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Teaching Transcendentalism: Everything You Need to Know

    teaching transcendentalism

    Need a refresher on the basics of what transcendentalism is and what its core beliefs are? I’ve got you. Additionally, this post covers tips and titles to make transcendentalism engaging and relevant to secondary students.

    If you want to expose your students to some of the most influential authors in American Literature, it’s time to teach transcendentalism. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to follow a movement-based curriculum to dive into the transcendentalist movement with your students. After all, despite the movement’s centuries-old origins, the impact of transcendentalism remains strong in modern literature and pop culture in general.

    Besides, with values like nonconformity and individualism, there couldn’t be a literary movement that speaks more to secondary students. (Am I right?)  If you’re looking for ideas and novels to make teaching transcendentalism engaging and relevant to secondary students, you’ve come to the right place.

    What is Transcendentalism?

    At its core, transcendentalism is a philosophy rooted in individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature. Many consider transcendentalism a “sub-movement” of Romanticism, and they’re not totally wrong. Transcendentalism was inspired by romanticism as they both emphasized the individual, drew inspiration from nature, and believed humans were inherently good. Together, the two movements helped shape the voice and identity of American literature. 

    When did the Transcendentalism Movement Begin?

    The transcendentalism movement originated in New England during the 1830s and picked up steam over the decade thanks to leaders like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The movement started as a response (some might say rebellion) to the Unitarianism beliefs that were predominant in New England at the time. However, it went on to become a defining movement in American literature and society in general.

    While Unitarianism emphasized reason, rationality, and intellectualism, transcendentalists desired a more independent and spiritual approach to life. Rather than being guided strictly by logic and reason, transcendentalists saw value in turning toward nature and oneself for answers.

    What Did Transcendentalists Believe?

    While there are many branches to the transcendentalism tree of beliefs, there are a handful of foundational principles transcendentalists felt strongly about

    • Humans are inherently good while society and its institutions are corrupt
    • Humans should strive for independence, self-reliance, and simplicity 
    • Insight, intuition, and self-reflection are more important than logic and reason
    • Spirituality should come from oneself and nature over organized religion
    • Nature is full of beautiful divinity and should be deeply appreciated.

    Introducing the Transcendentalist Movement in the Classroom

    Rather than lecturing your students on transcendentalist beliefs, let them explore the great old internet. Give students some time to search the internet before presenting a summary of their findings. Focus their research by asking them to identify the core beliefs and essential voices (aka authors) of this literary movement. 

    The Key Figures and Lasting Impact of Transcendentalism

    Transcendentalist ideals paved the way for a shift of literature during the mid-1800s and beyond.

    However, the impact of transcendentalism went far beyond literature. For example, transcendentalists played a large role in social reform in the mid-1800s and beyond. Supporters of transcendentalism were active when it came to things like women’s rights and abolition.

    Transcendentalist ideals continue to be a mainstay in American society. While it’s easy to think we live in a world ruled by materialism and greed, there are elements of transcendentalism that remain at the core of the American identity, like individualism and independence.

    There are a few notable names that we can credit as being key figures of transcendentalism, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott. While not all of these figures are recognized as notable authors, they are great names for students to explore as they gain an understanding of the core ideals and influences of the transcendentalist movement.

    The Best Novels to Teach Transcendentalism

    Okay, okay, so these aren’t all technically novels. The truth is, many of the most influential transcendentalist texts are actually essays. I’ll share some of my favorite poetry you can use to teach transcendentalism, too!

    While some of the longer texts mentioned below are full of powerful language and strong transcendental ideals, they can be quite dense for students. If you’re looking for your students to gain a full understanding of and appreciation for transcendentalism, I recommend choosing a few experts from the longer texts below. That way, students can see how comparing works from different authors helps us better understand a literary movement or define a philosophical ideal.

