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

§ 14. Abolitionism

These anti-slavery activities of Parker came, of course, after the crest of the transcendental movement, but they are mentioned here as an illustration of that tendency in transcendentalism, already noted in connection with Brook Farm and the life of Margaret Fuller, to pass from its early sentimental and romantic stage into a phase of social or political activity. Parker’s life reveals with special clearness the link between transcendentalism and the abolition movement. There is probably little likelihood of exaggerating the relation between a philosophy which taught the divinity of every human soul and the agitation for the freedom of the Southern slaves.

Although the transcendental philosophy was of course only one of many forces that led to abolitionism in New England, the connection between the two is a powerful reminder that, in spite of its underlying unity of spirit, transcendentalism was an exceedingly varied and complex movement. Even the present rapid survey of a few of its characteristic incidents and leading figures has served perhaps to emphasize that fact.

In Channing, for instance, to glance back for a moment, we perceive it as a force mellowing and humanizing the stern Calvinistic tradition and touching with emotion the prosaic rationalism of the Unitarians. In Emerson it shines forth as an unfailing sense of the unity of the soul with God and nature, a religious aspiration constantly translated into incentives toward the noble conduct of life. In Alcott we behold it at first touching education and the child, then volatilizing into clouds of Oriental mysticism. In Margaret Fuller we catch its significance as a literary renaissance, an effort for culture, for criticism, passing over at last into an effort for social betterment—which latter note is struck earlier and more resoundingly in the social Utopianism of Ripley and the other Brook Farmers. In Parker it takes on particularly the form of extreme theological radicalism, a radicalism successfully undergoing the test of practical application in the abolition movement. In Thoreau it is present—in none of the group more ethereally—as a spiritualized feeling for nature, a fine dissolvent of convention, a pervasive and contagious influence toward natural and simple living.

These considerations, together with the implication of such names as Hawthorne, Dana, Curtis, and a dozen others, show how impossible it is not only to define the nature but to fix the limits of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was, in fact, simply the focus and energizing centre of that larger area of illumination and activity which is coextensive with the whole movement of literary and spiritual expansion that transformed New England during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. For purposes of historical and critical discrimination, to be sure, it is convenient, as we have done, to treat transcendentalism as a distinct and separate movement. But in reality it was not. In reality it was so blended with wider currents of spiritual change that the relation between the two can never be precisely determined. All that can be asserted with any certainty is that the fundamentally religious complexion of New England life makes it a fair presumption that the religious phase of the whole development was as nearly central and determinative as any.