Born in Salem, Mass. on the 4th of July, 1804, Hawthorne was a gifted storyteller, though he didn't learn to read until 1815. Developing into a young renaissance-man, Hawthorne left Salem and studied at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he became friends with other promising young men such as the future poet Longfellow and the future President Franklin Pierce. After college, Hawthorne spent years writing and wandering throughout the Massachusetts countryside. Settling in Waymouth, he self-published his first novel, Fanshawe, in 1828.
With no assistance of any kind, Hawthorne lived in poverty; the book went unnoticed. His short stories had more success, and the publication of Twice Told Tales launched him into the ranks of "miniature celebrity", validating his all too recently unknown writings.
Critical and popular acclaim was no longer an obstacle, but Hawthorne concluded that fame did not suit him. Moving to the Brook Farm Transcendentalist commune in 1841, Hawthorne developed "The Essayist within", as he once put it, meeting and collaborating with Ralph Waldo Emerson on "The Dial" magazine.
Hawthorne left the commune and took residence in Concord in 1942. It is here that he completed and published The Scarlet Letter (1850), easily his pies de resistance.
Hawthorne maintained a life-long friendship with Franklin Pierce, who shared his charitable consience. Pierce offered Hawthorne a diplomatic position in Europe in 1853, days after being sworn into office.
Traveling the continent, promoting peace, understanding and non-violence, Hawthorne wrote a new novel that dealt with war's atrocities. Entitled War of the Roses, it would not be published until years after his death, alongside a second unpublished work composed mostly of essays written during a varying span.
During his autumn years, Hawthorne began writing memoirs. He died of causes which remain unknown to this very day, at the age of 59. By the end of the 1860s, War of the Roses, Articles, Additional Articles and Memoirs had all been published.
Hawthorne's polite cynicism has become a valuable litmus test for critical authors of all shapes and sizes, up to and including the modern age.
Thoreau makes references to many varied subjects, and many different kinds of readers will find ways to relate to what he says. He refers to mythology, history, poetry, knowledge of plants and wildlife and carpentry, then comes full-circle and tells us what he is doing, but finally tells us that none of those things matter as much as living life in the present without pretense.
Chapter 1, Economy:
"The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!
Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! - I know of no reading of another's experience so startling and informing as this would be."
We know Thoreau went to live on Walden Pond, but you should read his description of late dark night, solid black night, walking through the woods, when you can't even see your hand before your face, and have to find your way by the familiar marks, roots or trees, clearings, dense brush, the babble of a brook off to the left or right. The owl meets you eye to eye.
To build his cabin, Thoreau says he had to borrow an axe, but he returned it sharper than when he got it. He believes there are natural laws which transcend the written laws of the land. These natural laws are, as it were, written upon our hearts or in our minds. He lays out the cost of his house, item by item (boards, nails, used brick, hinges & screws, etc.) and it come to $28.12. Not bad. He grew beans and hunted & fished, but apparently came to the conclusion that eating fruit & vegetables was superior to meat in that it was cleaner (to use his word). But he says it's not a bad idea for all young men to hunt and fish as teenagers for the experience. He seems to have little interest in alcohol or coffee, preferring water as his main drink. He asks why people make such a big deal over what clothes we wear when even the Bible says a poor beggar can come to the temple to worship God.
Thoreau questions what can be learned from others and encourages us to learn for ourselves.
Many visitors came to see Thoreau, more in summer and spring than in the icy winter when only the more adventurous came calling. They must have all enjoyed talking to Thoreau and he obviously liked talking to them. I cannot tell it better than Thoreau himself:
"At this season I seldom had a visitor."
"Sometimes, notwithstanding the snow, when I returned from my walk at evening I crossed the deep tracks of a woodchopper leading from my front door, and found a pile of whittlings on the hearth, and my house filled with the oder of his pipe."
"Or on a Sunday afternoon, if I chanced to be at home, I heard the crunching of the snow made by the step of a long-headed farmer, who from far through the woods sought my house, to have a social 'crack' ... we talked of rude and simple times, when men sat about large fires in cold bracing weather, with clear
"The one who came from furthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by love."
