The New England Transcendentalists were influenced by a variety of European and Eastern authors and texts—ancient and modern, literary, philosophical, religious, social, and historical. They read the works of German writers Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schelling, Goethe, and Novalis; French philosophers Cousin and Constant; English Romantics Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle; Plato and the English neo-Platonic writers; Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg; Confucius; and the sacred texts of the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavadgita. From such antecedents and contemporaries, they took what was useful to them in developing their own sense of man’s innate divinity, capabilities, and place in creation.
In The Dial, Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau, and their associates celebrated authors whose work stimulated their own thought. Fuller penned verses about German Romantic novelist and humorist Jean Paul Richter for the first issue of the magazine (July 1840). Poet Caroline Sturgis Tappan—a friend of both Emerson and Fuller—contributed “From Goethe” (lines of verse) to the October 1840 issue, which also included a notice by George Ripley of Cousin’s translation of Plato’s works. Parker’s long essay “German Literature” and Fuller’s “Menzel’s View of Goethe” both appeared in January 1841. Fuller wrote an essay on Goethe and a notice of Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History for the July 1841 issue. In July 1842, under the title “Veeshnoo Sarma,” Emerson published selections from Charles Wilkins’s translation of the Hitopadesha (a collection of Sanskrit fables in prose and verse) and a notice of a new volume of poems by Wordsworth. Thoreau’s “The Preaching of Buddha”—“extracts from one of the religious books [the Sanskrit Lotus Sutra] of the Buddhists of Nepal”—appeared in English translation in January 1844.
Octavius Brooks Frothingham’s Transcendentalism in New England: A History was published in 1876, some three decades after the movement’s peak but while a number of its survivors—Emerson, Peabody, Alcott, Clarke, and Hedge among them—were still living. Frothingham preceded this first comprehensive history of Transcendentalism and its chief proponents with an exploration of the German, French, and English writers whose work had informed it. He thus established the antecedents of Transcendentalism as essential to its study.
In the twentieth century, Frederic Ives Carpenter’s Emerson and Asia (1930) and Stanley Vogel’s German Literary Influences on the American Transcendentalists (1955) furthered understanding of the specific impact that their reading had on devotees of the new thought. Walter Harding’s bibliographies of the libraries of Thoreau and Emerson (published in 1957 and 1967, respectively) paved the way for later studies. In Thoreau’s Reading: A Study in Intellectual History with Bibliographical Catalogue (1988), Robert Sattelmeyer explicitly linked Thoreau’s reading and his thought. In his masterful intellectual biographies Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986) and Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), Robert D. Richardson enlivened for both general and academic audiences the subject of the Transcendentalists’ response to their reading. More recently, the rise of Transatlantic studies has reinforced the importance to scholarship of the foreign texts that engaged the Transcendentalists. And as intellectual influence has been recognized in scholarly work, the usefulness of library and archival holdings reflecting it has increased.
Association copies may have considerable collectible as well as research value, particularly when inscribed or otherwise marked, or when there is supporting textual documentation of response to the ideas contained within. From time to time, books from the library of one or another of the Transcendental authors shows up in a dealer’s catalogue or at auction, in some instances requiring a significant investment by the collector.
Many books gathered or consulted by the Transcendentalists survive in New England institutions. Especially rich in German volumes, Theodore Parker’s personal library was bequeathed to the Boston Public Library. Emerson and Alcott gave some volumes from their personal collections to the new Concord Free Public Library in the 1870s. Emerson’s gifts included four titles originally part of the library of English mystic, reformer, and educator James Pierrepont Greaves, brought from England by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in 1842. A significant group of books once belonging to Henry Thoreau came to the library from Sophia Thoreau and other donors. Among these were three titles sent to Thoreau by his English disciple Thomas Cholmondeley. In the twentieth century, the bulk of Emerson’s personal library was deposited in the Houghton Library at Harvard. Books that Emerson and Thoreau read while at Harvard College are still found in the Harvard libraries. Some items from the Concord Social Library—to which the nineteenth-century Concord authors had access—remain available for research use at the Concord Free Public Library, which also holds the remnants of Elizabeth Peabody’s Foreign Library.
Today, the Concord Free Public Library actively seeks to build upon the strength of its holdings by acquiring key titles and editions read and admired by the New England Transcendentalists.
30. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Aids to Reflection, in the Formation of a Manly Character . . . First American, from the First London Edition . . . With a Preliminary Essay, and Additional Notes, by James Marsh . . . (Burlington [Vermont]: Chauncey Goodrich, 1829).
31. Johann Gottfried Herder. The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry . . . Translated from the German, by James Marsh. In Two Volumes (Burlington [Vermont]: Edward Smith, 1833).
32. Germaine de Staël. De L’Allemagne . . . Seconde Édition . . . (London: John Murray, 1813), in three volumes.