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Response Paper: Transcendentalism/American Renaissance

The American Renaissance, commonly referred to as the New England Renaissance, existed during the 19th century. During this period, the Americans were able to express their national spirit through American literature. During this period, the American literary section, religious, philosophical, and political movement of the period was centered around Ralph Emerson. Borrowing from the European literature and modifying the borrowed tenets to an American tune, transcendentalism addressed the American issues with a huge impact. Through this, problems affecting the American society by then, such as slavery, gender balance, Indian removal, and the frontier life, are discussed. Various authors utilized different approaches in their writings to explore and address these issues. This write-up aims to examine the authors’ patterns of theme and style at this specific time through analysis of their work.


According to Emerson, self-reliance is understood as the intuitive ability people possess as a divine spirit within themselves. He adds that self-reliance is one’s desire to live in the moment and the belief that old beliefs don’t share in this desirability. The old beliefs, according to Emerson, are like a grave that inter people rather than offering liberation. Through the lens of nature, Emerson construes self-reliance. His work depicts self-reliance as a compilation of poetic, aphoristic, and more so phrases that are full of irony. Emerson states ‘society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members (1165). Through these statements, Emerson tries to create an understanding of self-reliance that stands detached from the shackles of conformity to society. In this light, he argues that a person must be ready to face the proponents of displeasure on choosing displeasure in exchange for attaining self-reliance. Emerson believes that following one’s ideas and beliefs amounts to success rather than conforming to the ideas of the community. ‘For nonconformity, the world whips with its displeasure. And therefore, a man must know how to estimate a sour face (1165). Emerson utilizes irony to convey his understanding of self-reliance. ‘All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves (1178).

As per Emerson, the main aim of fronting Self-Reliance was to empower the individuals with the ability to make their own decisions in the view of individualism while leaning away from the reliance on communalism. Emerson’s principles on Self-Reliance are utilized to explain an array of aspects of society. One very important aspect of this use of the concept was during the economic crisis of 1837, commonly known as the ‘Panic.’ It is during this time that the United States experienced a financial meltdown lasting for five years. During this period, President Andrew Jackson tussled with the Central Bank of The United States, resulting in the collapse of numerous banks. He brewed a great deal of distrust in the public institutions. In addition to this, the concept of Self-Reliance aims to explain conformity in the social set-up of the United States. In support of the tenets of Self-Reliance, Alexis Tocqueville referred to this environment as “the Tyranny of the Majority.” In his view, the tussle represented a situation where the general public accumulated social pressure to push individuals to conform despite the society being devoid of actual figures of power to do so.

In addition to this, Emerson’s understanding of Self-Reliance seeks to dissociate oneself from social conformity. The social pressure notwithstanding, the proponents of Self-Reliance gained traction during this time, especially for the reasons stemming from the 1837 Panic. According to Emerson, the basic components of Self-Reliance include the supreme belief in oneself. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,–that is genius” (1163). On top of this, Emerson believes that Self-Reliance should view society as a tyrant, a setting that is against the manhood of the entirety of its members. The main argument of Emerson is fronting nonconformity to the social culture in the bid to attain Self-Reliance.

Several American authors utilize the principles of self-reliance in reflection on various aspects of society. For instance, Henry David Thoreau in ‘Walden and Civil disobedience’ construes the concepts through the utilization of Emerson’s teachings on Self-Reliance. Henry explains how the proponent of solitude and nonconformity aided in his living alone for two years. The act of living alone, away from any human contact, is the emancipation of independent living that does not depend on anyone else’s ideas, decisions, or any conformity to the societal proponents of survival. Through his work, he believes that all men are above World law, an idea originally shared by Emerson.

Whitman’s poetry

Whitman’s work in poetry borrows heavily from the ideas of Emerson. Through his poems, Emerson strives to construe a sense of purpose. Through his words, “his spirit responds to his country’s spirit…he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes” (2196). Through his poems, Whitman acknowledges and presents the ideas that he proposes would be the role of the American poets. He believes that the American poets are responsible for uniting America through all aspects and bridging the disparities within American society. Through his poems, Whitman takes a different approach in trying to define Americans. He does not want to approach the quality and the definition of America through a single aspect, such as Christianity and race. Whitman argues that the huge disparity in American society in terms of the people, language, and geography can only be handled through poetry and the poets themselves. “Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest” (2197).

Whitman expresses urgency in his work through the Panic period to rally the poets and the proponent of poetry to pull the country back together again. The urgency to find a solution and a way to morph the situation in the country to a better position pushed him to argue the importance of recognizing and appreciating the value of each aspect of the society that risks being dismissed. Whitman stresses that the poets stand clear from the politicians in the idea that they have a vision and sympathy that had been eroded from the politicians due to corruption. Through his poems, he embraces a vision that transcends the confines of the city but extends to the larger continent, encompassing all the sectors and the various environments that needed urgent addressing to contain the Panic and prevent the country from falling apart. In his poem Grass, for instance, he represents the American people as a lawn of grass, each individual leaves playing a role in the total outcome, a presentation of each individual’s role for the prosperity of the United States.

The period of transcendentalism through the development and improvement of American literature represents an array of new understanding to the American people. The advancement that was incommoded in the renaissance aided in tackling and exploring the Americans’ problems through the use of books and magazines.

Work Cited

Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.


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