Waldo”as the seventeen-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson took to calling himself”was one of eight children raised by a stern minister given over to Unitarianism, that “feather-bed to catch a falling Christian.” When the pater died in 1811, the household was reduced to a genteel poverty, over which ruled the sternly devout widow and a lugubrious aunt eager to die.

Cold is the only word for it, as the nineteen-year-old Waldo confessed when he wrote, “I have not the kind affections of a pigeon” and “There is not in the whole wide Universe of God . . . one being to whom I am attached with warm & entire devotion.” Of course, he had to study divinity at Harvard and be ordained for the ministry, but doing both caused him to suffer inexplicable seizures, as if he were allergic to the cloth.

He was also penniless until, in 1828, he made the acquaintance of Ellen Tucker. She was a rich merchant’s daughter already dying of tuberculosis. In between pledges of his undying love, Emerson nagged her to tears over what she called “the ugly subject”: her will and estate. They married in 1829. She died in 1831. Her father contested the will, but Waldo prevailed to the tune of $23

,000, a small fortune in those days. He promptly claimed conscience forbade him to continue as pastor of Boston’s Second Church, and he sailed off to Europe. By the time he came home, Waldo had reinvented himself as a comfortable prophet disparaging the worship of money.

Emerson’s status as self-reliant, self-appointed prophet of a uniquely American philosophy was at least as dubious. An insatiable reader, he knew all the ancient and modern classics and returned from Europe especially taken with Carlyle, Coleridge, Blake, ­Shelley, Wordsworth, Kant, Goethe, and the mystical ­Swedenborg. Even Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” a speech Oliver Wendell Holmes would nail as America’s intellectual declaration of independence, was a “comprehensive raid on Romantic articulations” well established abroad. One auditor thought the speech echoed the “misty, dreamy, unintelligible style of ­Swedenborg, Coleridge, and Carlyle . . . . I must question whether he himself would have written such an apparently incoherent and unintelligible address, had he not been familiar with the writings of the authors above named.”

Emerson’s essays were written to be spoken aloud, like an Athenian peroration, for their effect. Glib aperçus ”a disciple called them “dots of thought””tumbled over each other in defiance of the rules of logic. Years later, Lowell wrote to a friend: “Emerson’s oration was more disjointed than usual, even with him. It began nowhere and ended everywhere, and yet . . . it was all such stuff as stars are made of . . . . I felt something in me that cried, ‘Ha, ha, to the sound of the trumpets!’” Exactly so: Whether on the lyceum circuit or in print, Emerson told Americans that they were unique individuals in touch with divinity, infinite in their possibilities, laws unto themselves”and told them in language so abstruse and uplifting that consumers of culture suspended their critical faculties. Emerson pioneered the career of public intellectual.

New England’s Transcendentalist movement made a fetish of Kant’s notion that certain basic realities transcend human experience and reason, and thus can be apprehended only through intuition. The preachers and pantheists of the era said the same. But devolved Unitarians embellished their personal sense of the divine with Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim Sufi mysteries carried to Boston on merchants’ ships. In 1836 they formed a Transcendental Club, and they later published The Dial , edited by Margaret Fuller and then by the cult’s high priest, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

No one gainsaid Emerson’s way with words. Every day he recorded in the journal he called his savings bank everything interesting that he read, heard, thought, or felt; then he made withdrawals whenever he was called on to indulge his “passionate love for the strains of eloquence.” He enriched the American lexicon with such turns of phrase as whosoever would be a man, must be a nonconformist ; for what is man born but a reformer ; to be great is to be misunderstood ; things are in the saddle and ride mankind ; genius is sacrificed to talent every day ; foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds ; and hitch your wagon to a star .

Behind the aphorisms lurked a brilliant, voracious ego blind to any truths the human race may have learned by revelation or hard experience. Emerson’s first essay, the 1836 “Nature,” began: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation with the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us , and not the history of theirs?”

