Famous Transcendentalists

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    Oct 09, 2013
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Walt Whitman - por Mathew Brady (algo entre 1855 e 1865)
Walt Whitman - por Mathew Brady (algo entre 1855 e 1865)
Photo by marcelo noah

Nathaniel Hawthorne`s fiction works belong to dark romanticism. Anti-transcendentalists like Hawthorne and Melville, focused on the limitations and destructiveness of the human spirit. They believed that humans are generally evil, bitter and sinful beings. ``The Scarlet Letter`` is considered an anti-transcendental novel because it integrates the evil that changes people. Hawthorne`s novels are full of darkness through which he analyzes evil and sin. He was an investigator of moral ideas. His novels and stories , rich with symbolism and allegory, explored morality, dealt with historical subjects, and examined the effect of the past upon the present.   Unlike American novelist and short story writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau did not analyze darkness, sin and evil. Henry David Thoreau was an American philosopher, abolitionist, essayist and poet. However, Thoreau`s dominant characteristic was being a Transcendentalist. Transcendentalism allows one to think for himself/herself without the influence of others.

Transcendentalists try to find themselves through nature. Nature can`t influence human beings  how to think. Nature actually reveals a person`s true feelings. Transcendentalists intend to go beyond human experience. They try to make man perfect and attempt to turn this ideal into a reality. 

In  his book, ``Walden``,  Thoreau  explains how a relation with nature shows aspects of the true self that stay hidden because of  society and technology. In the first part of his story he defines what he sees as the main problem of his time. In the second part, he builds a house in the forest to demonstrate that every person can lead a simple life. It was a place for him to find solitude while he was writing. However, it was also an experiment in his inner strength and independence. Thoreau did not claim that others should live the same way. Throughout Thoreau`s stay at Walden Pond, he encouraged American society to take a deeper look at life.  He believed that the way we live in our society is superficial because of our dependence on material things.

In his book ``Walden``, Thoreau develops his own philosophical ideas of living simply and deliberately. He wrote that if man “simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weaknesss weakness“. (Thoreau, 2008: 198).   Thoreau also believed that human beings needed only four primary things: food, shelter, clothes, and fuel. He was against gluttony and he believed that humans could satisfy their needs with these four basic necessities. He also focuses on the relationship between mind and body. He explained that physical closeness did not transforms into mental closeness, or other way around. Thoreau believed that we were our minds and that our bodies were not so important. He stated that the nature would help us find ourselves. Through his writing he inspired people to find their own paths and to try to be themselves. Many people all over the world realized the significance of his message:  man`s spiritual journey to find harmony in his inner being must mirror his cultural, social and political surroundings.

A lot of prominent intellectuals believed in Thoreau`s theories.  One of them was Walt Whitman.  He was a follower of the two Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist.  Walt Whitman can be described as the most famous Transcendentalist as well. He was also the radical Transcendentalist/Romantic. Whitman`s poetry is his artistic expression of various speeches of transcendental experiences.   In his opinion, people had to live a life guided by their intuition. He thought that transcendentalists focused on the divinity of each human being. However, this divinity could be self-found only if the human being possessed the freedom of mind to do so. According to Whitman, it was civilization`s decay and dishonesty that fundamentally changed the goodness of people. Like Thoreau, Whitman also felt an increasing disappointment with materialism.The  following poem illustrates his feelings:

Brain of the New World, what a task is thine

To formulate the Modern – out of peerless grandeur of the modern,
  Out of thyself, comprising science, to recast poems, churches, art,
  (Recast, maybe discard them, end them-maybe their work is done,
  who knows?)
By vision, hand, conception, on the background of the mighty past, 
the dead.
To limn with absolute faith the mighty living present. (Whitman, 1973: 60). 
That`s why an individual must discover himself/herself by returning to innocent and unstained nature.
This is the new meaning given to that much-beloved and disparaged Greek phrase to live according to Nature. Whitman applies it in a very particular sense: ``Now I see the secret of making the best persons. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth``. You must test all the products of the human mind by comparison with things in the world around you, see how far they agree with what you find in nature, whether they are applicable to the ``broadcast doings of night and day``. (Addington, 2004: 40)
Throughout his poems, Whitman praised people (the poor, the rich, Indians, African Americans, white people, men, women, America and nature). Whitman believed that it was up to a man to create his own destiny.  His poems glorified American democracy and the common man`s strong attachment to freedom. Whitman wrote poems about common people who were proud of what they did for living. He created realistic and colorful descriptions of diligent people. Whitman valued hard work, compassion, humbleness and generosity. He also valued good health, soul and the love of nature.   In his opinion, people were naive and good and the evil could be found only in the oppressive social institutions. Whitman urged people to explore their immense wealth of spiritual power and to attain self-hood.  Whitman`s poetry has three major themes: the idea of the Holy Trinity, the idea that America was the New Eden and the idea of the perfect order of the cosmos. Nature, man and God traveled in harmonious conjunction through the magnificent cosmos of space and time as one. 

For Whitman, death was not an end. On the contrary, it was new beginning, renewal and life. He believed that God was both essential and transcendent and that the human soul was eternal and in a state of continuous development. He also supported variety of geography, culture, work, sexuality and ideas. His poems glorify unity of all people and life. His influence strengthened American dreams of independence, freedom and fulfillment and changed them for larger spiritual meaning.  Whitman`s achievements as a poet were really impressive. Many people think that he is the father of Modern Poetry. Despite the fact that he was not the founder of transcendentalism, he really contributed to it. Even nowadays, his work is widely known around the world.  His ``Leaves of Grass`` were translated into dozens of languages and read widely all over our planet.


1. Addington, John Symonds. (2004). Walt Whitman – a Study. London: John C. Nimo.
2. Thoreau, Henry David. (2008). Walden. Radford: Wilder Publication.

3. Whitman, Walt. (1973). Leaves of Grass. New York: W. W.& Co.

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