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A. Bronson Alcott. At age fifty-three. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54729).

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Alcott, A. Bronson (29 November 1799–04 March 1888), Transcendentalist and reformer, was born Amos Bronson Alcox in Wolcott, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Chatfield Alcox and Anna Bronson, farmers. Farming the rocky Connecticut soil was not lucrative, and Alcott worked hard with his parents to help support seven younger siblings, thereby limiting his opportunities for a formal education. He attended the local district school until age ten, but thereafter his intellectual growth largely depended on his own reading and discussions with friends of a similar scholarly bent, the first being his cousin William Andrus Alcott. William later attended Yale College and established a career as a physician and popular author of health manuals, but continuing poverty prevented Bronson from obtaining a college education. At age fifteen he, like many of his young Connecticut contemporaries, began peddling small manufactured goods, first in Massachusetts and New York, then in Virginia and the Carolinas....

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Cheney, Ednah Dow Littlehale (27 June 1824–19 November 1904), social reformer and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Sargent Smith Littlehale, a partner in a successful grocery business, and Ednah Parker Dow. By Cheney’s own admission she was precocious and undisciplined as a young girl, attending several private schools without distinguishing herself at any of them. Her religious upbringing was unorthodox if not unusual for the times. She described her father as a Universalist, liberal in both politics and religion. An early supporter of woman suffrage, her father was, however, a firm “Unionist” who found the fiery, abolitionist sermons of ...

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Ralph Waldo Emerson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98114).

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo (25 May 1803–27 April 1882), lecturer and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of William Emerson, a Congregational minister, and Ruth Haskins. Ralph was one of eight children. His father was a liberal, Concord-born minister of the First Church in Boston and active in the city’s intellectual and social life, being an editor of the ...

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Fuller, Margaret (23 May 1810–19 July 1850), author and feminist, was born Sarah Margaret Fuller in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, the daughter of Timothy Fuller, a lawyer, and Margaret Crane. Her father taught his oldest child reading at age three and Latin at age six, but Fuller’s education grew eclectic in later childhood when she was left largely to her own resources. “To excel in all things should be your constant aim; mediocrity is obscurity,” her father wrote to Margaret when she was ten. Under such pressures, Fuller suffered periodically throughout her life from depression and headaches. Timothy Fuller was often away, serving four terms in Congress (1817–1825). Margaret’s mother, a devout Unitarian, was subdued by sickly health. In Fuller’s fictional ...

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Hedge, Frederic Henry (12 December 1805–21 August 1890), Unitarian minister and Harvard professor, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Levi Hedge, a Harvard professor, and Mary Kneeland. His early education came from his father, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, and ...

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Ripley, George (03 October 1802–04 July 1880), reform writer, literary reviewer, and communalist, was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, the son of Jerome Ripley, a businessman, and Sarah Franklin. After attending private academies in the area, in 1819 Ripley went on to Harvard, where his personal and philosophical education was tumultuous. He tried desperately to hold onto the conservativism his parents had encouraged, but he was also attracted to liberal ideas in social reform and theology. When his transformation did not happen quickly enough to suit his classmates, he was ridiculed in one of Harvard’s student riots as “Ripley the pious, fickle as the wind, / For nine times an hour he changes his mind.” When he entered Harvard’s divinity school in 1823, Ripley was still trying to reconcile his inherited Calvinist beliefs with the new views that saw humanity’s inward nature as the source of all beauty and truth....

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Ripley, Sarah Alden Bradford (31 July 1793–26 July 1867), scholar, Transcendentalist, and teacher of Ralph Waldo Emerson, scholar, Transcendentalist, and teacher of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Gamaliel Bradford III, a sea captain and penal reformer, and Elizabeth Hickling. Her father traced his ancestry to ...

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Ripley, Sophia Willard Dana (06 July 1803–04 February 1861), Transcendentalist and early feminist, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the daughter of Francis Dana, Jr., and Sophia Willard Dana. The eldest of four children, Sophia Dana grew up in an atmosphere of alternating uncertainty and stability. Her straying father, a black sheep son of the illustrious and prosperous Dana flock, which included a chief justice, lawyers, professors, seafarers, and merchants, was frequently “out west or away somewhere.” Her mother was from the academic Willard family, which included a Harvard College president and any number of influential liberal-thinking ministers. From early in her youth, Sophia was probably aware of her immediate family’s precarious financial arrangements. Because of her father’s irresponsible spending habits, her mother pragmatically opened a school in her Willard family home, “Fay House” (which stood on the edge of the grounds of Harvard College), where Sophia and her only sister, Mary Elizabeth Dana, later taught. In time, her grandfather largely disowned his namesake son for creating so many debts, noting in his will that while he was leaving him “one hundred dollars and no more” as his share of the family estate, he was bequeathing one sixth of his fortune to his grandchildren, with the provision that his son have no stake in the money. Sophia Dana’s share of that inheritance seems not to have substantially eased her later straitened circumstances, but her growing years in Fay House were comfortable and promising....

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Henry David Thoreau. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ61-361).

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Thoreau, Henry David (12 July 1817–06 May 1862), author and naturalist, whose surname is pronounced “thorough,” was born in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of John Thoreau, a merchant and pencil manufacturer of French ancestry, and Cynthia Dunbar, of Scottish background. He was the only one of the famed Concord authors to be a native of the town. Although he was raised in genteel poverty, Thoreau attended Concord Academy, a private school where his parents hoped he would receive a better education than the public schools could offer. His parents also did much to encourage his youthful interest in natural history. A shy child, he often preferred to keep to himself rather than play with others....

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Very, Jones (28 August 1813–08 May 1880), poet and preacher, was the oldest of six children born in Salem, Massachusetts, to Jones Very, a ship captain, and Lydia Very. No record of marriage exists for the poet’s parents, who were first cousins (with the same surname), though they lived as husband and wife until the elder Jones Very’s death in 1824. Despite financial hardships imposed by his father’s death, the younger Jones Very was able to enter Harvard University as a sophomore in 1833; he finished second in his class in 1836 and then served as tutor in Greek at the college while studying at the divinity school. But in September 1838 his affiliation with Harvard came to an end when he, under the influence of a mystical religious experience, came into disfavor with the college authorities, was relieved of his duties, and was sent for a month to the McLean Asylum in nearby Charlestown....