Saturday, April 9, 2011

Transcendentalism, or the History of the World

So today was the day we tackled Transcendentalism. Perhaps I should explain--my daughter's assignment was to read the first chapter of Thoreau's Walden, then write a paper that used Thoreau's essay to identify his Transcendental beliefs. Sweet, right? Think again.

My dutiful daughter waded through the reading assignment, complaining as she went that of course Thoreau's first chapter would have to his longest and most confusing. What on earth was he talking about, anyway?

Wrong thing to say to an English major. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Because I had to explain Transcendentalism, which of course had to be explored against the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Age, urbanization, and the Romantic movement that was a reaction to all of the above. Plus we had to make a foray into the class system in England, the  differences between Americans and the English at the time of the Revolution, the evolution of communities from agricultural/pastoral, including subsistence farming, to the rise of skill specialization in trades, and how this changed the structure of families and communities, how both the benefits and the drawbacks of industrialization affected the outlook of the Romanticists and the Transcendentalists, and how the realities of the past can become idealized myths in relation to the realities of any given historical period (for example, Arthurian legends in England and the concept of the 'noble savage' in America) and yada yada yada yada yada....

and yada yada yada yada....

and, finally, mercifully, I realized that I had been yammering on for almost an hour, going through the entire history of civilization as it relates to literary subjects in order to explain one concept. Transcendentalism. Oh ye Fates and Fancies! My daughter was still alive--she was breathing-- but her eyes were glazed over.

I had an epiphany. Perhaps I should make a list of the major characteristics of Transcendentalism. Perhaps it should be short and to the point, in bullet form. Perhaps my daughter would actually get a chance to write her paper, using my bulleted list as a guideline.

She was very polite. She declared that NOW  she understood what Thoreau was trying to say in Walden. It had all come together. The day was done. The sun had set. Could we please stop the madness?

I agreed. I think she'll make a full recovery.


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