History of American Literature

New England transcendentalism was a late and local manifestation of that great movement for the liberation of humanity which, invading practically every sphere of civilized activity, swept over Europe at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.

With the fading of the Renaissance, Europe had passed into an age of criticism, during which all it had inherited and achieved in the preceding era was subjected to the test of reason. Throughout the eighteenth century especially, the existing structure of society was subtly undermined, and when, at the end of that century, it finally collapsed, the revolution which in reality had long been in preparation took on an abrupt and miraculous appearance.

“Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam / Like wrecks of a dissolving dream,” cried Shelley, attempting to describe this remarkable period, and his lines are scarcely an exaggeration. Smiles and wrecks, these were the characteristic products of the time, blasted institutions and blossoming ideals.

What those ideals were—some of them soon to be realized, others destined to remain distant visions—is tolerably clear. Socially this revolution meant democracy, the assertion of the brotherhood and potential equality of men. Politically and religiously it meant the overthrow of feudal and ecclesiastical tyrannies and customs, and the setting up of liberal forms of government and belief as instruments for testing the new social doctrine. Philosophically it meant the contention, in the face of existing rationalisms and skepticisms, that man’s practical and imaginative faculties play a part in his apprehension of the truth. In the realm of art and literature it meant the shattering of pseudo-classic rules and forms in favor of a spirit of freedom, the creation of works filled with the new passion for nature and common humanity and incarnating a fresh sense of the wonder, promise, and romance of life. In the scientific and industrial worlds it meant those fundamental and far-reaching changes which came with the constantly fuller recognition and adoption of the scientific method.

To the special student, each of these revolutionary movements has its separate history. But life, in spite of the student, is not a matter of watertight compartments, and a first fact to be seized and held fast in any discussion of New England transcendentalism is that the new spirit which appeared in Europe a century and more ago was neither social, nor political, nor industrial, nor economic, nor literary, nor scientific, nor religious. It was all of them at once. It transcended every phase of life—though it is true, of course, that in this particular locality or at that particular time, in this individual or in that social atmosphere, it did take on this or that predominant emphasis or color.

On this side of the Atlantic, for instance, it assumed at the outset a preeminently political character, and America, in her own Revolution and in the events which followed it, made an early and memorable contribution to that greater revolution of the human spirit of which the source and center was in Europe. But America, save in the case here and there of an exceptional mind, remained largely unconscious, even as a matter of political theory, of the general significance for the world of what she had accomplished. Still less had she distilled from her democratic practice any fresh philosophy or faith. When, then, voices from abroad of those who were seeking a religion for the new order of things penetrated to a community which, religious to the core, had long been religiously starved, those voices were bound to be heard and answered. That is precisely what began happening near Boston shortly before the year 1830. The result was similar to what occurs, under like conditions, in the case of an individual.

Whoever has seen a young man of high mental and spiritual endowment lifted out of a provincial environment and placed suddenly in contact with the central intellectual and religious forces of his time, has a key to much of the transcendental movement in New England. The unsettling of traditional foundations, the ferment of thought and emotion, the aspirations, the excesses, the unleashing of dormant and unsuspected powers, all the effects, in fact, which attend such an experience in the case of the individual were reproduced on a wider scale when the spirit of revolutionary Europe descended upon a group of the finest minds of early nineteenth-century New England. The spirit of the eighteenth century had survived in the neighborhood of Boston long after the eighteenth century was dead. And suddenly—so at least it seemed—this group of young men and women became intensely aware of that fact. The new ideas and ideals found their way to them through a score of channels and affected as many phases of New England life. But because of the predominant part which religion still played in that life and its traditions, it was within the religious world that the influence of the new spirit was immediate and marked. Transcendentalism was the religious conversion of early nineteenth-century New England. And because of the relative cultural eminence of New England, it became indirectly, in some measure, the religious conversion of America. Emerson’s address, The American scholar, is called our intellectual Declaration of Independence. With far more fundamental truth his little volume, Nature, might be called our religious Declaration of Independence.

New England transcendentalism, then, was the product of European forces brought to bear on New England character and conditions. To analyze the movement further it will be necessary to look somewhat more closely at the nature of those conditions and that character and to study in a little more detail the outside forces which were brought in contact with them.

The religious evolution of New England from the period of the Puritan theocracy to the beginning of the nineteenth century is on the whole, with a certain change of scale and retardation of movement, strikingly similar to the religious development during the same period abroad, a fact which, at the outset, renders futile any hope to estimate with exactness how far the two movements were parallel, how far the one was influenced by the other.

New England took no plunge, as England did, from the moral heights of Puritanism into the abyss of Restoration licentiousness. But there was a descent, which, if more gradual, was not on that account less real. Seventeenth-century Puritanism held within itself the germ of its own disintegration.1 Already, by the second generation, under the law of psychological reaction and the exacting material demands of a pioneer community, “the decay of godliness in the land” had become conspicuous, and it seems difficult not to regard Salem witchcraft as the reductio ad absurdum of the extreme religious spirit. The revulsion of feeling that followed that outburst of superstition, the increasing interest in commercial and political questions, the gradual introduction of English rationalistic doctrines, the growing influence of the philosophy of Locke and of the literature of the “classical” school, all these causes, and many others, combined to accelerate the change in spiritual atmosphere, and it was not long before there was prevalent, especially in the neighborhood of Boston, much of that temper of prose and reason which we habitually associate with the eighteenth century. With this changing mood, “heresies” began to creep into the religious world: Arminianism, Arianism, and other dissolvents of Calvinism. Interest in “morality” began to infringe on interest in theology. A line of increasingly “liberal” ministers occupied prominent Boston pulpits.

