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The Transcendental Club

Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
from Emerson: The Mind on Fire

On September 8, 1836, the day of the Harvard bicentennial celebration and the day before the publication of Nature, Web Site Henry Hedge, George Putnam (the Unitarian minister in Roxbury), George Ripley, and Emerson met at Willard's Hotel in Cambridge to plan a symposium or periodic gathering of persons who, like themselves, found the present state of thought in American "very unsatisfactory." [See F. H. Hedge's article on "Progress of Society"] What came to be called the Transcendental Club was thus born "in the way of protest" on behalf of "deeper and broader views" than obtained at present.

More specifically, the impulse behind the Transcendental Club was a protest against the arid intellectual climate of Harvard and Cambridge. President Quincy had his eye on the past. His commemorative speech soon grew into a two-volume history of Harvard University. Andrews Norton, the leading theologian of the school, was about to bring out the first volume of his Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1837), a huge, shallow, tendentious volume that takes the novel approach of simply ignoring the vast majority of serious work on the subject for the preceding seventy-five years. No one at Harvard was equipped or inclined for modern thought in this area. "There is," said Hedge,"a rigid, cautious, circumspect, conservative tang in the very air of Cambridge which no one, who has resided there for any considerable time, can escape." The club never met in Cambridge. Harvard at this time had a president, eleven professors, and seven instructors. An average meeting of the club drew eleven members;on occasion it could draw seventeen. The intellectual and literary candlepower of the club easily exceeded that of the college.

Eleven days after the first meeting at Willard's Hotel, the group held a second meeting, this time at Ripley's house in Boston. Ten persons attended: besides Hedge, Ripley, and Emerson, there were Bronson Alcott, James Clarke, Orestes Brownson, Convers Francis, and several divinity students. The Club, as it was sometimes called, was now a reality.

Emerson had been leery of the whole undertaking, as he told Hedge. Fresh from the stimulus of Margaret Fuller's three-week visit, he preferred, he said, "the society of one faithful person" to a confident crowd of "menacing rapid trenchant talkers" who "cut me short--they drive me into a corner--I must not suggest, I must define." But the first meeting went well. "The conversation was earnest and hopeful," he noted. It was decided that no one should be admitted "whose presence excluded any one topic." Pains were taken to avoid a cozy tone of self-congratulation. Early in the afternoon Emerson commented how "'twas pity that in this Titanic continent where nature is so grand, Genius should be so tame. Not one unchallengeable reputation." Present company not excluded.

The symposium, or club, of whatever it was (Emerson called it something different almost every time he mentioned it--Hedge's Club, the Aesthetic Club, the Transcendental Club), was gathered at a pivotal moment, just as a number of its members were breaking into print. The club was a forum for new ideas, a clearinghouse, full of yeast and ferment, informal, open-ended, far from the usual exclusive social clique conveyed by the word club. The meetings often centered on a single topic; any list of their subjects conveys the tone of the group. On October 3, 1836, at Alcott's in Boston the topic was "American Genius--the causes which hinder its growth, and give us no first rate productions." On October 18, 1836, at Brownson's house in Boston it was "Education of Humanity." On May 29, 1836, at Ripley's in Boston it was "What is the essence of Religion as distinct from morality?" In the summer of 1837 at Emerson's house it was "Does the species advance beyond the individual?" On May 20, 1838, at Stetson's house in Medford it was "Is Mysticism an element of Christianity"? In June of 1838 at Bartol's house in Boston it was "On the character and genius of Goethe"; in December of 1838 at the same place it was "Pantheism." On May 13, 1840, at Emerson's it was on "the Inspiration of the Prophet and Bard, the nature of Poetry, and the causes of sterility of poetic Inspiration in our Age and country."

"The life of a man is a self-evolving circle," Emerson says in "Circles," "which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outward to new and larger circles, and that without end." The Transcendental Club, so-called, served its members in this manner. The club had been Hedge's idea. Emerson, who attended at least twenty of the thirty meetings over the next four years, was always a leading spirit, but the group contained a number of other remarkable and forceful individuals, whose lives were now deeply intertwined with Emerson's.

