An American Renaissance.
I. Read the text and answer the questions:
1. What ideological border existed between the western and eastern parts of the country?
2. What were some young people disappointed by?
3. Where did they look for new ideas?
4. What philosophies did the Transcendentalists reject? Why?
5. What was the main idea of the Transcendentalists?
II. Make inferences about:
1. What ideas were writers trying to find in the west?
2. Why did the author call this time “An American Renaissance”?
In the 1830s and 1840s, the frontier of American society was quickly moving toward the west. Following in the path of Brackenridge and Cooper, writers were beginning to look at the western frontier for ideas for a literature about American life. But in the cities along the east coast, the older ideal of the nation as an Atlantic community was still very much alive. The feeling there was that the cultures of Massachusetts and Virginia ought to be the models of national culture.
At this time, Boston and its neighboring towns and villages were filled with intellectual excitement and activity. Harvard, in nearby Cambridge, was no longer the only place deeply interested in education. The powerful (and now rather conservative) North American Review, founded by Harvard professor Edward Channing in 1818, was also busily spreading ideas. And since 1826, traveling lecturers had been bringing knowledge about culture and science to both the city and the New England countryside…
Among the younger people, there was much talk about the “new spiritual era”. The young intellectuals of Boston were dissatisfied with the old patriotism. America’s power and wealth did not interest them. They wanted to explore the inner life. They studied the Greek, German and Indian philosophers. Many kept diaries about their lives and feelings. Others became vegetarians or nudists.
In the center of this activity were the Transcendentalists. They formed a movement of feelings and beliefs rather than a system of philosophy. They rejected both the conservative Puritanism of their ancestors and the newer, liberal faith of Unitarianism. They saw both religions as “negative, cold, lifeless”. Although they respected Christ for the wisdom of his teachings, they thought of the works of Shakespeare and the great philosophers as equally important.
The Transcendentalists tried to find the truth through feelings and intuition rather than through logic. Orestes Brownson, and early Transcendentalists, defined the movement as “the recognition in man of the capacity of knowing truth intuitively … an order of knowledge transcending the senses". Henry David Thoreau put it more simply: ‘Wisdom does not inspect, it beholds.”
The Transcendentalists found God everywhere, in man and in nature:
Sea, earth, air, sound, silence,
Plant, quadruped, bird,
By one music enchanted,
One deity stirred.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)
In many ways, nature itself was their "Bible". Birds, clouds, trees and snow had a special meaning for them. Natural images like these created a kind of language. Through this language they discovered ideas already planted in the human soul:
All things in nature are beautiful types to the soul that will read them.
Every object that speaks to the senses was meant for the soul.
In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) published Nature, the clearest statement of Transcendentalist ideas. In it he stated that man should not see nature merely as something to be used; that man’s relationship with nature transcends the idea of usefulness. He saw an important difference between understanding (judging things only according to the senses) and “Reason”:
When the eye of Reason opens … outlines and surfaces become transparent and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings.