American Renaissance (literature)

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This article is about the American Renaissance in literature. For the use of the term in architecture and the arts, see American Renaissance. For the white supremacist periodical, see American Renaissance (magazine).

The American Renaissance period in literature is generally defined as the mid-19th century but especially the years roughly from 1850 to 1855. Major works from those years include Ralph Waldo Emerson's Representative Men (1850, though most of Emerson's best-known texts were published earlier), Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), and Walt Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Since the late 20th century, the works of Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and African-American writers such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown have been added to the canon, inspired by humanism and the possibilities of democracy.


Scholar F. O. Matthiessen originated the phrase "American Renaissance" in his 1941 book American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Although Matthiessen limited his definition to the period between 1850 and 1855, the term has since expanded to a broader range of time. In The American Renaissance Reconsidered, for example, Eric Sundquist expands the years covered by the American Renaissance to "the 1830s through the Civil War."[1]

The notion of an American Renaissance has been criticized for overemphasizing a small number of white male writers and artifacts of high culture.[2] William E. Cain noted the "extreme white male formation" of Matthiessen's list of authors and stated that by "devoting hundreds of pages of analysis and celebration to five white male authors, Matthiessen unwittingly prefigured in his book what later readers would dispute and labor to correct."[3]

The demographic exclusivity of the American Renaissance began eroding among scholars toward the end of the twentieth century. They have included Emily Dickinson in the canon; she started writing poetry in the late 1850s. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) rose to a prominent reputation in the late 1970s. African-American literature, including slave narratives by such masters as Frederick Douglass, and early novels by William Wells Brown, has gained increasing recognition.[4]

The American Renaissance continues as a central term in American studies. The American Renaissance was for long considered synonymous with American Romanticism[5] and was closely associated with Transcendentalism.[6] Often considered a movement centered in New England, the American Renaissance was inspired in part by a new focus on humanism as a way to move from Calvinism.[7]

The thematic center of the American Renaissance was what Matthiessen called the "devotion" of all five of his writers to "the possibilities of democracy." He presented the American Renaissance texts as "literature for our democracy” and challenged the nation to repossess them.[8]


  1. ^ Abrams, Robert E. Landscape and Ideology in American Renaissance Literature: Topographies of Skepticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004: 132. ISBN 0-521-83064-8
  2. ^ Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2003: 145.
  3. ^ Cain, William E. F.O. Matthiessen and the Politics of Criticism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988: 168.
  4. ^ Jarrett, Gene Andrew. A Companion to African American Literature. Chichester, U.K.; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010: 103.
  5. ^ Knight, Denise D. Writers of the American Renaissance: An A-to-Z Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003: XI.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought? The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007: 615. ISBN 978-0-19-507894-7
  8. ^ Lauter, Paul. A Companion to American Literature and Culture. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010: 68 ISBN 0-631-20892-5