George Ripley was one year older than Emerson, a native of Greenfield, Massachusetts, and now a Boston minister. He had a library full of philosophy and biblical criticism, including Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Herder, Cousin, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Eichhorn, Paulus, Bauer, and Tholuck. He read Vico and Giordana Bruno as well as Goethe and Schiller. Between 1830 and 1837 he published ten major articles in The Christian Examiner. In 1836 he published a discussion of Web Site James Martineau's "Rationale of Religious Enquiry" which produced quite a stir and was abused by Andrews Norton as "infidelity." Ripley was slender--in his early years--with a full head of close-curling brown hair. He had bright black eyes and always wore gold-rimmed glasses. He was an irrepressible spirit, a punster with a sort of "constitutional hilarity." He relished Carlyle's wry description of him as "a Socinian minister who left his pulpit to reform the world by cultivating onions." Ripley founded and edited the series of books called Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, and he did indeed leave his pulpit to found and lead the Web Site Brook Farm experiment in communal living. Above all, Ripley is the great American translator, commentator, and disciple of Schleiermacher, whom he regarded as "the greatest thinker who ever undertook to fathom the philosophy of religion."

Then there was Orestes Brownson, the same age as Emerson, born in Stockbridge, Vermont, and self-educated. He was ordained a Universality minister in 1826, but he became too liberal for the Universalists and went on to take up the radical free thought and socialism of Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright. He had been a corresponding editor of The Free Enquirer and had helped found the Workingman's Party in New York. In 1832 he became a Unitarian and in 1836 he was a minister at Canton, Massachusetts. During the winter of 1835-1836 Henry Thoreau, then in his junior year, came and taught school and studied German with Brownson. During that same year Brownson organized a new church among the working people of Boston, and he brought out a book called New Views of the Church and Society. Brownson was over six feet tall, his large face was framed by chin whiskers. He was a vigorous thinker and prolific writer. In 1838 he founded and for years wrote most of The Boston Quarterly Magazine. The election of 1840 drove him to political conservatism; in 1844 he converted to Catholicism. For the rest of his life he championed these two causes, becoming the most eminent Catholic lay person in nineteenth-century America. Speaking of his passionate and strongly written The Laboring Classes, A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., calls Brownson Marx's most important American forerunner. Of Brownson's later career, Russell Kirk says he became the first writer to describe Marxism as a Christian heresy and "is perhaps the most convincing American opponent of Marxism."

Convers Francis, then forty-one, was the oldest of the club regulars before Caleb Stetson of Medford became a steady member. Francis was a minister at Watertown. The year the club was gathered, he published a Life of John Eliot and a short tract called "Christianity as a Purely Internal System." He was a moderate Unitarian, a liberal trusted by most radical sand most conservatives. For his diplomatic skills and his seniority, he was chosen moderator of the new club.

The gathering certainly filled a need. There were three more meetings this fall of 1836 and five or six a year for the next four years. The group expanded rapidly. There was Theodore Parker, son of a Lexington farmer, just graduated from Harvard Divinity School, Parker was a short-powerful, balding man with a massive forehead. His most striking feature was a pair of steel-blue eyes that were somewhat obscured by his gold-rimmed spectacles. He was an effective speaker with a great career as a reformer ahead of him. In 1836 he had been writing innumerable articles for The Scriptural Interpreter, including a landmark early translation of Jean Astruc's Conjectures on Genesis. He was already at work on his monumental edition and enlargement of de Wette's Introduction to the Old Testament, the most important (and most neglected) work of American biblical scholarship before the Civil War. There was John S. Dwight, later a Brook Farmer, and after that a well-known music critic whose mission was bringing Beethoven's music to Americans. There was Caleb Stetson, an older man, a wit, the minister at Medford; he hosted the club twice. There was Chandler Robbins, Emerson's successor at Boston's Second Church. Margaret Fuller attended, as did Elizabeth Hoar, Charles Emerson's "widow," now a close friend of Emerson's and an intellectual in her own right.

Membership was not rigidly defined. The "members" of the club were those who attended. A list of the people who attended reads like a who's who of the liberal intellectuals of the time. These included Ephraim Peabody, Boston minister and later editor of The Western Messenger, Sarah A. Ripley, an accomplished classicist and teacher from Watertown, Sarah Clarke, an artist, sister of James Clarke, and Elizabeth Peabody, later publisher of The Dial. Over time at least twenty-three others came to a few meetings; these included Jones Very the poet, Charles Follen, teacher of German at Harvard, Henry Bellows, leader of the anti-Emersonian institutional Unitarians and Melville's New York pastor later in life. There was William Adams, visiting from his mission in Calcutta. William Ellery Channing, grand old man of Unitarianism, came once. Still others included George Bancroft the historian, Shobal Clevinger the sculptor, Christopher Cranch, a poet (famous later for his witty satirical cartoons of Emerson), Samuel Ward, a friend of Fuller's, Henry Thoreau, Edward Taylor the sailor-preacher, and Sophia Ripley, married to George and author of the brilliant and stirring piece "Woman" in The Dial.

