Renaissance is a word that gets bandied about with little regard to its actual meaning. Properly understood, a renaissance is a renewed interest in something. In the most famous renaissance, the Italians of the 14th century took up a renewed interest in Greek and Roman art. If rail travel becomes more popular, it can be said to be undergoing a renaissance. If a neighborhood that was previously impoverished sees an influx of new residents and artists, it is not necessarily undergoing a renaissance, but, more likely, a renewal.
Cultural historians have identified a number of important “renaissances” in American history.
Perhaps most famous is the Harlem Renaissance. For the purposes of this essay, though, I am interested in regional renaissances. The two most significant are the New England Renaissance and the Southern Renaissance. In American history, regional renaissances have occurred in the wake of a region’s most powerful era. When a region falls from a prominence it once knew, its artists and thinkers are compelled to reflect upon the history of the region.
The New England Renaissance occurred in the 1840s and 1850s. The writers of the New England Renaissance were reflecting upon the creation of the first democratically governed country in the world. They were searching for their identities as Americans. Emerson called for an “American Scholar”. Whitman’s poetry celebrated the democratic masses. These writers form the basis for the American cannon.
The Southern Renaissance occurred in the 1910s and 1920s. The writers of the Southern Renaissance were concerned with coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and the Civil War.
Some, like the Southern Agrarians, were intent upon maintaining a strong Southern identity that rejected the industrialization and commercial progress touted by the New Southerners. William Faulkner produced some of the most beautiful literature in American history as he grappled with the South’s racial past.