Transcendental Period Produces Golden Classics

Parents, the Transcendental Period of literature produced some awesome books, some which are still listed in America's Top 10 books of all time. When your teenager studies this period, she will learn these things: 

  •  the authors who wrote during this time period,
  •  the titles and subject matter of the books written,
  •  how great an effect Transcendentalism and its literature had on America then and now,
  •  and the positive impact peacetime can have on a nation,

While America has produced much great literature in her history, there is no other time except this Transcendental Period that is known as the Golden Age of Literature.

Note: Throughout history there have been eras called "Golden Age" of this or that. Inevitably, it was a time of peace in that nation's history as this is the only time when people can focus on improving their world rather than preparing for or fighting wars. 

Therefore, it is worth a lengthy study, so your teen will understand how this period came about, who influenced it, and what were its lasting effects on not only America, but the world. If you think I'm exaggerating, keep reading. 

Transcendentalism - The Philosophy and Movement

Transcendentalism is a spiritual philosophy that developed in New England. Its founder was Ralph Waldo Emerson.  His most famous student was Henry David Thoreau. t's a classic example of the student becoming greater than the teacher because although Emerson preached it, Thoreau lived it.

Lesson Plans: Read the free book Transcendentalism. Although Kindles are awesome tablets, Kindle books can be downloaded onto your computer with a simple app. 

  • a reaction to the philosophy of Rationalism
  • was part of the Second Great Awakening in America
  • emphasized the individuality and goodness
  • distrusted formal, institutional education
  • respected intuition 
  • encouraged self-reliance
  • believed that studying nature revealed God

Photo of laguna by Diana Boles

Transcendental Period Authors and Books

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Every revolution was thought first in one man's mind."

Most critics mark the publication of Emerson's essay "Nature" (1836) as the beginning of the Transcendental Period.

Evidently, America had become distracted by politics and commerce and had forgotten its spiritual center.

Emerson's essay was not just an appeal to "come about," but a call to go into the natural world to find truth, to be independent, and to move away from the distraction of society that seeks to destroy the soul. 

Lesson plan: Read "Nature" and "The American Scholar". For a writing assignment, write summaries or journals on two of Emerson's essays.

Henry David Thoreau

Think about Thoreau's influence on history for a momentDuring Thoreau's stay at Walden Pond, he was arrested and put in jail for not paying his taxes. He wrote an essay to explain to the townspeople why he chose not to pay the taxes. 

This is a man

  • who suffered from poor health, 
  • died at the early age of 45, 
  • was thought to be weird or worse crazy by all the townspeople, and
  • quit his teaching job to
  • live alone for 2 years in the woods to think.

Photo of Walden Pond by Pablo Sanchez

Replica of Thoreau's cabin taken by Renata.

But 81 years later

  • Mohandes Gandhi, inspired by Thoreau's essay, "Resistance to Civil Government (1849)
  • began his greatest act of civil disobedience
  •  against the the most powerful country in the the world, Great Britain
  • which led to the independence of India.  

Lesson Plan: Read Walden and "Resistance to Civil Government. Write a five-paragraph essay on 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

                                                                                                    - Henry David Thoreau

The Anti-Transcendentalists - Hawthorne and Melville

The Transcendental Period emphasized the goodness of humankind, but Hawthorne and Melville believed that humankind needed redemption. The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick both deal with the effects of sinfulness on humanity, as well as the disappointing state of Christianity. The Guardian lists these two books as the 20th and 21st greatest books in history. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne's greatest work The Scarlet Letter is a psychological romance novel about the effects of one sin on four people: The sin is adultery and the four players are Hester Prynne, whose pregnancy reveals her act, so she is forced to work through her redemption.  

Her lover, the second person, is the cowardly minister Arthur Dimmesdale, whose act remains unconfessed, and he is destroyed by his own guilt.

The third one is Hester's estranged husband Roger Chillingworth, who vows revenge against the unknown man who has cuckolded him, and finally Pearl, the child, who has to live a life apart from society since she is the "bastard" child.

I firmly believe that without  the Transcendental Period, a book of this magnitude would not only not have been written well received, but also probably not have been written.

Only in an accepting and scholarly culture can artists and writers create works like The Scarlet Letter. 

I think this quote sums up Hawthorne's thoughts about the Transcendental Period. That no matter how perfect we try to make it or be, there is still death and sin.

"The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison."

                                                                      -   Nathaniel Hawthorne,  excerpt from The Scarlet Letter

Lesson Plan: Read The Scarlet Letter, and short stories "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "The Birthmark." To better interpret Hawthorne's writings, I would use one of the free study guides available.   Write a five-paragraph essay listed in the study guide. Additionally, your teen should look up and define vocabulary words from the book and short stories. 

Herman Melville

Moby Dick is an epic allegory, which has one of the most famous first lines  ever written in a novel. At more than 800 pages, it's a novel that will take some time to finish if your teen dares to attempt it. 

However, a novella, Billy Budd, can easily be read and will provide your teen with an excellent writing example of Melville's style and subject material. The novella is rich in allegory and symbolism and has been part of Honors English curriculum for many decades. 

Typee is Melville's first novel, which is based on his experiences of living with cannibals for 18 months in the South Pacific. 

Lesson Plan:  Read the first and last three chapters of Moby Dick. Read  the novella of Billy Budd. Write an essay showing the Anti- Transcendental Period characteristics of nature in Moby Dick. 

"Call me Ishmael."

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

                                                                                                  - Herman Melville

Transcendentalism's Ripple Effect

Martin Luther King's sit-in movement and resistance to civil law was directly influenced by the Transcendental Period writer Henry David Thoreau. 

India's march to independence through the civil resistance campaign led by Mohandes Gandhi was an expression of the ideas espoused by the Transcendental Period. 

Today's self-sustainable, organic farming and homesteading, and living off the grid movements are reminiscent of the more than 80 utopian communities that popped up during the 1830s and 1840s.

Although I think these present-day groups are more anti-government than their predecessors, the idea is the same: Society will rob your soul with one hand while it pats you on the back with the other. 

Revisit other junior English pages here. 

Or return to the Romantic Period page. 

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