    1. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
    • Walden, first published in 1854,is well-regarded as a foundational piece of transcendental literature. The book chronicles Thoreau’s two-year, two-month, and two-day stay at a small cabin he built on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. During that time, Thoreau was seeking solitude and simplicity in nature. During his experimental time on Walden Pond, Thoreau embraced self-reliance and simple living. Since Thoreau’s stay on Walden Pond was influenced by Emerson’s ideologies and teachings, specifically those in his essay “Self-Reliance,” the two texts make the perfect pair in the classroom.
    1. “On Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau

    Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi were making history for peacefully taking a stand against government-enforced laws or demands, there was Henry David Thoreau. In fact, both MLK Jr. and Gandhi were inspired by this very essay. Thoreau wrote “On Civil Disobedience” in 1846 as a response to a run-in with the law while staying in his cabin on Walden Pond. After refusing to pay government taxes as a way to take a stand against slavery, Thoreau was forced to spend a night in jail. Why not just pay the tax?As the essay makes clear, it’s an issue of the individual’s moral authority. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume,” he writes, “is to do at any time what I think right.” (Cue the engaging classroom discussion.)

    Teaching Tiup: Thoreau’s essay pairs perfectly with Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” written in 1963.

    1. “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Written in 1841, Emerson uses this essay to share his thoughts on the importance of individuality over social conformity. Throughout the piece, Emerson calls for people to embrace their intuition and independent thinking. As Emerson argues, seeking solitude over community is an essential component of the equation. In other words, one must be willing to reject social norms, expectations, and institutions in order to step into their truest self.

    1. “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “Nature” is another famous essay written by Emerson and published in 1836. In his essay, Emerson encourages his readers to embrace the harmony that exists between nature and mankind. When one becomes lost and caught up in social conformity, Emerson would argue we can find our way back to our true selves by turning to nature. Taking a nontraditional stance regarding religion, Emerson argues that the natural world is where true divinity lies. Therefore, while the world is full of distractions and stressors, man should seek solitude and welcome “the sublime” of nature.

    1. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

    You might be thinking, “Wait, wasn’t this novel published in 1996?” Yes. Yes it was. However, it’s the perfect way to teach transcendentalism through a more contemporary lens. Therefore, it helps make the themes and ideals of transcendentalism all the more engaging and relevant to students. The story follows the journey of Chris McCandless, a young man who embraces the same ideals of transcendentalism. This true story follows McCandless as he left his possessions, family, and friends behind to set out to seek self-discovery and simple living. The story follows his journey of nonconformity and self-reliance as he embraces the country’s natural landscapes.

    Women and Transcendentalism

    While the more famous pieces of literature during this movement are written by male authors, there were quite a few females working to spread transcendentalist ideals as well.

    1. “What Is Beauty?” by Lydia Maria Child is an essay published in 1843 expressing Child’s thoughts around beauty, noting that recognizing beauty is a matter of intuition.
    2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a beloved tale following the lives of the four March sisters—each representing transcendentalist ideals in their own way.
    3. Transcendentalism: Summer on the Lakes by Margaret Fuller is an introspective account of Fuller’s journey around the Great Lakes in 1843.

    Transcendentalism and Poetry

    In addition to the lengthier texts above, the following poems are great ways to explore the ideals of transcendentalism in literature, specifically in poetry.

    Have your students dive into the world of transcendentalist literature with any (or all) of the poems below.

    • “The Summer Rain” by Henry David Thoreau
    • “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman
    • “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
    • “Ode to Beauty” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
    • “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant
    • “It Is Not Always May” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    Wrapping Up Transcendentalism

    I know many teachers who dread teaching literary movements. It can be challenging to help make teaching literary movements, like transcendentalism, engaging and relevant for secondary students. However, over time, I realized the power doesn’t lie in what we’re teaching as much as it does in how we’re teaching it.

    We don’t need to lecture our students about this movement or that. Instead, we can have them dive in with inquiry projects and Author study projects. They can express their understanding of transcendentalist beliefs through blackout poetry  or a one pager project.

    While I hope this post served as a springboard for planning how to teach the transcendentalism movement, I’d love to hear your ideas too. If you’ve taught this movement before, what resources, authors, texts, or activities do you recommend for teaching transcendentalism? Share your ideas in the comments below.


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