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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

Examine a movement that transformed America and which continues to influence many aspects of our culture, today, from efforts to preserve large tracts of wild nature to civil disobedience around the world.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 76.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from How the 1800's Changed Everything Dear Professor Nichols: I finished your course and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly the strong links you made between Transcendentalism and abolition, civil rights, the Womens' movement, religious freedom, and the environmental movement. I also noted, on Dickinson's web site, that you are deeply involved with environmental issues and even developed your own green score card like the LEED and Green Globes systems I have worked with extensively. Like you, I am fascinated with the links between social and environmental issues. Hopefully, more people like you will study this relationship and help us to navigate through issues such as global warming. Thank you for this gift and the tour through a movement in the 1800's that changed everything. I will enter high praise for your course on The Great Courses web site.
Date published: 2022-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Course I've always been intrigued by this topic, but never studied it much, beyond reading a little of Thoreau and Emerson. This was very well done, and I'm so glad I purchased this.
Date published: 2021-12-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Powerful Presentation From Emerson and Thoreau to Dickinson and Whitman, Prof Nichols shows an outstanding grasp of his subject matter. I found that I really new very little about Emerson. The lectures drag a little bit during the middle part where he presents some lesser-known figures. But the course comes to life again when he gets to Dickinson and Whitman. I even learned why "Leaves of Grass" was called what it is. Some reviewers criticized his "style", but I think that he is a rather "classical" lecturer and you could tell that many segments were given from memory based on his literary studies. In short, I really liked this course. But then, I like all of them.
Date published: 2021-08-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Biographies, little on concepts If you want a course on the biographies of those involved in the transcendental movement the buy it. If you want the focus to be on the ideas, don't waste your money.
Date published: 2020-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening and Enjoyable! After recently stumbling across some Thoreau that I found particularly resonating, I looked to this course for further context. I had thought that I was fairly familiar with American Transcendentalism and the directions of thought attributed to this movement, and some of its proponents. Little did I know … … of the intellectual heavyweights who would later be identified as Transcendentalists and their passionate devotion to the ideas, causes and actions which would exemplify their movement, while espousing appreciation of individuality and, for many, a close link between spirituality and nature. … of the tremendous impact that these 19th Century heroes and heroines would have on the society of their time and for future generations … in the areas of education, religion, politics and social changes … battling mightily, through ongoing lectures and conversation and through journalism, on behalf of the oppressed … becoming a real force in the cause of equality … especially concerning civil rights and women’s suffrage. I found Professor Nichols to be quite pleasant, and I liked his presentation and the content of the lectures, enjoying those on some of the minor figures as well as the better known in this Massachusetts-based group of influentials. The guide book was one of the best that I've seen. Every lecture was valuable to me. I spent more time with this course than usual, however, as, with each lecture, I read the works recommended or other work I found relevant – which consisted of some of Emerson, all of Thoreau’s books and some of his essays, all three of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies (the last one would probably have sufficed, as it contains most of the material in the first two before adding quite a lot to update through his last years) and other writings, and then, further exploration and enjoyment of the works of Walt Whitman and of Emily Dickinson. For the additional time spent in reading and studying, I was well rewarded. I am delighted with what I have learned in this course and because of this course. Thank you, Professor Nichols. Before ending, I’d like to quote something from Emerson (in this course) that I found especially appealing: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” Finally, Professor Nichols’ closing statements: “Even a series of lectures like this one links us back to the Transcendentalists’ belief in the value of lifelong self-education. The growth of each human mind expands a self-reliant person who is of value to the entire universe."
Date published: 2020-08-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Professor Nichols covers a considerable range of important material in a depth adequate to the width of the subject matter. I found his delivery uninspired, however. Great passion and keen insight characterized the authors under consideration. The lecturer seemed inspired by neither.
Date published: 2020-05-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Organized to continually emphasize core Did a great job tying together politics of the day with a review of how church denominations evolved from a common core. Also tied some of the roots of the Transcendental movement to the English Romantic poets, and how the cornerstones of this way of being in the world also emerge in all the arts.
Date published: 2020-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A truly remarkable set of lectures! I have been an avid follower of The Great Courses and have heard about some of these names. This series gave me an understanding of the foundation of the scholarship of America as a Nation. I am from India and read about the influence of Eastern thoughts in their concepts of Nature as the source of understanding spirituality drives home to me! But, as the Professor indicated organized religions everywhere have made the divided societies we see, including India! I bought this in DVD format. There is some glitch in the DVDs as well as the streaming mode that each one of them stop in the 19 to 21 minute range! I called the support system and he sent me another DVD of the first of the series. It still had that defect! Also the streaming course did not come with my initial order and he also sent me the streaming service. Unfortunately, it also had the problem in all of the lectures!
Date published: 2020-01-31
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Professor Ashton Nichols introduces us to two remarkable figures Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and a diverse group of intellectual activists, literary figures, and social reformers whose ideas, often considered radical at the time of the Civil War, would remake American society.


