Jacksonian Miscellanies, #89 
Nov. 16, 1999

Transcendentalism in Rhode Island

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Hopatcong, NJ 1999.
Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies.

Jacksonian Miscellanies is a biweekly email newsletter presenting roughly chapter length documents from the United States' Jacksonian Era.
It is free: send a message with

as the subject line to hal@panix.com.
To make a comment or query, send a separate message to the same address.
Back issues of Jacksonian Miscellanies are at http://www.EarlyRepublic.net/jmisc.

The following comes from The Rhode Island Book: selections in prose and verse, from the writings of Rhode-Island citizens. By Anne C. Lynch (1841, Providence, printer H. Fuller). This book is online in page-image form, and can be found from the Online-Books Page at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/, by clicking on [search by] Titles, then on [beginning with] R, and then looking down the alphabetized list of titles until you find it.  OR, you could go straight to: http://moa.umdl.umich.edu/cgi/sgml/moa-idx?notisid=AAW5417.

The book is part of a peculiar genre which has been represented in these pages before, in some selections from The New Orleans Book.

The piece is a paeon to German Literature and a sort of Transcendentalist manifesto. I don't know who Sarah H. Whitman was.  Do any readers know?  If this piece is any indication, the Transcendental movement owed much to Mm de Stael's Germania (which I know of, but haven't read).  Margaret Fuller was certainly a scholar of German literature.

It seems to be one of the ironies of history that one might say, back then, that "it is in the German nature duly to honor every thing produced by other nations."  Maybe there is some truth to it yet, but it is virtually the opposite of what one pictures when thinking of mid 20th century Germany.  Maybe it was the bad luck of the Germans and Italians (and the bad luck of their neighbors and those who didn't fit into their culture) to discover nationalism in an age when man's capacity for destruction was so great.



IT has been said that "it is in the German nature duly to honor every thing produced by other nations." Our countrymen, we fear, are in danger of becoming, like the English, too exclusively national. We could wish that they had a little more of the German cosmopolitanism. Perhaps it is natural that whenever any attempt is made by a portion of the community to lead the public mind to new trains of thought or modes of action, to introduce new theories or point out new fields for exertion or enterprise, that an antagonist party should spring up, whose tendency it is to resist all innovation. Perhaps it is a wise provision of nature that has thus furnished every age with its sentinels and warders, as well as with its bold and adventurous pioneers; and provided they conduct themselves fairly and discreetly in their vocation, we have no desire to see their office annulled, or to interrupt them in its rightful exercise. Let the sentinels give challenge to all new claimants, but let them not refuse admittance to any who can furnish a fair passport, or make out a clear title to be received within their guarded citadel.

Since the efforts which have recently been making to introduce the German literature among us, it is not unusual to hear the most unqualified, indiscriminate opposition expressed to the study of a language of unequalled copiousness, flexibility and force, rich in every department of its literature, and entitled, in the opinion of the first European scholars, to an equal estimation with our own noble mother tongue. Yet we are rejoiced to discover, even in the bitterness of its opponents, an indication of the increasing interest with which it is regarded among us; we are in no way disturbed by the fear that its subtleties, refinements and abstractions, should exert an evil influence on our national character, the individuality of which seems in no danger of being neutralized by such antagonist principles, though it may perchance be favorably modified by them. The Germans, it is true, have their faults; but these faults, it has been well said, are as good as virtues to us, since being the exact opposites of our own, they may teach us most important lessons.

The opposers of German literature are fond of preferring the claims of common sense to those of philosophy; of elevating the actual over the ideal. They descant much and rather vaguely against Transcendentalism. They tell us of the folly of believing in innate ideas, and triumphantly quote Locke and his "tabula rasa." They are afraid of all vagueness and mysticism, and tremble like children at the shadowy appearances seen in the twilight. They will have nothing to do with that which they cannot handle. They have faith in nothing which they cannot fully comprehend. They like to see all objects clearly and sharply defined in the broad day-light of the understanding. Yet in the shadowy, twilight regions of the imagination, we may behold much that is then only visible. The near glare of the sun conceals from us those far lights of heaven, that are forever burning in the vaults of space; even as the acute shrill sounds of day prevent us from hearing the deep voices of nature. The Shekinah, which was by day only a cloud of smoke, became by night a pillar of fire.

In literature, their favorite models are those writers who are most remarkable for clearness, polish, and precision. They seem to prefer vigorous, rather than comprehensive thinkers; --writers whose vision is clear but limited; who deal manfully with facts and events, but care not to penetrate beyond the surface of being, showing us things as they are, without questioning of the how and why. They love to pace steadily and safely along with the "smooth tongued Addison, the stately Johnson, and the sublime Burke," never deviating from the beaten path, and looking upon all who go down in diving-bells, or mount in balloons, as hair-brained tempters of fate.

They fear all new aspects of truth, and gravely tell us, that "it is better with our fallible natures and limited capacities, to rest upon certain ideas and opinions that have been received as plausible, rejecting all speculations upon subjects which can never be decided, nor farther developed, while the soul remains in the thralls of flesh."

