Divinity Within The Woods: The Concept Of Transcendentalism

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According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Transcendentalism was a 19th-century literary, philosophical, and reform movement that emphasized the development of the individual as its primary subject of concern” (Wayne 285). In other words, it is a concept that integrates nature, humanity, and divinity onto the same spectrum. Everything is equal if it is given the same individual involvement and development following Transcendentalist ideals. The man who is said to have founded Transcendentalism is known as Ralph Waldo Emerson. He talked about the concept of Transcendentalism in the speeches he delivered to his students and the books he wrote. The Transcendental Club was created in 1836, which is one of the most important years for the emergence of the movement. The club was for those who wanted to learn more about the new ideology and to give the concept of it a bigger platform. The first meeting of the club occurred in September in Cambridge. Emerson wrote an essay in 1841 called “self-reliance” and a book called Nature which are both important voices in the movement. One of the repeated concepts that is in Emerson’s writing “Nature” is as stated: “In that truths were perceived through one’s own experience of the natural, not through objective scientific information” (Wayne 286). Transcendentalists believed that they are truly at their best when they are independent and experiencing the world themselves, not going off of what others tell them (Wayne 287). Another example of self-reliance that Emerson thought was very important was education. This concept is called the American Scholar. An American Scholar, as Emerson stated in his speech is; “The scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” Emerson meant that an American Scholar is someone who thinks for themselves, while also thinking outside of the box. They also tend to be someone who rejects institutionalized education such as college, in favor of learning about the world through their own experiences (Emerson 1). Emerson’s definition of a Transcendentalist applies to other people as well, and helps connect them to the concept of being an American Scholar; including Henry David Thoreau primarily through his work, Chris McCandless from Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, and Rubeus Hagrid from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Henry David Thoreau integrated Transcendentalism into his life as Emerson defined it. In Cambridge, 1937, Emerson gave his American Scholar speech to the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard. Then, in 1938 Emerson gave the graduating class at Harvard a speech known as the Divinity School Address. During these two speeches, he spoke of concepts like how scholars are at their best when they are thinking for themselves using the knowledge they have learned. They feel as if they are truly connected to the nature around them. Henry David Thoreau was present the day of Emerson’s speech, the Divinity School Address. Thoreau used the ideals of what an American scholar and a Transcendentalist were. All of which was information he learned the day of Emerson’s speech, as well as from all of Emerson’s book and other speeches, and used it to inspire changes in his life. Many people didn’t understand why Thoreau, a Concord-born philosopher and Harvard graduate wouldn’t do much with his degree. Though he was hired for a teaching job in Concord at the Center School, he quit soon after because he didn’t believe in the school’s policy of flogging their students (Felton 82). So in the spring of 1845, Thoreau began building a cabin by Walden Pond, two miles from Concord, on Emerson’s property, where he lived for two years and two months. His intention as stated in his book Walden, “…was to drive life into a corner, and to reduce it to its lowest terms” (Seymour 11). Thoreau wanted to live without the need for money or resources, just his hands for labor, and a spiritually meaningful life in nature, which is something that makes him a Transcendentalist. He believed that the spiritual world was the only reality that existed and it was apparent in the nature around everyone (Seymour 11).

