For Love of Transcendentalism

Nothing is quite beautiful alone; nothing but is beautiful in the whole. –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Most of what I read in grade school sucked.

It was not for want of material.  I was lucky to have attended good schools, with access to many books and stories of all kinds.  No, my problem was what I was force-fed in class: dry and humorless, assigned by committee, designed to be as encompassing and “important” as possible.  I learned quickly to look outside of school for material that entertained me.

Some of the school curriculum was good.  Dickens.  Shakespeare.  Whitman.  Others.

The rest wasn’t.

But there were some stories, some essays that were transformative and quietly profound, moving me in ways I couldn’t understand until years later.

I read Ralph Waldo Emerson my junior year.  On first glance, his work appeared to be material which I would need to endure instead of enjoy.  My English III teacher, the outstanding Mr. Suits, described Emerson in loving detail: his labyrinthine sentence structure; his friendships with contemporary, European Romantic poets; his radical theology in a time when reason was being supplanted by religious fervor.  Emerson had created a fervor of a different kind: a Hindu- and Buddhist-influenced movement called Transcendentalism.

To the bored student struggling to keep awake after lunch, none of that mattered.  What mattered to me was how hard he was to read.  At first.

Well, come what may, there was homework to be done, and dammit, I was one to slog through it and get the prized A.  The A grade was king in my world.  It was my lord and master, and I prostrated myself before it.

I struggled on.  And it was halfway through reading Emerson’s essay Nature that I was struck by how much his words rang true to my heart.  His complex, nuanced prose stopped being a problem and started speaking to me.

After finishing Nature, I read the rest of what my aging school textbook had on Emerson, including excerpts from “The American Scholar” and “The Oversoul”.  I stopped only when there was nothing left to read.  Settling into class the next day, I awaited another dreadful writer we would have to endure.

And then Mr. Suits said we would be studying Emerson’s protege and rebellious student, Henry David Thoreau.

We read Walden, or the parts that the textbook editors thought best.  We read all of “Civil Disobedience”: the textbook contained the whole pamphlet in a surprising act of providence.  (I attended high school in Eastern Tennessee, no haven for social activism.)

In class discussions, we bandied about the term Transcendentalism to describe Emerson and his loose-knit followers like the name of some quaint cult.  But there was another word, lurking below the surface, hidden deep in Emerson’s terse two-page biography: Unitarianism.

What the hell is that? The English textbook had no immediate answers, apart from mentioning Emerson’s brief tenure as a Unitarian minister in the tradition of his family.

My family owned a first generation iMac at the time, connected to the internet via 56k modem.  It was like drinking a milkshake with a syringe.  Still, I knew sites that maintained extensive link lists on religious subjects from prior research.  I looked up the term on Beliefnet.  And there it was, just above Wicca and Witchcraft (another subject I was interested in at the time), Unitarianism.

Or rather, Unitarian Universalism.  It seemed this young, upstart movement had married another obscure Christian denomination in a 1960s hippie wedding.  I discovered a church nearby, one that I had seen in passing many times before, never knowing what it was.  As soon as I was able to drive I went to a UU Sunday service for the first time.

Through the struggle of reading an Emerson essay assigned in high school, I became an adopted child of this wonderful, quirky religious community with a name too long for people to remember.  Emerson grew apart from his mother church in later years, but the church would come to embrace Transcendentalism in the next century.  In that high school English class, I endured a long dig in the mines to come upon the Hope Diamond.