Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States as a protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality. The Unitarian church, Harvard Divinity School, Concord, Massachusetts, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were at its epicenter.
A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Society and its institutions, believed its followers, have corrupted the purity of the individual. People are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism. Individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters.
American author, naturalist, and abolitionist, Henry David Thoreau was a principal figure of the 19th century movement of Transcendentalism. Believing that people are inherently good and are corrupted by the organized institutions of society, the ideal community becomes one that is built upon on independence and self-reliance. In Thoreau’s best known work, “Walden” we find a classic account of his attempt to live by these principles.
Thoreau spent two years living at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, on a woodland property owned by fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. The story details his day-to-day activities, observations, and undertakings to survive out in the wilderness. The resulting journal is an inspiring account of a man seeking a more simple life by living in harmony with nature. “Walden” is Thoreau’s declaration of independence and self-discovery, a manual of self-reliance, for which the author will be forever immortalized.
Essayist, poet, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) espoused an idealism that advocated self-reliance, self-culture, and individual expression. The six essays and one address included in Essays, First Series(1841) and Essays, Second Series (1844), offer a representative sampling of his views both of moral idealism and later skepticism. In addition to the celebrated title essay, the others included here are “History,” “Friendship,” “The Over-Soul,” “The Poet,” and “Experience,” plus the well-known and frequently read Harvard Divinity School Address.
Born on the fourth of July in 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the stories that lie at the heart of the American Romantic movement. His portraits of colonial life reflect his Puritan heritage and offer fascinating profiles of individuals who strive for freedom from social conventions. Herman Melville dedicated his masterpiece, Moby Dick, to Hawthorne for his helpful, critical readings.
Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books rapidly over several months at the request of her publisher. The novel follows the lives of four sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood, and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters. Little Women was an immediate commercial and critical success, and readers demanded to know more about the characters. Alcott quickly completed a second volume, entitled Good Wives, which was also successful. The two volumes were issued in 1880 in a single work. Alcott also wrote two sequels to her popular work, both of which also featured the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).
Although Little Women was a novel for girls, it addressed three major themes: “domesticity, work, and true love, all of them interdependent and each necessary to the achievement of its heroine’s individual identity.” Little Women “has been read as a romance or as a quest, or both. It has been read as a family drama that validates virtue over wealth”, but also “as a means of escaping that life by women who knew its gender constraints only too well”. According to Sarah Elbert, Alcott created a new form of literature, one that took elements from Romantic children’s fiction and combined it with others from sentimental novels, resulting in a totally new format. Elbert argued that within Little Women can be found the first vision of the “All-American girl” and that her multiple aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters.