Need book recommendations about Transcendentalism

I would like to read some basic books on Transcendentalism and its famous writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Fuller, etc.) that are not too scholarly (for now) just to get a better, objective idea of what the tenants of it are. I had started reading American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever and was enjoying it but after reading the scathing reviews on Amazon about the many errors and unsupported theories in the book, I no longer wish to read it.

I also need recommendations on good, basic and reliable books on life in the 19th century for the average man and woman. Intellectually I understand that the Concord writers were revolutionary but I want to understand it emotionally (ideally from the point of view of an average 19th century man or woman – is that possible?). I am particularly interested in books about what Christian spirituality was like at the time as I know that Louisa’s spiritually was considered fairly radical.

I am beginning to suspect that my own spirituality and way of looking at life both have been very much influenced by Transcendentalism (gee, big surprise considering I’ve lived all my life in eastern and central Massachusetts) through my mother especially (she was loosely Unitarian and grew up in Lynn and Swampscott, also known as the North Shore in MA). I was raised Roman Catholic (through my dad) and very much practice it and consider it the core of my life but I feel so at home too reading Thoreau and seeing the Transcendentalist threads especially in Moods. The spirituality that Louisa espoused in Little Women felt very familiar and was very attractive to me (the spirituality that I gleaned from reading between the lines).

So, any suggestions? I’m all ears . . . 🙂

11 Replies to “Need book recommendations about Transcendentalism”

  1. I wish I had a recommendation for you. I have read some Thoreau — Walden and his essay on civil disobedience — and long ago some Emerson who I found hard to understand). When you get a good source, let me know. I would be happy to join you in reading it.

    I have taken Transcendentalism to mean the experience of going outside yourself to the wonders of nature and finding God there. This seems contrary to the Buddhist/Hindu approach of going inside yourself to find God. The contradiction disappears when one considers that if God (by whatever name) is the ground of being, then that power/experience is everywhere, both inside and outside. We can choose from many routes to that experience, but note that these concepts drawn on experience, not doctrine or authority.

    1. The aspect of finding God in nature is definitely part of it. Also that there is the divine inside of men (and as they say, “some women”) – certainly Bronson felt that way ad nauseum – it seemed to go back and forth between true humility and utter arrogance – and total self absorption.

      Bronson did feel that children had the divine within them which was spoiled as they were exposed to the world – a theory was was totally contrary to thinking in that day.

      From the exposure I’ve had to LMA’s writings and the little bit I’ve read of Thoreau (yet to read Emerson), there’s a desire to soften and humanize the spiritual experience – to get it away from the Calvinistic way which I’m guessing was pretty rigid and based mostly on fear. There are so many references in Moods about Sylvia’s desire for a warmer, closer relationship with God. Cheever’s book said Transcendentalists rejected Unitarianism too and I’m very curious as to why.

      Little Women was full of a spirituality that is almost Ignatian, based upon finding God in the ordinary and achieving perfection through the small things – something Amy learned to do well, and something that Mother Teresa talked about constantly. I’m wondering how that fits in with Transcendentalism.

    2. Harriet Reisen wrote me and left this comment with some good book recommendations:

      “Enjoyed your post and am full of admiration for your quest to understand LMA’s spirituality and your own, and long to reply at length to you and your readers, but I’m busy trying to teach myself how to fix the film gallery on the web.

      Here’s a thought for reading; a novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife, by Amy Belding Brown, to get an idea what life was like in those days, and the personal lives of the literary greats of Concord. Robert Richardson’s biographies of Emerson and Thoreau are both excellent. I found an abridged version of Emerson’s journals and letters to be more interesting than his essays. Try Thoreau’s essay “Walking “ and let me know if you think Louisa is the companion he describes as I like to think.

      Transcendentalism is hard to put your finger on, and was felt to be so even in its own day.”

    3. In doing some research online, I found a great source on a site about Henry David Thoreau – – scroll way down to the heading called OTHER TRANSCENDENTALISTS (the links above that section are very good as well) – lots of good articles on Transcendentalism. The best one so far was a 3 page overview by Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator of the Special Collections room of the Concord Free Public Library – here’s a direct link to that – I loved this article because it was easy to understand and clearly pointed out the basic tenants of Transcendentalism. Here’s the curious thing: there’s a line that reads “Transcendental philosophy, on the other hand, was based on the premise that truth is innate in all of creation and that knowledge of it is intuitive rather than rational.” Isn’t intuition usually considered very strong in women? Interesting . . . 🙂

  2. You have got me thinking about Walden, a book which I really enjoyed and which I go back to from time to time. An instructor helped me to understand it by pointing out that a major theme is what it takes to be a writer, that is, financial independence. That is why the long chapter on Economy. People are expecting a hymn to nature and then they find Thoreau writing about how much it costs to build a cabin and how to grow beans.

    This matters if you want to be free to develop and express your own approach to truth.

    I doubt that Thoreau even uses the word “transcendentalism” in Walden, yet the book is about trusting your own experiences and where they take you, the different drummer to which you can march (if you have an inexpensive cabin and plenty of beans).

    1. I’ve listened to some of Walden, there’s a free audio version on It amazes me his thinking process. His comments on Economy were right on the money, if you’ll pardon the pun! 🙂 I haven’t finished it but it’s on my list.

      Thoreau’s observations of nature really touch me. My mother was a naturalist and we used to go birdwatching all over the place. I just read in American Bloomsbury that Thoreau visited Great Meadows in Sudbury, one of the premier birding places in our area. The thought that he was there now really makes me want to revisit that place (no better place to see ducks). There was also a bit about how he caught 3 spring peepers – my grown son used to love frogs and we tried to capture peepers but they are so small it’s almost impossible. According to this story, one peeper even chirped for Thoreau! Amazing. 🙂

  3. Such a great resource, this post. I too am keenly interested in Transcendentalism, having read Reisen’s awesome memoir. I think I’ll read her suggestions (as time permits!) 🙂

    Love the blog, as always. 😉

    Oh! I saw one of Louisa’s thrillers at the bookstore yesterday — like a modern novel from 2011. Good for her!!

    1. I reserved a copy of Mr. Emerson’s Wife at our local library and am picking it up today. Decided to finish American Bloomsbury anyway, it’s a quick read, and fun. Downloaded Emerson’s “Nature” and Thoreau’s “Walking” (both available in print for free and on Librivox as free audio books) – Emerson is a TOUGH go! I really have a hard time understanding most of what he’s saying. I’m going to hunt around today for some commentary on it.

      As I’m learning about Transcendentalism, I see it weaved throughout Moods more and more. It’s actually a great experiential way to learn about Transcendentalism even through this philosophy emphasizes intuition. Funny irony!

  4. Oh, I didn’t realize Emerson was diffficult. Now I’m curious! I’m reading Montaigne right now because he was an inspiration to both Emerson and Rousseau. He’s considered ‘father of the essay’ and came just before Shakespeare in the chronological canon. 🙂

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