How to Teach Transcendentalism

The excerpts in Transcendentalism provide readers with a concise introduction to the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as a broad overview of the transcendentalism movement as a whole.

To ensure that students get the most out of their reading experience, teachers should provide background information and context for the passages in this collection. While the Prestwick House Touchstone provides helpful introductions and annotations, open discussion of the themes students will encounter is an important step. Themes include nature, nonconformity, and spirituality, all rather dense topics. To make these topics more accessible to the class, teachers might have each student choose a line or group of lines that stood out to him or her and write or speak persuasively about that excerpt.

Spend time discussing the impact Emerson's and Thoreau's work had on the course of history. What historical figures seem to have been influenced by their philosophies? Why did Emerson and Thoreau emerge with their ideas at that point in time? Students might seem disinterested in reading these essays, so talking about the influence it had on the course of philosophy and literature might compel them to read the text more closely.


This Prestwick House Touchstone combines Emerson's and Thoreau's foundational essays of the transcendental movement with helpful introductory material and annotations. This collection, which includes "Self-Reliance" and "Civil Disobedience," provides students with a concise and reliable introduction into one of the world's most influential philosophical movements.




One of the most influential philosophical and artistic movements in American history, Transcendentalism forms the foundation for much of American literature. This anthology begins with Emerson’s groundbreaking "Self Reliance" and includes Thoreau’s most influential essay, "Civil Disobedience," and selections from Walden.

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Objectives for Teaching Transcendentalism

  • Identify the key components of transcendentalism.
  • Discuss why Emerson and Thoreau developed and contributed to Transcendentalism when they did.
  • Analyze the rhetorical devices and strategies the two philosophers use to build their arguments.
  • Elucidate transcendentalism's take on nature and its relationship to human spirituality.
  • Explain the importance of solitude as an aid to spiritual enlightenment.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allegory
  • Allusion
  • Anecdote
  • Imagery
  • Metaphor

Themes and Motifs

  • Nature — Transcendentalism espouses the idea that Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, and, therefore, connected to humanity.
  • Individual vs. Society — Emerson and Thoreau stressed the importance of the individual and of independent thought, often rejecting the influence of government.
  • Religion and Spirituality —  These essays often allude to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Unitarianism, all of which rely more on spirituality than they do dogma.

Key Facts

  • Length: 136 pages
  • Publication Date: 2008
  • Recommended Grade Band: 10 – 11


Though there are no films based specifically on Transcendentalism, there are many movies about Emerson's and Thoreau's philosophies that would pair well with teaching this text: The film adaptation of Into the Wild (2007), directed by Sean Penn, received positive reviews from critics. The film New Walden (1991), directed by Arthur Gross, explores transcendentalism cinematically.

Your students will love:

  • Emerson's and Thoreau's perspective on nature
  • Learning about the influence of transcendentalism

Students may have problems with:

  • Emerson's and Thoreau's antiquated syntax
  • Some of their arguments about government and religion

Available from Prestwick House:

Available Formats
Complete Teacher's Kit
AP Teaching Unit
Multiple Critical Perspectives
Response Journal

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