A Look at American Romanticism vs. Transcendentalism: Literary & Philosophical Movements

Differences & Similarities

American transcendentalism was a philosophical, spiritual and literary movement that began as a religious protest within the Unitarian church. This period began around 1836 and lasted to roughly 1860. The beginnings of romanticist philosophy originated much earlier, around the end of the 18th century, but reached its peak of influence around 1840. One can see many similarities of the two movements as well as differences.

In many aspects, the philosophies were similar. Both movements were born as a reaction to strict traditions, laws and religious rules of the time. Both philosophies opposed Calvinism, a religious doctrine that states that human outcomes are predetermined. Transcendentalism and romanticism placed a huge emphasis on the individual as well as inspiration from nature. Romanticism was partially a reaction against realism and objective reasoning. Similarly, transcendentalism was a reaction against overpowering religious traditions and dogma. Both encouraged the individual to discover their own truth and be ruled by that rather than obey the constructs of the time.


One of the major differences in the philosophies had to deal with religion and ideas of God. Transcendentalism was primarily a religious movement, and its' followers viewpoint of God was crucial to an understanding of the philosophy. Transcendentalists believed that God was present in every aspect of life, and could be experienced through the intuition. Every person had a divine inner light that could connect them to God. Their goal was to “transcend” ordinary life to experience the symbolic and spiritual world around them. They rejected some religious dogma of the time in favor of a high spiritualized and personal understanding of God.

William Henry Channing describes the philosophy in this manner: "Transcendentalism, as viewed by its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the Living God in the soul. It was a putting to silence of tradition and formulas, that the Sacred Oracle might be heard through intuitions of the single-eyed and pure-hearted. Amidst materialists, zealots, and skeptics, the Transcendentalist believed in perpetual inspiration, the miraculous power of will, and a birthright to universal good. He sought to hold communion face to face with the unnameable Spirit of his spirit, and gave himself up to the embrace of nature's perfect joy, as a babe seeks the breast of a mother."

Romanticism, on the other hand, was not as concerned with ideas of God. Their understanding was that religion was something that had to be worked out on a personal level, and one should not subscribe to preconceived religious structures. They believed that every person was capable of evil as well as good.

The Source of Goodness

Romanticism had a high dependence on feelings, emotions and observations gleaned from the natural senses. This was opposed to the transcendentalists’ dependence on intuition and the guidance of the inner light. Romanticists reveled in the world around them. They had a high emphasis on nature as symbolic source of enlightenment and inspiration. The writing of the movement explored the natural world with great detail at the same time shifting into supernatural themes, reflecting the concept of nature as symbolic. The natural world was good, while humans were corruptible. The closer human beings could get to their natural state the more pure they would be. In contrast, transcendentalists believed in the inner goodness of all human beings. The more an individual could tap into their inner light, the closer to God they would become.

Although both philosophies promoted the individual, the goal of the transcendentalist was to reveal his inner light and to connect with God. The romanticist believed that man could be perfected by grasping hold of his own ideals and promoting himself.

Writing Style

Romanticist literature had a distinct style. Authors often wrote about moral issues, promoting individualism, emotion, freedom and creativity while rejecting reason and tradition. Writing explored both domestic issues as well as exotic and fantastical. Transcendent writing was much harder to define. Writers were grouped together based on the similar content of their writing rather than their style. Those within the transcendentalist movement also frequently disagreed with each other over main points of philosophy.

Some well-known transcendental authors are:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Margaret Fuller

Some well-known Romantic authors include:

  • Emily Dickinson
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Edgar Allen Poe
  • Walt Whitman


  • Introduction to Romanticism: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html
  • American Romantacism: http://www.westga.edu/~mmcfar/AMERICAN%20ROMANTICISM%20overview.htm
  • American Transcendentalism: http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/amtrans.htm
  • Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap4/4intro.html