These people came from a variety of backgrounds and educations, but they came together now because they were in general if not complete agreement on a number of points. They were dissatisfied, individually and as a group, with the present state of philosophy, religion, and literature in America. They looked for hope to Europe, especially to Germany, to Kant in philosophy, to Schleiermacher in religion, and to Goethe in literature. They were mostly anti-Lockean; most believed in intuition. They were romanticists, not classicists or philosophes. They were radicals or liberals rather than conservatives in politics and almost all followed the logic of their belief in freedom and autonomy into one or another arena of social action. Margaret Fuller ended up in newspaper journalism, the women's movement, and the Roman revolution. Parker devoted his life to antislavery work. Peabody was active in the kindergarten movement and in the movement for American Indian rights. Emerson and Thoreau came out strongly for abolition, Ripley founded Brook Farm, Brownson became a powerful voice first for labor, then for Catholicism.

No one knows who first called the group the Transcendental Club, but the name as stuck, despite a hundred and fifty years of qualification, refinement, and hindsight. Emerson's 1842 piece "The Transcendentalist" is still the defining statement: "It is well known to most of my audience that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant." Emerson goes on to praise Kant's profundity and precision and notes that Kant's influence has become so pervasive "that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called at the present day transcendental." Few of those assembled in 1836 would have disagreed with this or with Alcott's saying that transcendentalism "means that there is more in the mind than enters it through the senses." They would also have agreed with what Nathaniel H. Whiting, a mechanic from South Marshfield, Massachusetts, told a Bible convention in 1842: "Truths which pertain to the soul cannot be proved by any external testimony whatsoever."

Whatever transcendentalism was, it was not suited to institutionalizing. It gave birth to no academy; it flourished in no college or seminary. It had two collective expressions during its heyday (the club and the magazine called The Dial), but could only manage one at a time. The last meeting of the club was in 1840, the year The Dial was founded. For better or worse, American transcendentalism was uncohesive, preferring to unravel rather than compromise its belief in the sovereign worth of each separate strand of yarn.

Transcendentalism did not transform American life, but it did change--and continues to change--individual American lives. Transcendentalism was not only a literary, philosophical, and religious movement; it was also, inescapably, a social and political movement as well. In philosophy transcendentalism taught--teaches--that even in a world of objective knowledge, the subjective consciousness and the conscious subject can never be left out of the reckoning. Thoreau could say, "the purest science is still biographical," or, as Emerson might have said, there is finally no science, there are only scientists.

In religion transcendentalism teaches that the religious spirit is a necessary aspect of human nature--or of the human condition--and that the religious spirit does not reside in external forms, words, ceremonies, or institutions. In Emerson's words, "The one thing of value in the universe is the active soul." In literature transcendentalism holds that it is a built-in necessary of human nature to express itself, that self-expression, like self-development, is one of the purposes of life itself. The social imperative of transcendentalism is twofold. It insists, first, that the well-being of the individual--of all the individuals--is the basic purpose and ultimate justification for all social organizations and second that the autonomous individuals cannot exist apart from others. In the transcendentalist vocabulary "association" is just as charged a word as "self." Transcendentalism believes that the purpose of education is to facilitate the self-development of each individual. The political trajectory of transcendentalism begins in philosophical freedom and ends in democratic individualism.

By virtue of the its openness to science (understood as the study of nature), transcendentalism avoids divorcing itself from the mainstream of modern science and technology. But it affirms that "not he is great who can alter matter, but who can alter my state of mind." Some say that modern liberalism is without a soul. Transcendentalism in general and Emersonian idealism in particular offer an alternative to utilitarian liberalism, to leader worship, and to collectivism. Transcendentalism's commitment ot the individual and to the principle of individuation is a commitment to the soul or spirit that each person possesses in common with all other human beings. It is the ambition, if it has not yet been the fate, of transcendentalism to provide a soul for modern liberalism and thereby to enlarge the possibilities of modern life.

[Pages 245-251]

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