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Abstract

There is way of talking about the New England Transcendentalists that takes solitary departure as their most representative trajectory, focusing especially on Emerson’s retirement from his Boston congregation to his sage’s retreat in Concord. Emerson, it is said, lead a circle of intellectual revolutionaries who rooted out the last vestiges of Puritan conformity and birthed the long-awaited self-creating Individual, the high-toned older brother of the self-made man, the American Adam. This last phrase is borrowed, of course, from the great Americanist R.W.B. Lewis, who described the Transcendentalists as leading the creation of national mythology based on the figure of “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” The idea that the Transcendentalist movement was unified by a commitment to individualism rests on a tenacious set of mutually reinforcing assumptions about the movement. Emerson is the major Transcendentalist. Transcendentalism is a philosophy of individualism. Individualism is the ground of American thought. American thought begins with Emerson. Emerson is the major Transcendentalist.1

It is unquestionably true that the need for art is not created by economic conditions. But neither is the need for food created by economics. On the contrary, the need for food and warmth creates economics. It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to accept or reject a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period in history, in other words, who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why.

—Leon Trotsky

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  1. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 178. Lewis, The American Adam, 5. There is an inexhaustible flow of new material on the Transcendentalists, both individually and as a group. I will indicate those sources that shape my thought the most strongly. The best synthetic history of the movement is

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© 2005 Lance Newman

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Newman, L. (2005). Transcendentalism as a Social Movement. In: Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781403973535_4

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