Document Type


Date of Original Version



Curious for a cultural phenomenon rooted in self-reliance, Transcendentalism first flowered in the life of Thoreau following a visit paid by the expectant college graduate to the Harvard library at the start of April 1837. In later years, the Concord native would downplay the significance of his formal education, depreciating as he did his time spent on Harvard’s campus in neighboring Cambridge, Massachusetts. These protestations notwithstanding, Thoreau owed much of his early intellectual cultivation to the institution of Harvard, for it was there that he began to think reflexively, which is to say Transcendentally, about thought itself. Only months before his graduation in June, Thoreau withdrew from the college collection two volumes that proved transformative to his sense of himself as a thinker about thinking. One of these volumes was Emerson’s Nature (1836), a book that Robert Richardson calls a “manifesto” of Transcendentalism (Mind 21). The other was Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1795), a long Bildungsroman of the eponymous hero’s developing self-culture. Taking the two texts in tandem, Thoreau would have been well equipped to transact his own coming into consciousness, after the fashion of what Emerson and Goethe both had written about so memorably in their respective master works. With an irony that he may or may not have recognized, Thoreau also would have been adhering to a course of reading that was ready to become something of a prescribed formula for attaining the kind of awakened, independent sense of selfhood that Transcendentalists like him came to value so highly over the next decade. Thoreau was, in any case, commencing with his library visit something other than a postgraduate career. He was precipitating his entry into a radical new worldview. Today we know that worldview by the name “Transcendental.” On Thoreau’s matriculation at Harvard in late August 1833, the term was just beginning to gain currency among his contemporaries; it denominated a body of concepts and ideas associated with the German philosophic idealism of Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Reason (1781) “opened” what the nineteenth-century US historian O. B. Frothingham described as “a new epoch in metaphysical thought.” Prior to Kant, inside an Enlightenment age that then held sway in the West, the prevailing understanding of knowledge was premised on the influential sensory empiricism of John Locke.

Publication Title

Henry David Thoreau in Context