Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson '41 spoke last night before the Religious Union on the "Transcendental Movement in New England."
On the subject of this reform movement there seem to be an astonishing lack of literature. Except for Emerson's essay on "New England Reformers," nothing has been written to show what transcendentalism really was; for though Frothingham wrote what professed to be a history of the movement, he was not fully in sympathy with his subject.
The absence of definite knowledge is due to the vague nature of the reform. It was neither a doctrine nor a tangible belief, but rather an impulse of self-emancipation, hampered to some extent by the conservatism of the day. Coming as a reaction from the old Puritan theology, it excited a storm of abuse and persecution as furious as it was undeserved. Theodore Parker, the leader of the party, held views on the interpretation of the Scriptures which would today be considered the reverse of radical; and yet these same views prevented his election to the Phi Beta Kappa, in spite of his wide reputation as a scholar.
Transcendentalism as a reform movement assumed so many shapes that any one who became involved in a new school of thought of any description was considered a heretic. This accounts in part for the public disapproval of the Brook Farm enterprise. It is remarkable, however, that many of those who visited Brook Farm, men like George Ripley, Charles Dana, and George William Curtis, were noted for their abilities in many branches of life. The presence of such men in the movement is the best guarantee of its sanity.
The results of the reform seemed transitory. Individual lives were undoubtedly affected by the intense antagonism shown toward the Church, and many weak minds succumbed to fanaticism. We are now on the receding wave of the movement and therefore we are in a position to see the mistakes made in earlier times and to profit by them.