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Literature notes



- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt
Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne
- the self and one’s individuality (Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, Thoreau’s “Civil
Disobedience” self-awareness, self-expression, self-reliance)
- they redefined the puritan understanding of nature and imbued it with rich spiritual
- political issues: opposing slavery, unjust government, war in Mexico

TRANSCENDENTALISM (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau)

[it taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive
views on feminism and communal living.]

SYMBOLISM (Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville)

[an artistic and poetic movement or style using symbolic images and indirect suggestion to
express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind.]

POETRY (the Brahmins, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson)


- In Concord, Massachusetts, in a small New England village, surrounded by thick

forests, not far from Boston, emerged one of the most important philosophical
movements in American History which was later called TRANSCENDENTALISM
- TRANSCENDENTALISM was purely American religious and philosophical
movement which emerged out of Unitarianism



- Puritanism – total human depravity, predestination, God as fierce, and vindictive

- The second half of the 18th century the emergence of Unitarianism
- The Dutch bishop Arminius: the idea of benevolent God; the architect of the
- Unitarianism became more popular in Boston: a Unitarian Minister was elected as the
head of the Harvard School of Divinity

- the unity of God (no Holy Trinity)

- belief in goodness of man and his potential to be perfect
- God as a benign and loving father
- rejection of dogmas and authorities, no need for mediators between man and God,
Bible as the sufficient guide in ethics
- focus on individuality and responsibility
- importance of material success
- distrust towards mysticism [the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or
ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience]
- Unitarian aesthetic dogmas: didactic attitude, depiction of moral beauty, art should
aim to depict instances of virtuous behaviour. Strong distrust towards European
Romantics, essays in the North American Review expressing mixed feelings or even
hostility towards Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge.



- Unitarianism prepared grounds for the emergence of Romanticism

- Unitarians were mainly neo classicists distrustful towards romantic literature
- Unitarians prompted some Romantic ideas, but on the other hand in many aspects
they resisted Romanticism


- The publication of Emerson’s “Nature”

- In 1836: The Hedge Club (Frederick Hedge, a theologian studied in Germany and
obtained a PhD Degree there, translated German Romantics into English,
popularized Romanticism in America)
- Transcendental Club: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller,
George Ripley, Amos Bronson Alcott, Frederic Hedge, William Henry Channing

Major influences:
- American roots: Unitarianism, idealism of Jonathan Edwards
- European Impact: Plato, German philosophers: Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason,
Hegel, Fichte, Shelling, German poets and writers: Goethe, Herder, Richter, English
Romantics: Coleridge (Aids to Reflection), French philosophers: Victor Cousin
(History of Philosophy), European mystics: Swedenborg
- Eastern philosophy: Hinduism [The basic concepts include belief in reincarnation;
right action (karma), duties, ethics or right ways of living; and liberation from the
reincarnation cycle by living righteously], Confucianism [an ancient philosophy of
respect and kindness], Islamic Sufism [belief and practice in which Muslims seek to
find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of

- Transcendentalism was a purely American philosophical and religious movement of

the years 1815-1860
- Transcendentalism believed that man by means of intuition is able to transcend the
limitation of empirical and scientific cognition in order to get into direct contract with
the Absolute and to reach the highest truth
- They wanted to transcend nature, to see what is behind it


- belief that the spiritual world and absolute truths can be comprehended by means of
intuition, without any mediation of senses or science


- Nature was believed to be the mention of divinity Immanent God pervades all his
- The TRANSCENDENTALIST theory of correspondence: the phenomena of the
natural world are symbols of the spiritual world. Visible matter corresponds to
invisible spirit
- Man can use intuition to see through matter and comprehend the divine essence of the
universe by contemplation of symbolic forms of nature. The importance of direct
contact with Nature
- Nature is the source of all knowledge. It has its own language, it provides both,
shelter and ideas, behind perceivable reality there is deity, spirit, idea
- Study Nature open yourself to it and you will discover the Spirit. Use your intuition,
imagination and you may go through a mystical experience. Nature becomes the book
to read


- Man is potentially perfect: being a part of nature, he participates in the Over Soul,
which makes him divine
- There is an overpowering deity that runs through all aspects of the world, material and
immaterial. Human beings share with deity
- man has a natural moral instinct  self-reliance (you are not to listen to authorities,
you are authority – American Individualism)
- the idea of the inner light guiding each individual towards goodness


- Henry David Thoreau– Walden pond, prison, Civil Disobedience

- The Book Farm (George Ripley), utopian community, physical work + intellectual
- The Fruitlands (Amos Bronson Alcott), nudism


- intuition, idealism, over-soul, Absolute Truth, divinity of men, divinity of nature,

pantheism [a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe],
nature as the source of knowledge, innate goodness of men, individualism, self-
reliance, inner light, organic form of a work of art


