The Transcendentalists Are Coming!, Again

This week on Open Source, we’re taking advantage of a sick-leave rerun to revisit the birthplace of the American mind a year after we first broadcast this show. The story of the Transcendentalists starts in five houses on three streets within a period of five years in Concord, Massachusetts. And it launched American literature and poetry, the environmental movement, progressive politics, feminism, and new ideas about religion and education. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, and their friends and neighbors. The Transcendentalists are coming. What is the legacy of this American renaissance? What do these thinkers mean to you?

The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

Check out a growing timeline of the Transcendentalist lives and legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in the tangled graphic below (click here for full-size). Transcendentalists Big Bang-01

Guest List
Megan Marshall
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the biographies The Peabody Sisters and, most recently, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.
Paul Harding
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, author of Tinkers and Enon.
Dan McKanan
the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at at the Harvard Divinity School, author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition.
Reading List
Orpheus at the Plough
Geraldine Brooks, The New Yorker
The novelist writes a short and poignant biography of Amos Bronson Alcott in The New Yorker.
Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
a review of Megan Marshall's Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.
Emerson's 'The Poet': A Circling
Sven Birkerts, Poetry Magazine
The critic and editor of AGNI writes on translating Emerson into today's language:

I should define the word, make clear how I mean it. To speak of soul is not, for me, to speak about religion; it is not to announce oneself as a church-goer, a born-again Christian, or anything of the kind. Soul, for me, is prior to religion. Religion recognized the idea and posited it as something that it could help save, but not as something that faith brought into being. Soul comes before. I think of it as the active inner part of the self, the part that is not shaped by contingencies, that stands free; the part of the “I” that recognizes the absurd fact of its being; that is not in any sense immortal, but that recognizes the concept of immortality and understands the desire it expresses; that isthat desire.

Paul Harding (interview)
Tony Perez, Tin House
Our guest and friend, in interview with the literary journal, Tin House:
I adore the transcendentalists. Emerson is right at the top of my list. Thoreau is not too far behind. I also think of Hawthorne, Melville... even Wallace Stevens kind of comes out of that tradition. Emily Dickenson—Writers like that. Some people do think Tinkers has sort of an archaic feel, maybe just because it’s set 90 to 100 years ago, and goes even further back. Some of that has to do with the fact that I like the idea of stripping away some of the more prominent distractions of current material culture, which I think can set up sort of a veil of white noise—It’s difficult to see or hear somebody’s mind.
"The Spiritual Heritage of the Occupy Movement"
Dan McKanan, Unitarian-Universalist World
Dan McKanan's essay on the spiritual and Transcendental heritage of the Occupy movement.

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  • David Dilworth

    Emerson and the Transcendentalists carried over the legacy of Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, and Coleridge as well as framing a new ontology of experience consisting of the human mind’s affinity (“consanguinity'”) with nature at the basis of civilized progress in the science and the arts, set within the political matrix of democracy (credits to Walt Whitman too). Emerson contributed the essential aspects of this new idealism-realism, as conceptualized for example in his exuberant early essays on Nature and in his mid-career binary of Fate and Power. Charles S. Peirce, America’s greatest philosophical genius, carried on Emerson’s legacy in broader epistemological, phenomenological, normative, metaphysical, and semeiotic categories, not essentially differing from Emerson in all the big-tickets items of his architectonic system. This Emerson-Peirce legacy, carried on in the writings of Wm. James, extended to the poetic career of Wallace Stevens, America’s foremost poet of the 20th century. It is quite a legacy, combining literary and philosophical worldview that has no equal in the modern civilized world, including Europe and Asia. Contemporary America’s progressive p.c. culture, as carried on in the current polarized and socialistic trajectory of the Obama years, is shamefully losing the trajectory of this Emersonian legacy.

  • nother

    “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” – The first line from “Walking” by Thoreau

    I think the legacy is humailty. That the endgame is not he who has the most intellect at the end wins. And maybe the legacy is that there is no absolute “end.” Only new beginnings in the nature outside your door and inside your heart.

    “If with fancy unfurled
    You leave your abode
    You may go round the world
    By the Old Marlborough Road.”

