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

§ 8. Its Vagaries

But the transcendentalists were not always at the level of their masterpieces, and from the outset two results of movement whose essence was so intangibel and ideal were practically inevitable: first, that it should be misunderstood and misinterpreted by those who viewed it from outside; and second, that it should lead to excesses among the initiated themselves which would lend colour and, in a measure, justification to its critics. So quickly, indeed, did these results appear that to the public the word “transcendental” soon came to mean, to all intents and purpose, “transcending common sense,” and this use of the term gained added sanction from the difficulty of distinguishing sharply between transcendentalism and other currents of social and religious unrest then pulsing through New England. Some notion of the varieties of “dissent” and “reform” contending at that time for public attention is conveyed in Emerson’s description of the Chardon Street Convention which was held in Boston in 1840:

  • Madmen, madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers.
  • Surely these were wild and “transcendental” times!