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[336] of the literary masterpieces of the transcendental school, to one of the greater essays of Emerson for example, the Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, or The over-soul, without a consciousness, as he puts down the volume, of having passed for the time into a higher sphere of being, without a deepened conviction of the triviality, the relative unreality, of material concerns, without a sense of spaciousness, of clarity, of nobility, of power, a feeling that that much abused word “eternal” has suddenly put on a very real and concrete meaning. Against such an actual experience no mere argument can avail. Nor does the emotion thus evoked end in a vague mystical exaltation. It leaves, rather, whether the reader profit by it or not, a distinct sense of its bearing on the daily conduct of life. This spirit of uplift, together with the moral impulsion it imparts, is the heart of New England transcendentalism.

But the transcendentalists were not always at the level of their masterpieces, and from the outset two results of a movement whose essence was so intangible and ideal were practically inevitable: first, that it should be misunderstood and misinterpreted by those who viewed it from outside; and second, that it should lead to excesses among the initiated themselves which would lend colour and, in a measure, justification to its critics. So quickly, indeed, did these results appear that to the public the word “transcendental” soon came to mean, to all intents and purposes, “transcending common sense,” and this use of the term gained added sanction from the difficulty of distinguishing sharply between transcendentalism and other currents of social and religious unrest then pulsing through New England. Some notion of the varieties of “dissent” and “reform” contending at that time for public attention is conveyed in Emerson's description of the Chardon Street Convention which was held in Boston in 1840:

Madmen, madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers.

Surely these were wild and “transcendental” times!

Of the members of the Club it was Amos Bronson Alcott,

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