Transcendentalism in the modern era applies to a school of thought and a cast of characters that wrote and philosophized in America in the first half of the 1800s. Focused primarily in the New England states, these men and women were reacting against the Yankee Puritanism that came with the pilgrims and became entrenched in the culture of the region.
They rejected the rituals and dogma of all organized religions and sought a more personal, direct, and secular route to unlock the mysteries of the universe and commune with the divine.
It is no surprise that American Transcendentalists emerged in the New England region of the United States as opposed to another part of the country. This area, of course, is where the pilgrims landed, and their rigid Puritanism naturally inspired a forceful backlash among free thinkers and intellectuals of the time.
The American Transcendentalists were a combination of philosophers, psychologists, rugged individualists, naturalists, and literary folk. Their nature-loving ways bordered on pantheism. They called nature the macrocosm, and the human soul the microcosm. They believed that the microcosm perfectly mirrored the macrocosm and called the God of their understanding the Over-Soul. The Transcendentalists valued instinct and insight above intellect. They were into mysticism and the philosophical and spiritual teaching of India and China. They wrote experimental poetry, advocated civil rights, were early feminists, and lived in communes. The most famous Transcendentalists are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, but there were other major players in the Transcendentalist movement as well.