Major essays:

- Nature (1836)
- The American Scholar (1837)
- Self-Reliance (1841)
- The Poet (1844)
- Divinity School Address (1838)
- The Over-Soul (1841)

R. W. Emerson:

- the central figure of American Transcendentalism. A preacher, poet, essayist,

- His ‘Nature’ influenced the emergence of Transcendentalism
- his father, William Emerson, was a Unitarian minister and the editor of the
Monthly Anthology


- when he was only 14, he entered Harvard University and graduated from it in 1821
- after graduation, he entered postgraduate studies at Harvard Divinity School to
become a Unitarian minister
- Emerson read Plato, Herder, Coleridge, Sampson Reed (Swedenborgian)  a
serious crisis of faith and vocation
- In 1832 in Boston, he delivered a famous sermon on Lord’s Supper which ended his
ministerial career: the essence of Christianity was FREEDOM and not rituals
- God can be found in the present moment by each individual and therefore it is not
necessary to adhere


- Sampson Reed, Observation on the Growth of the Mind
- Reed was an American thinker and Swedenborgian [A person who supports the
theories of the Swedish scientist, philosopher, and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.]
- In his essay, Reed analysed the relationship between men and God. God seen in
everything. Approach to pantheism (Nature)
- An essay by Frederick Henry Hedge on Immanuel Kant and Kant’s influence on
Coleridge, published in 1833
- The idea that there is spiritual reality behind matter


- Nature
- Individualism
- Man
- Evil


- Trust thyself (not authorities, the external law nor the books)
- Nothing is at least scared but the integrity of your own mind. …the great man is he
who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of
- An emancipated spirit, a free and unconstrained individual should be forever open
to new thoughts, new inspirations and ideas, a soul lives always in the present, above
time and it is forever in the state of becoming
- A spiritualized version of Benjamin Franklin. Self-reliance not only in the sphere of
material success but also in the realm of the spirit and principles


- the intellectual declaration of independence of America “Our day of Dependence,

our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draw to a close”
- Emerson redefined the American Intellectual: the Man Thinking, drawing his wisdom
from three basic sources:
-nature (know thyself and study nature)
-books ( books are the best of things well used; abused, among the worst, they are for
nothing but to inspire)
-action – the man of action, mixing with other people, using his wisdom to practical ends


- The most important incarnation of the ‘Man Thinking’, the closest to the ideal of
independent, sensitive individual
- Able to get into direct contact with the over-soul and translate the universal truths to
ordinary men
- The poet was to be a visionary, a prophet, the namer and also the interpreter of the
language of nature


- Emerson rejected the notion of the natural depravity of the human beings
- The doctrine of compensation: evil is always counter balanced by goodness
- Evil understood as the lack of goodness

NATURE: “Nature” (1836)

- an impression of chaos, disorder, numerous repetitions. Behind it, a variety of various

voices speaking
- Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies,
histories, criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we
through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy original relation to the universe?
Why should we have a poetry of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by
revelation to us, and not the history of theirs. Embosomed for a season in nature,
whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they
supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of
the past? The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There
are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own words, and laws and
- The powerful act of starting anew. Suspicious attitude towards history
- A strong gesture of distancing oneself from history, European culture and tradition
and one’s own education
- An attempt to confront nature face to face, without the interference of education or
previously read books
- To face the wilderness, the sun, the fields, the sea and the forests directly. To
contemplate nature in a truly original way in order to gain strength and wisdom
from it


- A mystic vision, transparency of the eye

- a moment of spiritual union with nature and with God (the Over-Soul)
- the self becomes dissolved and united with nature which participates with the deity
- Emerson’s pantheism. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through the
individual and through nature
- Nature is beautiful, spiritual, intellectual

- it is of benefit for man who can use water, wood, air, fire, stones, and corn, etc. for
his own advantage
- A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work

THE TOPOS OF THE “LIBER MUNDI” – the book of the world:

- traces of the Puritan tradition of reading and deciphering nature. There is a three
step relationship between human language and the spiritual reality:
 words are signs of natural facts (they refer to some natural phenomena- a tree, a
river, the sun)
 particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts (a tree or the sun
are the symbols of some spiritual facts)
 nature is the symbol of spirit


 a deeper sense of nature:

- Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us
- We will be saved by nature


- Walden (1845)
- “Civil Disobedience” (1849)
- The Maine Woods (1858)
- Henry David Thoreau was an American essayist, poet, mystic and philosopher, a
graduate from Harvard
- He was deeply influenced by the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson
- In his works he focused on the importance of nature and individualism
- He tried to put transcendentalists’ theories into practice. He was the embodiment of
the American Scholar and Man Thinking. His life was the embodiment of his ideas:
he was ready to go to prison for not paying taxes during America’s war with
Mexico; hungry of his own immersion in nature, Thoreau sought solitude and
wisdom in the waters of Walden Pond.


