Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home:
Thou are not my friend, and I’m not thine.
Long through thy weary crowds I roam;
A river-ark on the ocean brine,
Long I’ve been tossed like the driven foam;
But now, proud world! I’m going home.
R.W. Emerson, 1847
Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the best-known American writers. A poet and essayist, he had an enormous cultural influence in 19th century America. Emerson is perhaps the most famous literary member of a group called the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists were a group of 19th Americans who were far from just being a literary circle. They were radical social and spiritual reformists who sought a new philosophical and theological understanding of Man-in-the-world.
Their context was that of Puritan New England, with the spiritual elitism and economic industrialisation that dominated this place at the time. Amidst this spiritual and cultural rigorousness, the Transcendentalists were a force to push back the theological and social frontiers, contributing much more to America’s cultural history than just fine literature.
Nature is what we know
In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson wrote that “Nature is what we know – / Yet have no art to say – / So impotent Our Wisdom is / To her Simplicity.” Emily Dickinson was not strictly a transcendentalist herself, but she had a kindred understanding of nature. And so nature was the centerpiece of transcendentalism. Emerson’s famous essay “Nature” remains the closest thing to any delineation of what exactly transcendentalism stands for. But in a nutshell, it concerns itself with spirituality and the divine, as inspired by an appreciation of the beauty of nature. Another prominent transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau (Emerson’s protégé) wrote an account of this kind of spiritual revelation, poetically and sensitively recorded in his famous book, Walden. Thoreau went to live a life in the woods for a few years to harvest a supple hardiness and humanity that could only be forged in the bosom of Mother Nature.
The sentiment expressed in Walden, as found throughout Emerson’s essays and poetry, is founded on a feeling of a deep metaphysical dissatisfaction with the rapidly industrialising world. While some of the transcendentalists insisted on pursuing solitary and simple lives in response to the industrialisation of society, opting instead for a life of open adoration for nature, there were some who were intent on a much bigger social enterprise in accordance with this ideal.
Brook Farm Romance
Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote a book called “The Blithedale Romance”, with the setting of the novel based on a real life commune, which Hawthorne himself lived for a short period of time. The real life commune was called Brook Farm, and it was the creation of radical Unitarian minister-turned-transcendentalist, George Ripley. Ripley was a person intent on establishing a much bigger transcendentalist social enterprise. With his wife he established Brook Farm, one of those provincial communal utopias that were popping up all over America at this time. It started off as a kind of social experiment in practical Christianity as interpreted by a devoutly religious transcendentalist. After a while, however, it came to reflect the scientific socialism of 19th century French philosopher, Charles Fourier, who developed a social system based on the principle of cooperation. Fourier came up with “phalanxes”, which was a specially designed building complex that was to facilitate his utopian community, where harmony would be brought to the discord created by the social instability between rich and poor.
Brook Farm was the transcendentalist’s response to the industrialising society of 19th century America, where rather than profit and progress being social priorities, it instead endeavored to achieve the unification of social classes, establish a voluntary system of labour, and reestablish the primacy of agriculture. Its modest membership peaked in 1844 with 67 men and women, but declined from thereon. Its dissipation can be attributed largely to internal frictions amongst members. It lasted for six years in total, between 1841 and 1847.
The interesting thing about Brook Farm (for an economics and politics student anyway) is that it represents yet another historical attempt to try to translate and foster philosophical idealism throughsocial perfectionism. As explored in my two previous articles, it has proved difficult to establish, or at least sustain, a social system and dynamic that fits perfectly with a theological or philosophical scheme. When we think of certain forms of social political and economic organisation, it is hard to maintain that a certain social configuration can perfectly reflect and practice a uniform set of values. Thus can there really be such a hammer and nail relationship between religion and economics, or philosophy and economics? Our practical, worldly lives seem to operate by different standards despite the standards of our transcendent selves.
In one of Walt Whitman’s poems of the “Americana” catalogue, he declared “Fecund America – today, / Thou art all over set in births and joys!” Indeed, American history is fraught some radical and uncanny social utopian experiments. It was this New World that was culturally and theologically fruitful in ways tradition-bound Europe couldn’t be. From the outset, there was a yearning for freedom from European traditionalism and class hierarchy, and freedom from a theologically rigid Christianity. The cases I’ve explored over my three articles for 2014 (the Puritans, Shakers and Transcendentalists) only touch the surface of a much larger and more complex social evolution that is the history of the United States of America.
 Rose, A.C., Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850, Yale University Press, 1981, p. 133
Image: ‘transcendentalism’ by garden beth, https://flic.kr/p/aeMhzA. Licence at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/.