The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Transcendentalism

BEFORE

1840 Author and literary critic Margaret Fuller and essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson become founding editors of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, publishing on literature, philosophy, and religion.

1850 Emerson, spokesman of Transcendentalism, proposes a “general mind” that expresses itself through the lives of geniuses such as Plato and Shakespeare.

1854 The rewards of a simple life in nature are described in Walden; or a Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau.

AFTER

1861–65 The great US poet Emily Dickinson enjoys her most prolific period. Her poems have Transcendentalist overtones mixed with a fear of cosmic immensities.

The Transcendentalist movement thrived in the USA in the mid-19th century, inspired by German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea that knowledge is concerned “not with objects, but our mode of knowing objects”. This fusion of the intellectual and metaphysical– combined with a celebration of physicality, sexuality, and nature – characterized the work of the US poet Walt Whitman (1819–92) and other Transcendentalist writers.

In praise of body and spirit

Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass contains poems such as “I Sing the Body Electric”, where, at the same time as revering the soul, he displays a desire to liberate Americans from shame about the body, to foster egalitarian instincts, and to promote human connection. “Song of Myself” is a eulogy to all of humanity, in which the poet imagines himself returned to the cycles of nature. With the hypnotic rhythm of his verse, Whitman revels in the senses: “I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, / I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Whitman delighted in nature and its cycles, in which, for him, God was self-evidently present. He shared a conviction with the poet Emerson that humankind was innately good, and this became a hallmark of Transcendentalism. Later poems in the book, such as “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, also show a mystic fascination with the “measureless oceans of space”.

"This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is, / This the common air that bathes the globe."

“Song of Myself”

See also: Lyrical Ballads