- Walden in mythic, poetic and metaphoric. It is a long literary essay, a beautiful

artistic description of Thoreau’s life in the woods. Thoreau recorded his experiences
from the period when he lived on the shore of Walden Pond, 2 miles from Concord,
on property owned by Emerson, in a cabin which he built himself (one window, a
fireplace, a chimney, one room, little cellar, a bed, a table, 3 chairs)
- He tried to prove it is possible to rely solely on nature (shelter, food). He planted
corn, made trips into the forest and worked at his desk. His friends (Hawthorne,
Emerson) and local farmers visited him from time to time
- Walden is an allusive book, embedded in Western philosophical and religious
tradition, yet undermining it at the same time. It conveys no final wisdom. It intends
to provoke readers into thought
- The book is divided into 18 chapters which mirror the change of seasons throughout
a year, starting with summer and finishing with spring. Thoreau reworked his
experience of 2 years spent in the woods into a book covering the period of one year.
- It is an anti-travel book, inner travel towards the self-discovery. The method of
retreat and concentration resembles Asian meditation techniques. The influences of
Hindu and Buddhist philosophy


- “Because I wished to live deliberately… I did not wish to live what was not life, living
is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I
wanted to live deep…”


- The total immersion in the nature, simple form work on the plot of land next to his
cabin contemplation of wilderness, which, as Thoreau believed, was pervaded by
the spirit, resulted in Thoreau’s philosophy.
- He advised his readers to awaken and renew their lives. He warned that “the mass of
men lead lives of quiet desperation” because they live in a network of expectations
imposed on them by society. Many of them are “serfs of the soil”, they are slaves of
their possessions, such as the land they own, the house, their clothes.


- “In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on
this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the
pursuits of the simpler notions are still the sports of the more artificial.”


- a record of Thoreau’s excursion on Mount Ktaadn. It was one of the wildest places in
New England, hardly ever visited by people. The name of the mountain was taken
from one of the Indian languages.
- On his way towards top of the mountain Thoreau experienced a shocking revelation.
He discovered the savage and awful aspect of nature. Planet earth as it shoved to him
appeared to be a hostile place to live, a powerful force indifferent to the human
beings. It was not the benevolent, spiritual nature of Emerson but a terrible force,
containing, a daemonic element, totally different from us. Nature = “the other”, it is
impossible even to name it because human language does not refer to it. Nature –
“Made of Chaos and old night” (Paradise Lost, Milton)


- One day, in July 1846, when Thoreau lived at Walden, he went to Concord and on
his way there he met a friend of his, Sam Staples, the local tax collector. Staples
reminded him to pay taxes; however Thoreau refused to do it, as a matter of
- He was not going to support the government which led the aggressive war with
Mexico. As a result, Thoreau got to prison for 24 hours after which his tax was paid
by someone else.
- In effect, he wrote an essay published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government”,
and posthumously as “Civil Disobedience”


- considerations on the role and function of the government. “That government is best
which governs least”  “That government is best which governs not at all”
- Romantic individualism pushed to the extreme. Thoreau repeats Emersonian
maxim “Trust Thyself”, rely solely on your inner judgment. He encourage non-
conformist behaviour and emphasizes that it is a moral duty of each individual to act
in accordance with one’s own conscience. Be faithful to your principles even if they
are at variance with the law or if the majority of people think otherwise. One must
reawaken and find inner strength and wisdom in one’s own heart.



- “But if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to

another, then , I say, break the law. Let your life be the counter friction to stop
the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to
the wrong which I condemn”
- The fact that he was quickly released from prison convinced him that any individual
has unlimited power and his resistance to unjust laws can be significant and bring
about change.


- In the 20th century Thoreau’s essay had a tremendous impact on social movements.
- It was an inspiration for Martin Luther King who used the techniques in the civil
rights movement and for Mahatma Ghandi who put civil disobedience into practice
on a mass scale in South Africa and India.
“Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Nature” represents the beginning of Transcendentalism, which teaches that divinity is throughout
all things in nature and humanity. “Nature” is a thought-provoking essay that describes his abstract
thoughts about humanity’s relationship with nature.

In his essay “Nature”, Ralph Waldo Emerson is of the view that nature and the beauty of
nature can only be understood by a man when he is in solitude. It is only in solitude that a
man realizes the significance of nature because he is far away from the hustled life he is
accustomed to live since childhood.

