Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Transcendentalist Ideal


Essay 2

The early and mid-19th century gave rise to the Transcendentalist movement, and, thus, the anti-Transcendentalist movement. Webster’s dictionary defines Transcendentalism as “a philosophy that asserts the primacy of the spiritual and transcendental over the material and empirical.” Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Transcendentalist, and it shows in the characteristics of his writing. Three of those characteristics are love of nature, the goodness of mankind, and individualism. Nathaniel Hawthorne, on the other hand, was not a Transcendentalist, and his writings show him to be quite the opposite of Emerson in regards to their respective philosophies.

Nature was a very important subject of Transcendental writing, and Emerson quite frequently wrote about a oneness with nature. Two very good examples of his opinion of nature are found in his poem “The Rhodora” and in his essay “Nature.” In “The Rhodora” he writes “This charm is wasted on earth and sky” (1237). Here he tries to show how something as simple as a flower is to beautiful and to wonderful to be wasted on earth. He is saying that this flower has a kind of beauty that goes beyond reality and that by simply observing this flower a person might understand the universe better. Emerson believed that nature should be observed but not disturbed, and by observing nature we are learning more about ourselves. In his essay “Nature” he writes “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing: I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God” (1093), meaning that he is simply meant to observe everything that he can about nature and about the universe without interfering. His being a “transparent eyeball” makes it possible for him to watch and learn without being noticed and without doing anything to harm or disrupt nature.

Hawthorne, however, had a very different view of nature. In his writings, nature is seen as an evil place where bad things happen. In The Scarlet Letter, the forest is a place where many evil things occur. Mistress Hibbins frequently goes into the woods where the devil is. On a few separate occasions she asks Hester to go into the woods with her. Hester refuses because she has her daughter to keep her away from further sin. Hawthorne also showed a dislike of nature in his life. There was a short period of time when he tried to live in the Utopian community of Brooke Farm, founded by Transcendentalists. He hated it and left after only eight months.

The goodness of mankind is another characteristic of Transcendental writing. Emerson, like other Transcendentalists, believed that mankind was basically good even though people did bad things. In is essay “Self-Reliance” he talks about how man is good and should be striving towards perfection and being the best person that they can be. Hawthorne’s opinion was exactly the opposite. He uses in many of his stories themes of hidden sins and he often uses physical symbols as a representation of his characters’ sins. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is forced to wear the letter “A” on her chest because she refuses to tell who the other adulterer is. Her sin was not a secret, but the sin of Arthur Dimmesdale was. Hester also kept the identity of her husband, Roger Chillingworth, a secret while he secretly plotted revenge against Dimmesdale. The townspeople are portrayed as hypocrites who judge Hester when they have also sinned and, therefore, are just as bad as the main characters. The only good character in the whole story is Hester’s daughter, Pearl, who is portrayed as an innocent victim.
A third characteristic of this time period is the emphasis on individuality and self-reliance. Emerson believed that people should be self-reliant. In “Self-Reliance” he discusses how being and individual and standing up for what you believe in leads to true greatness. He writes about how sometimes a person has to go against the crowd to achieve greatness-- “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day” (1148). He believes people should always say what they believe and that they should say it without thought of consequence or the feelings of others. If they