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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Southern Renaissance – Activities

Overview Questions

  • How do Southern Renaissance writers portray American identity differently from writers from other regions? How do Southern Renaissance writers use race, class, and gender as part of identity? What roles do history, tradition, and heritage play in the work of these writers?
  • Many writers of the Southern Renaissance achieved popularity and/or critical acclaim during their lifetimes, but faded into obscurity for years before being “rescued” by later critics who recognized their achievements as among the greatest in American literature. What accounts for such a roller coaster of critical reception? What does the uneven critical reception of these writers tell us about American “literature” and what constitutes “greatness”? How do the different social and economic backgrounds of writers in the Southern Renaissance influence what and how they write?
  • What is “the South” for writers of the Southern Renaissance? How is “the South” both place and time, and how does it relate to “the North” and the United States more generally?
  • What stylistic and thematic interests do Southern Renaissance writers have in common? How do these writers attempt to connect the past and the future via style and theme?
  • How does the myth of the “Old South” appear to the writers of the Southern Renaissance? How do these writers portray the “New South”? In what ways do Southern Renaissance writers imagine or create a new “New South”?

Video Activities

What is American literature? What are its distinctive voices and styles? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?
Video Comprehension Questions: What were the main social and cultural issues Faulkner and Hurston addressed in their writing? How were their responses to these issues different or similar?
Context Questions: Both Faulkner and Hurston are known for their innovative use of dialect. How do the characters’ dialects help us relate to their social and economic conditions?
Exploratory Questions: Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, after which his books became increasingly popular. Hurston faded into obscurity at about this same time. What might account for the differences in the way these writers were received? Why do you think Hurston’s work found a new audience in the 1970s? What historical events might have prepared that audience to be newly receptive to Hurston’s work?

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it?
Video Comprehension Questions: What are the differences and similarities between the settings and characters created by Faulkner and Hurston?
Context Questions: After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of southerners–most of them black–headed north in search of better lives. This move, known as the “Great Migration,” continued well into the 1920s and 1930s. How did the “Great Migration” influence Hurston’s writing?
Exploratory Questions: Like Faulkner and Hurston, many other writers are well known for their vivid evocations of the time and place about which they write. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Unit 11) is famous for his depiction of elite New York City society in the 1920s, while Henry David Thoreau (Unit 12) is renowned for his descriptions of life in early-nineteenth-century New England. Compare the different strategies these writers use to evoke the periods and places about which they write. Why are these strategies effective for depicting each time and place?

What characteristics of a literary work have made it influential over time?
Video Comprehension Questions: Traditionally, stories have been told in a “linear” fashion, meaning that the story starts at the beginning and proceeds chronologically from one action or event to the next in a more or less straight line. Faulkner rebelled against this linear model, jumbling the chronology of his stories and thereby challenging readers to reassemble the action of the story in a logical manner. Consider both the subject matter of Faulkner’s writing and the historical period in which he wrote: Why might Faulkner have chosen to write nonlinear stories?
Context Questions: In the video you learned that Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! was published in the same year as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. In what ways does Faulkner’s novel contest the vision of the South in Gone With the Wind?
Exploratory Questions: Hurston was often criticized during her lifetime for her realistic–but not always flattering–portrayals of African Americans. What did such critics hope to achieve, and how does such criticism fit in the larger context of African American writing in the twentieth century?

Creative Response

  1. Journal: “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” by Richard Wright depicts the life of poor black southerners very differently from the way that life is depicted by Zora Neale Hurston in “The Gilded Six-Bits.” Wright was, in fact, very critical of the way Hurston portrayed southern blacks; for him, Hurston’s characters were too happy and lived too much in the moment with no thought for what might happen the next day. Wright worried that Hurston’s white readers might get the idea that all African Americans in the South were as carefree and happy as those in Hurston’s stories. Pretend you are Hurston and you have just heard Wright’s critique of your work. Write a letter to Wright in which you explain and defend your creation of characters like Missie May and Joe.
  2. Doing History: Study the images of sharecropping families in the archive and read accounts of what life was like for them. Choose one image and write an account of what a typical day might have been like for the family shown in that image. How early does their day begin? What kinds of things does each person have to do to keep the family going? What are the main concerns of the family members? What are their hopes for the future?
  3. Multimedia:Study the images of southern life contained in the archive and create a short slide-show depicting the various facets of early-twentieth-century southern life. Write short captions for each image to help your audience understand the composition of southern communities in this period. What was the role of religion? Who had automobiles? What other forms of transportation did people use? How did men and women typically pass their time?

