"American Renaissance"

David S. Reynolds

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
"American Renaissance"


The term American Renaissance, as applied to literature, was popularly established by the Harvard scholar F. O. Matthiessen in his 1941 book American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Matthiessen calls the years between 1850 and 1855 an “extraordinarily concentrated moment of literary expression” (p. vii); this half-decade saw the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and several other Melville works; Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It is now generally agreed that the American Renaissance extended at least as far back as the publications of Emerson’s early writings, in the 1830s, and continued well into the 1860s. Matthiessen, reflecting his era’s interest in apolitical aestheticism and formalism, focused almost exclusively on five authors—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman—whose writings possessed qualities such as complexity, irony, and linguistic richness. Since Matthiessen, criticism of the American Renaissance has followed the profession’s movement from New Critical formalism to theory, new historicism, and cultural studies. Matthiessen’s canon of five male authors held sway for decades, but in the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of cultural studies and its concern with issues such as race, class, and gender, this canon was notably expanded. Although many critics in the early 21st century still focus on canonical authors, with Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson having been added to Matthiessen’s five, once marginalized works by African Americans, Native Americans, and women are commonly studied alongside the masterworks that once defined the canon. Moreover, approaches to the American Renaissance have multiplied to include many forms of contextual analysis that take into consideration previously neglected authors. The very notion of an “American Renaissance” has itself been questioned by critics who point out that the Matthiessen-based canon is exclusive and narrow, leaving out many authors of various ethnicities and geographical areas of the United States as well as other nations in the Americas. Thanks to research assistant Michael Druffel for his efficient help with this project.

Article.  16453 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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