He taught only two realities: the Me and the Not Me or Other , which is nature. The Me was as free as Adam to access the mind of the Creator and unlock “the palace of eternity.” As it stands, “man is a god in ruins . . . the dwarf of himself.” But man need only gaze on the world with new eyes to answer the timeless inquiry “What is truth?” and build a “kingdom of man over nature.” The following year, Emerson proclaimed that “the world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature . . . in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all . . . . [The] unsearched might of man, belongs by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” Once Americans walk on their own feet, a “nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

In his “Divinity School Address” (1838), Emerson came right out and pronounced that man’s religious sentiment made him divine, beatified, illimitable. Jesus gave us holy thoughts, but to suggest he had to die for humanity’s sins degraded all parties. The very word miracle is a “monster.” Away with preachers, pulpits, churches! Away with a historical Christianity that obscures “the moral nature of man, where the sublime is.” Preachers claimed that the truth gave life, but mankind is called “to convert life into truth.” What! Shall we found a new cult with new rites and forms? Not at all. “Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms.”

And so on and so on in essays such as “The Over-Soul,” “Spiritual Laws,” and “Circles.” Emerson taught the postmodern creed that truth is accessible to all through the divine over-soul, the assurance of truth being simply one’s feeling of certainty. “We know truth when we see it, from opinion, as we know when we are awake that we are awake.” Hence the only sin man can commit is to limit himself through a failure to realize that he is “masterless.” No wonder Friedrich Nietz-sche, who conceived of a superman “beyond good and evil,” carried a volume of Emerson wherever he went. It was Emerson who warned in “Circles”: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.”

In fact, Emerson put nothing at risk that his disciples had not already discarded, and his broader influence was so feeble that his most representative disciple was the bathetic David Henry Thoreau (he later transposed his given names). When Emerson ­settled in Concord, he invited Thoreau”a timid, tubercular, Harvard-trained teacher”to join his household and pursue a literary career. Thoreau made a minor splash in the magazine trade, thanks to assistance from Horace Greeley, but won lasting fame by camping out at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847.

Thoreau’s self-reliance was less than heroic. He went into town almost every day, sponged off friends, and hosted regular picnics at his cabin. Mountain men such as Jim Bridger would have guffawed at the pretense. But Thoreau’s little book Walden; or, Life in the Woods tugged New Englanders’ heartstrings: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau in fact ­experienced little of life. He never married and never traveled beyond the Northeast. His greatest adventure was spending one night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. Even his signature essay “Civil Disobedience” was ignored until after his death.

Thoreau was standoffish and timid. Was he talking about himself in Walden when he (brilliantly) observed, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”? Caroline Sturgis Tappan likened him to a porcupine. Emerson thought him fit only to lead a huckleberrying party. But no one was chillier than the Sage of Concord himself. Emerson did remarry and had four children, but confessed that this marriage was another practical match devoid of romance. His few friendships”for instance, those with Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father)”were purchased with loans and patronage.

George Santayana considered Emerson’s Transcendental method peculiarly sympathetic to the American mind: “It embodied, in a radical form, the spirit of Protestantism as distinguished from its inherited ­doctrines; it was autonomous, undismayed, calmly revolutionary; it felt that Will was deeper than Intellect; it focused everything on the here and now . . . . These things are truly American . . . and they are strikingly exemplified in the thought and person of Emerson.”

No doubt all that is so. But it is also hard to resist concluding that Emerson’s Transcendentalism was a manic effort to transcend himself because he was never comfortable in his own skin.

What a relief to move on to an author of real fiction who told real stories rooted in history, an American who admitted his “imagination was a tarnished mirror” and had real doubts about his countrymen’s headlong flight into the future. Nathaniel Hathorne (he added the w when he was in his twenties) was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts.

Sure enough, one of his Puritan forebears adjudicated the Salem witch trials. He had the usual childhood tragedies, including the death of his father when he was four and a serious athletic injury when he was nine. But thanks to the money and love of a large extended family, the boy grew up happy with plenty of chances to indulge his love for books and the outdoors alike.