"(The poet and I) made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmer of much sober talk ... At suitable intervals there were regular salutes of laughter, which might have been referred indifferently to the last muttered or forth-coming jest."
Sometimes visitors told stories about visiting Thoreau and then getting lost in the woods upon leaving, sometimes in rain or mist! Ah, can you dig what an experience that would be -- taking a wrong turn in Walden woods after a talk with Henry, off to find yourself and your bearings -- I get the same feel today when driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood after jazzing my mind with some good enlightening fellowship and setting out on my own, temporarily lost until some familiar landmark brings me back to my world.
There were people in the 1800's who believed lakes were bottomless, and the same was said about Walden Pond. Thoreau was the first to actually take depth measurements of the pond; in fact, he measured the lake from every corner and drew a diagram of the water body, both in width and depth. It turns out Walden Pond was not deep in some areas, but there was one big part of the pond that was over 100 feet deep! That's pretty deep - and Thoreau points out that, if you compared the width of the oceans to their depth, Walden Pond is relatively deeper than the mysterious sea.
The conclusion to Thoreau's work is to say that while we are eager to explore other lands, we often don't even know our own "back yard". He says, what if a rich person could afford to go on a safari to Africa to hunt giraffe? If you could really do that, just how many giraffes would you want to hunt? Would you really even want to hunt them if they didn't live so far away?
He says, "Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought." The idea is to your mind -- you don't have to leave home to take the trip.
"The life in us is like the water in the river." - Henry David Thoreau
The family would soon settle in Concord, Massachusetts, where the young girl would be exposed to the brilliant company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the rest of the Transcendentalist crowd.
The Transcendentalists taught that each person must find their own peculiar way to contribute to the world, and Louisa May found her way as a writer of popular fiction that was both wholesome and realistic. She wrote poetry and stories for Atlantic Monthly (then a relatively new New England periodical) and other magazines. She worked as a nurse in the civil war and wrote about the experience in "Hospital Sketches", published in the journal "Commonwealth". Her first book was called "Flower Fables", followed by a novel called "Moods", and then by her most popular book, "Little Women".
"Little Women" and "Little Men" were her best known works, but she wrote many more books, stories, poems and essays. She captured the experience of living in the commune her father had founded, Fruitlands, in a fondly satirical book called "Transcendental Wild Oats".
Louisa May Alcott suffered from various ailments and physical difficulties throughout her life. She died on March 6, 1888, only two days after the death of her father.
The Louisa May Alcott website is run by the organization that maintains the Orchard House, the Alcott homestead that is now open to visitors in Concord.
He began as a teacher, and raised several children with his wife Abigail. He began meeting regularly with fellow New England progressives such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, who would support his endeavors. In 1834 he founded his first experimental institution of education, the Temple School of Boston.
The Temple School would eventually run into financial trouble, a pattern that Alcott would repeat with several later experiments. His most ambitious attempt was a utopian vegan commune called Fruitlands, which he co-founded with mystic Charles Lane.
Alcott was also a political activist. Thoreau famously went to prison for protesting slavery by refusing to pay taxes, but it is a little known fact that Alcott had done the same thing three years before.
Despite his hard work, Bronson Alcott's most successful creation was fashioned of her own design. His daughter was the famous writer Louisa May Alcott, whose classic novel "Little Women" describes her experience as one of several sisters in an unconventional Massachusetts family.
Bronson Alcott died in Concord on March 4, 1888. There are several websites devoted to his life and work, including the A. Bronson Alcott Society and the museum that stands at the site of the Fruitlands project.
In the article written by brooklyn on this same website, Ralph Waldo Emerson had this problem: "Emerson's inability to serve as a traditional pastor caused him serious distress. Stumbling for appropriate words at the bedside of a dying veteran of the American Revolution, he was famously told by the irritable patient, 'Young man, if you don't know your business you had better go home.'"
