Transcendentalism and Secular Utopian Societies

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the message of the Transcendentalists
  • Examine the development of secular utopian societies


Beginning in the 1820s, a new intellectual movement known as Transcendentalism began to grow in the Northeast. In this context, to “transcend” means to go beyond the ordinary sensory world in order to grasp personal insights and gain an appreciation of a deeper reality. Transcendentalists believed that all people could attain an understanding of the world that surpassed rational, sensory experience. The writers and thinkers devoted to transcendentalism, as well as the reactions against it, created a trove of writings, an outpouring that has been termed the American Renaissance.

Photograph (a) is a portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Document (b) is a letter from Emerson to Walt Whitman. The visible text reads “Dear Sir, I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very [remainder of the letter is not visible].”

Figure 1. Ralph Waldo Emerson (a), shown here circa 1857, is considered the father of transcendentalism. This letter (b) from Emerson to Walt Whitman, another brilliant writer of the transcendentalist movement, demonstrates the closeness of a number of these writers.

Transcendentalists were also critical of mainstream American culture. They reacted against the age of mass democracy in Jacksonian America—what de Tocqueville called the “tyranny of majority”—by arguing for greater individualism against conformity. Many Transcendentalists felt that the vast majority of people were not educated or worldly enough to make good decisions and that democracy only led to mob rule. European romanticism, a movement in literature and art that stressed emotion over reason and logic, also influenced Transcendentalists in the United States, especially their celebration of the uniqueness of individual feelings.

Ralph Waldo Emerson emerged as the leading figure of this movement. Born in Boston in 1803, Emerson came from a religious family. His father served as a Unitarian minister and, after graduating from Harvard Divinity School in the 1820s, Emerson followed in his father’s footsteps. However, after his wife died in 1831, he left the clergy. On a trip to Europe in 1832, he met leading figures of romanticism who rejected the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment, emphasizing instead emotion, beauty, art, and “the sublime.”

Transcendentalist Literature

When Emerson returned home the following year, he began giving lectures on his romanticism-influenced ideas. In 1836, he published Nature, an essay arguing that humans can find their true spirituality in nature, not in the everyday bustling working world of democracy and industrial transformation. In 1841, Emerson published his essay Self-Reliance, which urged readers to think for themselves and reject the mass conformity and mediocrity he believed had taken root in American life. In this essay, he wrote: “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist,” demanding that his readers be true to themselves and not blindly follow a herd mentality. Emerson’s ideas dovetailed with those of the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about the “tyranny of the majority” in his Democracy in America. De Tocqueville, like Emerson, expressed concern that a powerful, uneducated majority could overpower the will of individuals.

Link to Learning

Visit Emerson Central to read the full text of Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. How have Emerson’s ideas influenced American society?

Emerson’s ideas struck a chord with a class of literate adults who also were dissatisfied with mainstream American life and searching for greater spiritual meaning. Many writers were drawn to Transcendentalism, and they started to express its ideas through new stories, poems, essays, and articles. The ideas of Transcendentalism were able to permeate American thought and culture through a prolific print culture, which allowed magazines and journals to be widely disseminated. Authors like Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Samuel Longfellow, and Walt Whitman wrote works inspired by Transcendentalist ideals.

Among those attracted to Emerson’s ideas was his friend Henry David Thoreau, whom he encouraged to write about his own ideas. Thoreau placed a special emphasis on the role of nature as a gateway to the Transcendentalist goal of greater individualism and understanding of reality. In 1848, Thoreau gave a lecture in which he argued that individuals must stand up to governmental injustice, a topic he chose because of his disgust over the Mexican-American War and slavery. In 1849, he published his lecture Civil Disobedience and urged readers to refuse to support a government that was immoral. In 1854, he published Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, a book about the two years he spent in a small cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau had lived there as an experiment in living apart, but not too far apart, from his conformist neighbors.

Photograph (a) is a portrait of Henry David Thoreau. Image (b) shows the cover of Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

Figure 2. Henry David Thoreau (a) argued that men had the right to resist authority if they deemed it unjust. “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (b) articulated his emphasis on the importance of nature as a gateway to greater individuality.

Margaret Fuller also came to prominence as a leading transcendentalist and advocate for women’s equality. Fuller was a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and other intellectuals of her day. Because she was a woman, she could not attend Harvard, as it was a male-only institution for undergraduate students until 1973. However, she was later granted the use of the library there because of her towering intellect. In 1840, she became the editor of The Dial, a Transcendentalist journal and also the first female war correspondent, working during the 1848 revolution in Italy for the New York Tribune. In 1845 she published her book, Women in the Nineteenth Century, the first major feminist literary work in the U.S. Tragically, in 1850, she died at the age of forty in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.

