The Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman


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“I should have told them at once that I was a Transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.”

—Thoreau, Journal, V:4


The writings of the Transcendentalists may seem daunting– but their vision informs the mission of many contemporary grass-roots campaigns. Their focus on individual sled-knowledge and engagement with the world we inhabit is increasingly crucial to our human (and humane) existence. There are moments of real beauty in these dense readings– just when we are encountering the most complex ideas, the writer offers a moment of effervescence– a lifting towards light and illumination. For this study, we will consider aspects of Thoreau and Emerson’s essays and a selection from “Song of Myself” by Whitman.

Just listen:

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

32. I think I could turn and live with animals, they\’re so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick discussiong their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.

52. The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”

Wild, yes?


“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

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Posted on

December 9, 2017