Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources

What is “the American Renaissance?”

"The American Renaissance" = the decades of the 1820s through the 1860sa.k.a.

the Antebellum Period--that is, the generation before the American Civil War of 1861-65 (ante = before, bellum = war)

the Romantic Movement in American literature (which thus occurred a generation or two after the Romantic movement in Europe. English RomanticismBlake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and others--is traditionally defined as the period between 1789 and 1832.)

"American Renaissance" comes from the 1941 book American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman by F. O. Matthiessen (PS 201 / M3 / 1968 in UHCL library), which redefined the period as the “first maturity” of American literature, whose masterpieces achieved a quality comparable to those of the "European Renaissance" of the 16th & 17th centuries. "Renaissance" also means “a flowering" or “a culture on the rise." Matthiessen limited the American Renaissance to the work of five central figures in a six-year period, 1850-1855, though he also paid brief attention to Emily Dickinson’s work.While not denying the Romantic aspects of this period,

Following are the time-frame and the major authors and works of Matthiessen’s American Renaissance:

  • 1850 Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter
  • 1851 Melville, Moby-Dick
  • 1853 Emerson, Representative Men
  • 1854 Thoreau, Walden
  • 1855 Whitman, Leaves of Grass (first edition)

The “alternative” American Renaissance

In recent decades, literary and cultural history have expanded the concept of the American Renaissance to cover a broader range of time (1820-1860, even 1820-1900) and particularly to include more popular and representative authors.

The alternative tradition to the original American Renaissance receiving the most attention has been the movement in popular and private women’s writing of the same period, especially domestic romances coinciding with the classical American Renaissance period:

  • 1850 Susan Warner, The Wide, Wide World

  • 1851-2 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  • 1854 Susan Maria Cummins, The Lamplighter

  • 1855 Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall

These novels were more popular (that is, they sold and were read more widely) than the classical texts identified by Matthiessen; however, the popular novels were rarely studied in schools and, except for Uncle Tom's Cabin, fell out of print by the 20th century. Scholarship describing this alternative American Renaissance of women’s literature includes Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction (Cornell UP, 1977); Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word (1985); Jane P. Tompkins, Sensational Designs (1984). (copies in UHCL's Neumann Library)

Another "American Renaissance" that is drawing increased scholarly attention is the first great period in African American literature:

  • 1845 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

  • 1847 Frederick Douglass, The North Star (weekly newspaper, later known as Frederick Douglass's Paper [until 1860]);

  • 1847 William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself

  • 1850 Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondwoman of Olden Time (recorded by Olive Gilbert)

  • 1853 William Wells Brown, Clotel; or the President's Daughter ("first full-length African American novel")

  • 1855 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

  • 1859 Frances E. W. Harper, "Two Offers" (first short story by an African American woman)

  • 1859 Harriet Wilson, Our Nig (first novel by an African American woman)

  • 1861 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Plus many other "slave narratives" and abolitionist writings, speeches, poems, & songs


Comparing the classical American Renaissance and the alternate American Renaissances.  (All of these descriptions may be questioned.  They oversimplify categories for the sake of comparison. In fact, the categories frequently overlap.)

Classical: “excellence,” refined style, appealed to elite tastes (intellect, humanistic traditions, compositional integrity); usually didn’t sell well on first publication, but eventually well-represented in libraries and reading lists, and stayed in print in school anthologies

Alternative: “representative” or “popular”; looser, freer style; appealed to wide tastes (sentiment, religion, sensation); sold well on publication, but most (except Uncle Tom’s Cabin) fell out of print after nineteenth century until feminist scholarship rediscovered and republished them in the late twentieth century. Much of the African American tradition continued to be studied at historically black colleges and universities.

The "American Renaissance" as a cultural movement: As with the European Renaissance, the American Renaissance was marked by several cultural or demographic trends:

  • growth of cities

  • westward expansion ("Manifest Destiny," including the founding of Texas)

  • "modernization," especially in terms advances in science, technology, and literacy

  • reaction against modernity via popular religion (esp. millennial evangelicalism) and the occult.