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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

§ 15. The Relations of European and American Transcendentalism

It is equally difficult, as may now be seen more clearly than at the outset of our discussion, to separate the European and the American contributions to transcendentalism. That spirit of freedom, of individualism, of revolution, of romance, which was abroad throughout the Western world during this period, took on a peculiar local colour in New England. Distilled in the New England alembic, French Revolutionary dogmas, German philosophy, Oriental mysticism, assume a semblance that often makes them scarcely recognizable. Yet, however fresh the utterance, an alert sense can usually detect, if not its particular source, at least its general European kinship.

When Emerson in the opening pages of Nature exhorts his countrymen to come forth and live their own lives, reminding them that “the sun shines to-day also,” we catch echoes of Rousseau’s “Man is born free; and is everywhere in chains.” When Thoreau proclaims an intention “to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up,” we feel that here is the homely New England version of Shelley’s cry to the West Wind:

  • Be through my lips to unawakened earth
  • The trumpet of a prophecy!
  • When Thoreau, on another occasion, writes that he was not aware “that the capacity to hear the woodpecker had slumbered within me so long,” the words have all the spontaneity of underived utterance, and yet who can deny that the peculiar turn of that expression goes back through German or we know not what other channels to Plato and still remoter Eastern sources?

    This mention of the East is suggestive of all the weaknesses of transcendentalism: its tendency to neglect proximate and to refer everything to primal causes; its attempt to attain the spiritual not by subduing but by turning its back on the material; its proneness to substitute passivity and receptiveness for alertness and creative force; its traces of a paralysing pantheism and fatalism; its ineffectualness; its atrophy of will. More than a touch of each of these qualities transcendentalism indisputably has; but if this were all there were to it, we should brand it as one more vain revival of a philosophy of life long since proved futile.