and his notes on reading

- lectured throughout Am. and En. with an enormous appeal to the average Am. in the 1840s


- refused the ceremonies of church in favour of individual firsthand experience of God

- urged the ministers to free themselves from the authority of the church, and to instruct their parishioners ‘to love God without mediator’

- developed this controversial ideas in an address at the Harvard Divinity School, resulted in his condemnation as a heretic


- his essays display the way his mind actually works: moves from impression to impression, from association to association

- the flow of his texts analogous to the flow of the natural world

- his philos. rather inconsistent x but: E.: ‘to define is to confine’

- achievement: defined the traditional Am. values of self-reliance, individual authority, individual responsibility, resolute optimism, moral idealism, veneration of experience, and worshipful return to nature

> the work of such divergent figures as W. Whitman, R. Frost, W. C. Williams, G. Stein, F. S. Fitzgerald, W. Cather, & oth

P r o s e :


- attempts to reject the Old World and build a new one: ‘why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?’

- nature should substitute the new nation’s lack of cultural heritage, and should be the source for the articulation and development of the Am. cultural identity

- nature should replace the Bible as capable of being read by anyone

- differentiates the following modes of nature:

(a) Nature as a commodity: food for our senses

(b) Nature as a standard of Beauty

(c) Nature as a source of language: language derives from natural objects

(d) Nature as a teacher of discipline

“The American Scholar”:

- an address developed at the Harvard Divinity School

- urges to break with the past, look at the present, and concentrate on one’s own experience

- bases his philos. on spontaneous action, creative intuition, self-reliance, and self-trust

- the Am. scholar should be ‘The Man Thinking’ x not parroting oth. men’s thought

- his duties should be to cheer, raise, and guide men by showing them facts among appearances

- offers the remedy for the ‘divided man’ of the modern society:

(a) expose oneself to Nature and restore the unity with it

(b) see oneself in the relation with the oth.: see one’s job in the relation with oth. jobs, be happy for what one does and is [– not only feel the dignity of being a student x but: enjoy being so], and become aware of the globalness of human activities

- offers the following levels of education:

(a) Nature = a ‘transparent eye-ball’: one should study the nature by actively perceiving and experiencing it = to study and learn about oneself

(b) Mind of the Past: one should not only read book and memorise facts x but: should use actively the knowledge from the books, for the scholar’s idle time, for inspiration only

(c) Action: no scholar should lack a heroic mind, each should be aware of the dignity and necessity of labour, and should be creative and inventive

=> declares the independence of Am. lit.: celebrated by the foremost critic of the period J. R. Lowell as Am.’s ‘Intellectual Declaration of Independence’

Representative Men

English Traits:

- conc. with Br. culture

- became more empirical and sceptical in his later y.

- devoted his last y. to being ‘the representative American’: wrote movingly about the Emancipation Proclamation and the death of Lincoln

P o e t r y :

- lacks formal perfection x but: not a thought-provoking quality

- attempts a freer style from which a great deal of later modern verse derived

Concord Hymn

May-Day: a coll. of poems


H e n r y  D a v i d  T h o r e a u  ( 1 8 1 7 – 6 2 )

L i f e :

- received uni education (Harvard) x but: most appreciated self-education

- acquainted with R. W. Emerson, shortly lived with his family as a handyman

- claimed he never needed to leave the little village of Concord (MA) x but: saw all worth seeing in the world

- claimed that on the miniature scale of the place where one happens to be one may read all worth knowing in life

- isolated himself from the outside world, spent 2 y. as a hermit on the shores of Walden Pond

W o r k :

- preocc. with the life of the spirit

- also conc. with the political and social controversies of the time: the utopian plans for communal living, socialistic societies, the Fugitive Slave Act, John Brown (celebrated him), etc.

- developed public addresses against the materialist society x but: incl. also wit and nature lore

- retained his indifference to style: often crabbed and inartistic

- insisted on the strongest thought, sought to express himself unreservedly and spontaneously x but: brought his bookishness into his narrative (learned allusions)

- wrote esp. journals and essays – “Resistance to Civil Government”

- over his grave R. W. Emerson praised his exceptional character x but: lamented he had failed to be all he should have been

- criticized also by J. R. Lowell & oth.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:

- an account of a canoe excursion with his brother

- nature observations, histories of the region, and observations on the clash of nature x human inhabitants

Walden: or, Life in the Woods:

- set out for Walden Pond on the Independence Day = symbolical for his 1st major undertaking as a writer

- mingles common fact x personal experience, the world without x the world within

- resists on the development of the individual in the place where one happens to be, and on the avoidance of all infl. except the common ones of nature

- his philos. often shrewd, strained, and arbitrary x but: the greatest value in his disclosure of the common facts of the world about one

> “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”, one of the opening explanatory chapters

The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and A Yankee in Canada: accounts of his next trips


M a r g a r e t  F u l l e r  ( 1 8 1 0 – 5 0)

L i f e :

- a teacher, transl., ed., journalist, lit. and social critic, feminist theorist and advocate, and poet

- received a rigorous education led by her father: studied the Bible, the classics, W. Shakespeare, E lit., modern languages (esp. Ger.), and history

- ed. the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial for 2 y., intended to stimulate the readership to thinking

- initiated the weekly ‘Conversations’ = meetings of women at the Boston home of the teacher Elizabeth Peabody to discuss various topics under F.’s intellectual leadership

- travelled Eur., met lit. men, experienced the rev. in Ita., and converted to socialism

- only in Eur. solved her life-long tension btw being a woman x a writer, and fully discovered her both qualities

W o r k :

< J. W. Goethe inf. her thinking and teaching, and prepared her for her transl.

- her 1st publ. work the transl. of correspondence of Ger. Writers

C r i t i c i s m :

- wrote unfavourable lit. critical reviews on J. R. Lowell and H. W. Longfellow

- her lifetime: offended the Boston lit. Brahmins (and vice versa) x now: consid. to rank with E. A. Poe as one of Am.’s 1st major lit. critics

- also wrote socially critical essays: tackled controversial public issues incl. the neglect of the blind and the insane, the abuses of F prisoners, etc.

N o n - f i c t i o n :

“The Great Lawsuit: Man Versus Men. Woman Versus Women.”:

- a tightly argued powerful essay, publ. in The Dial

- argues to free men and women from their social roles

- a woman <=> a slave

Woman in the 19th Century:

- an expanded version of “The Great Lawsuit”

- laden with scholarly allusions

Summer on the Lakes:

- a journal account of her trip to the Midwest

- an intellectual miscellany

> a model for H. D. Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Papers on Literature and Art: a coll. of essays, publ. shortly before her departure for Eur.

Life Without & Life Within: a coll. of essays, poems, and reviews

Memoirs (posthum.): her life recreated by her friends R. W. Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and W. H. Channing


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American  Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. London: Penguin, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.

McQuade, Donald, gen.ed. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

Ruland, Richard, Malcolm Bradbury. Od  puritanismu k postmodernismu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997.

Vančura, Zdeněk, ed. Slovník spisovatelů: Spojené státy americké. Praha: Odeon, 1979.

Other Sources

Peprník, Michal. Semináře: Americká literatura 1. ZS 2004/05.


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