  • Pingback: Poetry Prompt: The Transcendentalists | The Found Poetry Review()

  • Alan Andres

    Re: The Transcendentalists and abolition…

    Gandhi famously wrote — in 1906, I think — that Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” had been an influential text in the Northern opposition to slavery and hastened the Civil War. That statement has been quoted for the past 100 years. But is this the case? We know Thoreau addressed his neighbors in Concord, and in 1849 the essay was published in an obscure journal, but it didn’t even appear in book form until 1866 in A Yankee in Canada, four years after Thoreau’s death. Was Gandhi was engaging in a bit of promotional spin? When was “Civil Disobedience” recognized as a seminal text? (At the time Thoreau spoke in Concord, didn’t Emerson voice his disagreement of its principles?)

    Also, Thoreau also called out his Massachusetts neighbors who were profiting from their commerce with the South. Case in point: the Lynn shoe business which opposed abolition—before the war much income came from the Southern states, including sales of shoes used by plantation workers. (Ironically, the Lynn shoe business boomed during the Civil War as they started mechanizing and manufacturing boots for the Union Army.) Isn’t there a bit more ambiguity to Boston’s celebrated reputation as the heart of the abolitionist movement?

  • Margaret Fuller’s life was the subject of a radio drama in 1941…

    It’s something of a historical soap-opera, especially in the ill-fated romance at the end, but I find the whole program a fascinating “Cliff Notes” introduction to a woman who somehow fell through the cracks of my undergraduate 19th century American Lit class.

    The fast-paced early dialogue among the Brook Farmers is no “His Girl Friday,” but it’s fun. Hear all your favorite Transcendentalists trying to explain what they’re about in a few minutes! I wonder what the 1941 scriptwriter considered the target audience for this program — high school graduates? College students?

    I recommend this “Cavalcade of America” episode to listeners with a half-hour to spare.

    Finally, if anyone can explain the title of the episode, “The Heart and the Fountain,” please add a comment on my blog page. I’ve searched the Web and corresponded with a few Fuller scholars, but no one has a citation to explain it.

    If this link does not work in the comment system here, a Google search for “stepno Margaret Fuller” will locate it.


    Bob in Radford, Va.

  • mary

    Bob, this is fantastic. We’ll put some of it in the show and give you full credit for it!

    • Great! I was part of the Berkman blogging roundtable when Christopher launched his podcast, which ultimately led me to researching oldtime radio via the web. Cavalcade profiled other journalists — and transcendentalists — although the former are my research topic. I will save more transcendental authors for my retirement and stick with the journalists for now.

  • Our age is the sepulchres of fathers. It writes criticism. Foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to eye. Should not we have a poetry embosomed for a season in floods, proportioned to nature? Should we grope among the dry bones of the masquerade’s faded wardrobe? The sun shines more wool and flax in the new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own worship.

  • If you’re interested in this, then be sure to sign up for the Summer Conversational Series (July 13-17) and be part of the live discussions.

  • nother

    Fyi – I think you have the date wrong above for this show. You have March 21st. I might be missing something though.

  • Todd Lewis

    What is often overlooked, especially by those focusing on the Euro-American world, is to what extent the Transcendentalists were moved, and profoundly so, by the first translations into English and French, of the classic religious texts of Asia. These were not exotic or marginal, but central to their new movement. The words of the Bhagavad Gita, the Laws of Manu, Dao Te Ching, early Buddhist texts, and Sufism were avidly sought, circulated, and carefully read. Thoreau liked his living at Walden to dwelling by the Ganges. Not to center understanding of these pioneering figures in the global recognition of human spiritual imagination would be a failure to grasp the wellsprings of their spiritual imagination and intellectual excitement.

  • I remixed Emerson’s essay “Circles” with an article on the millennial generation and a little bit of Faulkner. Here is the resulting poem:

    [The astronomer must have his diameter of the earth’s orbit as a base to find the parallax of any star.]

    this surface on which we now stand is sliding
    we unsettle all things,
    break up the whole chain of habits
    every action outdone.

    we are apprentices to the truth,
    not a mass of facts,
    the only sin is limitation
    let us rise into another idea.

    the eternal generation of circles proceeds
    but we believe this does not diminish reality
    we call it by many names
    which are not symbols to us.

    All that they reckoned settled shakes and rattles
    the man and woman of seventy assume to know all
    and talk down to the young
    but we believe this reality does not diminish.

    there is an element of false precision in setting
    hard chronological boundaries
    happen is never once but like ripples
    Permanence is but a word of degrees

    the pebble sinks,
    commerce is of trivial import;
    love, faith, truth of character, aspiration,
    these are sacred.

    the ripples move on,
    change and reform
    spread true in gleams and fragments
    the first of a new series
    and that without end

  • mary

    Beth, we’re going to try and post your audio and Chris will try and mention this on air! Thank you!