There are many variations to what people believe in Transcendentalism. You don't have to be an atheist, for example. The beauty of Transcendentalism is that we can discuss these things without fear of judgement. I had the good fortune to discuss the meaning of God with a number of people on this website. I will refer to these fellow travelers by their screen names.
joshuagriffin writes: "Okay, so, to answer the question of 'God': I believe in the prime catalyst; that is to say that the "thing", for lack of a better term "god", that was the mechanism for the first chemical reaction that began evolution ... not necessarily of Humankind, but of everything. I'm against organized religion, because it only offers close-minded regurgitations of texts written centuries ago. Unfortunately, I'm basically ignorant in the details of every major religion; however, I believe that I know enough about the basics of Religion in general to write/speak my opinion. I feel that one should have ideas of their own, rather than memorizations of the all-encompassing book of whatever religion. In closing, Ideas lead to Spirituality and memorizations lead to meaningless conversation. Remember this, ideas are better conversation topics."
Then there was a response by jamelah, which said, "what about the issue of faith? i think faith transcends religion."
Then there is microknee finger, who responded to a question about brain synapses, that mysterious moment in the brain when thought sparks like electricity, who said, "Actually, electricity is made of electrons, I believe (I think it's time to dip into my Feynman's Lectures on Physics again), which are subatomic. But yeah, the idea that conscious thoughts are physical I find incredibly fascinating that subatomic particles can mingle in just such a way to create and sustain life and consciousness is nothing short of mind-bogglingly beautiful ..."
And popejoebaby says: "Native Americans have it right as far as i'm concerned. They worship that which gives, and sustains our lives. Air -- the first breath we take feeds life to our presense. It is present all around all that is present. Water -- we come from water, the water of our Mothers. Water gives us spiritual cleansing. That's why it comforts us when we hear it, see it, feel it. Earth -- our true Mother. We live upon her, feed from her, die upon her, and in the end, return to her unbounded by human frailties. If we have hunted, been brave, been kind, been with the spirit of life, we will live again."
There is a theory that when we first noticed our thoughts, we thought it was God speaking to us. Like when an idea pops into your head from somewhere, they thought, "God is telling me this." And you can always find someone, like my friend Jim Westcott -- and no one can prove he is wrong -- who will say, "I was thinkin' about the brain speakin' to itself and I heard God say, 'Of course I speak through your brain, you moron, how else would I speak to you?'" and if you think about it, it makes sense that all we can know is what our senses and mind can grasp; the physical realities of our world -- planets, atoms, protons & electrons; carbon and oxygen, iron & orange juice, and whatever. Am i a robot? (ooh, that would be kind of cool).
My favorite book of the bible is Ecclesiastes, because it's so much written from the physical, down to earth, mortal viewpoint -- trying to find reason and meaning and satisfaction in work, play, sleep, sex, money, wine, knowledge. To me it has a zen quality to it. Balance.
It's funny how humans almost have to believe in something. In Communist Russia, where they officially didn't believe in god, up until the 80's they were studying psychic phenomena like someone bending a car-key or spoon just by thinking about it, or a medium with a crystal ball solving a murder.
My friend Richard Phelps, who was a seminary student, kept asking questions of his teachers, until one professor finally said, "If a frog had wings it wouldn't bump it's ass on the ground." Apparently the boy had been asking a lot of "if" questions, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it's nice to know that even a seminary professor can get to the point where he can talk about a frog's ass.
America hadn't created many literary movements by July 1840, when Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller began publication of an idealistic journal of social criticism and poetry called "The Dial".
Based in Concord, the journal was published on a quarterly basis between July 1840 and April 1844, and helped to create the sense of an exciting movement of writers, theologians and intellectuals working together to promote their ideas. Other key members of this group included Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, James Greeman Clarke, George Ripley, W. E. Channing and W. H. Channing. This movement became known as American (or, New England) Transcendentalism.
The term 'Transcendentalism' had earlier referred to a group of German philosophers such as Fichte and Schelling who espoused similar ideas. Schelling's 'System of Transcendental Philosophy' is highly abstract, and in fact the younger New England thinkers had most likely encountered this philosophy in literary treatments by advocates of the movement such as Goethe, Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle.
Transcendentalism has also been seen as an American outgrowth of the British Romantic movement and other European progressive trends.