Supposing a reflective mind could bring itself to act upon this suggestion, or rather to cease from acting, for ourselves we know of no opinions that have been universally received as "plausible," and did we know any such, we could not receive them as truths, until they had been submitted to the test of our own reason. Who shall tell us that any man or class of men have monopolized the right of thought? What is truth to another is not truth to us until our own understanding has verified it. Whatever danger there may be in leaving every man to decide for himself, there is surely far less than in any attempt to restrict the individual right of opinion, through regard to expediency or respect for authority.

We could not, if we would, have every man a philosopher, and we think there need be little fear, that our countrymen will become infected with any undue fondness for abstract researches. The mind that has never tried to grasp the great problems of human life and destiny, that has never sought to wrest a reluctant meaning from the hieroglyphic characters inscribed on the broad page of niature, needs no such restriction; the mind that has done this, will hardly be checked in its onward impulse by the "cui bono" of the utilitarian. It sounds almost like mockery to ask one who has ever caught a single ray of the warm, living light of the sun of truth, to satisfy himself with the frippery, gilt-paper toy of "plausibility." These timid counsellors remind us of Solomon's slothful man, who keeps housed and says, "there is a lion in the street, if I go forth I shall be slain." There are some who cannot be thus easily restrained; they must "go forth," even at the worst of perils --they must meet the lion, and wrestle with it as they may --and often do they find, that when they look their formidable foe calmly in the face, he loses all his terrors, and becomes at once harmless and tractable.

These persons are constantly opposing revelation to nature, and faith to reason. We cannot agree with them in apprehending any danger to Christianity from the investigation of calm, tolerant, philosophic spirits, who fear not to look at both sides of a question, lest they should meet with something opposed to established and time-hallowed opinions. The timid faith that fears to question, cannot satisfy us, --such assent is far worse than honest denial. The only fatal skepticism, as it seems to us, is that of the man who wants faith in the human soul, and fears to trust its promptings.

For ourselves, we rejoice in the increasing nunber of those who are willing to follow truth wherever she may lead them, in the spirit of that child-like confidence and perfect love which casteth out fear. We look for the time when philosophy shall aid in reconciling reason and faith, not by depressing faith, but by elevating reason. When we shall be able to interpret, in all its beautiful simplicity, the word of Him who taught us to read the gospel of Nature, to observe the lilies of the field, and to seek for the kingdom of heaven within our own hearts.

The enforcement of this self-reliance, this faith in the power of the individual to discover for himself truth, is one of the leading heresies of which the "New School" is accused. Yet the highest stars of heaven may be seen mirrored within the single drop of dew that trembles within the heart of a violet.

This faith in truth and nature, this desire to free the mind from its slavery to creeds and conventionalities, though the growth of no particular school, has, it is true, within the last twenty years, been more profoundly felt and more earnestly inculcated, than at any former period. It gives a tone to all the noblest literature of the day, and is slowly but surely working a change in the character of the times. It is this which prompted the obnoxious declaration of Dr. Channing that "Man is great as man, be he what and where he may." This is what was implied by Emerson, when he said, "let a man plant himself on his instincts, and the whole world will come round to him," or in other words, work in harmony with him. It is this which illumines every page of Carlisle, as with the glory of an inspired scroll, and imparts to the apocalyptic reveries of Swedenborg whatever they possess of vivifying and converting energy.

This doctrine, which was taught by a few sincere and simple spirits, amid the darkest gloom of Jewish superstition and bigotry, has caused one of the most true hearted believers of our own day to assert that the vital truths of Christianty are too deeply inwrought into the very nature of the human soul to be in any danger from a free and zealous examination into the true character of the Christian miracles. It is this growing conviction which is beginning to render all persecution for opinions sake as disgraceful as it ever was futile, and this it is, above all, which is teaching the instructors and guardians of youth, that the great objects of education are not to be achieved by the exhibition of facts or the inculcation of theories, but by developing and strengthening the powers of the soul for individual and independent action.

Much, though not all of this, is we think attributable more or less directly to the Germans. Much that in our own literature is but faintly and dimly shadowed forth, is in this developing itself in free and luxuriant growth. In the German literature, to use one of their own expressive phrases, "man finds himself." The "sweet sad music of humanity" pervades every department of it. In its deep earnest philosophic spirit; in its fearless, trusting, transparent simplicity; in the holy fervor of its poets; the serene, spiritual, far-reaching gaze of its theologians and moralists, we may find much which even the rich, classical literature of England cannot supply.

To us, Germany has ever been a bright land of promise since first in early youth we listened with kindling heart and eager sympathy to the tidings which Mde. De Stael had brought us of a people, who in an age of artificiality, had dared to follow the suggestions of their own spirits and to show us nature as she had mirrored herself within their own hearts. And now, having possessed ourselves of the golden Key which is to unlock for us this rich world of thought, we cannot but glory in our new-found treasure, and endeavour to win others to become partakers of our joy. You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks