The late eighteenth century marked the beginning of romanticism in Europe. Unlike realism, classicism and the convention that preceded it, the Romantic Movement in Europe was embodied by the power of the individual and subjective experience. Nature was deeply appreciated, and an individual’s strong feelings or reactions were believed to lead to a higher truth. The romantic era in Europe was also an idealistic era, leading to social equality, freedom and human rights. When looking at our country’s history, one can see that transcendentalism was a natural American reaction to or incarnation of European romanticism. Transcendentalism can be seen as an American reaction to European romanticism in the areas of the power of the individual, the distrust of classical forms and tradition and the appreciation of nature.
European Romanticism emphasized the potential of the individual and their experiences. Romanticism during the French revolution had changed the historical view from a hierarchy, to one emphasizing the will of the people and the triumph of the individual. Rather than history and decisions coming down from the monarchy, the common masses believed in the rights of man, equality and human rights and the ability they had to influence these changes. American transcendentalism continued this movement. Presidents were not revered as monarchs. Voting rights were given to all free adult males, and our Declaration of Independence went so far as to state that all men are created equal. Transcendental reaction to romanticism stressed faith in the individual, their ability to handle freedoms and the belief that humans could elevate beyond their animal instincts to intuitively choose for human rights. As a transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the drawbacks of civilization, and the positive side of self-reliance. The belief in democracy for our young nation was also a transcendental reaction. The American transcendentalist reaction continued the romantic notion of the individual to promote democracy, voting rights, social equality, human rights and self-reliance.
Another tenet of European romanticism was the distrust of classical forms and tradition. In Europe this meant trying to escape their considerable history and start over. However, in America, everything was new, and the optimism and potential of romanticism influenced government, expansion and human rights. Monarchial rule was avoided, and instead a democratic system of three branches of government, with a president elected by the common masses was set up. Self-made men were revered, as opposed to monarchies, with such examples of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln being elected president. The optimism of a new government and the belief in democracy are both transcendental values brought upon by American’s reaction to European Romanticism.
Finally, romanticism upheld the appreciation of nature. European romantics tended to use their individual experiences with nature to influence their decisions. The higher laws of god were exhibited in one’s personal experience with nature. This romantic belief was incarnated in American transcendentalism in a much larger capacity. Transcendentalists emphasized the beauty of nature, and the inspiration of wilderness. Through one’s experience with nature an individual could transcend to a higher plain and live life to the highest principles. Our new country’s vast, beautiful, unexplored wilderness as well as American’s expansion into this frontier was very much a result of transcendental ideals. Another transcendental reaction to European romanticism and nature was in the value of the primitive lifestyle. Native Americans were looked up to as being close to nature and revered for their primitive lifestyle. One of the most influential transcendental writers, Henry David Thoreau, spoke of men leading lives of quiet desperation(7) as a result of capitalism and losing touch with nature. He would go to the woods to learn what it had to teach (81). The beauty of nature would then lead an individual to a higher spirituality. Our young nation’s expansionism, admiration on the primitive lifestyle of the Native Americans and artistic appreciation of the Hudson River School artists are all transcendental reactions to European romanticism.
In summary, individual experiences, a distrust of classical forms and tradition and the appreciation of nature are three areas that transcendentalism can be seen as a reaction to European romanticism. Americans reaction to romanticism led to voting rights for all free adult males, a democratic form of government without a monarch, expansionism and Hudson River artists are all a result of our transcending romanticism. The young nations’ romantic promise and idealism led to the transcendental movement that brought about the changes inspired by European romanticism.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and other Writings of Henry David Thoreau. New York: Random House, 1950. Print.