Walt Whitman also added to the Transcendentalist movement, most notably with his 1855 publication of twelve poems, entitled Leaves of Grass, which celebrated the subjective experience of the individual. One of the poems, Song of Myself, amplified the message of individualism, but by uniting the individual with all other people through a transcendent bond.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem, Song of Myself, shocked many when it was first published due to its graphic sexual descriptions, and Whitman was threatened with legal action in Massachusetts for violating obscenity laws. However, it was also lauded by critics and readers when it was first published and it has been called one of the most influential poems in American literature. Below is an except from the poem:

An engraving shows Walt Whitman in a casual, relaxed pose, with one hand on his hip and the other in his pocket. He wears a loose shirt, trousers, and a hat that sits crookedly on his head.

Figure 2. This steel engraving of Walt Whitman by Samuel Hollyer is from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, taken in 1854.

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death. . . .
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself. . . .
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. . . .
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.[1]

What images does Whitman use to describe himself and the world around him? What might have been shocking about this poem in 1855? Why do you think it has endured?

Critiques of Transcendentalism

Some critics took issue with transcendentalism’s emphasis on rampant individualism by pointing out the destructive consequences of compulsive human behavior. Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, Or, The Whale emphasized the perils of individual obsession by telling the tale of Captain Ahab’s single-minded quest for vengence against a white whale that had destroyed his original ship. Edgar Allan Poe, a popular author, critic, and poet, decried “the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists,” and felt that Transcendentalists were overrated, mediocre, and derivitave. The differences between Emerson and Poe’s literary works demonstrates the differences in American life: Emerson’s work was spiritual, positive, and optimistic about human nature; whereas Poe’s was dark, macabre, and chose to look at humanity through a more pessimistic lens. Poe was not a conformist by any means, but his works were seen as a more realistic depiction of life in general, while Emerson and Thoreau were seen as too idealistic. Those writers and critics who questioned Transcendentalism illustrate the underlying tension between individualism and conformity in American life.

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Secular Utopian Societies

Not all utopian communities were prompted by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening; some were outgrowths of the intellectual ideas of the time, such as romanticism with its emphasis on the importance of individualism over conformity. One of these, Brook Farm, took shape in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the 1840s. It was founded by George Ripley, a Transcendentalist from Massachusetts. In the summer of 1841, this utopian community gained support from Boston-area thinkers and writers, an intellectual group that included many important Transcendentalists. Brook Farm was a small community of intensely individualistic personalities who combined manual labor, such as growing and harvesting food, with intellectual pursuits. They opened a school that specialized in the liberal arts rather than rote memorization and published a weekly journal called The Harbinger, which was “Devoted to Social and Political Progress.” Members of Brook Farm never totaled more than one hundred, but it won renown largely because of the luminaries, such as Emerson and Thoreau, whose names were attached to it. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Massachusetts writer who took issue with some of the Transcendentalists’ claims, was a founding member of Brook Farm, and he fictionalized some of his experiences in his novel The Blithedale Romance. In 1846, a fire destroyed the main building of Brook Farm, and already hampered by financial problems, the experiment came to an end in 1847.

Image (a) shows the front page of The Harbinger. Photograph (b) is a portrait of George Ripley.

Figure 3. Brook Farm printed The Harbinger (a) to share its ideals more widely. George Ripley (b), who founded the farm, was burdened with a huge debt several years later when the community collapsed.


Robert Owen, a British industrialist, helped inspire those who dreamed of a more equitable world in the face of the changes brought about by industrialization. Owen had risen to prominence before he turned thirty running cotton mills in New Lanark, Scotland. These were considered the most successful cotton mills in Great Britain, but Owen was very uneasy about the conditions of his workers and he devoted both his life and his fortune to trying to create cooperative societies where workers would lead meaningful, fulfilled lives. Unlike the founders of many utopian communities, he did not gain inspiration from religion; his vision derived instead from his faith in human reason to make the world better.

An engraving depicts an aerial view of a peaceful bucolic landscape with a massive walled compound at its center. Within the compound, several large buildings, including an industrial building from which steam rises, are visible. From a nearby hill, a small group of adults and children gaze at the community.

Figure 4. This 1838 engraving of New Harmony shows the ideal collective community that Robert Owen hoped to build.

When the Rappite community in Harmony, Indiana, decided to sell its holdings and relocate to Pennsylvania, Owen seized the opportunity to put his ideas into action. In 1825, he bought the twenty-thousand-acre parcel in Indiana and renamed it New Harmony. Owen wanted to prove that his theories about communal living and education were correct and New Harmony was his laboratory. The Owenites, as they were called, worked in various types of jobs in order to produce goods for the town store, which could be purchased with the credit they earned instead of wages. The workers also produced goods that were sold outside the community, with the eventual goal of using those profits to become self-sufficient. The government of the town consisted of a 7-member council, with Owen selecting four members and the community electing the other three. However, from the start, there were problems with disorganization and disagreements over personal property. Some members were allowed to buy credit at the store if they didn’t want to work, which caused frustration amongst workers. Owen was also a staunch opponent of organized religion, which drove some Christian members away, while many who were attracted to the experiment were there for the wrong reasons, more interested in radical socialism or free-loading than the principles of the community. After only a few years, a series of bad decisions by Owen and infighting led to the dissolution of the community. However, Owen’s ideas of cooperation and support inspired other “Owenite” communities in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.