He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1825, having made lifelong friends of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce. He had also made a decision: He would follow the pioneering steps of James Fenimore Cooper and try to earn a ­living as an author. For twelve years, Hawthorne was “the obscurest man of letters in America,” but between dancing and card games he redeemed the time by poring over New England’s history and literature.

Twice-Told Tales (1837) made his reputation, thanks in part to a rave notice in the North American Review by Longfellow. But the royalties did not ­suffice, so Hawthorne tapped his Democratic party connections (Pierce was already a U.S. senator) to win a post in the Boston customhouse. That allowed him to marry his “dove,” the invalid artist Sophia Peabody, and settle in Concord.

Needless to say, he fell in with the Transcendentalists, losing $1,000 in their utopian venture at Brook Farm but gaining the inspiration to write such denunciations of self-obsession as “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “Egotism; or, the Bosom-Serpent.” Ousted by his landlord in 1845, Hawthorne again tapped his connections for a job in the Salem customhouse.

There he reconnected with his Puritan heritage. So when a Whig victory left him unemployed in 1849, he moved to Lenox ready to write The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), an exposé of the “phantasmagorical antics” at Brook Farm. In 1852 he wrote the presidential-campaign biography for Pierce; he was rewarded with four exciting years as U.S. consul in Liverpool.

Emerson had contempt for the past. Hawthorne swam in it. Emerson imagined the human soul as a sun radiating power and light. Hawthorne sensed the “dark side of the force” as keenly as Cotton Mather and John Bunyan. Emerson buried a crystalline gospel in obscure, prolix prose. Hawthorne excavated hellish recesses in transparent prose. Just roll this over the tongue from The Blithedale Romance : “Bewitching to my fancy are all those nooks and crannies, where Nature, like a stray partridge, hides her head among the long-established haunts of men . . . . There is far more of the picturesque, more truth to native and characteristic tendencies, and vastly greater suggestiveness, in the back view of a residence, whether in town or country, than in its front. The latter is always artificial; it is meant for the world’s eye, and it is therefore a veil and a concealment. Realities keep in the rear, and put forward an advance guard of show and humbug.”

Pride and its symbols were Hawthorne’s fixation: pride born of status, power, wealth, moralism, and not least intellect. He felt such pride, or the desire for pride, in himself”that is why one finds in Hawthorne a humility rare among his New England contemporaries. He shared the era’s faith in democracy and the individual”indeed, he was far more of a patriot than Emerson and Thoreau”but could not bring himself to believe Americans were somehow released from the human condition. He rejected the Puritan theology even as they did but could not deny the unwelcome truths that made the Puritans anxious.

The Scarlet Letter is rightly Hawthorne’s most famous work (though he preferred The House of the Seven Gables ). Even people who have never read it, or have only skimmed it in high school, know that it paints a scathing portrait of the authoritarian, guilt-ridden Calvinist culture. But not only was the real message relevant to his own culture; it also anticipated the twentieth century’s obsession with sex and ­sublimation.

The earthy Hester Prynne, who must wear a red letter A , repents of and atones for the pride that threw her into the arms of the handsome young pastor. Hers is a long and productive life enriched by the love child Pearl (of great price?). Her prideful lover, by contrast, is consumed by guilt, and her prideful father is devoured by a lust for vengeance.

Nor was Hawthorne just purging himself of the burden of his ancestry by implying that Calvinism, not sin, was the cause of their troubles. Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse are replete with themes pricking his own ­society. “The Great Carbuncle” (1837) tells of a legendary gem of enormous brilliance and size hidden away in the White Mountains. Obsessed adventurers have thrown their lives away in vain pursuit, never even sure if it really exists. The Seeker discovers the carbuncle only to perish in the effort to reach it. The Cynic cannot see it through his tinted spectacles, and is cursed to spend the rest of his life wandering in search of light. The newlyweds Matthew and Hannah come to their senses, turn their backs on the gem, and walk away bathed in the light of their love, not for riches or nature, but for each other.

