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Editor’s Notes:  How Artists Are Forged

I recognized early on in my son’s life, Brett Johnson, that he had a gift for words that had the potential to flower into something special. Recently he had to write a high school essay that  brought together the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Chris McCandless.

He struggled to get traction on this assignment and finally came to me for help. In one remarkable evening that began at 6 pm on a Saturday evening and ended at 5 am the following morning I watched him start with nothing and produce this essay. The extent of my input was to coach about how to architect an essay, do some basic research, and then to assemble the work into a form that would allow him to write.

What came next was absolutely stunning. The sentences poured out of him were molten gold that then needed to cool; only then was he able to pound the source quotes and his thoughts into a final whole. I watched an artist find his voice and put it to paper for the first time that went far beyond a school assignment.

This in effect was the second birth of my son.

Every word in this essay is his, every combination of quotes in this essay was his, every key topic in this essay was his choice, as was the final edit some 11 hours later. I was so amazed at what a 16 year old person could do when challenged to be better than he ever imagined possible.

If you find this essay wonderfully done please leave Brett a comment to encourage him in his journey as beautiful person and artist. 

And now for his voice. Be ready, He has something to say.



An Essay: Into The Wild
by Brett Johnson

Transcendentalism in the 19th century was a literary and philosophical movement that glorified the divinity of the individual. Yet this divinity could only be found if the individual was independent and self-reliant enough to find it. Transcendentalists, valuing independence sought for there to be nothing between God and the individual as this divinity is less an external being, as it is interred in all things (1). Seeing divinity in all beings, transcendentalists believed that everything could be defined, and that the definition would always be, inherently good, held up and connected by the divinity that every man holds within. With the philosophy of a self-contained and all connecting divine idea in everyone creates an accentuation on the individual rather than society as a whole. For if all are naturally connected, then society ceases to be an area of connection, but one of individual oppression through conformation. Being self-reliant and independent from the society that seeks to connect man through conformity can man then and only then find the inherent, god given, and internalized divine right to truly be connected to all beings is the transcendental ideal.

Among Congregationalist liberals in New England during the 19th century arose the Transcendentalism movement which was spearheaded by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), who today is widely regarded today as the movement’s key founding father (2). Emerson was born in a conservative Unitarian family whose father was a minister. His Unitarian upbringing spurred his Transcendental ideals which inspired him to write frequently on the subject, including Self-Reliance, Nature, and The Transcendentalist (3). Another Transcendentalist and close friend of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), was a hardworking man who, like Emerson, wrote about subjects pertaining to Transcendentalism. Thoreau’s most enduring works were Civil Disobedience and Walden, which documents his stay at Walden Pond, a pond that at the time was on land owned by Emerson (4)(5). Towards the late 1800s Transcendentalism had begun to fade away with Transcendentalist, Samuel Osgood, writing “The sect of Transcendentalists has disappeared because their light has gone everywhere.” (6).

Though Transcendentalism may have faded away at the end of the 19th century its key tenets survived and influenced the Civil Rights movement, the Hippies of the 1960s, and finally environmentalism during the 20th century (7). Civil Disobedience, a concept that Thoreau wrote extensively on in his aptly named essay Civil Disobedience, influenced Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement (7). Again, the hippies of the 1960s and transcendentalist beliefs have obvious commonalities with both believing in “rebell[ing] against society” and would tend to “not accept to live on anything but the… bare necessities” as expressed by Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance (7). Third, Thoreau, through his writings on living naturally as expressed through his work Walden, again inspired John Muir who was a principal voice who spawned the environmental movement of the 20th century (9)(10). Lastly, on a more personal level, Chris McCandless (1968 – 1992) was inspired to live the ideals of Emerson and Thoreau, as explored in the book Into the Wild.

These ideals of transcendentalism have been a pervasive part of the American character for the past 200 years. One way we can understand how these ideals have impacted American society is to compare the words and lives of Emerson, Thoreau, and McCandless.

A core idea of Emerson is that “no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil.” In other words, “trust thyself” and struggle against “the joint stock company” that trades individual liberty for “his share of bread to each shareholder” (Self-Reliance). Thoreau amplified Emerson’s idea when he wrote “To be strictly just, [government] must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to [the government]” (Civil Disobedience Excerpt p. 3). Emerson and Thoreau both state the need to be independent in their writings on self-reliance and civil disobedience. McCandless took those ideas and found the path to “ultimate freedom” through being self-reliant (Into the Wild p. 163).

McCandless in finding his “ultimate freedom” risked being misunderstood. As stated in the Alaskan Dispatch News, he is referred to as a “suicidal narcissist, [bum], and poacher” (Alaskan Dispatch News p. 7). Emerson foreshadowed such responses when he wrote “to be great is to be misunderstood” (Self-Reliance). Thoreau concurred that living a life of non-conformity took inner strength when he wrote “[men] should be men first, and subjects afterwards” (Civil Disobedience Excerpt p. 1). These three philosophized that abandoning what someone believes their person is and excising society as if it were a poison. Breaking the mold society expected them to fill they did not find fear they, in fact, find pride instead. What these men fear is being accepted and not being true to their individual nature.

While the transcendentalists recognized the need for self-reliance and the strength it took to live a non-conformist life, they also understand that to live simply was to live with clarity. Thoreau perfectly expressed this ideal when “[he] went to the woods because [he] wish[ed] [to] live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” with the goal to “live deep and suck out the marrow of life” (Walden Excerpt p. 1). McCandless who appears to be directly inspired by Thoreau because not only did he recreate an Alaskan Walden, he carried with him Thoreau’s writings. Yet McCandless took the idea of simplicity to such an extreme that it cost him his life. He misunderstood this basic transcendental idea that “nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great” (11). Living simply allows greatness to be focused on the ultimate freedom of divine life, close to god and nature.

In being in self-reliant, living simply, and avoiding conformity can man hear the divine thrum that “every heart vibrates to” and to reach the penultimate place “divine providence has found for you” that is interred within all beings. Be it a bare cabin “merely a defense for the rain” that still is viewed as a cathedral fit for a “traveling god” where “heaven is under our feet as well as above it” that connects man to a god-like divinity which is internalized in nature and ourselves. Self-reliance, simplicity, and freedom are the planks that built the divine house that sheltered Thoreau at Walden or formed the steel that protected McCandless in the Alaskan Wilderness.

The notion of divinity is a culmination and summarization of transcendental goals, in that it lays a framework in which to reach your own cabin or bus, a place where your American character flourishes in the place divine providence has found for you.

Now in the 21st century the transcendental ideals feel particularly necessary since we are often distracted by endless stream of tweets, Instagram, and Facebook posts that while holding out the promise of richer world end up divorcing us from the divine joy of discovering our own soil, our own thoughts rendered with clarity and honed with simplicity.

Copyright 2016 – Brett Johnson – All Rights Reserved

1 http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/roots/legacy/19trans.html
2 http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/authors/emerson/
3 http://rwe.org/
4 http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/authors/thoreau/
5 https://www.walden.org/Library/The_Writings_of_Henry_David_Thoreau:_The_Digital_Collection
6 https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/first-age-reform/essays/transcendentalism-and-social-reform
7 http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163011?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
8 http://www.exampleessays.com/viewpaper/33321.html
9 http://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/henry-david-thoreau-environmentalist-and-abolitionist
10 http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/people/thoreau.aspx
11 http://www.readingemerson.com/2012/07/19/nothing-is-more-simple-than-greatness-indeed-to-be-simple-is-to-be-great/