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Outlines of English and American Literature
Social and Intellectual Changes
by Long, William J.


The mental ferment of the period was almost as intense as its political agitation. Thus, the antislavery movement, which aimed to rescue the negro from his servitude, was accompanied by a widespread communistic attempt to save the white man from the manifold evils of our competitive system of industry. Brook Farm [Footnote: This was a Massachusetts society, founded in 1841 by George Ripley. It included Hawthorne, Dana and Curtis in its large membership, and it had the support of Emerson, Greeley, Channing, Margaret Fuller and a host of other prominent men and women] was the most famous of these communities; but there were more than thirty others scattered over the country, all holding property in common, working on a basis of mutual helpfulness, aiming at a nobler life and a better system of labor than that which now separates the capitalist and the workingman.

Widening Horizons

This brave attempt at human brotherhood, of which Brook Farm was the visible symbol, showed itself in many other ways: in the projection of a hundred social reforms; in the establishment of lyceums throughout the country, where every man with a message might find a hearing. In education our whole school system was changed by applying the methods of Pestalozzi, a Swiss reformer; for the world had suddenly become small, thanks to steam and electricity, and what was spoken in a corner the newspapers immediately proclaimed from the housetops. In religious circles the Unitarian movement, under Channing's leadership, gained rapidly in members and in influence; in literature the American horizon was broadened by numerous translations from the classic books of foreign countries; in the realm of philosophy the western mind was stimulated by the teaching of the idealistic system known as Transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism

Emerson was the greatest exponent of this new philosophy, which made its appearance here in 1836. It exalted the value of the individual man above society or institutions; and in dealing with the individual it emphasized his freedom rather than his subjection to authority, his soul rather than his body, his inner wealth of character rather than his outward possessions. It taught that nature was an open book of the Lord in which he who runs may read a divine message; and in contrast with eighteenth-century philosophy (which had described man as a creature of the senses, born with a blank mind, and learning only by experience), it emphasized the divinity of man's nature, his inborn ideas of right and wrong, his instinct of God, his passion for immortality,--in a word, his higher knowledge which transcends the knowledge gained from the senses, and which is summarized in the word "Transcendentalism."

We have described this in the conventional way as a new philosophy, though in truth it is almost as old as humanity. Most of the great thinkers of the world, in all ages and in all countries, have been transcendentalists; but in the original way in which the doctrine was presented by Emerson it seemed like a new revelation, as all fine old things do when they are called to our attention, and it exercised a profound influence on our American life and literature.

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