1836 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

October 2017

At sunset on August 29, Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, climbed off their horses in a high pass over Oregon’s Blue Mountains and praised God. Five thousand feet below them lay their destination, the Walla Walla valley. “Enchanting,” wrote Narcissa in her journal later. Five months before, they had set out from Liberty, Missouri, with Rev. Henry Spalding and his wife, Eliza, on their overland journey to Oregon, where the couples intended to work as missionaries among the Indians. Never before had the overland route been attempted by white women, but Narcissa and Eliza demonstrated to those back east who were longing to pioneer that women were equal to the arduous trip. And theirs had been a formidable one.

From the beginning, the couples’ relations were tense, for Narcissa had rejected Spalding as a suitor eight years earlier. Enraged, Spalding had publicly accused Narcissa of lacking good judgment. The Whitmans had struggled to find another couple to join them as missionaries in Oregon, but in the end they were obliged to settle for the Spaldings. They regretted it; Spalding’s malice often made the difficult journey nearly unbearable.

Nevertheless, during the first few months of the trip, Narcissa reveled in their life under the open sky. She wore men’s boots, rode sidesaddle, and relished the food: “So long as I have buffalo meat I do not wish anything else.” And she was in love, having just married Marcus before their departure. “I was never so content and happy before,” she wrote.

But as the months passed, the road took its toll. At times it seemed as if the wilderness conspired to block their way. River crossings were hazardous, and the men toiled like beasts to get the wagon up hills and mountains. “So stif and hard” was the sagebrush in places, Narcissa wrote, “as to be much in the way of our animals & waggon.” Malnutrition, filth, and exhaustion became continual companions. August’s heat was so scorching that “truly 1 thought ‘the Heavens over us were brass,” Narcissa wrote, “& the earth iron under our feet.’” A wagon axle snapped, animals went lame, and the tension between the couples exploded into arguments so bitter that when they finally arrived in Oregon, they settled 120 miles apart.

It proved a foolish decision. Eleven years later, innocent of offense, the Whitmans were massacred by the Indians they had come to save. When the Reverend Spalding finally arrived at their mission, he could do no more than comfort the survivors.

Bound by a common dissatisfaction with Unitarianism, a distinguished company gathered on September 19 in the Boston home of Rev. George Ripley. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott attended; Orestes A. Brownson, Frederic Henry Hedge, Convers Francis, and James Freeman Clarke all were there. Their purpose was “to see how far it would be possible,” Ripley said, “for earnest minds to meet”—they wished to form a discussion group. Thoroughly anti-institutional, they founded one that had no officers, no regular meetings, and a single rule: no one would be welcome whose presence prevented the discussion of any topic. But Boston’s intellectuals were an open-minded lot, and before long members included Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John S. Dwight, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Theodore Parker, and many more. Their group was mockingly dubbed the Transcendental Club, and its creed, transcendentalism.

Exactly what the club’s members believed confounded the public of their day. In American Notes , Charles Dickens wrote: “There has sprung up in Boston a sect of philosophers known as Transcendentalists. On inquiring what this appellation might be supposed to signify, I was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would be certainly transcendental.” From Providence, Emerson wrote his mother, saying: “You must know I am reckoned here a Transcendentalist, and what that beast is, all persons in Providence have a great appetite to know.…They have various definitions of the word current here. One man, of whom I have been told, in good earnest defined it as ‘Operations on the Teeth’.…”

A definition of transcendentalism remains elusive today, but one can at least say that most of its idealistic adherents believed in the unity of all creation and the innate goodness of man. They also held that the deepest truths are reached by insight and intuition, not by logic and sensuous experience. In their quest for those truths, they ranged freely over the history of religion and philosophy, drawing inspiration from such sources as Indian and Chinese scriptures, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Berkeley, Swedenborg, Kant, and Coleridge. In Emerson’s first book, Nature , which became the group’s manifesto, the author alternately embraces mysticism, pantheism, and idealism in his search for the true relation of man to God and nature. He acknowledged the movement’s lack of ideological restraint in an 1842 journal entry: it is “the Saturnalia of faith,” he wrote. “It is faith run mad.”

Transcendental ists were not all retiring intellectuals, however. Because of their belief in the goodness of man, they led countless movements for social reform, from abolitionism to feminism, educational reform, and Utopian experiments such as Fruitlands and Brook Farm. In fact, the work of the transcendentalists in mid-nineteenth-century America amounted to a cultural and social renaissance, the effects of which are still felt today.

•September 14: Aaron Burr, the former senator, vice-president, and renowned duelist, dies at age eighty.