Amer. Transcendentalism (1836-1860)

Plus, the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman

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Transcendentalism ELO Coming Soon!

Be sure to watch for it in our upcoming "News Items."
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Transcendentalism (1836-1860) Defined - Taken from Our Course Content Pages:

"Transcendentalists believed that one should rely upon intuition, rather than reason and logic." Compare / Contrast Literary Periods: This is in direct opposition to the Rationalists, who relied solely on reason and logic.

"Nature was very important to the transcendentalists, and they often went to nature to discover the meaning of life."

"[Transcendentalists] believed that everything in the world is a reflection of the Divine Soul, and physical facts of the natural world are a doorway to the spiritual, or ideal world. Furthermore, transcendentalists thought that people can use their intuition to behold God's spirit."

"Both Emerson and Thoreau valued the following key aspects of transcendentalism":

  • Equality
  • Individualism
  • Self-Reliance
  • Integrity
  • Optimism
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Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature and "Self-Reliance"

  • Forerunner of the American Transcendentalist movement.
  • Wrote Nature, a book which outlined his ideas and values.
  • Wrote "Self-Reliance," one of his most famous essays, which defines his "philosphy of individualism, and [is considered to be] the finest example of his prose."
  • "Emerson is known for his repeated use of the phrase, 'trust thyself.'"
  • Emerson also believed "that we must seek solitude to hear our own thoughts because society, by its nature, coerces men to conform."
  • Emerson also believed that "individuals have not only a right, but also a responsibility to think for themselves, and that neither societal disapproval, nor concerns about consistency, should discourage these."
  • Emerson was Henry David Thoreau's mentor.
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Henry David Thoreau: "Civil Disobedience" - Taken from Our Course Content

Did you know?

Henry David Thoreau went to prison. Why? For two main reasons:

  1. Believing that America's War with Mexico was the result of pure greed, Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes in direct protest, and spent the night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1846. Thoreau believed that Mexico had been "'unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army' as a means to expand the slave territory'" (Thoreau; Wikipedia).
  2. In true Transcendentalist form, Thoreau was an staunch abolitionist, and claimed, as a second reason for not paying taxes, that it was his way of protesting against slavery in the U.S., and also the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, "which made it illegal to give safe harbor to escaping slaves from the South, and required law enforcement in non-slave states and territories to return escaped slaves to their owners."

As a result of being incarcerated, his feelings about the Mexican-American War, and in strong reaction to slavery in this country, Thoreau wrote "Essay on Civil Disobedience" three years later. Many famous quotes are also taken from this essay.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

Compare / Contrast Assignment:

Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience" in 1863, whereas Dr. King wrote "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to the local newspaper in 1963, on the one-hundred year anniversary of Thoreau's text.

MLK was unfairly arrested and imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, when he and others practiced non-violent protest of the treatment of blacks, including "whites only" restrooms, and segregated buses, restaurants, and schools.

In this assignment, you will compare the two texts, which are extremely similar, despite the fact that they were written 100 years apart. Dr. King, as well as Mahatma Ghandi, were both very much influenced by Thoreau's notion of non-violent protest - what Thoreau called "Civil Disobedience."

Henry David Thoreau's Walden

Thoreau was a mere 28 years old when he decided to write his first book. So what did he do? He asked permission to build a cabin on his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson's, property, spent two years, the majority of it, alone, and proceeded to write his book.


In our course, you will read the section of Thoreau's book, entitled "Solitude." While reading, note Thoreau's attention to nature.

Emerson's Walden Pond - Thoreau Wrote the Book About It

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Henry David Thoreau's Gravesite

In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts

"O Captain, My Captain" - Written by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman wrote this extended metaphor poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. This version is narrated by Himanshu Agrawal.
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Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) - Transcendentalist Poet / Father of American Free Verse Poetry

