Transcendentalism is the American version of English and European Romanticism.

Transcendentalism is the American version of English and European Romanticism. Transcendentalist writers include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and we could add Frederick Douglass and Emily Dickinson. These writers differed, but all were interested in ideas about spirituality independent of organized religion, individual conscience, self-improvement, anti-materialism, and nature and its unity, beauty, and harmony. Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were optimistic about human nature and the power of the individual; Hawthorne and Melville feared that the conscience could be deformed by others and by our own egotism.

All the transcendentalists were well educated or self-educated; in both cases, being widely read meant knowing English and European literature, the bible, and the Latin and Greek classics. These writers, however, also believed that it was time for American literature to proclaim its independence and stop being the step-child of Europe. We saw William Cullen Bryant warn Thomas Cole in “To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe,” “thy heart shall bear to Europe’s strand/ A living image of our own bright land.” He advised Cole to enjoy the sights of Europe, which would almost all be man-made, in contrast to the rugged natural scenery that Cole was known for painting, but to not be changed by what he saw: “Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim they sight,/ But keep that earlier, wilder image bright” (3171). Emerson, in particular, issued a call for the United States to produce a literature of its own.

In “Self-Reliance,” then, Emerson emphasizes the importance of individual conscience and non-conformity, but the “self” he refers to is also the collective American self.

Emerson writes, “The soul is no traveller: the wise man stays at home” (1883). Citing at least one other example from “Self-Reliance” discuss how Emerson uses traveling abroad or staying at home as metaphors for either American writers’ over-reliance on ideas from Europe or their presenting to readers the new culture that the United States offers the world.

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