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Chris McCandless fits the modern archetype of a Transcendentalist and American Scholar through the way he lived his life. At age 22, having just graduated from college in May of 1990, Chris left home without telling anyone and headed off across the Western region of America. He donated his $24,000 savings to charity, left behind his belongings, family, and education. All of which helped him to enter the world new, with the lifestyle of a Transcendentalist and American Scholar. He was influenced by the writers he had read like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Something Chris didn’t believe in like all other Transcendentalists, is materialism. Materialism is a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. Chris believed that the world and God were something that needed to be explored. Christopher’s disdain for modern society caused him to leave the comforts his wealthy family provided him to enter the wilderness. He went off into the wild to discover himself and to pursue a life of adventure. He was instructed by the past when he left, like the pressures from his home life. On his journey towards Alaska, Chris met many people and learned new things from each of them. Being an American Scholar allowed him to use each of these things that he learned, he didn’t just forget about them. One example of this is when he met Ronald Franz, who was a leather belt maker. Franz taught him how to create the leatherwork on belts. For Chris’s first tooled leather belt he made a pictorial of the places he had visited so far. Once he got to Alaska, he found a place to live in an old abandoned bus which he called The Magic Bus. He only came with one 10 pound bag of rice, a rifle, and a book about different plant types. He only brought the things he believed were necessities and used the land around him for everything else he needed. One of Christopher’s most famous quotes is, “Happiness is only real when shared” (Penn). Chris didn’t figure this out until after he went all the way to Alaska and was dying. Even though he knew he was dying, he still believed the life he was living was how it was meant to be. He was still satisfied with the way things were ending even though the way he was living was going to kill him because he had found happiness and divinity in the nature of Alaska. It could be said that the poisonous berries that he ate, that led to his starvation, could make him a true Transcendentalist because he died by nature in nature (Penn).

Rubeus Hagrid is a modern example of a character who fulfilled his life through Transcendentalism and American Scholar ideology. Hagrid lives in a hut in the woods, off of the wizarding school grounds of Hogwarts, with only what he needs. He doesn’t have a wand-like the rest of the people at Hogwarts. So he doesn’t have magic to gain anything he needs, he can only use the stuff he has. He also doesn’t have electricity, he only uses fire because that’s all he needs to boil things and see. Another thing that shows Hagrid only uses the things he needs, making him a Transcendentalist, is he doesn’t rely on the school for meals and shelter, he gets his food from around his hut, like Christopher McCandles and Henry David Thoreau. He sought independence from society and he found it in his hut, where he could figure things out for himself. He relied on the knowledge he had to live his life in happiness and to get past struggles in his life. In the book Chamber of Secrets, it explains how Hagrid was expelled from Hogwarts as a kid for a crime he didn’t commit, but despite that, he still furthered his education and used the information he learned in daily life. He eventually started teaching the students at Hogwarts about the beasts and creatures in the Wizarding universe, which shows how he can be seen as an American scholar as he not only furthered his own education relying only on himself to get him through: but he also taught others the information he learned (Rowling).

Henry David Thoreau, Chris McCandless, and Rubeus Hagrid are all examples of figures who followed the ideology introduced by Emerson of the Transcendentalist and American Scholar archetypes. Transcendentalists believed that social conformity was the death of the soul, and if they weren’t being independent it wouldn’t allow the person to grow more, and they believed that it should be avoided. They wouldn’t get involved in reform movements just because everyone else was. They would get involved due to individual beliefs of movements like labor rights and utopian socialism. Transcendentalists also believed in not taking more than they needed, and that when they learn new information they should use it and not just forget about it a few days later.

American Scholars believed they should learn things about life and the world through their individual experiences, not what another person tells them. American Scholars were someone who had their own thoughts. They made it a point to further their own education on their own terms and to share the information they had learned with the rest of the world because they believed that sharing of important information was the key to peace and happiness. Even though Transcendentalism is an older concept from the 19th-century, it is still relevant and present in modern literature today.

Work Cited

  1. Bode, Carl, and Malcolm Cowley. The Portable Emerson. Penguin Books, 1946.
  2. Emerson, Ralph W. “The American Scholar.” An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa
  3. Society, Harvard University. Cambridge, Ma. August 31, 1837.
  4. Felton R., Todd. A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England. A Roaring Forties Press, 2006, pp. 82-83.
  5. Into the Wild. Directed by Sean Penn, performance by Emile Davenport Hirsch and Jena Malone, Paramount Vantage, 2007.
  6. Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban. New York. Arthur A. Levine books, 1999
  7. Seymour, Peter, and James Morgan. Reflections at Walden. Hallmark Crown editions, 1971, pp. 11, 41, 44.
  8. Wayne K., Tiffany. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. Facts On File, Ink., 2006, pp. 285-287.


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