Photograph of Ralph Waldo Emerson
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A Transcendentalist was a follower of an American philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism which emphasized the importance of the individual and was a break from more formalized religions.

Transcendentalism flourished from roughly the mid-1830s to the 1860s and was often viewed as a move toward the spiritual, and thus a break from the increasing materialism of American society at the time.

The leading figure of Transcendentalism was the writer and public speaker Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had been a Unitarian minister. The publication of Emerson’s classic essay “Nature” in September 1836 is often cited as a pivotal event, as the essay expressed some of the central ideas of Transcendentalism.

Other figures associated with Transcendentalism include Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, and Margaret Fuller, an early feminist writer and editor.

Transcendentalism was and is difficult to categorize, as it could be viewed as a:

  • Spiritual movement
  • Philosophical movement
  • Literary movement

Emerson himself provided a fairly open definition in his 1842 essay “The Transcendentalist”:

"The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own."

Also Known As: New England Transcendentalists

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McNamara, Robert. "Transcendentalist." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). Transcendentalist. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Transcendentalist." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).