America’s Writers: Taking Transcendentalism Beyond New England

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. . . . But the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people.  . . . These too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.

                ~Walt Whitman, “Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)”           

Right: The American Transcendentalist class standing in Fulton Ferry Landing Park in Brooklyn, getting ready to cross Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. Pictured from left to right are: Anna Hughes, Deidre Schaefer, Patricia Dwyer, Cat Hall, Sarah Alouf, Dan Marrs, Lizzie Lowe, and Linda Tate (photo by Karen Karbiener). 

Having visited Walt’s beloved home city, New York, and having stood in Brooklyn looking over into Manhattan as he would have so many times, we definitely caught the Whitman bug. From our travels in New England and New York, we branched out in our reading to encompass the entire United States. Walt was right: The United States are the world’s greatest poem!

After studying the core Transcendentalists, we plunged into nature writing, environmental writing, and other artistic responses to the United States and its natural beauty. In many ways, these writers and artists inspired us even more than the Transcendentalists themselves.

We looked at the roots of exploration in the United States, considering Lewis & Clark, John Wesley Powell, and several other key figures. From these early nineteenth-century explorers, we delved into the western writers of the late nineteenth century, writers such as John Muir and Clarence King. Tiffany was inspired to write about King and his discoveries.

As we moved into the twentieth century to consider the rise of environmentalism and the commitment to political activism, we were deeply moved by the pioneering work of Aldo Leopold. Cat was captivated – from the beginning of the course until the very end – with the life and work of Rachel Carson.

One writer who provided an excellent journaling model for all of us was Annie Dillard. We read portions of her famed book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and had great fun taking on “Dillard perspectives” throughout the semester. Sarah and Cat especially enjoyed Annie Dillard. 

Lizzie was so moved by Terry Tempest Williams’s account of women survivors of breast cancer that she wrote an open letter to the author. Read Lizzie's response to “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” (an excerpt from Williams’s classic memoir, Refuge).

Patricia found that some of the contemporary nature writers spoke to her as well. Read Patricia’s thoughts on Appalachian writer Wendell Berry. Patricia enjoys an ever-deepening literary communion with moose, and you’ll want to be sure to read her thoughts on Trudy Ditmar’s essay about this elusive animal.

And finally, some of these writers inspired us to observe our own worlds closely and attentively. Read Lizzie’s poem, “Mrs. Beetle's Plight,” see Dan’s sketch of his dog, and read Paul’s poems, “Grow,” “Summer Attraction,” and “The Shepherd's Tune.”


“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.