  • mary

    Beth and Todd, thanks so much for leaving those messages. We’re hoping more and more people use this feature.

  • Melissa Gaspar

    I really enjoyed the show last night. Thank you so much!

  • The Radio Open Source discussion on the Concord “reconfigurers” was fascinating and might have mentioned the science and technology propheticalness of people like Hawthorne which parallels Margaret Fuller’s anticipations of feminism.

    Hawthorne (1804-1864) in his own rhapsodic and thunderous way is also as farsighted and prophetic as any Jules Verne. As in Chapter 17 of The House of Seven Gables (1851).

    The Flight of Two Owls

    “Then there is electricity!–the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!” exclaimed Clifford. “Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact–or have I dreamt it–that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!”

    “If you mean the telegraph,” said the old gentleman, glancing his eye toward its wire, alongside the rail-track, “it is an excellent thing;–that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics don’t get possession of it. A great thing, indeed, sir; particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers.”

    …“An almost spiritual medium, like the electric telegraph, should be consecrated to high, deep, joyful, and holy missions…..”

    For more, go to:

    Two footnotes: Stendhal’s posthumously published novel “Lucien Leuwen” is inter alia about the very thing that Hawthorne fears about the telegraph, “it is an excellent thing;–that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics don’t get possession of it.”

    Thomas Hardy’s 1881 novel “The Laodicean” has among its themes the penetration of telegraphy into the world that Hardy knew and the changed sense of things it imparted to time and place.

    Hawthorne’s premonitions of all this are striking in their depth and subtlety.

  • Potter

    Todd Lewis (post above) notes something important about the influence of translated classic religious texts from Asia.

    What an interesting show. I especially loved hearing about how “modern” Margaret Fuller was in her thinking. Fuller too often gets lost between the greatness of Thoreau and Emerson. Meagan Marshall seemed to suggest that there was too much Emerson worship. One does have to let go of it in order to follow his advice. That said, it’s very believable that Harold Bloom could bring himself through depression by soaking in Emerson.

    The conversation is about the call to liberation of the self, the unlocking of potential that we all have. So one comes up against a need to break habits of thought, to question, to look anew. And in so doing to let the spirit, your spirit, come through.

    There were Transcendentalist influences, and similarities, in the spirit of the intentional communities of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, and very much so in the Boston area as well. It was a spiritual evolution that connected to a back to earth movement and political protest.

    I could not hear that Ives piece before this show, I had rejected it’s dissonance in your provious shows. It is now for me about breaking old idols.

    Bravo for Taza Chocolates of Somerville! Amazing chocolate! All flavors.

    Thank you!

  • Robert W Peabody III

    Where is the center of the rebellious mind today and what is it saying?
    ….Richard Rorty in toto
    ….Jean-Luc Godard no longer a “sneaky transcendentalist” in Notre Musique
    … young artists searching for truth in anti-metaphoric work

  • Judy

    Actually, the quote by Sophia on the window pane is, “Man’s accidents
    are God’s purposes.” She was referring to a miscarriage she had when
    she fell on the ice outside. Also, Hawthorne was NOT a

  • A. David Wunsch

    Except for Megan Marshall’s contribution, the show degenerated into an orgy of hagiography. No guest questioned that Emerson’s doctrine of self reliance is potentially dangerous and despicable. Indeed, Moby Dick can be read as a refutation of Emerson. The ship’s captain is self reliance in the extreme and is unbound by anyone’s standards but his own. He destroys his ship, himself, and all of the crew but one man. Nietzsche was profoundly influenced by Emerson and one can connect the dotted lines to the Wagnerian and Nazi embrace of the superman.

    Thoreau is almost holy admirable and I love Walden. But his condemnation of his poor Irish neighbors, occurring through various parts of the book, is an embarrassment. He should have known better.

    And Thoreau’s support of John Brown is a painful subject. Brown was, in today’s language, a terrorist. His raids killed innocent people– some of them not slave holders. At Harper’s Ferry he and his gang even killed a free black man who happened to be working for the railroad. The war would have been fought, and the slaves freed without Brown.

    Harold Bloom’s brief bit on how Emerson pulled him out of a depression was useless without some additional context. Why was he depressed ? How did RWE help ? If Bloom were not a celebrity scholar this quote would never have been stuffed into the show.

  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris and guests. Wonderful conversation. I missed this last year. I’m glad I heard it today.