Intro to Transcendental Essays

My first encounter with transcendental writing came in 11th grade English class when we had to read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. At first I was excited by the idea of diving into this new philosophical writing style that I had never really encountered before, but this excitement died down quickly when I got a concussion and still had to keep up with the transcendentalism unit. If you’ve ever encountered a piece of transcendental writing and thought it was dense, imagine trying to work your way through it while heavily concussed. Needless to say, my first interaction with the genre was not the most engaging or convicting to me as a reader or a writer. Something about it has always stuck with me though. I spend a lot of time musing many of the major points of the transcendental movement; nature, divinity, the connection between people and their environment; but have always held my distance from the genre. I wanted to explore transcendental essays through this experiment in hopes of overcoming my unfortunate introduction and exploring a style of writing I have felt disconnected from.

As I began to research this philosophical movement and the writing style that arose from it, the first thing that I felt like I needed to understand better was what made transcendentalism, transcendentalism. The main things I could find were that transcendental writings were grounded in an understanding of non-conformity and self-reliance with an emphasis on the importance of nature all centered around a air of divinity. There is also a heavy emphasis, overt or not, on the idea of the sublime, a certain abject greatness that one often experiences through interaction with their natural surroundings. In order to see these conventions at work, I went back to where it all began and took on a passage from Walden. The passage was a little different from what one would consider a traditional transcendental piece in that it was not mainly focused on nature. While this was still an important part of the chapter, a lot of it focused on a philosophical take on possession and human desire centered around purchasing a farm. Thoreau states, “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or to the county jail.” Thoreau really emphasizes the pillars of self-reliance and free thought here by promoting an idea of individuality and the benefit of living untied to society. This exploration of transcendentalism showed me a side of the genre beyond just what I expected (which was an author marveling at the beauty of some trees) and opened up the way I could approach the genre and the theme of political control of nature that is expressed in my origin piece.

Walden Pond– the inspiration for Thoreau’s book (photo courtesy of

When researching how to approach transcendental writing I came across a students’ reflection on the genre where they made an observation that really stuck with me. “[Transcendentalism] is about being your own person, using your intuition, and finding your own purpose in life.” ( As I continue through this course seeking not only a purpose for this project but for myself as a writer, attempting a transcendental essay seems as good a place as any to start.