WebQuest: Transcendentalism: Observing the World Around Us

Overview: In this WebQuest, you will learn about the ways in which Ralph Waldo Emerson establishes and Henry David Thoreau reflects the Transcendentalist emphasis on nature. Together, the two initiated a long literary tradition of nature writing. Here you can see the growing emphasis on the American landscape and setting as an important focus for American writing.

Step 1: Learn about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s approach to the intellectual journey.
Begin by reading excerpts from Emerson’s journals, as collected in The Norton Book of Nature Writing (144-151). Emerson’s own journaling practice – the habit of paying close attention – informed his groundbreaking essay. Finally, read his speech, “The American Scholar,” a speech many writers and thinkers of the day consider to be America’s intellectual declaration of independence.

Step 2: Learn about the life and work of Henry David Thoreau.
Read a biography of Thoreau. Read about the connection between Thoreau and nature writing. Consider Emerson and Thoreau as pioneers in the environmental movement by reading Ann Woodlief’s essay, “Emerson and Thoreau as American Prophets of Eco-Wisdom.” Be sure to explore this online collection of Thoreau’s journals. If you want to go further in your study of Thoreau, check out The Thoreau Reader.

Step 3: Learn about the unique relationship between Emerson and Thoreau.
Read about the relationship between the mentor Emerson and his “disciple” Thoreau. Read excerpts from Emerson’s journals and Thoreau’s journals in which they reflect on their unique friendship. You might find it interesting also to read some of the letters they wrote to each other. Finally, read Emerson’s reflections on Thoreau in “An Essay.”

Step 4: Explore Thoreau’s approach to close observation.
Look at journal entries from Thoreau (same page as in step 2). Then read what Thoreau has to say about the art of writing.

Read the following Thoreau excerpts in The Norton Book of Nature Writing: excerpt from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (170-172); “Walking” (180-205); excerpt from The Maine Woods (205-211); and excerpt from Journals (211-220). Read also Thoreau’s essay, “A Winter Walk.”

Step 5: Read Chapter 2 from Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place.

Journal Prompts

As always, at least one of your journal entries this week should be in response to the WebQuest. Here are some possible prompts to get you started on that task (but you aren’t limited to these starting points!).

Journal Prompt #1: Emerson’s writings raise the questions: “What is authority?” and “What defines truth?” Drawing from the Emerson journal excerpts, from the essay “Nature,” and/or “The American Scholar,” summarize your understanding of Emerson’s answers to these two questions.

Journal Prompt #2: Thoreau’s writings also try to answer the questions: “What is authority?” and “What defines truth?” Drawing from the Thoreau journal excerpts, from any of the Thoreau readings in The Norton Book of Nature Writing, and/or from “A Winter Walk,” summarize your understanding of Thoreau’s answers to the two questions.

Essay Question (if you choose to write about Thoreau as a “disciple” of Emerson for the March 27 essay)
In “Nature,” Emerson lays the groundwork for a new movement, which would come to be known as Transcendentalism. In “The American Scholar,” he identifies the way in which “man thinking” needs to approach the world. In your essay, you should choose either “Nature” OR “The American Scholar,” identify the approaches to truth and understanding that Emerson outlines in your chosen essay, and then show how Thoreau applies this approach in his essay “Walking.”

As always, be sure to include resources from the WebQuest (you’ll want to cite at least one of the pieces on nature writing in Step 1). See the Essay Guidelines for more detail about research, sources, length requirements, and documentation. Essay due to Dr. Tate via email by March 27 at 3:00 p.m.

“American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide” was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit “About This Site.” © 2003 Linda Tate.