The career of Jonathan Edwards serves, by contrast, to tell the story of what was happening. He, if anyone, was fitted to stem the tide of encroaching secular interests. The Great Awakening, that transitory religious revival of the second generation of the eighteenth century which is in many ways the American counterpart of the Methodist movement, was designed to remedy the spiritual deadness of the time. But it merely widened the opening gulf in the religious world. The New Calvinists, as the followers of Edwards were called, went on to develop a theology of their own, while the liberals, constantly in closer touch with English thinking, grew more and more radical, until, as the two schools diverged, the term Unitarian was finally applied to them. Though 1785, the year in which King’s Chapel in the revision of its liturgy tacitly denied the doctrine of the Trinity, is often selected as the beginning of the Unitarian movement, and though the actual schism between the Unitarian and the Trinitarian churches did not come till 1815, it is convenient, if not strictly accurate, to speak of the whole evolution of American liberalism in the eighteenth century as the Unitarian movement.

Throughout that century the position of the New England liberal had been an increasingly strong one, the typical Unitarian of the time being a man of tolerance, of intellect, of cultured tastes, of unexceptionable private morality and notable civic virtue. Emotional or spiritual in temperament, however, he was not. When, therefore, the intense fervor and the new ideals of revolutionary Europe began to make their way to New England, the Unitarian (like the orthodox Calvinist of a century before) began to find himself in an untenable position, transformed by the altered spirit of the age from a radical into a conservative. A number of Unitarian clergymen, notably the Rev. Joseph Stevens Buckminster (1784–1812), seem to have had an inkling of new things, but Buckminster died at the age of twenty-eight, and it was left to William Ellery Channing to be the first Unitarian to show something like a full appreciation of the significance for religion of the changing spirit of the time. Channing is the bridge between Unitarianism and transcendentalism.

Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1780. His early religious environment was Calvinistic but not illiberal, his parents being orthodox in belief but tolerant in spirit. The stern Calvinism of Dr. Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s pupil, the minister to whose preaching Channing listened as a boy, shocked his delicately sensitive nature, and was doubtless one of the influences that by reaction led to his liberal religious views. During his college days at Harvard Channing’s early tendency toward revolt was strengthened and his seeking for intellectual independence encouraged. Contact in his reading with radical English writers of the eighteenth century gave a direction to his thinking which, in spite of marked mental growth in later years, was never fundamentally altered.

On leaving Harvard he acted for nearly two years as tutor in a Virginia family, imbibing in the course of this experience an intense hatred of slavery. During this period, too, he became acquainted with the works of Rousseau, Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and from that time the kinship of many of his ideas with those of French Revolutionary origin can be clearly traced, though in passing through his serene and profoundly Christian mind those ideas often became scarcely recognizable.

On returning north Channing studied theology, becoming in 1803 minister of the Federal Street Society, Boston, a pulpit from which, until his death in 1842, he preached, in a spirit of singularly mingled benignity and power, sermons of constantly increasing influence that emphasized consistently the spiritual and practical as opposed to the doctrinal aspects of Christianity. Ultimately his fame even crossed the ocean, a number of his essays and reviews being translated and widely read, especially in France. The eminence he attained was due fundamentally to the gracious, almost saintly, character behind both his written and his spoken words; and it is worth remembering that all he did was accomplished in the face of a physical condition that made him essentially an invalid.

Although Channing is usually spoken of as the greatest Unitarian of his time, his sermon on Unitarian Christianity, preached at the ordination of Jared Sparks at Baltimore in 1819, being often called the creed of that denomination, he was, if we are to give him that name, a Unitarian of an entirely new type, and his works are full of indictments of what Emerson later called “the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism.”

“Unitarianism,” we find him writing, for instance, “has suffered from union with a heart- withering philosophy. . . . I fear that we must look to other schools for the thoughts which thrill us, which touch the most inward springs, and disclose to us the depths of our own souls.”

Or again:

Now, religion ought to be dispensed in accommodation to this spirit and character of our age. Men desire excitement, and religion must be communicated in a more exciting form. . . . Men will not now be trifled with . . . . They want a religion which will take a strong hold upon them.

“And they desire the same quality in their literature,” he says elsewhere, “a poetry which pierces beneath the exterior of life to the depths of the soul.”

Manifestly, as these references to changing standards in philosophy, religion, and literature make clear, a new spirit was abroad in the land, and though Channing himself had caught much of it from other and earlier sources, it is certain that German philosophy and literature, some of it directly, much more of it indirectly, was, by the third decade of the century, becoming a chief influence in its dissemination.