Where did the America we know today-so different in its fundamental views about almost every aspect of life as to be unrecognizable to our countrymen of two centuries ago-really come from?
How, for example, did the colonial idea of the classroom as a place devoted to “breaking the will? and “subduing the spirit? of students, change to that of a vibrant, even pleasurable experience-including innovations such as kindergarten and recess-with children encouraged to participate actively in their own education?
What forces eventually enabled our nation to see slavery as morally abhorrent and unequivocally wrong , when we had once passed a law permitting the capture and return of escaped slaves who managed to make their way to the “free? North?
How did the struggle for women’s rights-not just for the right to vote but also to have control over their own aspirations and destinies-gain the momentum to unleash changes still felt today?
Why did the once-unassailable power wielded from the pulpit begin to weaken in the 1800s? Why did certain theologies become more liberal and increasing numbers of people choose less dogmatic expressions of faith-or even no faith at all?
What are the roots of our love for nature, of the near-spiritual experience so many of us now find in the ripple of a stream in the morning sun or the thunderous roar of ocean waves?
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, what is the source of our distinctly American way of experiencing ourselves-confident in our value as individuals, certain of our ability to discover personal truths in the natural world, self-reliant in the face of uncertainty and change?
Answers to questions like these are found in and around Boston and the town of Concord, Massachusetts, which became, little more than five decades after the American Revolution, the epicenter of a profoundly influential movement that would reshape many beliefs and make possible the America we know today.
That movement is Transcendentalism. Drawing on an array of influences from Europe and the non-Western world, it also offered uniquely American perspectives of thought: an emphasis on the divine in nature, on the value of the individual and intuition, and on belief in a spirituality that might “transcend? one’s own sensory experience to provide a more useful guide for daily living than is possible from empirical and logical reasoning.
A Movement that Transformed America
The extraordinary members of this informal movement provided intellectual and moral leadership for many social transformations: the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, freedom of religious thought and practice, educational reform, and more. The influence of their ideas continues today in many aspects of our culture, from efforts to preserve large tracts of wild nature to civil disobedience around the world.
But although the ideas that contributed to New England Transcendentalism had many roots, the strength of its impact came from the intellectual energy of two remarkable individuals: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most important figure behind Transcendentalism in America, and Henry David Thoreau, his most influential disciple.
The Power of the Individual
“Without Emerson and Thoreau,? notes Professor Ashton Nichols, “the United States would not have developed into the nation it has become. We would not believe in the power of the individual to the extent that we do, nor would we see nature at the center of one view of the American psyche. … If Emerson gave us a new view of America and American thinking, Thoreau gave us a new way of living and a new vision of each individual.?
In Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement, Professor Nichols introduces us to these two remarkable thinkers and a diverse group of intellectual activists, literary figures, and social reformers whose ideas, often