I generally try to avoid saying things I will regret later, but one of the things I said in high school which I most regret regarded transcendentalism. Dr C, my English teacher for 2.5 years in high school, and a great teacher and mentor (she passed away the summer after my senior year). In my Senior year, I asked Dr C to write one of my recommendation letters for college. I was stopping into her classroom to say hi on a day we didn’t have class, and as I was leaving she asked me if I considered myself a transcendental person. We had read Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorn together in American Literature, and I had written most of my papers that year on transcendental themes. I think because I had some to associate transcendentalism with the more vapid forms of paganism and spiritualism, I replied with a harsh negative. She looked surprised, and deleted something on her computer.
I regret this not only because what I said was not true (or, better, I realized I had not spoken truthfully after I left the room), but because many of my favorite memories from high school classes are of reading transcendental literature with Dr C.
Friday night I sang in the Collage Concert, which included over 300 performers and every School of Music group on campus. As a member of the Repertory Chorus, I sang the finale “Let Our Garden Grow”, from Candide by Leonard Bernstein, arranged by Dr Robert Page (my conductor, and one of my favorite Professors). With all this as background, the reason I enjoyed singing “Let Our Garden Grow” so much is that it is a transcendental song.
The chorus is:
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
For me transcendentalism was about finding truth in nature and creating with one’s hands. Like any other time a I sing a song from a larger work, my interpretation of “Let Our Garden Grow” has very little to do with the story of Candide. For me, the humble admonition “We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good // We’ll do the best we know” is not about giving into a world of troubles after two Acts of murders, betrayals and character growth, but about making a larger commitment to putting nose to grindstone and creating rather than philosophizing. I think it’s a good message.
It is never too late to give up your prejudices. Walden