From The Oxford Companion to American Literature, by Hart and Leininger.
Transcendentalism, a philosophic and literary movement that flourished in New England, particularly at Concord (c. 1836-60), as a reaction against 18th-century rationalism, the skeptical philosophy of Locke, and the confining religious orthodoxy of New England Calvinism. This romantic, idealistic, mystical, and individualistic belief was more a cast of thought than a systematic philosophy. It was eclectic in nature and had many sources. Its qualities may be discerned in Jonathan Edwards's belief in "a Divine and Supernatural Light, immediately imparted to the soul by the spirit of God," and the idealism of Channing, whose Unitarianism was a religious predecessor of this belief in an indwelling God and intuitive thought. It was also a manifestation of the general humanitarian trend of 19th-century thought. The name, as well as many of the ideas, was derived from Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (1788), in which he declares, "I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori." From other German philosophers, such as Jacobi, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Herder, it received impulses toward mysticism and toward practical action as an expression of the will. Through Goethe, Richter, Novalis, and other literary figures, the philosophy was more easily communicated to American authors, and, at second remove, the doctrines of German transcendentalism were reflected in the poetry and criticism of such English authors as Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. In addition, the New England Transcendentalist belief was shaped by the ideas of Plato, Plotinus, and such English neo-Platonists as Cudworth and More, as well as by certain aspects of the teachings of Confucius, the Mohammedan Sufis, the writers of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhists, the eclectic idealist Victor Cousin, the Hebrew and Greek scriptural authors, Thomas à Kempis, Pascal, and Swedenborg.
Although the very spirit of Transcendentalism permitted contradiction, and its eclectic sourdes made for diverse concepts, in its larger outlines the belief had as its fundamental base a monism holding to the unity of the world and God and the immanence of God in the world. Because of this indwelling of divinity, everything in the world is a microcosm containing within itself all the laws and meaning of existence. Likewise, the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world, and latently contains all that the world contains. Man may fulfill his divine potentialities either through a rapt mystical state, in which the divine is infused into the human, or through coming into contact with the truth, beauty, and goodness embodied in nature and originating in the Over-Soul. Thus occurs the doctrine of correspondence between the tangible world and the human mind, and the identity of moral and physical laws. Through belief in the divine authority of the soul's intuitions and impulses, based on this identification of the individual soul with God, there developed the doctrine of self-reliance and individualism, the disregard of external authority, tradition, and logical demonstration, and the absolute optimism of the movement.
These primary beliefs varied greatly as they were interpreted in the writings of differnt authors, although the most important literay expression of transcendental thought is considered to lie in Thoreau's Walden* and in such works of Emerson as Nature,* The American Scholar,* the Divinity School Address,* "The Over-Soul,"* "Self-Reliance,"* and "Compensation."* Other members of the informal Transcendental Club* whose prose and poetry expresses similar ideas, included Alcott, Margaret Fuller, the younger W. E. Channing, Ripley, Jones Very, C. P. Cranch, J. F. Clarke, Theodore Parker, Brownson, Elizabeth Peabody, and W. H. Channing. Since there was no formal association, many writers of the time, such as Hawthorne and Julia Ward Howe, were on the fringe of the steadfast believers, and in one way or another the beliefs affected many not usually associated with the movement, including Lowell, Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Melville, and Whitman. So far as the movement had a certain voice, The Dial* (1840-44) may be considered its organ, and, although it necessarily remained on an idealistic plane, it was instrumental in the formation of such social experiments as Brook Farm* and Fruitlands.*