75 Southern Renaissance & The Harlem Renaissance

Amy Berke; Robert Bleil; Jordan Cofer; and Doug Davis

Southern Renaissance – First Wave (1920 – 1940)

After the Civil War, Southern literature had been mostly of the Local Color variety, as Thomas Nelson Page became one of the most prolific Southern writers in postbellum America with his plantation myth stories. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, a number of Southern writers, educated, well-traveled, and well-read, began to break from the “moonlight and magnolias” tradition of Page that evinced nostalgia for the Old South. James Lane Allen from Kentucky, Kate Chopin and Grace King from Louisiana, Ellen Glasgow, Amélie Rives, and Mary Johnston from Virginia took on a wide variety of edgy topics in their works, including a critique of traditional social roles for women and an exploration of sexual desire repressed by rigid cultural norms. Ellen Glasgow, in particular, led the way toward a new Southern literature in her call for more “blood and irony” in Southern fiction. She calls for an invigorated literature that rejects the false veneer of Southern culture and probes the reality of life that is limited or repressed by rigid social norms and develops characters who exhibit fortitude and endurance in spite of such limitations. She is the first voice of the Southern Renaissance, which bloomed fully in the 1920s and 30s within the Modernist temperament of the early twentieth century.

Another seminal “call” for a new Southern literature came in 1917 when cultural critic H. L. Mencken published his famous essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” in the New York Evening Mail. Mencken’s acerbic wit was biting, as he likened Southern culture to the sterility of the Sahara Desert. After World War I, writers such as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren responded to this call by producing a body of literary work that won national and international acclaim as part of a revival of Southern letters and culture. William Faulkner, in particular, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, created a body of work against which future Southern writers would be measured.

The first wave of writers in the Southern Renaissance probed a number of themes, but for the most part the writers had to come to terms with the South’s past, particularly slavery. Racial tensions, racial inequality, white guilt associated with slavery, and the haunting specter of slavery became themes and motifs throughout the literature. Writers also attempted to define the South as a distinct and unique place rather than as simply a region of the United States, especially within the context of social and economic changes that were beginning to erase the distinctive features of the South. Narrative techniques in the literature from this time period are often borrowed from oral storytelling or from other oral traditions in Southern culture, traditions such as preaching, conversing, and memorializing. First Wave writers, like their Local Color predecessors, attempted to capture in print the distinctive features of Southern dialects that were beginning to disappear. Religion and religious images infused much of Southern writing during this time. A particular sub-genre of Southern writing emerged: the Southern gothic story or novel. Southern gothic writing borrowed from elements of eighteenth-century British works written in the style of Gothic, or “Dark Romanticism.” In these stories the fantastic and the macabre were central. In the Southern gothic, writers focused less on supernatural events and more on ways in which the seemingly pretty, orderly surface veneer of the Southern social order hid deep, dark, disturbing secrets or distorted the dark nature of reality behind the curtain of respectability and gentility. Most Southern gothic works also contain some aspect of the grotesque as well. This sub-genre of Southern literature, often termed the Southern grotesque, features images of physical disfigurement, physical decay, mental disability, incest, deviance, extreme violence, illness, suffering, and death. The grotesque motif features prominently in most Southern gothic stories and comment, usually, on some aspects of a disintegrating people and culture.

  1. Glasgow, Ellen. A Certain Measure: An Interpretation of Prose Fiction. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1938.

The Harlem Renaissance

The early years of the twentieth century transformed the United States from a nation of agrarian settlers into a nation of industrial immigrants. With the collapse of the plantation economy and the closing of the western frontier, the United States suddenly became a nation of city-dwellers. The urban economies of the north thrived during this period, and internal migration brought about significant changes in cultural production. While these migratory patterns often reinforced regional identities, they also provided the conditions for the creation of new identities. For African-Americans of the early twentieth century, the Harlem Renaissance was the most significant period of cultural formation since the end of the Civil War.

The Harlem Renaissance is commonly defined as a period of cultural activity by African-American artists that began in Harlem, a New York City neighborhood in northern Manhattan, in the 1920s and ended in the years leading up to World War II. Yet that short span of approximately fifteen years neither accurately describes the period, nor indicates the lasting influence that the Harlem Renaissance continues to have on American literature. In order to locate the roots of the Harlem Renaissance, we need to go back at least as far as 1910 and the founding of The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Many members of the Harlem Renaissance, including early luminaries such as Countee Cullen and Jessie Redmon Fauset, were closely associated with The Crisis and with the high ideals of its editorial page “[to] stand for the right of men, irrespective of color or race, for the highest ideals of American democracy” (Du Bois, November 1910). This dedication to the idealized principles of Ameri-can democracy and a celebration of the achievements of African-Americans had a direct influence on the early members of the Harlem Renaissance. Many, like Cullen and Fauset, were highly and traditionally educated, and their poetry and fiction descend directly from the English literary traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While other AfricanAmerican writers of the time embraced folklore traditions, Cullen and many others celebrated their association with the highest forms of English literature.

From the very beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance, the movement lacked unity. Although some members embraced the high language of Du Bois and those closest to him, others argued for a literature that responded to the writers’ Afri-can heritage instead of their European connection. Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925) is often regarded as the manifesto of this pan-Africanism. Writers like Rich-ard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, are often considered to be part of this second branch of the Harlem Renaissance.

By the 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance no longer signified a unified artistic ideal, and its many voices and members were scattered around the globe by evolving racial tensions in the United States. Beyond Harlem, African-American communities were thriving in cities like Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh; furthermore, the wars in Europe were redrawing political boundaries worldwide. Almost as quickly as it began, the Harlem Renaissance faded, but it left behind a legacy of independence in literature, music, and heart that can be traced directly to jazz, the blues, Motown, rock, rap, and hip-hop.


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American Literatures After 1865 Copyright © by Amy Berke; Robert Bleil; Jordan Cofer; and Doug Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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