Transcendentalism in New England, by Caroline H. Dall

Caroline H. Dall was a second-generation Transcendentalist, reformer, and historian of the movement who wrote Transcendentalism in New England in 1897.  Her observations are noteworthy in that they remind us that the Transcendentalists were among the first feminists in America.

Caroline H. Dall.  Transcendentalism in New England: A Lecture.  Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1897 (pp. 23 - 26, 31 - 33).

Transcendentalism, then, is idealism made practical as it appeared in 1842.  "Amid the downward tendency of things," wrote Emerson, "when every voice is raised for a new house, a new dress, or larger business, will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land speaking for thoughts and principles which shall be neither marketable nor perishable?"--words suggested perhaps by those of Archbishop Leighton, who, when his Westminster catechisers demanded, "Do you preach to the times?" answered, "May not one man preach to eternity?"  "The senses," said its votaries, "give us representations of things, but what the things are they cannot tell."  Every materialist may become an idealist, but an idealist cannot become a materialist.  Mind is the only real thing.  Is it not the power which makes tools of things actual?
The Transcendentalist made an extravagant demand on human nature,--that of lofty living.  He quarrelled with every man he met.  There was not enough of him!  "So many promising youths," said Emerson, "and never a finished man!"
The anthropologists may find in this movement the origin of nearly every one of their multiform lines of inquiry.  "It is a misfortune," said one, "to have been born when children were nothing, and to have lived until men have become nothing!"  New voices began to be heard in the air.  Channing had prepared the way by his magnificent vindication of the dignity of human nature.  New principles in philosophy, new methods of criticism, began to stir.  The origin and contents of the Scriptures were carefully scrutinized.  The mind of New England was leavened by the thought of Emerson and the scholarship of Hedge.  The "Transient and Permanent" were examined and contrasted by a fearless iconoclast.  The title "humanitarian" began to be applied to theologians.  God is not outside the world, a mere lawgiver: he is in the world; he is the world; man's relation to him is immediate.  God is the Over Soul; above all, through all, under all, as well.  The spirit must speak to spirit.  Jesus was but a man, therefore a child of God who had attained to his proper heritage.  He was the ideal man, type of mankind, become so through entering into perfect harmony with the Divine.  If he wrought miracles, they must have been manifestations of normal law not yet perceived by undeveloped souls.  Conceptions like these inspired the best spiritual life of the time, and modified the sentiments of many who were still unwilling to break the bonds of their training.
The characteristics of the Transcendental movement were shown in the temper of its agitation for the rights of woman and the enlargement of her duties.  Like Dryden, every Transcendentalist was ready, and indeed had good reason, to assert that there was "no sex in souls."  The editors of "The Dial," which was first issued in July, 1840, and lasted hardly four years, were Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In this, besides exquisite poems which, dropped from their original setting, have since travelled all over the world, the "Great Lawsuit" of Margaret Fuller, seven wonderful chapters on the "Ethnical Scriptures," a remarkable paper of Theodore Parker's, and the absurd "Orphic Sayings" of Alcott were first given to the world.
Transcendentalism had now come to be a distinct system, and, practically, to be the assertion of the inalienable worth of man, and of the immanence of the Divine in the Human.  Its votaries were now the most strenuous workers of their day--not only that, but the most successful.  Men and women are healthier in their bodies, happier in their domestic and social relations, more ambitious to enlarge their opportunities, more kind and humane in sympathy, as well as more reasonable in expectation, than they would have been if Margaret and Emerson had never lived.  Under the influence of transcendental thought and hope, the mind of universal man leaped forward with a bound.  The Transcendentalist of that day was always on the wing.  A new hymn-book, issued by Samuel Johnson and Samuel Longfellow,--for which reason it was called by Theodore Parker the "Sam Book,"--was not only one of the manifestations of clerical sympathy, but had much to do with securing popular attention to the new ideas.