A French philosopher who advocated the creation of a new type of utopian community, Charles Fourier also inspired American readers, notably Albert Brisbane, who popularized Fourier’s ideas in the United States. Fourier emphasized Associationism, or a collective effort by groups of people (associations) to follow their individual passions and thus achieve harmony. Fourier believed that most social ills were caused by attempting to “socialize” people through education, instead of adjusting social, economic, and educational life to individual passions. These passions, Fourier argued, could be grouped into 12 categories and so he hoped to create a society where people were grouped together based on their passion. Fourier’s idea was also based on his theory on the “stages” of civilization, and he believed that if society was able to enter one of the final stages, Guarantism, wherein everyone is guaranteed security and gainful employment. Members of the association would be housed in large buildings or “phalanxes,” a type of communal living arrangement, where every resident would have a job that aligned with their passions. Fourier also believed that his method would eliminate wars as everyone converted to his way of living after seeing it in action. American converts to Fourier’s ideas about a new “science of living, like Albert Brisbane, published and lectured vigorously. Fourierists in the United States created some twenty-eight communities between 1841 and 1858, but the system was much more complex than anyone imagined and by the late 1850s, the movement had run its course in the United States. Fourier, however, is credited with being the originator of the term ‘feminist,’ never married because he believed that traditional marriage harmed women, was supportive of same-sex relationships and even believed in a very early and rudimentary idea of climate change.


The early nineteenth century saw the rise of Unitarianism, which was technically a religious group but was rejected by most major churches since they rejected key aspects of “orthodox” Protestant belief, including the divinity of Christ, predestination, original sin, and Biblical infallibility. Unitarianism originated in Poland and Transylvania and eventually moved to Britain, where it found members like Mary Wollstonecraft, the celebrated feminist (and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley). Unitarianism first took root in America around 1782, when a Boston church accepted a Unitarian minister named James Freeman. Harvard University elected the Unitarian Henry Wade in 1805, and in 1816 the Harvard Divinity School became the first non-denominational divinity school in the country. Unitarianism slowly became intertwined with Congregationalist churches, causing a schism in 1825 between those that adopted Unitarian beliefs and those that clung to Calvinist theology.

Unitarianism had important effects on the world of American reform movements when a group of Unitarian ministers founded the Transcendental Club in 1836. The club met for four years and included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, James Freeman Clarke, and Theodore Parker. While initially limited to ministers or former ministers—except for the eccentric Alcott—the club quickly expanded to include numerous literary intellectuals. Among these were the author Henry David Thoreau, the protofeminist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, and the educational reformer Elizabeth Peabody.

Many of these Transcendentalist thinkers found that Unitarianism, with its relatively liberal Christian doctrine and practice, fit their beliefs because it allowed for the exercise of individuality and free will, as opposed to more conservative denominations which still held onto predestination and original sin. Unitarianism allowed for Christian belief to be married to Transcendentalist individualism, Englightenment logic and philosophy, and progressive social movements like women’s rights and abolitionism. Many famous historical figures have been associated with the Unitarian church, including John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sir Isaac Newton, Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, and Julia Ward Howe (author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic).

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Review Question

What do the Second Great Awakening and transcendentalism have in common?


American Renaissance: a literary and social movement in the 1830s, which emphasized romanticism, democracy, and humanism over theology, tradition, and hierarchy. The movement embraced expressing nationalism through literature and produced classic American writers like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper

Brook Farm: a secular utopian communal living experiment based near Boston in the 1840’s; Brook Farm was founded by a Unitarian minister and operated on ideals of shared labor and communal property, education, and equality

Fourierists: a group of utopian socialist communities based on the ideas of Charles Fourier; his communities were based on the concept of associationism, which allowed community members to live and work together based on their passions, and was based on Fourier’s complex theory of the stages of civilization

Owenites: a secular socialist community that operated its first settlement in Indiana in the 1820’s; Owenism was based on a philosophy of cooperative labor, where workers were paid with credits they could use at a company-run store, and were given communal living facilities, education, and training

Romanticism: a social, intellectual and literary movement of the 18th century that emphasized subjectivity, art, beauty, and individuality

Transcendentalism: a progressive philosophical and social movement based around romanticism, idealism, nature, and individualism; the movement emphasized rational truth through physical experience, social equality, intellectual pursuits, and communal living

“tyranny of the majority”: one concern of the Transcendentalists, wherein an uneducated majority would make decisions which oppressed the individuality of a minority population

Unitarianism: a Christian religious group which, despite holding anti-orthodox beliefs, integrated itself into Congregational churches and then developed into a sort of non-denominational conglomerate of progressive churches and social movements (today known as Unitarian Universalists or Christian Unitarians)

  1. Whitman, Walt, Robert Hass, and Paul Ebenkamp. 2010. Song of myself, and other poems. Berkeley: Counterpoint.