Updated September 10, 2022

Transcendentalism and Frontier Era in 19th Century America

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Transcendentalism and Frontier Era in 19th Century America essay
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Domesticity, transcendentalism and frontier cultural innovations of the 19th century American experience have all had major long term effects and influences into our culture today. They incorporate and consist of various American experiences we place high value in then and now. Considering this, a very important relationship between the frontier and transcendentalism ideas is that they believed a person’s surroundings helped shape one’s experiences and understanding of the world while also placing a strong emphasis on individualism.

To begin, the ideas of transcendentalism are extremely influential to the philosophical, literary and political American cultural landscape that overlaps directly with frontier ideology. There is a lot of stress on the importance of nature, individualism and self reliance on one’s character. Emerson and Thoreau, two highly proclaimed writers for this time period, exemplify the uses of the natural world, individualism, spirituality, passive resistance and aversion to conformity. Emerson’s writings deal more with the importance of nature while Thoreau’s can be illustrated through his work On Civil Disobedience where it is stated, “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men” (6). Obviously he was more of a politically inclined writer so he discusses how he had imagined a better government in which they stress the importance of the individual, that individuals are the basis of an empire and must be treated with the utmost respect through the rights of man.

Similarly, these ideas are reminiscent of those enlisted in the frontier. Manifest Destiny was introduced during the westward expansion which essentially drove the country’s power to reach out for more and more land. It sure wasn’t a simple journey and people wanted to move west in hopes of starting a new life while making their own fortune but as stated in the lecture on the frontier, this required some rough and tumble skills. As a result, this created a strong sense of individualism, an attitude that many Americans carry with them today through our high values of self reliance and independence of needs, rights and freedoms.

One influential writer from this time, Frederick Jackson Turner, illustrates these ideas of individualism while also portraying his beliefs in environmental determinism. He was curious about how new spaces and surroundings might shape the future of Americans as well as our experiences and understandings of the world, thus directly mirroring transcendentalist ideas. In the introduction of Turner’s famous paper The Significance of the Frontier in American History, he concludes with the statement, “[Civilization in America] is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist” (5).

Turner stresses the importance of doing things or oneself as a necessity, even when it’s against difficulties. This type of individualism illustrates how people were able to build stronger cooperative attitudes toward their neighbors who were also facing the same problems. In other words, we can’t succeed as individuals by riding solo throughout life, but this understanding of independence and strength in one another can help us work together with others as a community and essentially as a nation.

Altogether, it is prominent through the writings from both the transcendentalism and frontier era that they place high importance in similar areas of thought. Gaining knowledge and learning more about the natural world and our surroundings is something that makes us unique from one another due to our differences in experiences. This aligns with the underlying ideas placed in individualism where hard work and determination became powerful for Americans embarking on their journey westward. Ultimately, allowing for understanding and cooperation among others and an attitude shift towards self reliance. The expansion drove curiosity for opportunity and freedom through exploration which illustrates ideas like the American Dream in today’s society. The ideas introduced and discussed from both transcendentalism and the frontier have tons of overlap and essentially manifested themselves into the modern American experience.

Works Cited

  1. Thoreau, Henry David. “On Civil Disobedience (Condensed).” On Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.
  2. Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Modern History Sourcebook, 1893.
  3. “Lecture: Frontier” Core Humanities 203.5501. UNR. Accessed 9/29/19.

Transcendentalism and Frontier Era in 19th Century America essay

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How did transcendentalism impact American literature?
Greatly influenced by Emerson's ideas, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman advanced the movement with their literary contributions. Transcendentalism encouraged man to look closely at the world, to look closely at himself, and to be radically honest about what he sees .
What impact did transcendentalism have on American society?
As a group, the transcendentalists led the celebration of the American experiment as one of individualism and self-reliance. They took progressive stands on women's rights, abolition, reform, and education . They criticized government, organized religion, laws, social institutions, and creeping industrialization.
What is Transcendentalism in America?
American transcendentalism is essentially a kind of practice by which the world of facts and the categories of common sense are temporarily exchanged for the world of ideas and the categories of imagination .
What time period was transcendentalism?
Overview. The philosophy of transcendentalism arose in the 1830s in the eastern United States as a reaction to intellectualism. Its adherents yearned for intense spiritual experiences and sought to transcend the purely material world of reason and rationality.
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