The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 6. The Transcendental Club
It is natural that those who began to feel the vital effect upon their own religious convictions of this new spirit in philosophy and literature should have found one another out.
This they had done many months before any regular gatherings were contemplated. It was not until 1836 that these were begun when on 19 September—after a still smaller preliminary conference—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Henry Hedge, Convers Francis, James Freeman Clarke, and Amos Bronson Alcott met at the house of George Ripley and formed an organization to aid an exchange of thought among those interested in the “New views” in philosophy, theology, and literature. Among those who joined the group at later meetings were Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Orestes A. Brownson, Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Jones Very, Christopher P. Cranch, Charles T.Follen, and William Henry Channing. For a number of years, following 1836, this group, generally referred to as the Transcendental Club, continued occasionally to come together.
Of the less familiar names among its members, several, in a fuller treatment of the subject, would deserve discussion: Hedge and Clarke, for instance, Unitarian clergymen, the former a man of wide reading and sound scholarship who did much to spread a knowledge of German philosophy, the latter a leader of his denomination and of some contemporary standing as an author; Brownson, one of the most forceful but erratic figures of the time, minister, editor, politician, and novelist—beginning life as a Presbyterian and becoming in turn Universalist, Unitarian, transcendentalist, and Roman Catholic; Very and Cranch, two of the poets of the period, the former probably the extrme mystic of the whole group, a victim for a time of religious mania, the latter a picturesque figure, painter, musician, and ventriloquist, as well as poet. Some of these men attained considerable eminence in their own time, but for the present discussion these passing comments on them must suffice.
It is characteristic of the extreme individualism of the movement that the Transcendental Club was never a really formal organization. The transcendentalists, though most of them were Unitarians, did not leave the fold and form a new church—though such an event as Emerson’s withdrawal from the ministry in 1832 is symbolic of a general spiritual secession than taking place. But in spite of the absence of definite organization, there was essential unity of belief among the dissenters. This belief is as well embodied as anywhere, perhaps, in Emerson’s little treatise Nature, a work which, appearing the same year the Club was formed, may be fittingly considered the philosophical “constitution” of transcendentalism, all the more so since the same author’s better known Phi Beta Kappa Oration, The American Scholar (1837), and his profoundly influential Divinity School Address (1838) are merely applications of the doctrine of Nature to the realms of letters and theology.