Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 16. The Essentially Native Character of New England Transcendentalism

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

§ 16. The Essentially Native Character of New England Transcendentalism

But who can doubt that there is in it also something the precise opposite of all this, the strange union of which with its Oriental elements makes it precisely the unique thing it is? Who can doubt that in speaking the last word of transcendentalism we should come back from India, even from Europe, to Concord and Boston? For, at bottom, it is the strong local flavour of it all, a smell of the soil through the universal generalizations, a dash of Yankee practicality in the midst of the Oriental mysticism, a sturdy Puritan pugnacity and grasp of fact underneath its serenest and most Olympian detachments, that gives this movement its reality and grip, and rescues it in large part not only from the ineffectiveness of the East but from the sentimental, the romantic, and the anarchic excesses of many of its related European movements.

These men were no mere dreamers. Emerson resigning his pulpit rather than administer the Lord’s Supper or pray when he did not feel like praying, Thoreau going to jail for a refusal to pay his taxes, Alcott closing his school sooner than dismiss a coloured pupil (yes! even Alcott planting “aspiring” vegetables), Parker risking reputation and life in the anti-slavery crusade—these are typical examples of the fact that when these men were put to the test of acting up to their principles they were not found wanting. The Puritan character was the rock on which transcendentalism was built.

How inherent in the religious development of New England that character has been may be seen by glancing at three of her foremost spiritual figures: Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James (James, curiously enough, though a New Englander only by adoption, being scarcely less representative of the most recent phase of New England religious evolution than Emerson and Edwards were of two of its earlier stages). Edwards, the last great apostle of theocratic dogmatism; Emerson, the prophet of a generation of romantic aspiration; James, the pragmatic philosopher of a scientific and democratic age—how far apart, at first thought, they seem! And not merely far apart, but often hostile. Emerson gave much of his best effort to demolishing the remnants of the Calvinistic structure Edwards had done so much to fortify. James’s career was one long assault on that philosophy of the Absolute which is the intellectualized counterpart of the religion of the Over-Soul. The respective attitudes of the three men toward nature well illustrate their differences. To Edwards, in spite of his feeling for natural beauty, nature is essentially evil and is consistently set over against grace, which is of God. To Emerson, God and Nature are merely two aspects of a single spirit. To James, endlessly interesting as the natural world is in its instrumental capacity, in any ultimate sense nature is merely “so much weather.” And yet, under analysis, such distinctions turn out to be partly nominal and relatively superficial, for, deeper than all their differences of doctrine, there is a community of spirit among these men, a something central and controlling in them all, something which in its day was the driving force of transcendentalism, the innate idealism and individualism of the New England mind.