NARRATIVE RESEARCH: BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Written and Compiled by Hillary Hershenow, Michael Niebuhr and Elizabeth Schroeder
1. Spirituality and Religion: What It Meant to be a Transcendentalist (1820s-1860s)
“Transcendentalism, in fact, really began as a religious movement, an attempt to substitute a Romanticized version of the mystical ideal that humankind is capable of direct experience of the holy for the Unitarian rationalist view that the truths of religion are arrived at by a process of empirical study and by rational inference from historical and natural evidence”
“Transcendentalism, as viewed by its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the Living God in the soul. It was a putting to silence of tradition and formulas, that the Sacred Oracle might be heard through intuitions of the single-eyed and pure-hearted. Amidst materialists, zealots, and skeptics, the Transcendentalist believed in perpetual inspiration, the miraculous power of will, and a birthright to universal good. He sought to hold communion face to face with the unnameable Spirit of his spirit, and gave himself up to the embrace of nature’s perfect joy, as a babe seeks the breast of a mother.”
-William Henry Channing
 Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Harvard UP, 1996. Google Scholar. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
At the end of the Eighteenth Century, Deism was prevalent in America. Historical, political figures, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had made it popular to turn away from strict, Protestant and Calvinist Ideals. Instead, they began to apply reason to religion- looking toward rationale and spiritual development within nature to increase understanding, appreciation, and belief in God. In this way, they modernized Enlightenment ideals and began incorporating them into an “American Enlightenment” of the Nineteenth Century.
Early in the Nineteenth Century, the philosophy of Transcendentalism held precedence in America. In fact, America underwent an awakening in the form of Transcendentalism. It reshaped American Calvinist, Unitarian, and Deist religious ideals; it also echoed Romantic British ideals of Coleridge and Wordsworth in that nature was the place to discover beauty, hope, and love. This philosophical practice began as a reform movement in which people believed in an “indwelling God” as the source of spiritual enlightenment, intuitive reason, and thought. Transcendentalism connected spirituality to the individual; everyone was responsible for their own development of the sacred spirit that dwelt within their bodies. According to Transcendentalists, the best way to do this was to step outside and experience and explore Nature’s wonders, miracles, and uncharted grandeur. For this reason, Transcendentalists embodied the great spirit of adventure and exploration. God was believed to be witnessed within nature and the normal, everyday living; God and His Creation existed harmoniously within Nature. To the Transcendentalists, the soul of each individual was identical to the whole soul of the world. So these people would literally get out and go- literally make a daily practice of walking in the wilderness, like Thoreau- in order to experience Nature and the Self existing as one, cohesive entity.
Transcendentalism lasted until the late-mid 1800s. Up until this point, Transcendentalism began manifesting itself in a unique literary tradition. Transcendental fathers, such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, capitalized on the individual’s perception of themselves in relation to reason evoked within Nature. These authors believed if individuals were left in nature, they would seek goodness, as exemplified within their works of literature. We will investigate how these authors and many of the later, untraditional and/or unromantic Nineteenth Century American writers (Poe and Dickinson) shared their experiences within and interpretations of nature.
- More about Transcendentalism Than You’d EVER Want to Know!
- Everything That Could Have Possibly Happened in 19th Century America
- Transcendentalism: A Movie Clip About Walking to Your Own Beat in Nature
2. American Expansion and Manifest Destiny: How it Changed the Face of America
“Youthful optimism…inspiring the minds of many Americans with the idea that the republic, being charged with the mission of bearing the banner of freedom over the whole civilized world, could transform any country, inhabited by any kind of population, into something like itself simply be extending over it the magic charm of its political institutions.”