Emerson is of the view that nature gives a human being so much; the sun, the trees, place to
live and in return the man gives nothing as a result of which the balance of nature is
disturbed. It is extremely essential for a man to take himself away from the distractions of the
society to understand the importance of nature and what nature has to offer.

Emerson in his essay “Nature” creates a common ground metaphorically and in an abstract
sense speaks to each and every man. Emerson is of the opinion that we take nature and its
beauty for granted, for example, we take stars for granted because we know that wherever
we go, the stars will be with us. What Emerson makes clear is that though we can see the stars
and they are accessible, they are only accessible visibly.

The truth is that we cannot access the stars because of the great distance between the stars and
the Earth. Similarly, we also cannot access the nature, we do not know what it is all about
because of the reason that we think that we are in touch with nature , but actually we are not,
due to our busy lives.

Creating a link between the landscape and the stars, Emerson states that everything in the
Universe is linked to one another. Instead of being a collection of integrated objects, he sees
nature as an integrated whole. It is extremely essential to see nature plainly instead of
seeing it superficially as most of us do and Emerson states that he is one of the lucky
individuals who sees nature plainly. Because of the reason that he sees nature plainly he is
living a life full of peace and solitude. It is essential to see nature from the eyes of a child
because a child sees everything without judging it, from plain eyes.

In order to develop deep connection with nature, it is essential to see nature through the eyes
of a child. It is only then that an individual will be in a position to understand nature.
Transcendentalism is also visible in the essay where the poet is of the opinion that when he
is alone in the woods he can feel himself being one with the nature as a result of which he
can also feel the presence of God within him and all around him.

Emerson especially discards the traditional way of viewing the nature i.e. from the eyes of
ancient historians and ancient theories. This results in the loss of excitement and energy of
creating something new as a result of which most of us are unable to discover real nature.
Civil Disobedience (Henry David Thoreau)
The essay primary deals with slavery crisis in America in the 1840s and 1850s. It also condemns the
Mexican-American war.

► Thoreau opens his essay with a saying "That government is best which governs least," which he
believes to be true. He speaks favorably about a government that does not intrude in citizens' lives.
The government is chosen by people to achieve certain ends. According to Thoreau, it is in existence
to execute citizens' will. It exists to ensure an individual's freedom. However, it is prone to be misused.
Thoreau gives examples of slavery practice and the Mexican-American war to establish his point
further. He asserts that the government itself becomes an obstacle between achieving its purpose,
the purpose for which it was created.

► However, Thoreau makes it clear that he is against abolishing the government, but wished for a
better one. He did not believe that there should be no government at all. He believed that if the
government fails to improve, people should not support it. According to Thoreau, a person cannot
accept the government's authority unquestioningly.

► Thoreau introduces common people's right to revolution against an unjust government. To

establish this thought, he compares the government with a machine. As a machine, the government
may not do a good job in producing justice. Instead, it might produce injustice only. He encourages
people be a counter friction or a resistance to stop such a machine. He encourages rebellion. He
believes that mere expression of objection is not enough; it requires action. Thoreau asserts that an
individual must not support the government structure. An individual must act with principle and
break the law if necessary.

► To establish this thought further, he gives his own example. He recalls the time when he was
imprisoned for non-payment of taxes on his part. With his own example, he establishes that non-
payment of taxes is a means to withdraw support from the government. It constitutes "peaceable
revolution." Thoreau also advocates a simple and self-reliant lifestyle to achieve individual freedom.
He urges people to be free from the corrupting powers of money and property. He goes on to describe
details about his stay in the jail and the treatment meted out to a person by the state as if he is only a
physical entity and not an intellectual individual.

► Thoreau maintains that he does not want to quarrel. He says that he wants to honor the laws of
the land. However, he states that the current laws are not honorable. He believes that the
government is in transition from absolute monarchy to democracy. However, he also notes that
democracy may not be the final stage of the process. In the end, he again lays emphasis on
respecting an individual. A state cannot be absolutely free and enlightened until the government
recognizes the importance of an individual.

Thoreau's essay revolves around three main themes: (i) civil government vs. higher law, (ii)
government vs. an individual, and (iii) materialism vs. simple life. He uses logos, ethos, and pathos
to explain and peruse the readers to support his ideas of the government. The essay explains to us the
intentions and principles of the government. However, the principles turned into actions, which are
called laws, are often unjust. Unjust laws do not work for people, whether they are in majority or
minority. To change unjust laws and the unjust government, people should stand up. It is every
citizen's duty to resist unfairness shown by the government.

Thoreau's thoughts were never restricted to the Massachusetts area. They spread across the world,
inspired several movements, and influenced leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King
Jr., John F. Kennedy, etc. Thoreau's essay definitely brought about a change in the state of affairs to
turn them into the world as we know it today.