Octavius Brooks Frothingham,
Octavius Brooks Frothingham was a second-generation Transcendentalist,
an organizer and first president of the Free Religious Association, the
first historian of Transcendentalism, and a biographer of several major
His historical account of Transcendentalism, Transcendentalism in New England
(1876), though now outdated, remains one of the most comprehensive.
From Frothingham’s Transcendentalism in New England:
Transcendentalism, as it is called, the transcendental movement, was an
important factor in American life. Though local in activity, limited in
scope, brief in duration, engaging but a comparatively small number of
individuals, and passing over the upper regions of the mind, it left a
broad and deep trace on ideas and institutions. It affected thinkers,
swayed politicians, guided moralists, inspired philanthropists, created
reformers. The moral enthusiasm of the last generation, which broke out
with such prodigious power in the holy war against slavery; which uttered
such earnest protests against capital punishment, and the wrongs inflicted
on women; which made such passionate pleading in behalf of the weak, the
injured, the disfranchised of every race and condition; which exalted
humanity above institutions, and proclaimed the inherent worth of man,—owed,
in larger measure than is suspected, its glow and force to the
This, as a fact of history, must be admitted, as well
by those who judge the movement unfavorably, as by its friends. In the
view of history, which is concerned with causes and effects in their
large human relations, individual opinions on them are of small moment.
It was once the fashion—and still in some quarters it is the fashion—to
laugh at Transcendentalism as an incomprehensible folly, and to call
Transcendentalists visionaries. To admit that they were, would not
alter the fact that they exerted an influence on their generation.
It is usual with critics of a cold, unsympathetic, cynical cast,
to speak of Transcendentalism as a form of sentimentality, and of
Transcendentalists as sentimentalists; to decry enthusiasm, and
deprecate the mischievous effects of feeling on the discussion of
social questions. But their disapproval, however just and wholesome,
does not abolish the trace which moral enthusiasm, under whatever
name these judges may please to put upon it, has left on the social
life of the people.
Whether the impression was for evil or for good, it is there, and equally significant for warning or for commendation. . . .
To those who may object that the writer has too freely indulged his own
in favor of Transcendentalism and the Transcendentalists, and has
own rules by writing a eulogy instead of a history, he would reply, that in his
belief every system is best understood when studied sympathetically, and
is most fairly interpreted from the inside. We can know its purposes only from its
friends, and we can do justice to its friends only when we accept their own
account of their beliefs and aims. Rénan somewhere says, that in order to
judge a faith one must have confessed it and abandoned it. Such a rule supposes
sincerity in the confession and honesty in the withdrawal; but with this
qualification its reasonableness is easily admitted. If the result of such a
verdict prove more favorable than the polemic would give, and more cordial than
the critic approves, it may not be the less just for that.
The writer was once a pure Transcendentalist, a warm sympathizer with transcendental
aspirations, and an ardent admirer of transcendental teachers. His ardor may have
cooled; his faith may have been modified; later studies and meditations may have
commended to him other ideas and methods; but he still retains enough of his
former faith to enable him to do it justice. His purpose has been to write a
history; not a critical or philosophical history, but simply a history; to
present his subject with the smallest possible admixture of discussion,
either in defence or opposition. He has, therefore, avoided the metaphysics
of his theme, by presenting cardinal ideas in the simplest statement he could
command, and omitting the details that would only cumber a narrative.
Sufficient references are given for the direction of students who may wish to
become more intimately acquainted with the transcendental philosophy, but
an exhaustive survey of the speculative field has not been attempted. . . .