-Carl Schulze, quoted by Dan E. Clark
During the mid-nineteenth century, the Democratic-Republicans began to seriously consider moving westward, expanding American territory and creating a broader range of democracy. The idea was intriguing for many Americans, and most supported it not only as a political ideology but also as a mode to tame their own curiosity of what life could be like in the unknown West. This idea was known as Manifest Destiny and was initially started by the Democratic-Republicans as a political means of conquering Mexico in the Mexican-American War, but the concept quickly caught on, and many other advantages were attributed to westward expansion. Although Manifest Destiny did meet some opposition by the Whig Party, Americans generally saw the concept as beneficial and inevitable. As a model to democracy, the nation had no choice but to spread its political stances to create a larger land with even more opportunity and freedom. Most Americans believed that other cultures and nations could only be benefitted by U.S political beliefs, and after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which acquired 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River, they figured they should simply work to control all land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. America was destined to be great, so growing larger was just a part of this land living up to its expectations. United States troops began progressing westward, conquering and obtaining land from their southern neighbors, and citizens began to move, confident that more opportunity existed in this new land. This ideology completely revolutionized America’s political control and also shifted perspectives of many of its citizens. It gave the government vast amounts of power and reign, but it also contributed to the idea of individual discovery and journey to a place unknown.
The idea of discovering a new place for both internal and external exploration contributed to the natural aspects of writing in the 1800s. Writers were curious to see what existed beyond the Mississippi River, and the beauty and landscape of this Western territory inspired them in both prose and poetry. There was also an idea that Americans out West had a deeper connection with nature, appreciating the beauty and resilience of this are—beauty that seemed to be lacking in the Eastern metropolitan cities. Enormous canyons, roaring rivers, and massive mountains kept these writers writing, and the discussion and admiration for such worldly beauty became quiet prevalent in American literature. This natural influence continued until the 20th century when many more citizens had migrated west and cities began to tower amidst this natural landscape. Writers will still flee to scenic areas in the West to pen some of their thoughts, and this appreciation for American natural beauty is still seen today.
Clark, Dan E. “Manifest Destiny and the Pacific.” Pacific Historical Review 1.1 (1932): 1-17. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.
3. The Natural Influence on American Art: A Transcendental Cross-section
“There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us. It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us. In one sense it dwarfs us, and in another we master it. We are led on and on, and yet in some strange way we never lose control.”
— Aaron Copland, American Composer
Replace the word “music” above with “nature,” and Copland’s words could be straight out of the transcendental writings of Emerson. Copland is known universally in the realm of classical music as the man who single-handedly perfected a uniquely “American” music; his works are regarded as the essential expression of the American spirit. As such, it is only appropriate that his understanding of music should be so similar to the transcendental understanding of nature. Copland says that music, like nature, is a force so much larger than ourselves that we can remain ignorant of its full scope at the very moment when we are utterly and entirely connected with it, as Emerson says, “The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are always inaccessible…the wisest man [does not] extort all her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection” (1112).
So prominent was — and is — the connection between nature and art in America that even foreign artists are drawn to natural subjects when producing works dealing with the United States: one of Czech composer Antonine Dvorak’s most famous symphonies, titled “No. 9: From the New World,” was written after a visit to early America, where Dvorak was awed by the immense beauty and power of the American Wild. When the “New World Symphony” is performed, the listener is treated to musical themes and instrumentation based on traditional American folk tunes that are as vast, spacious, and adventurous as the images of the wilderness they conjure up (a link to a recording of the work in its entirety is at the bottom of the page; SMC login required).
The natural influence was in no way limited to music, either — the connection between nature and the American visual arts is already visible in the paintings above. In addition, American Painter Abbott Thayer expressed the same sentiment about nature in relation to painting as Copland does to music: for him, “nature and art were irrevocably entwined” (Hobbs 5). Some of his most beloved paintings are of natural landscapes, and the painter himself admitted that when he grew exhausted of painting intensely for days on end, he would escape to “[Mount] Monadnock or write on birds, anything to get as far as possible from my work” (Thayer, quoted in Hobbs 5). Nature, then, has always been a central influence on the American artistic spirit, and one of such strength that even those like Dvorak who paid visits from halfway across the world were able to perceive and tap into that spirit almost immediately.
Hobbs, Susan. “Nature into Art: The Landscapes of Abbott Handerson Thayer.” American Art Journal. Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer, 1982): 4-55. JSTOR. Web. 12 December 2011.