She corresponded with many of the top writers and academics of her time, and became especially smitten with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who she sought out and eventually became close friends with. She was one of the core members of the circle of spiritual-minded Concord intellectuals that became known as the Transcendentalists, along with the educator Bronson Alcott, who hired her as a teacher at his progressive Temple School.
Fuller's activities included conducting a series of public "conversations" on lofty philosophical subjects with other women, which generated much attention in these pre-liberated years. These sessions violated a law against organized speaking events for women, which seemed only to have increased their appeal (nobody was ever arrested). Fuller worked closely with Emerson in founding "The Dial", the flagship publication of the Transcendentalist movement, in 1840.
She wrote book reviews for Horace Greeley's Herald Tribune, and used this platform to promote American literature at a time when Europe completely dominated the literary scene. She published several books, including the proto-feminist classic "Woman in the Nineteenth Century."
The first several decades of Margaret Fuller's life were lived in the lofty realm of words and philosophy. This changed in 1847 when she fell in love with the noble-born Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo d'Ossoli. She became pregnant, gave birth to a son, and married d'Ossoli, who participated in the wave of violent revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848. Her husband was a Marchese, or "Marquis", and so Margaret Fuller was now a Marchioness, though this may not have mattered much during these stormy years of political change. They remained in Rome until it fell to the French in May 1850, and then boarded a ship bound for America.
Their most primal and horrible moment awaited them. The ship floundered and was wrecked off the Long Island coast during a hurricane on July 19, 1950. A member of the crew tried to swim for safety with their three-year-old son and failed to reach shore. Both Margaret and her new husband were drowned in the wreck.
Henry David Thoreau rushed to the Fire Island beach and saw the wrecked ship where his friend had died. He tried to salvage her last manuscript but was unable to do so.
There is a Margaret Fuller Society, complete with by-laws, newsletter, and listserv, hosted at Texas A&M University.
Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College. From 1841 to 1843 he lived in a cabin near Walden Pond on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He chose to live there to get back to basics; to strip away all the unessential claptrap that clouds our daily lives; to meditate and find God in nature. Because "finding God in nature" has become something of a cliche nowdays, many people do not realize this was a unique idea in the place and time Thoreau lived.
During the time he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay taxes. He said that one must not obey a law if that law is bad. He pointed out that the taxes would help finance America's war with Mexico and also support a government that believed in slavery. He spent one night in jail and someone paid the tax for him. No one knows for sure who paid it but they believe it was his aunt. He was angry and wanted to stay in jail but they kicked him out. He called his refusal to pay the tax "Civil Disobedience" and this was a model for the 60's anti-war protestors and Black leaders like Martin Luther King.
During the late 1960's and early 70's, conservation of our natural resources became very popular, and Henry David Thoreau has been cited by some as the "Father of Conservation." His book 'Walden' was the first book about what would later be called "ecology".
Thoreau died at the age of 44 from tuberculosis on May 6, 1862. It was a short life, but then, he had written his first poems when he was around 12 years old.
Something that stuck with me when I was in the 10th grade was that Thoreau was always walking. He would be seen walking all around Concord, Mass and sometimes talking to his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I could walk for miles as a kid. I walked across my small home-town in Virginia and across Interstate 81 and into the fields and woods beyond. I breathed the delicious air and marvelled at majestic clouds and intrigued at furtive little animals and bugs in their holes and hiding places. I believe the Virginia countryside and climate is a lot closer to Concord, Mass (with it's changing seasons and rich soil) than where I live now in Florida (with it's thorny alien plant-life, flat sandy soil, and jaggedy-aztec sun). I have recently started going for walks again. There is something about physical activity that releases something in the brain which elevates ones mood.
Born on May 25, 1803 into a lineage of esteemed Boston clergymen, young Ralph Waldo Emerson initially aimed for a career as a Unitarian minister. He studied divinity at Harvard and became pastor of Boston's Second Church (his father, William Emerson, had been the pastor at the First Church).
