They were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe” (O, 3).
Emerson and Thoreau sought this relation in solitude amidst nature, and in their writing.
Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass introduced the "free verse" style of poetry, reflecting the individualistic tone of transcendentalism.
This picture of Whitman with a butterfly appeared in the 1889 edition.
Other important transcendentalists were Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Child, Amos Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Theodore Parker.
Stimulated by English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume, the transcendentalists operated with the sense that a new era was at hand.
For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." "Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds.
His intellectual contributions to the philosophy of transcendentalism inspired a uniquely American idealism and spirit of reform. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again.
It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth.