Despite their many differences of temperament and of literary perspective, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman shared certain beliefs. Common to all these writers is their humanistic perspective. Its basic premises are that humans are the spiritual center of the universe and that in them alone is the clue to nature, history, and ultimately the cosmos. Without denying outright the existence of a deity, this perspective explains humans and the world in terms of humanity.
This common perspective is almost always universalized. It emphasizes the human as universal, freed from the accidents of time, space, birth, and talent. Thus, for Emerson, the “American Scholar” turns out to be simply “Man Thinking,” while, for Whitman, the “Song of Myself” merges imperceptibly into a song of all the “children of Adam,” where “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Also common to all five writers is the belief that self-realization depends on the harmonious reconciliation of two universal psychological tendencies: first, the self-asserting impulse of the individual to be responsible only to himself or herself, and second, the self-transcending impulse of the individual to know and become one with that world. These conflicting impulses can be seen in the democratic ethic. Democracy advocates individualism, the preservation of the individual's freedom and self-expression. But the democratic self is torn between the duty to self, which is implied by the concept of liberty, and the duty to society, which is implied by the concepts of equality and fraternity.
A third assumption common to the five writers is that intuition and imagination offer a surer road to truth than does abstract logic or scientific method. It is illustrated by their emphasis upon introspection—their belief that the clue to external nature is to be found in the inner world of individual psychology—and by their interpretation of experience as, in essence, symbolic. Both these stresses presume an organic relationship between the self and the cosmos of which only intuition and imagination can properly take account. These writers’ faith in the imagination and in themselves led them to conceive of the writer as a seer.
The author’s discussion of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman is primarily concerned with explaining
some of their beliefs about the difficulties involved in self-realization
some of their beliefs concerning the world and the place that humanity occupies in the universal order
some of their beliefs concerning the relationship between humanism and democracy
the way some of their beliefs are shaped by differences in temperament and literary outlook
the effects of some of their beliefs on their writings