Ashton Nichols


Dickinson College

Dr. Ashton Nichols is Professor of English Language and Literature and Walter E. Beach '56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A graduate of the University of Virginia, where he was both a DuPont Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Professor Nichols spent three years as an award-winning journalist before returning to the university for his M.A. and Ph.D. in English. The recipient of teaching awards that include both the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and the Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching, Professor Nichols's books include The Revolutionary I: Wordsworth and the Politics of Self-Presentation, as well as a teaching anthology, Romantic Natural Histories: William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, and Others. His scholarly publications cover a range of topics that include Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Thomas Pynchon, Seamus Heaney, African exploration narratives, Victorian poetry, and travel writing; he has published his own fiction and poetry. Professor Nichols is also the producer of A Romantic Natural History: 1750-1859, a hypertext project that has been recognized for excellence by both The New York Times and the BBC in London. In recent years he has delivered keynote addresses and lectures in nations around the world, including China, England, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Cameroon, and Morocco.

Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalism

01: Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalism

An introduction to the two remarkable individuals whose lives and ideas form the basis of all that follows in this course, and without whom the United States would not have developed into the nation it has become.

32 min
The Roots of American Transcendentalism

02: The Roots of American Transcendentalism

Though American Transcendentalism would inaugurate a uniquely American way of thinking, it drew on many sources, with roots in both European and non-Western systems of thought.

31 min
Emerson and the Idea of America

03: Emerson and the Idea of America

We look at Emerson's remarkable life and times, and how they contributed to the works that would help produce a philosophical vision of America.

31 min
Emerson and Transcendentalism

04: Emerson and Transcendentalism

More than any other figure, Emerson is the intellectual father and emotional godfather of American Transcendentalism. Though many other thinkers would contribute, it was Emerson's lectures and published essays that would give form to this sometimes amorphous range of ideas.

31 min
Emerson’s Influence

05: Emerson’s Influence

Emerson was a visionary thinker whose thoughts were adopted by others almost immediately. But his ideas also continued to influence educational theory, theological and religious practice, and political debate over time.

30 min
Thoreau—An American Original

06: Thoreau—An American Original

Emerson's foremost disciple gave us a new way of living and a new vision of each American individual; he put Emerson's central ideas into play in ways that continue to shape American politics, populism, and popular culture. Thoreau also had an incalculable impact on nature writing and environmentalism.

29 min
Thoreau at Walden and Beyond

07: Thoreau at Walden and Beyond

We look at the so-called "hermit" of Walden Pond in biographic detail, striving also to reveal the continuing effects of his thinking and writing on students, teachers, naturalists, and political theorists.

31 min
Thoreau's Politics

08: Thoreau's Politics

Thoreau's politics (central to an evolving view of democracy, freedom, and the role of the individual) are ultimately about conscience: the right to answer to a higher law than the rules of any social, religious, or political system.

30 min
William Ellery Channing and Unitarianism

09: William Ellery Channing and Unitarianism

We step back in time to consider a theologian and minister whose ideas would change the history of his denomination and were crucial forerunners of concepts that Emerson and others would later adopt.

