Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

In order to understand the ideas that are expressed in the essays of Emerson and Thoreau, it is important to understand some fundamental concepts of Transcendentalism. When it began in New England in 1836, the Transcendentalist Movement helped create new ideas, literature, religion, culture, and philosophy. The Transcendentalists expressed ideas that were rebellious—the writers were protesting society's belief in intellectualism, the authority of classic works, and the supremacy of religious doctrine. While most members of nineteenth century society were striving to conform to its culture, traditions, and laws, Transcendentalists believed that each person should rely on his or her own intuition and spiritual essence; in fact, this trust in the self was the only way to reach an ideal spiritual state.

As you read the essays in this book, notice how the authors deal with each of the following:

Also, notice how idealistic the authors are. Emerson himself acknowledges this fact and writes that pure Transcendentalism is impossible to attain in practice. However, these ideas are important because they have shaped thoughts and influenced many scholars, philosophers, and political leaders throughout the world.

  • probably an allusion to the forbidden fruit (traditionally, but not literally, an apple) eaten by Adam and Eve; this act of disobedience incurred God's wrath and resulted in their being expelled from paradise
  • possibly with the entire heavens, the [poison] tree (on which the apple is growing), or to the North Star, the “pole star” around which the sky seems to rotate. If this is the case, then the night “veiling” the “pole” might indicate a particularly dark, cloudy, or foggy night.