The Transcendentalists did not write about immortality.  Theodore Parker called it a fact of consciousness, and in all their conferences faith in it was assumed.  No belief was more characteristic of them than this.  Emerson's life and walk and literary utterance were full of this faith.  His power lay in his pure idealism, his absolute faith in thought, his supreme confidence in spiritual law.  He lived in the region of serene ideas: "he did not visit the mount now and then, but set up his tabernacle and passed the night among the stars, ready for the eternal sunrise."  He was the descendant of eight generations of Puritan clergymen,--some of whom had persecuted, some of whom had cherished, the "exaltation" of Anne Hutchinson.  He inherited their thoughtfulness and their spirit of inward communion.  The dogmatism fell away, the peaceful fruits of discipline remained.  He bore with him the atmosphere of eternal youth.  For what he says or what he does he makes no apology.  He never explains.  He trusts to affirmation pure and simple.  I appealed to him once, when a wholly unnecessary misunderstanding had put me in a painful position: "What should I do?"  "Do?" he answered, with the look of a bewildered child; "if understanding were possible, misunderstanding would not have occurred!"  I have never tried to explain myself since; but many a time has that serene dogma comforted my soul. . . .
The true Transcendentalist did not wrap a glimmering idea in miles and miles of tortuous vocabulary to remind us of the daughter of Genghis Khan, who, when her father reproached her with being but half clad, replied, "Sire, I wear forty thicknesses of the royal Dacca muslin."  Who wrote more lucid words than Emerson?  Whence come phrases of "solid impact" if not from the pages of Hedge?  When are we lifted into the clear empyrean if not on the wings of Cyrus Bartol's fancy?  The true disciple walked erect, with uplifted eyes, clear purpose, and clear sight.  If he stumbled, he knew that walking comes by a succession of falls.  He neither claimed nor expected happiness for himself.  What he sought and gloried in was the development and happiness of all men: "He lived," wrote Emerson, "but to gather the Edelweiss" (a flower which grows only on the heights), which let us translate as "noble purity."
The man of science should know that to human eyes fulness of light does not insure perfection of vision.  Man must shade his eyes a little from the noonday sun if he would see clearly the world of beauty and use that it illumines.  The almost invisible midge that floats in the sunbeam which crosses the shuttered room finds there something that it needs; but it is not the fulness of light, that, like man in his present condition, the insect has not the power to appropriate.
For myself, I am a Transcendentalist of the old New England sort.  I believe myself to be a child of God; and if a child, then an heir,--a very condensed way of saying that the spirit within me is the breath of the creative spirit, and therefore infinite in its reach, in its possibilities, and its final destiny.  The Over Soul is the Under Soul as well.  Matter is immortal.  No agency, human or divine, has so far been able to destroy one particle of it; and yet, the world over, we see matter not only plastic in the grasp of mind, but subordinate to the uses of the race or the individual solely through the spirit's power.  Is the spirit less, then, than the flesh which it masters?  If matter cannot be destroyed, it can be transformed.  So can spirit.  I remember to have heard James Freeman Clarke say of another whose virtue was in question: "Do not dwell on his transgressions.  His face is set the right way.  He keeps his heel firmly on every tempting thought.  If it slip now and then, what matter?  The purpose is the thing!"  This, I suppose, is rank antinomianism, capable of great abuse; but is it not the doctrine we all accept to-day?  Life is a glorious thing, whether it is the life that now is or the life that is to come.  To be born immortal; to pass through life in the consciousness of an immortal destiny; to try steadfastly to be worthy of this,--what grander atmosphere could encompass a man?  There is only one thing sweeter and more desirable,--to trust one's self wholly to the love of the informing Spirit.  There is only one clew which it is safe to hold as we pass through the mysteries of this life to the confines of the next.  It is a Surrendered Will.
The body, to be healthy, must be constructed and sustained in harmony with psychical and physiological law.  No less must the soul be held to the conditions of that spiritual law which underlies both.  I wish I could make my statement such that it would satisfy my agnostic friends.  I have many who call themselves such, but I do not put faith in their nomenclature.  Sometime they will understand themselves better, and the mists which hide their mortal goal will float and vanish on the beams of the eternal sunrise.  Language may then be transformed as well as matter and spirit.

"It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll:

I am the Master of my fate,

The Captain of my soul!"