“The Celestial Railroad” (1843), a hilarious allegory published by the Democratic Review , made it obvious that Hawthorne was damning his own time from the standpoint of the seventeenth century rather than damning the Puritans from the standpoint of the nineteenth century. The narrator dreams an up-to-date ­version of A Pilgrim’s Progress wherein the souls bound for the Celestial City are provided with every convenience. Railroads and steamboats can speed them to heaven. Luxury hotels await them in the towns. But Mr. Take-it-Easy, his guide, has no desire to reach a destination where there is “no business doing, no fun going on, nothing to drink, no smoking allowed, and a thrumming of church music from morning till night. I would not stay in such a place if they offered me house-room and living free.” The greatest pitfall is the town of Vanity Fair. Persecution of Christians has ceased; indeed, clergymen such as the Reverend Shallow-Deep and Dr. Wind-of-Doctrine preside over the pleasure dome in league with its capitalist stockholders. None of its pilgrims complete their journeys; they are said to sell off large estates in the Celestial City in order to lease a small tenement in Vanity Fair.

No humor disturbed the nightmarish mood of Hawthorne’s masterpiece “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). We are back in colonial Massachusetts to observe an upright young husband deceive his wife, Faith, in order to sneak off into the woods after dark. He is bound for some rite of passage administered by the pastors. He arrives late (“Faith kept me back a while”) to find the whole town gathered for a black mass during which he”and Faith”are to be initiated into the coven. “Welcome my, children,” says the dark leader, “to the communion of your race . . . . There are all whom ye have reverenced since youth. Ye deeded them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin . . . . This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how the hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of the households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair little damsels”blush not, sweet ones”have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.”

Perhaps it was all a nightmare, but Goodman Brown could never rest easy, or lift up his heart to a psalm, for the rest of his life. But the Romantics were always excessive! One must not jump to the conclusion that Hawthorne thought human nature as utterly debased as Emerson thought it sublime. Hawthorne just took everything to an extreme in order to make a point. Human beings all suffer temptation; all sin; all lie about it. So they had better temper their self-congratulations and utopian ambitions with some candor, truth, and love.

While residing in Lenox, Hawthorne met and befriended Herman Melville, another young Yankee struggling with fiction, Puritanism, and finances. Melville’s paternal grandfather was a veteran of the Boston Tea Party, his maternal grandfather a Dutch patroon who served as a general in Washington’s army, and his father a prosperous importer in New York. Herman, the second of eight children (all of whom lived to adulthood, beating the odds), seemed destined for a good, conventional education and career until 1827, when his father was swindled by a confidence man. The family fled to Albany, and then the children were orphaned by the death of their father in 1832. The boy Herman worked as a clerk, farmhand, and teacher until 1839, when he decided to go to sea on a Liverpool packet (the voyage later recounted in Redburn in 1849). Upon his return, he briefly roamed in Illinois, then signed on to the whaler Acushnet bound in 1841 for the South Seas.

Melville returned after three and a half years of ­rollicking adventures. He deserted the whaler in the Marquesas Islands to escape its brutal skipper, took nervous refuge with the allegedly cannibalistic Typees, signed with an Australian whaler, and jumped ship again in Tahiti. Another American whaler carried him to Honolulu, where he worked as a clerk and pinsetter in a bowling alley before enlisting in the U.S. Navy just to get home.

The first literary fruit was Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life , initially published in England because Harper Brothers refused to credit Melville’s “anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth.”

Typee was both a success and a scandal because its praise for the taboo-ridden culture of tattooed Polynesians broke so many Yankee taboos. The sailors drop anchor off the island of Nukuheva to be greeted by a “picturesque band of sylphs” dressed only in flowers and eager to satisfy “the unholy passions of the crew.” Melville takes care to deplore this “grossest licentiousness and most shameful inebriation,” but not only does he relate serial orgies in Typee and its sequel Omoo ; he also savages missionaries intent on destroying the unaffected good nature of Polynesians (they have no money!) and saddling them with guilt. Contrasting the so-called savage with the civilized man, he asks himself, “Insensible as he is to a thousand wants, and removed from harassing cares, may not the savage be the happier of the two?”

