American Studies, Earlier Posts, History, Music
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Transcendentalism Today; or, Music as Cultural Thread

Each generation believes their ideas to be creative, inventive and the finest the world has seen. While the great art of history is venerated, musicians are inducted into halls of fame, and scientists are esteemed for their work – aside from the typical grievances against “strange” things – the newest generation imagines their view of the world to be the most complete. Similarly, if historians of culture make connections to earlier eras, often it is with the understanding that the current method is the preferred method; it is the most perfected method (possibly, the most politically correct method, too). Granted, big issues such as American slavery, pre-feminist/über-patriarchal society, homophobic, and pre-regulation factory eras always are foul and certain philosophies rooted in these ideas should not be revived. Yet, when considering more subtle undercurrents of American thought, should we continue upholding that eras/periods/phases are really finished? On to the new thing! We “debunked” the old way and are moving on to what is correct. Are we disconnected completely from, say, nineteenth century thought? Independent from nostalgia, I see evidence of long threads of thought that show themselves in ways that may or may not be instantly recognizable.

Everyone can agree that the American natural landscape holds a special place in the minds of the people living here, and can be designated as a “theme” in the intellectual history of Americans. These days, one does not need to look far (in city or country) to find persons attached to outdoor recreation, the home-grown food movement via-gardening, passionately speaking out for environmental wellness, or (so-called ) “hipsters:” wearing t-shirts with a bear, buck, or fox graphic. Regardless of what can be said about our attachment to the digital world, we like the “outside.” Though, because this is a theme, does not mean that every American holds that same philosophical thread – only one concept of the outdoors– in their minds. While nature exists as a branch of American thought, the “branch” is made up of numerous smaller stems that move through varying places, spaces, and communities. I argue that while a few ideas may be dominant during particular generations, a handful of primary theories repeat over generations.

For instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson is symbolic of the American Transcendental movement of the nineteenth century and his essay, “Nature,” of 1849 illustrates very specific notions of the American wilderness. We (Americans or anyone in America) wish to have our urban attachments and have access to nature. It is the benefit and the detriment of living in a country that has access to many things at once. In the first paragraph of “Nature,” Emerson acknowledges the simultaneous wish for civilization and sublime nature,

One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…[1]

While one may look at Emerson and the Transcendentalists as “of their time” and locked into an earlier age, I see evidence of transcendental themes in twenty-first century cultural productions.

Currently, a very generous and talented songwriter has offered to answer a series of questions relating to his “cultural productions” in the twenty-first century. While I will not reveal the artist here, I can attest that his writing as emblematic of this theory at work. I look forward to sharing the results of the study with you, whether the final conclusion corresponds with my initial idea, or not. My goal is to do a comparative analysis of Emerson’s writings and Mr. Gracious Musician’s lyrics, which is just a fancy way of saying that I will look at both writers’ work to see if there are similar sentiments.

Stay tuned for updates!


[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” in Nature: Addresses and Lectures (1849).


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