The notion of transcendence is by definition paradoxical. The Latin transcendo means to climb above or pass over, which
begs the obvious question: rise above or get beyond what? However the
word is used—whether in reference to religion, philosophy or literature—it is associated with its opposite, the immanent world with all its
failures and blessings.
The Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau borrowed much
from German philosophy, Swedenborgian Idealism and English Romanticism. Yet on a simple and practical level it represented the first
important flowering of literary emancipation in a recently formed
nation. At least among a certain group, the Boston of the 1830s offered a
new openness and sense of hope. “We will walk on our own feet, we will
work with our own hands, we will speak our own minds,” said Emerson
in “American Scholar.” He concluded the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness based on idealist philosophy.
The Transcendentalists were among the earliest Americans to have
been born on the other side of two centuries of religious constraint,
political turmoil and financial scarcity. It is no insult to say that they
were the first generation to have the luxury of being as hopeful about
human experience and literature as their immediate forebears had
been about politics. They sought to rise from the drudgery of ordinary
life through a new attunement of the human mind to all of Nature. By
opening ourselves to that powerful and mysterious dominion, we could
“build therefore” our own world.
FALL 2013 / THE MISSOURI REVIEW 5