Melville’s reviews were decidedly mixed. He was a wonderful spinner of yarns, mixing action with descriptive color and tongue-in-cheek humor. But what a terrible influence on the morals of young Americans! Wanton sex was shocking enough; sex with colored savages was intolerable. Greeley called the books morally diseased. George Washington Peck called Melville a “sharp scamp” of a Yankee whose saturnalias could not be true. First, no manly mind would boast of sexual conquests; only a fraud would do so. Second, absent an “Epicurean elixir” it was physically impossible to perform the sexual athletics described. Third, everyone knew that Polynesian females were not half so attractive as the book suggested.

In fact, the stories were only slightly embellished. In fact, Melville was abashed by “the sinful propensities of his nature” and “had seen enough to doubt the chances that reason, that celestial power, could conquer sexual temptation.” In 1847, Melville married and set up house in New York with his bride, mother, sisters, brother, and sister-in-law. Three more sea stories ­followed with no prurient content at all. Mardi was a tale of heroic love, White Jacket an indictment of navy life, and Redburn a coming-of-age reminiscence of Melville’s voyage to England. They sank like stones.

Then Melville met Hawthorne, devoured his stories, and lived with him for a time in the placid Berkshires. In Hawthorne, Melville discovered a mentor who pried for “that which is beneath the seeming” and bade him engage in “ontological heroics.” Melville determined to pour all his experience and talent into a mighty book that told truth, as he saw it, about life and the psychology of his countrymen.

He already had in mind its “hook”: the familiar South Sea legend about a great alabaster whale named Mocha Dick. He worked furiously, not least because he was desperate for money, completing the whale-sized manuscript by the fall of 1851. Melville, who was then just thirty-three, dedicated it to Hawthorne, assuring his friend that it was “broiled in hellfire.”

The book, destined to become a classic of world ­literature, received generally favorable reviews, though no one quite knew what to make of a tale more complex than a brig’s rigging. Clearly, Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for the elusive white whale that had bitten off his leg doomed not only himself but the Pequod and its piebald crew of sinners, saints, pagans, and salty philosophers. Beyond that the meaning was anyone’s guess, and still is. But so pervasive were Melville’s allusions to current American traits and trends that it is hard not to think Ahab is Emerson’s “representative man” playing God, chasing a millenarian utopia with all the ruthless, conquering passion of Andrew Jackson; enlisting the manifold virtues and credulity of the crew in his mad quest; and taking everyone down with him.

F.O. Matthiessen summed it up with his usual eloquence: “Melville did not achieve in Moby-Dick a Paradise Lost or a Faust . The search for the meaning of life that could be symbolized through the struggle between Ahab and the White Whale was neither so lucid nor so universal. But he did apprehend therein the tragedy of extreme individualism, the disasters of the selfish will, the agony of a spirit so walled within itself that it seemed cut off from any possibility of salvation.”

Americans did not want to contemplate that. They had far too much on their plate in 1851, too many worlds to conquer, too many dreams to fulfill. Moby-Dick sold about two thousand copies, many of which no doubt went unread. Melville’s literary career never recovered. Since Typee , he had fallen into the sin of “revolting against the reader.” Lewis Mumford understood what had happened. “It is hard to refute Melville’s black words,” he wrote, “difficult to find an antidote for this spiritual nightshade. Melville’s contemporaries did not try. They applied to the book the same medicine that worked so well in life: they agreed to forget it. Most of the sweetness and decorum of society rests on an agreement to forget it.”

McCune Smith, that African-American doctor who dreamed of a race-blind society, wrote a long, admiring review of Moby-Dick . He had no difficulty decoding the allegory. The Pequod was the American ship of state, hell-bent on vain pursuit of whiteness.

Just so. For the burst of great literature in the ­United States around 1850 proved not to be a renaissance or a flowering. It was the last glow of a sunset draping long shadows over the republic declared in 1776.

Walter A. McDougall is professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of many books. This essay is drawn from Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, forthcoming this spring from HarperCollins.