  • Born in West Hills, NY, in 1819
  • Father of American Free Verse Poetry
  • Began learning the printer's trade at age 12
  • Largely self-taught
  • Avid reader - studied Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible
  • Worked in NYC as a printer until a fire destroyed many of the printing houses in this district
  • Began teaching at age 17 in 1836
  • Became a journalist in 1841
  • Founded the Long-Islander newspaper
  • Left NY in 1848 to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent newspaper
  • Saw the horrors of slavery first-hand in the New Orleans slave markets
  • Returned to Brooklyn in 1848 to found the Brooklyn Freeman, an anti-slavery newspaper
  • Continued to develop his American Free Verse style
  • Whitman copyrighted the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, which, at that point, contained 12 untitled poems, and a preface. He then published this book, himself, the same year, and sent a copy to Emerson in July, 1855.
  • Whitman's three major poems of 1855 are: "I Sing the Body Electric," "The Sleepers," and "Song of Myself."
  • In 1856, Whitman publishes his 2nd Edition of Leaves of Grass, which now contained 22 poems, and a letter of high praise from Emerson. Whitman also included his own letter in this edition.
  • Whitman traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1862, after his brother had been wounded in the Civil War. He remained here for 11 years, working at local hospitals, and at the Department of the Interior. He was fired by the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, because he thought Leaves of Grass to be offensive.
  • Throughout most of his life, Whitman struggled to make money, giving away much of it to his patients, and to his mother and brother. Occasionally, writers from England and the U.S. sent him money to support himself and his art.
  • Whitman visited Camden, NJ in the early 1870s to help care for his dying mother, and then suffered a stroke, himself. After Leaves of Grass was published in 1882, he finally had enough money to purchase his own home in Camden.
  • Died in Camden, NJ, in 1892.
  • Both he and Emily Dickinson, another contemporary poet, are considered to be two of America's most important poets.

Taken from our Course Content, as well as

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Whitman's "Song of Myself"

  • "Song of Myself" is a poem in Whitman's Leaves of Grass poetry anthology
  • Published in 1855, receiving immediate critical acclaim
  • The public was not as quick to accept this poem; it was considered too controversial at the time
  • Considered to be the crux of Whitman's poetic ideology
  • By 1867, the poem contained 52 numbered sections, which "is generally thought to mirror the number of weeks in the year" (
  • It is still considered one of the most influential American poems
  • Written in Whitman's "free verse"
  • There is a strong Transcendentalist influence within this poem
  • Although this poem contains influences from Romanticism and Transcendentalism, it also includes traces of Realism in his description of harsh realities of everyday life.
  • Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," published 100 years after "Song of Myself" in 1955, was clearly influenced by Whitman's poem.
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Dead Poets Society and Walt Whitman: "O Captain, My Captain"

If you have never seen Dead Poets Society (1989), be sure to do so the next time you can spare a couple of hours. It is one of Robin Williams' best films, and includes a moving tribute to Walt Whitman, turning his "O Captain, My Captain" into its own metaphor for individuality / nonconformity, freedom, and justice. This link contains the last scene of the film, in which the students pay tribute to their nonconformist teacher, Mr. Keating.

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Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886) - An Original Poet

Among Dickinson's most famous poems are:

  • "There's a Certain Slant of Light"
  • "I Heard a Fly Buzz"
  • "Because I could not stop for Death"
  • "Success is Counted Sweetest"

Dickinson utilizes the three types of irony - verbal, dramatic, and situational - throughout her poetry. Look for each as you read her poems. Her poems are unique, and fun to read. She also employs personification, alliteration, onomatopoeia, slant rhyme scheme, and unconventional capitalization and punctuation - lots of dashes, lower case letters, and unique use of upper case letters - as rhetorical / literary strategies within her poetry. As we did during the Rationalism Unit, consider why she uses them - for what poetic purpose? What does she want you to think about on a sub-textual level, as well? Use your best analytical skills to solve her riddles - she is fun to read!

Some of Dickinson's favorite subjects were:

  • Death
  • Immortality
  • Gardens and flowers
  • The undiscovered continent
  • Gospel poems
  • The Master poems

She was a unique person, as well. She was a sort of recluse, yet close to her family, and never married. She usually wore white, remained in her bedroom most days, and loved children Her poetry was not well-known to the public - only 12 were published during her lifetime - until after her death, when her sister, Lavinia, found her poems. Her poetry was not published until 1890, four years after her death.

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And Study Your Grammar - Types of Phrases

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And Do Your Assignments on Time! - No Late Work!

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