Much of the drama of the Transcendentalist movement was communicated orally, in the meetings of the Transcendental Club, in lectures and sermons, and, above all, in the celebrated Conversations of Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott. The role of conversation in the Transcendentalists’ pursuit of self-culture cannot be overstated. They would have readily agreed with the words of French essayist Michel de Montaigne who wrote, “In my opinion the most profitable and most natural exercise of our mind is conversation. To me it is a more agreeable occupation than any other in life.” Reading, he said, is a passive activity, whereas “conversation instructs and exercises us at the same time.”
In nineteenth-century America, clubs, parlors, and salons were popular venues for promoting self-culture through conversation, or table talk, as it was sometimes called…. As much as he extolled the virtues of solitude, Emerson prized conversation even more highly. It was a favorite subject of his essays and lectures. In his essay “Circles,” Emerson likened conversation to the Pentecostal experience of speaking in tongues. “Conversation is a game of circles. In conversation we pluck up the termini which bound the common of silence on every side,” he noted. “Yet let us enjoy the cloven flame whilst it glows on our walls. . . . O, what truths profound and executable only in ages and orbs are supposed in the announcement of every truth!”
Emerson’s conversation was that of the parlor and the club. Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott brought conversation into the salon and the classroom to promote self-culture and provide for their own livelihood. Beginning in 1839 Fuller led her series of Conversations, primarily for women, at Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore for five years. These were essentially a form of spiritual consciousness-raising, facilitated by Fuller, on a variety of topics, including literature, mythology, and women’s issues. Each series was offered by subscription and consisted of two-hour sessions over a period of three months.
These were not simply intellectual discussions, and their purpose was not educational in the usual sense of the term. Fuller sought, first, to integrate the head and the heart, the intellect and the affections. Second, she wished to connect learning with living by applying thought to the problems of life…. As she expressed it, the aim of these Conversations was “to pass in review the departments of thought and knowledge and endeavor to place them in due relation to one another in our minds…. To ascertain what pursuits are best suited to us in our time and state of society, and how we may make best use of our means for building up the life of thought upon the life of action.” These conversations were guided by two fundamental questions, “What were we born to do? How shall we do it? which so few ever propose to themselves ’till their best years are gone by.”
[From Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul]
Forming conversation circles
You too can engage in “the game of circles.” I have applied these principles in sharing the teachings of the Transcendentalists with groups of adults in a conversational setting. Sitting in a circle, participants take turns reading paragraphs from the essays, letters and journals of these authors. It is important to pause as we proceed to clarify, to define words and, especially, to relate the meaning of these passages to our own lives.
These groups may be termed study circles, discussion groups or even meet-ups. They may gather in churches, libraries, schools or someone’s home. They should be facilitated by a person who is skilled at asking appropriate questions, drawing people out and encouraging everyone to participate.
In “Table Talk,” one of Emerson’s later lectures, he wrote that conversation must adhere to certain “mechanics,” or rules: “You shall not be leaky,” meaning confidences must be kept; “You shall not be opinionative and argumentative”; “Beware of jokes,” since humor punctures the mood; and “You shall not be negative, but affirmative.” When these conditions are met, conversation becomes a kind of collective maieutics, or midwifery, by which each participant helps to bring the latent thoughts of others to consciousness.
Whether they take Emerson’s advice or not, groups should establish ground rules for discussion. This will promote the richest exchange of thoughts and feelings. In addition to group discussions, participants may be encouraged to keep journals, practice contemplation, take walks together in nature or engage in collective social action.
Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul, by Barry M. Andrews
American Transcendentalism: A History, by Philip F. Gura
The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence Buell