Course Description

This course offers a historical and theoretical introduction to American Transcendentalism, one of the first great intellectual movements dedicated to generating a radically new vision for American literature, culture, religion, and philosophy. Inspired by the American Revolution and influenced by German Romanticism, Eastern philosophy, and a host of other global and transatlantic currents, the Transcendentalists were a loose group of romantics, visionaries, and freethinking men and women who included, among others, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, the Peabody sisters, Orestes Brownson, and Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May Alcott. This course will survey the history of Transcendentalism between the 1830s and the early 1850s, exploring the movement’s complicated, and at times troubling, relationship to individualism and self-reliance; labor and capitalism; craft, technology, and aesthetics; religion and spirituality; and reform movements such as abolitionism, feminism, and communal living. We will also look at later American writings inspired and frustrated by transcendental thought, including Herman Melville’s epic and sprawling confrontation with transcendentalism in Moby Dick.

Throughout our journey, we will explore the failures and legacies of American transcendentalism in our own contemporary culture, re-thinking the insights of transcendental thinking in light of recent phenomena such as virtual reality and reality augmentation, the Internet and utopian dreams of a technological singularity, the grassroots activism of Black Lives Matters, the rise of human-animal studies, the transcendental aesthetics in independent video games (Myst, Riven, and Witness), and the visionary cinematic worlds of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013). Course requirements include consistent and active participation, a reading journal, two essays, and a short oral presentation. When all is said and done, we will have asked what Emerson called “the practical question of the conduct of life: How shall I live?”


Required Texts:

  • The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings (Modern Library Classics), ed. Buell, 978-0812975093
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings (Norton Critical Editions), 978-0393930900
  • Frederick Douglass, The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition, 978-0300184624
  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (Second Edition) (Norton Critical Editions), 978-0393972832
  • Required Films: Terrance Malick, Tree of Life (2011) and Shane Carruth, Upstream Color (2013)
  • Recommended: Philip F. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (Hill & Wang), 978-0809016440


Course Information:

  • Course Number: ENG 489
  • Term: Spring 2017
  • Time: MW 3:30 – 4:45 PM
  • Location: Liberal Arts Building 202


Professor Information:

  • Professor Craig Carey
  • Office: LAB 342
  • Office Phone: (601) 266-4072
  • Office Hours: W 2-3 pm, T 11-1 pm, and by appt.
  • Email:

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