Essay on Transcendentalism in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail


To many, philosophy seems an endless book of questions. Readers scramble through the pages searching for the answers; yet the answers to these questions can be found in the practice of life. Transcendentalism, a movement combining literature and philosophy from the nineteenth century, uses values of individualism and curiosity to prompt the search for philosophical answers in one's life. Henry David Thoreau, the main character of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, implements Transcendentalism in his everyday life by continually asking questions, making observations, and remaining true to his personal stances. Throughout the play, Thoreau uses nature and experiences to answer abstract questions as they pertain to him. Transcendentalism is a philosophy applied in everyday life as independence and integrity. 

In today's society, it seems independent thoughts are a taboo subject. Far too often opinions are kept silent in fear of offending other thinkers. However, Henry David Thoreau works past this worry in order to express his Transcendentalist value of individuality. After being sent to jail, Thoreau is met by a cell mate who asks him what side of the war he was on in the outside world. Thoreau responds by saying that he does not side with anyone because he is his own person (Lawrence and Lee 12). Henry David Thoreau's response to the question displays his unlikely characteristics; most would answer one side or the other, yet Thoreau sees himself as relating to neither. As revealed in this scene, the Transcendentalist value of being one's own self can be executed in many manners of life, including maintaining neutrality or having one's own opinion. Further in the play, Henry Thoreau is teaching his class in the middle of a field. A young woman, the eldest sister of a student of Thoreau's, joins the class and begins writing down what he is saying. Henry asks why she is writing, and she claims she wants to remember what he says. Thoreau scolds the young woman for this, saying the notebook is remembering, not her. The young lady, Ellen, points out that he carries a notebook, and Thoreau exclaims, "Follow-the-leader is not the game we're playing here! Young lady, BE YOUR OWN MAN" (Lawrence and Lee 30). Although this scene may seem hypocritical to some, Henry David Thoreau is telling Ellen that she has to seek her own independence. Thoreau stands by being an individual and doing what he believes in. When he sees the young lady mocking him, he lectures her about being her own self. He makes the point that "follow-the leader" is not what life is about, rather, life is an individual game and each person is their own leader. Controlling one's life is a true Transcendentalist value that is applied through actions. Not letting others dictate what individual actions shows self-sufficiency. 

Integrity, or the quality of having strong moral principles, is a value of Transcendentalism that many perform in everyday life without taking notice of it. Integrity is a task as simple as making it to work on time. However, Henry David Thoreau shows his integrity through more in depth ways of life. Thoreau is sent to jail for a reason which could have been avoided had this scene gone a different direction, "I will not pay one copper penny to an unjust government! I wouldn’t pay the tithe and tariff to the church, so I signed off from the church! Well, I’m ready right now, Sam, to sign off from the government. Where do I sign? Where?" (Lawrence and Lee 65). Henry David Thoreau holds his solidarity in this scene by not paying his tax. He does not believe in paying the government, so he allows himself to be sent to jail before he will pay the due. Thoreau's ability to hold true to what he believes in, despite the consequences, is a singular way he allows integrity to take practice in his life. Others practice integrity in their life in a similar way by engaging in civil protests or standing up for what they believe in, despite any repercussions. Thoreau's ethics are cultivated in the play when a Black man arrives at his residence and asks Henry David Thoreau why he lives in a slave shack. Henry responds to this question by saying, "Maybe to prove that less is more. You see, I’m really very wealthy; I just don’t have any money, that’s all" (Lawrence and Lee 89). Henry David Thoreau believes that wealth is determined by intelligence, not by possessions, and he will not let society influence him to see otherwise. Thoreau stays true to what he believes in by practicing ignorance in society; he ignores what others will say about him, and does what makes him happy. Innocence to society's views is an integrity often overlooked in today's world. Few people practice this philosophy, but those who do are in their happiest state. Integrity is a value of Transcendentalism that is highly valued and executed in the life of everyone. 

Self-reliance and solidity are two philosophies of Transcendentalism implemented in the existence of people everywhere. Individuality is a characteristic difficult to develop and maintain in this era, yet somehow humanity continues to expand. Independence is not a trait which can be avoided, it is a transcendentalist value found within everyone. Using one's individuality to question, observe, and debate the life of themselves and others is when the philosophy of self-reliance becomes practiced. Similarly, integrity is something all people have to face in their routines. Although integrity can be disregarded, humankind is oftentimes too stubborn to surrender their individual morals. Transcendentalism is an idea in which integrity is founded, and all who maintain their ethics are philosophers of Transcendentalism. Divergence and honesty are not traits that have disappeared since the nineteenth century, and they will not disappear anytime soon. The philosophy behind the practice of these personal values are not something that will ever truly be understood, because they are unique among all individual thinkers. 

 

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