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. Imagine you have been asked to help create a museum exhibit comparing the Old South to the New South. Working with one other student, search the archive and read the literature in this unit for images and descriptions of the various ideas of the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Choose ten to twelve items (images as well as short selections from written works) that depict the Old South and ten to twelve items that depict the New South; then write a “guide” to your collection that explains the role of each item in this exhibit.
  2. The year is 1932. Imagine that you and several of your classmates live in Springcreek, a small southern town where the economy has been ravaged by the Great Depression and several years of poor cotton crops. You recently heard about a man who wants to build a rubber factory somewhere in your area. The factory will employ a hundred workers and attract many other businesses to the community in which it is built (including a movie theater and a department store). Some people in your town would love to have the factory in Springcreek. But because your town is so isolated, the rubber factory owner won’t consider locating his business there unless he can be assured that the roads between Springcreek and the nearest city are good enough to ensure he’ll be able to get needed supplies and ship his rubber goods to his customers. Lucky for you, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) has just offered to help build a highway between Springcreek and the city. There’s just one problem: many Springcreek residents are opposed to the idea because they fear a highway, a factory, a movie theater, a department store, and other new businesses will threaten their traditional way of life. Working in a group, stage the town council meeting at which the residents of Springcreek debate the merits of allowing the rubber factory to be built in their town. Your meeting should include people who support the plan as well as people who oppose it, and both sides should have well-reasoned arguments to support their position. Appoint one person as mayor to listen to the debate and make a final decision on the matter.
  3. One of the fundamental events that helped shape the Southern Renaissance was the Scopes “Monkey” trial, officially known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. The trial pitted Scopes, a substitute science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, against the Butler Act, Tennessee’s statute that made it illegal to teach evolution in the state’s public schools. Working with a group of your peers, research the background leading up to the trial, as well as the trial itself. Once you’re familiar with the trial, work together to script a short, one-act play dramatizing the events of the trial, making sure there are enough roles for each of you so that you’ll be able to “stage” a short re-enactment of the trial for your class. After your performance, invite your classmates to discuss how and why this trial was so important to the development of southern writing in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Taking a Stand: The Southern Agrarians Respond to a Changing World

[5224] Dorothea Lange, White Sharecropper Family, Hartwell, Georgia (1937), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018147-C DLC].

Many of the most prominent American writers of the early twentieth century responded to the social and cultural upheavals of the period by rebelling against them; however, that rebellion often took vastly different, even contradictory, forms. For example, one of the most influential literary rebellions of the period was that of the group of literary modernists who became known as the “Lost Generation,” partially due to the fact that many of them were permanent or temporary expatriates. These writers left the United States because they found it lacking in the traditions and cultural richness they felt their creative lives required. Writing mostly from London and Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, modernists like Gertrude Stein, H. D., Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot experimented with new literary forms as they expressed despair and often cynicism about the course American culture seemed to be taking. As critic Lynn Dumenil has noted, “A theme that historians have called the revolt against the village pervaded the literature of the twenties. Both the young members of the Lost Generation and an older cadre of writers inveighed against the crudeness, materialism, and repression of their own society.”

But while the Lost Generation often dominates literary histories of the era, theirs was not the only literary rebellion against changes in the “modern” world. At about the same time, a small group of critics and poets gathered in the South to challenge both the cynicism of the literary modernists and the more general “revolt against the village” in American culture. Because they praised the agrarian way of life in the South, this group became known as the Southern Agrarians.

Centered around Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, these poets and critics–including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren–first gained a degree of prominence for The Fugitive, the magazine they published from 1922 to 1925 as an outlet for their writing. According to critic J. A. Bryant, the group’s goal as “the Fugitive poets” was simply to “demonstrate that a group of southerners could produce important work in the medium, devoid of sentimentality and carefully crafted, with special attention to the logical coherence of substance and trope.”

The Fugitives’ resistance to a great many prevailing social trends was catalyzed by the Scopes evolution trial, which took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial (dramatized in the play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) pitted John Thomas Scopes, a young science teacher from Dayton who had dared to teach Darwin’s theories of evolution in his science class, against the State of Tennessee, which (with the support of the Ku Klux Klan) had recently passed a law forbidding the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” Much more than a battle over classroom policy, for many southerners the Scopes trial came to symbolize the clash between religious fundamentalism and modernism, between tradition and change, and between rural and urban ways of life. Although Scopes lost the case, many in the South–especially the writers who were to become the Southern Agrarians–were incensed at the media coverage of the trial, which portrayed the South as an ignorant backwater populated by “yokels” and “bigots.”