His sermons were well liked. But it didn't take long for the parishioners, and for the young preacher himself, to realize that his teachings were straining at the boundaries of conventional religion. He would begin his sermons with words from the Bible, but would gradually find himself discussing the unfathomable ideals found in nature, or the irony that wealth made men unhappy, and he would have trouble finding his way back into the Bible to close the speeches. Some of the parishioners loved this -- and the young man had early inklings that he was destined for wide acclaim and fame -- but many of the parishioners did not.
His inability to serve as a traditional pastor caused him serious distress. Stumbling for appropriate words at the bedside of a dying veteran of the American Revolution, he was famously told by the irritable patient, "Young man, if you don't know your business you had better go home."
When his beloved wife Ellen died from tuberculosis (which was then called 'consumption'), a full life crisis began and Emerson began stubbornly refusing to perform the prescribed rites of the Unitarian Church. It was agreed by all that he should resign. In 1832 he was 29 years old and needed to find a new path in life. He travelled to Europe to meet several liberal intellectuals he'd been corresponding with, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, John Stuart Mill and the historian Thomas Carlyle.
He returned to America energized with new ideas. Settling in Concord northwest of Boston, he remarried and began a family. In 1836 he began publishing his essays. Inspired by the literary Romantic movement that had already swept through Europe, he wrote freely of the great potential of the human spirit, and of the importance of breaking with tradition. One of his greatest essays, "Self-Reliance", urges complete individual freedom as a moral necessity: "Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist." Sarcasm and anger bubbled beneath the calm and dignified surface of his words as he exposed the cowardice and intellectual sloth that shielded the conventional wisdom of his time.
He co-founded a journal called the Dial, and gathered around him a group of like-minded men and women, including Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May). They became known as the New England Transcendentalists. Emerson's two greatest literary discoveries, though, originated outside the original circle.
First was a young neighbor named Henry David Thoreau, who asked Emerson for a letter of recommendation to Harvard when Thoreau was eighteen and Emerson was thirty. Emerson would gradually come to understand the talent of this eccentric neighborhood schoolteacher, who lacked Emerson's graceful personality but made up for it in sheer dynamism. Emerson was a family man and a famous public citizen who could take few risks, but Thoreau, fired with similar ideas, could put these ideas to the test by spending two years in a cabin observing the flow of nature, and allowing himself to go to jail to protest the institution of slavery.
Two decades after Emerson met Thoreau, he received a self-published book of poetry in the mail from an unknown admirer from Brooklyn, New York. Emerson immediately understood the odd genius of Walt Whitman and mailed a letter back to Brooklyn with a famous endorsement, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career" (exactly a century later, Lawrence Ferlinghetti would echo the same words to Allen Ginsberg after hearing Ginsberg perform his new poem Howl).
Along with Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, Emerson fought vigorously against slavery and other forms of prejudice throughout his life. He was also one of the first Western intellectuals to treat Asian religions, such as Buddhism, with respect.
Ralph Waldo Emerson lived a long life devoid of scandal and high drama. He died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882.
It is unfortunate that Ralph Waldo Emerson is only vaguely known among those interested in today's alternative culture. While his writings are universally acclaimed in literary circles, his name seems to induce boredom among everyday readers, who often confuse his refined-sounding name with those of other lofty Anglo-Saxon eminences like Wordsworth or Longfellow. These were all important writers. But Emerson's "Self-Reliance" is to today's indie scene what the Declaration of Independence is to modern-day political freedom.
Concord, a small country town about 15 miles northwest of Boston, was where the colonial American militia stockpiled their guns and ammunition in the months preceding the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. The British attempted a surprise attack on the weapon stores in Concord on the night of April 18, 1775.
The colonials had already anticipated this, and on the first sign of British movement Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott and William Dawes rode ahead of the British armies to spread the word. American defenders gathered in Concord and Lexington, and the result was a rout of the British forces and a major victory for the cause of American independence.
Two generations later, a literary and philosophical revolution began in the same town. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and other progressive thinkers began holding meetings to discuss anti-slavery activism, spirituality, education and the idea of a uniquely American sense of art. They founded a literary journal called "The Dial" to help spread the word, and New England Transcendentalism was born.