September 8, 2012

There was no club in the strict sense

It all began on September 8, 1836, in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Four men — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, George Putnam, and George Ripley — discussed the formation of a new club which would meet officially for the first time 11 days later. It was initially known as "Hedge's Club," because they met only when Hedge could make the trip all the way from Maine to Massachusetts; it soon came to be known as the "Transcendental Club."

The beginnings of transcendentalism were rooted in this meeting (as well as Emerson's essay "Nature" published in the same month). Hedge himself admitted, "there was no club in the strict sense... only occasional meetings of like-minded men and women." Their like-mindedness, however, was equally questionable. These men and women gathered to discuss important issues of the day as well as more metaphysical or theological questions. The four original meeting participants each played their own role:
Emerson became the figurehead of the group and a sort of spokesperson. He became well-known as a public lecturer, traveling around the country promoting his ideas (and his questions). Though not all became followers of the philosophy, Emerson would count hundreds in attendance at his public readings. He also assisted in the creation of The Dial, the official journal of the movement.

Frederic Henry Hedge (who only occasionally used a "k" in his first name and is pictured above) used his scholarship and knowledge of German writings to influence the group's thinking. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School (like Emerson), he feared the slow development of American theology but joined the movement because he felt "there was a promise in the air of a new era of intellectual life." Even so, he drifted away from the group by the end of the 1840s, and refused to contribute to the The Dial for fearing of being associated with them in print.

George Ripley, who hosted the group's first official meeting, took their philosophical ideas and put them into practice as the founder of the communal living experiment Brook Farm. He also edited a collection of translations called Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature meant to show the breadth of interest in the group. After Brook Farm's dissolution, he led a more mundane life as a quiet literary critic in New York.

George Putnam, a Unitarian minister in Roxbury, Massachusetts, did not last long as a Transcendentalist. In fact, nearly a half a century later, Hedge dismissed him in a letter outlining the group's origins as someone "who so soon withdrew from the connection that 'tis not worth the while to mention his name."

What's most important about understanding Transcendentalism (an admittedly nebulous concept and movement) is that it began as a theological group — not as a literary movement. Most of its members were or had been religious leaders or religious thinkers (though there were exceptions).

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