Friday, September 30, 2011

Transcendentalism 101

I've been reading two books this past month. The first is The Transcendentalists by Edith Packer. It's a history of this fascinating philosophical/religious movement that took hold of America in the 1830s and 1840s. The movement interests me because there is something uniquely American in its idealism and energy.  It is also loosely akin to Zen in some ways, almost like it arose through a sort of convergent evolution.

I had started reading Packer's history when I came across the second book: Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists edited by George Hochfield. Hochfield's book assembles key writings by thinkers who led up to Transcendentalism and essays by the actual leaders of the movement as well.  So it's all the cerebral 'wiring' behind the history that Packer's book covers.

Hochfield's book includes material by George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, and many others. A further plus is what the book doesn't include: the really popular pieces from the movement: Walden, Emerson's essays, etc.  Hochfield wisely kept these out since most people likely have access to them through other books or already have them in their library.  This means his book is filled with material you probably would not be able to get and/or are unlikely to own.

As a result, Hochfield's book has almost all the material Packer references in her history, at least in the early chapters that I have read. Once I had Hochfield's book, I decided to start all over with Packer's, only this time as I go through it I'm stopping to read the essays and writings she references. So it's like I'm working my way through the history and actually reading all the thinking and writing that was being done as I go. Very stimulating way to study a movement like this!

I'll re-read some of Emerson's essays (most notably Nature) as I do this exercise. Plus it will spur me to finally read Walden, which I have to admit is something I haven't done. Probably not everyone's idea of fun, but for an Early US Literature fanboy like myself, it's as fun as watching UFC matches!

No comments: