The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. Transcendentalism

§ 11. The Dial

An achievement more intimately connected than Brook Farm with the Transcendental Club and the leading transcedentalists was The Dial,the literary organ of the movement, the first number of which appeared in 1840 with Margaret Fuller as editor, and George Ripley as assistant editor. The Dial never approached financial success, and it was only through real devotion and sacrifice on the part of its editor and of Elizabeth Peabody that it was issued as long as it was. Miss Fuller resigned the editorship after two years and Emerson assumed it for a like period, after which it was discontinued.

Whatever defects The Dial may have had, a comparison of its pages with the dusty contemporaneous numbers of, let us say, The North American Review is not to its disadvantage and lends some weight to the assertion of its main contributors that they were dealing with subjects of deeper than passing interest. The journal discussed questions of theology and philosophy; it contained papers on art, music, and literature, especially German literature; translations from ancient “Oriental Scriptures”; original modern “scriptures” in the form of Alcott’s Orphic Sayings; and finally, a good deal of verse. In this latter connection one of the most interesting features of The Dial to the present-day reader is the opportunity and encouragement it afforded to the literary genius of Thoreau. In addition to his and Emerson’s, there were, among others, metrical contributions from Lowell, Cranch, and William Ellery Channing, the younger, the last-named one of the poets of transcendentalism, now best remembered for the single line,

  • If my bark sinks, ’tis to another sea.
  • The Dial, needless to say, did not satisfy the public. Dozens of parodies, especially of the Orphic Sayings, were forthcoming, and (in the words of Colonel Higginson)

  • epithets, too, were showered about as freely as limitations; the Philadelphia “Gazette,” for instance, calling the editors of the new journal “zanies,” “Bedlamites,” and “considerably madder than the Mormons.”
  • Alcott, on the other hand, considered its policy tame and compromising. Whatever, between these extremes, our own estimate of its intrinsic merit may be, we shall not be likely to overrate its significance in the history of American literature or the importance of the part it played in our literary emancipation. Its volumes stand as a reminder that the transcendental movement was, among other things, a literary renaissance—the enthusiasm for art and literature which appeared in New England after the long æsthetic starvation of the Puritan ascendency being comparable in kind if not in degree to the immense artistic expansion of Western Europe after a thousand years of mediæval Christianity.