In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section "American Renaissance"

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Databases and Resources
  • Reference Works

American Literature "American Renaissance"
David S. Reynolds
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0054


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.

General Overviews

Among overviews of pre–Civil War literature, Parrington 1987 uses a history-of-ideas approach, Matthiessen 2007 concentrates on formalist aesthetics, Kazin 1984 combines history and close reading of canonical writers, and Loving 1993 extends chronological coverage. The rise of cultural and historicist criticism has brought a broadening consideration of the relationship between major writers and popular culture, noncanonical literature, and once-neglected social contexts, as evidenced in Ziff 1981, Buell 1986, Reynolds 2011, and Reynolds 1996.

  • Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture: From Revolution to Renaissance. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570384

    An ambitious attempt to challenge the largely ahistorical emphases of the New Criticism and post-structuralism through a narrative literary history, Buell’s book considers a broad array of New England authors in light of the passage of Puritan Calvinism, the rise of liberal Protestantism, the legacy of neoclassicism, biblical narrative, the “New England comic grotesque,” and “provincial gothic.”

  • Kazin, Alfred. An American Procession: The Major American Writers from 1830 to 1930—the Crucial Century. New York: Knopf, 1984.

    In his chapters on the antebellum era, Kazin describes American literature as the product of uniquely gifted literary artists preoccupied with the self, history, and the art of writing. Unabashedly devoted to the received canon (Emily Dickinson is the only woman writer discussed, and writings by ethnic minorities are ignored), Kazin highlights central themes and passages of selected authors.

  • Loving, Jerome. Lost in the Customhouse: Authorship in the American Renaissance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

    Loving begins with Washington Irving and extends the period of America’s literary rebirth to the end of the 19th century. Using Freudian approaches, contextualist criticism, and myth-and-symbol methodology, Loving challenges post-structuralism and celebrates the major literature as an affirmation of the individual seeker’s quest for identity and meaning.

  • Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2007.

    Facsimile reprint of original 1941 edition (London and New York: Oxford University Press). Reflecting the New Critics’ interest in symbolism, ambiguity, and paradox, Matthiessen dwells on the stylistic richness of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although he slights noncanonical literature of the period, Matthiessen provides context by placing the major authors in the literary tradition, from the metaphysical poets to Henry James and T. S. Eliot, and he reaches suggestively into cultural areas such as politics, oratory, religion, and landscape painting.

  • Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920. Vol. 2, The Romantic Revolution in America, 1800–1860. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

    Facsimile reprint of original 1927 edition (New York: Harcourt Brace). This historicist study, which has made a comeback after years of being denigrated by formalist critics, offers insights into the political, economic, and social contexts of the transcendentalists, Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe as well as women writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Fuller.

  • Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1996.

    Reprint of original 1995 edition (New York: Knopf). Using Whitman as a window on 19th-century America, this book explores not only Whitman, but also many writers who influenced him. Reynolds shows that Whitman’s poetry brought together images and themes from many cultural and social phenomena, including literature, city life, politics, journalism, landscape painting, photography, music, theater, science and pseudoscience, religion, physiology and phrenology, and sexual attitudes.

  • Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Reprint of original 1988 edition (New York: Knopf). This book shows that the major pre–Civil War authors made extensive literary use of images and themes borrowed from 19th-century cultural phenomena such as sermons, newspapers, reform tracts, erotic writings, urban fiction, sentimental novels, and popular humor. Reynolds reveals swirling, subversive cultural energies that helped fuel the iconoclastic themes of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Dickinson.

  • Ziff, Larzer. Literary Democracy: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America, 1837–1861. New York: Viking, 1981.

    In an effort to bridge the gap between the historical criticism of Van Wyck Brooks and the stylistic method of F. O. Matthiessen, Ziff combines cultural history, biography, Freudian criticism, and close textual readings in loosely connected chapters on all the major American Renaissance figures except Dickinson, as well as other writers, including Stowe, Fuller, George Lippard, and George Washington Harris.

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