31 min
Theodore Parker—Social Reform in the Pulpit

10: Theodore Parker—Social Reform in the Pulpit

This lecture considers one of the most practical and active members of the Transcendentalist group; Parker was an influential voice and leader in causes ranging from the reform of parish ministry to widespread social activism.

32 min
Amos Bronson Alcott

11: Amos Bronson Alcott

Though his daughter, Louisa May, became far better known by subsequent generations, Amos Bronson Alcott deeply influenced not only his own era, but ours as well, leaving an educational legacy still with us today.

30 min
Louisa May Alcott

12: Louisa May Alcott

We think of her primarily as the author of "Little Women," but Louisa May Alcott was also an influential member of the Transcendentalist circle as a thinker, writer, and social activist.

30 min
Margaret Fuller and Rights for Women

13: Margaret Fuller and Rights for Women

We meet a soaring intellect, effective voice for women's rights, and energetic achiever - successful as a writer, editor, and foreign correspondent before her tragic death at age 40.

30 min
Transcendental Women

14: Transcendental Women

This lecture explores a group of women who had a direct and powerful impact on Transcendentalist thought, from the three remarkable Peabody sisters to less well-known women, including radical abolitionist Lydia Child and indefatigable social activist Caroline Dall.

30 min
Moncure Conway—Southern Transcendentalist

15: Moncure Conway—Southern Transcendentalist

We look at a figure whose life represented the complex history of Transcendentalism and who also reveals why it was primarily a Northern movement.

30 min
Transcendental Eccentrics

16: Transcendental Eccentrics

Transcendentalism produced more than its share of eccentrics; some of their viewpoints have helped to create a uniquely American version of eccentricity.

31 min
Transcendental Utopias—Living Experiments

17: Transcendental Utopias—Living Experiments

Transcendentalism was not simply about those major and minor figures that developed and promulgated its doctrines. It was also about a series of attempts at new ways of living that had a powerful impact on 19th-century thinking.

30 min
Transcendentalism and Education

18: Transcendentalism and Education

The link between Transcendentalism and education was a close one. Many leading Transcendentalists served as teachers or educators, either briefly or for most of their careers, and others, like Emerson, had a direct influence on important educational reformers.

30 min
Thoreau, Abolition, and John Brown

19: Thoreau, Abolition, and John Brown

The trial and execution of John Brown produced extensive commentary and debate in abolitionist and Transcendentalist circles about violent versus nonviolent action, the power of the individual, and the historical reality of change that might not always occur gradually.

30 min
Frederick Douglass

20: Frederick Douglass

He was not strictly a member of the Transcendentalist Circle, Frederick Douglass (fugitive slave, abolitionist, freethinker, self-educated writer, lecturer, activist, and advisor to presidents) lived a life that was seen by many as an embodiment of Transcendentalist ideals.

30 min
Emily Dickinson

21: Emily Dickinson

Though she, too, might not have called herself a Transcendentalist, Emily Dickinson's work cannot be fully understood without reference to the people who surrounded her in Transcendentalist circles in Massachusetts.

31 min
Walt Whitman

22: Walt Whitman

Seeing himself as the embodiment of "The Poet" Emerson sought for America, Whitman wrote poems that reveal direct links to the powerful ideas that were circulating throughout America, especially in New England.

31 min
Transcendentalism's 19th-Century Legacy

23: Transcendentalism's 19th-Century Legacy

Transcendentalism reached a much wider audience than contemporary literary figures. Its abstract ideas often translated directly into practical solutions to social problems ranging from religious institutions to school classrooms.

29 min
The Legacy in the 20th Century and Beyond

24: The Legacy in the 20th Century and Beyond

Although few, if any, would claim to be Transcendentalists today, the movement has directly influenced literary, social, and political movements. Modern America still owes a significant debt to Transcendentalism's greatest figures, remarkable voices whose ideas have lasted far beyond their own lives.

32 min