Course: ENGL405: The American Renaissance

As most famously defined by F. O. Matthiessen in his groundbreaking book, The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), the term “American Renaissance” demarcates a period of tremendous literary activity between the 1830s and 1860s that marked the cultivation, for the first time, of a distinctively American literature. For Matthiessen and many other critics, its key figures Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville sought to define and explore a new American identity, carving out inventive modes of expression and self-identification. In the years since Matthiessen’s important work and especially in the past several decades, this characterization of the literary period has been challenged on several fronts, especially for overstating the innovations of these few authors; for the exclusion of women, people of color, and more popular authors from its account of the United States during a period of social and cultural upheaval and transition; and for its acceptance of the myth of American exceptionalism or superiority.

We begin this course by looking at context: What was it in American culture and society that led to the dramatic outburst of literary creativity in this era? Each unit starts with a broad overview of the literary period and different ways of framing it before moving on to examine the economic, political, and social changes that were transforming the United States and making a profound impact on the literary production of the era: industrialization and urbanization, the development of mass politics, the debate over slavery, and Western expansion. Following that context, you will explore some of the period’s most famous works, approaching them by genre category and important literary contributions (Units 2-4). Because of the varied ways that authors in this course invoke literary tropes and techniques like myth, symbolism, imagery, simile, metaphor, narrative structure, allusions, apostrophe, and others in their works, what we find during this period is indeed an American Renaissance of texts that respond to societal changes and upheavals. Overall, we attempt to define the emerging American identity represented in this literature and think about the larger implications of this robust textual output (Units 5-7).

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Course: ENGL405: The American Renaissance

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January 16, 2018   Posted in: American Renaissance |

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