Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

A Comparative Study of Two American Cultural Renaissances

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

A Comparative Study of Two American Cultural Renaissances

Article excerpt


Americans love to indulge in rebellions and rebirths, evolutions and revolutions, renewals and restorations in politics, public life, business, academia and the arts. Such movements, often mercurial in their development and explosive in their impact, may aid in the rediscovery in American life and letters works and personalities that have been neglected, or lost to the ravages of time; alternatively they may introduce wholly new and innovative ideas and elements into the American community, often audaciously transforming society in the process. Achievements like these are not for the faint of heart, and the leaders who seize upon them are often America's best and brightest, artists-cum-philosophers-cum-activists whose efforts to effect political, social and spiritual reform are energized by a heady alembic of aesthetics and argument. Such an admixture is seemingly so American, the height of the realization of the American Dream, which often harks simultaneously and ambivalently to the spirit of rebellion at the foundation of American experience, and to a just-as-permanent conservative bent toward convention, conformity and traditional mores.

In this paper I will examine wings of two famed American renaissances that fit the patterns sketched above, and significantly impacted the nation's literary, philosophical and cultural life. I will scrutinize the "preachers" of the early-to-mid nineteenth century first American Renaissance, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and also the "teachers" of the early-to-mid twentieth century Southern Renaissance, led by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and others. I will attempt to show how the Emersonian first American Renaissance and the Nashville Agrarian Southern Renaissance, though emerging from very different regions and societal milieus in the United States, sprouted from and were nourished by a common soil of cultural, religious, historical and philosophical conditions and propensities. Ultimately, I hope my examination will highlight how these two movements are located at each end of an historical/creative/intellectual continuum, which at the highest level demarks the "beginning of the beginning" and the "end of the beginning" of a critical phase of American life and letters.


At first glance these two movements and their leading actors might seem unrelated, with great time, distance and significantly different cultural settings separating them. On the one hand we find as the leading figure of the first American Renaissance Ralph Waldo Emerson, the wizened, liberal New England Unitarian, educated at Harvard and very, very much a well-connected Boston Brahmin, lording over America's imperial "Athens." The first American Renaissance was largely built around Emerson's free-thinking, universalizing, transcendental philosophy propounded in his essays, public speaking, and romantic, sometimes maudlin, but penetrating poetry. Emerson's message was embedded and embraced in Boston, the ambivalent polity of which was possessed on the one hand of deeply conservative, even reactionary social strains, while also being a hotbed of progressive activism prior to the Civil War.

A glance at the twentieth-century American Southern Renaissance indicates how different it was from Emerson's. It's epicenter, Nashville, could hardly compare to Boston in cosmopolitan impact and appeal, (1) and the movement emerged out of a U.S. region conservative to the point of backwardness, often antagonistic to any broadminded, let alone liberal, cultural and intellectual qualities, and only then emerging from the destruction and psychic torment wrought by the Civil War. To its credit, however, this group was an impressive assemblage of highly educated, often brilliant, scholars and poets. The Southern Renaissance was in some senses introduced by writers such as William Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Katherine Anne Porter, and Tennessee Williams, but it became focused in Nashville and Vanderbilt University, where prominent academics or former students such Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom were at work. …

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