In 1930, partially as a response to the Scopes trial, but also as an expression of their longstanding resentment against the North, the Southern Agrarians produced a manifesto called I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by “Twelve Southerners.” This collection of essays–whose title played on the defiance of the southern anthem “Dixie”–promoted traditional southern values and an agrarian way of life as an alternative to the course of the modern, industrial life they saw developing in the North. With essays by Ransom, Tate, and Warren, as well as contributions from Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, Henry Blue Kline, Lyle Lanier, Andrew Lytle, H. C. Nixon, Frank Owsley, John Donald Wade, and Stark Young, the manifesto questioned the very definition of “progress” by asking: Progress toward what? According to the volume’s introductory “Statement of Principles” (written by Ransom), those who advocated building a “New South” on the northern model “must come back to the support of the southern tradition.” Industrial society, they claimed, was soulless and alienating, and besides, it caused more problems than it solved.

Citing “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth” as just a few of the “evils that follow in the wake of machines,” the Agrarians condemned not only the means by which a new consumer culture was being built, but also consumption itself. “We have been deceived” by consumption, they wrote. “We have more time in which to consume, and many more products to be consumed. But the tempo of our labors communicates itself to our satisfactions, and these also have become brutal and hurried.” What’s more, they claimed, industrial society obscures “the God of nature” and makes it impossible for either religion or art to flourish. In short, the Agrarians expressed what critic Lynn Dumenil calls a dominant theme of the period–namely, despair at “the erosion of community and personal autonomy in the face of an increasingly nationalized and organized society.”

“Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian,” they wrote, “which does not stand in particular need of definition.” One of the reasons for the Agrarians’ evasiveness about precisely what should replace the industrial model of progress was that they were a disparate group who could not always agree on exactly what “the South” was or should be. Critics have noted that one of the things hidden in the Agrarians’ lack of a specific plan for social reorganization is the underlying racism of the bulk of the essays in I’ll Take My Stand. All twelve of the book’s authors were white men, and their implicit advocacy of white supremacy is one of the reasons their attempt to establish a new cultural and literary movement has often been dismissed as simply a romantic and nostalgic attempt to return to a corrupt past. Critics remain divided about the value of the Agrarians’ advocacy of an alternative in which land and other resources would be more equally distributed among the “plain (white) folk” around whom much of southern mythology revolved. Whatever their hopes might have been for leading the South in a new direction, the Agrarians’ manifesto was never a big seller. Nevertheless, their work represents an important voice in the development of the South and southern literature.


  1. Comprehension: What did the Agrarians want? What did they value?
  2. Comprehension: What did the Agrarians dislike about “modern” life?
  3. Comprehension: What was at stake in the Scopes evolution trial and how did the trial affect the South?
  4. Context: How did the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War shape southern attitudes toward the North and the notion of “progress”? Context: What did advocates for the “New South” hope to achieve? How do you see these aspirations reflected in the poetry of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren?
  5. Context: Why do you think some southerners felt threatened by the development of consumer culture? How does the Birth of a Nation advertisement from the archive [5703] relate to the Agrarians’ fears about a consumer society?
  6. Exploration: Consider As I Lay Dying. How does Faulkner relate to the Agrarians? Does his writing express nostalgia for the past or suggest that the South should move in a different direction?
  7. Exploration: Some critics believe that if the white supremacist argument is removed from the Southern Agrarian agenda, what remains does not seem so different from other calls for reorganizing society in more just ways. For example, how does the Agrarians’ agenda compare with the activities of U.S. labor movements during this period?
  8. Exploration: Both the Agrarians and the writers of the “Lost Generation” (many of whom are covered in Unit 11) protested what they saw as the prevailing trends in American life. How were their protests similar? How did they differ? How do their concerns relate to modernism more generally?

[3347] Dorothea Lange, Power Farming Displaces Tenants. Childress County, Texas Panhandle (1938), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-T01-018281-C DLC].
Alternately titled “Tractored Out.” Mechanization made large farmowners wealthy, but left small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers without jobs. The rising use of technology, coupled with drought and falling crop prices during the Great Depression, left many farmers homeless and out of work.

[5158] Ben Shahn, Men Loafing in Crossville, Tennessee (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-006224-M4 DLC].
Men seated outside storefront in rural Tennessee. Unemployment was widespread during the Great Depression. Eventually, New Deal programs like the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) put many men back to work on national projects such as road building and maintenance in the National Parks System.

[5224] Dorothea Lange, White Sharecropper Family, Formerly Mill Workers in the Gastonia Textile Mills. When the Mills Closed Down Seven Years Ago, They Came to This Farm near Hartwell, Georgia (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018147-C DLC].
The less glamorous side of rural southern life; a white share-cropping family seated on the porch of their cabin. This family is an example of the poorer, “everyday people” that southern writers such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty focused on in their work.

[5703] Riverside Printing Co., Elliot & Sherman Film Corp Present D. W. Griffith’s 8th Wonder of the World The Birth of a Nation (1915), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1971].
Advertising poster for Griffith’s film adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novel, Birth of a Nation. The film was technically innovative but extremely racist. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP organized protests against the film, which glorified and promoted the Ku Klux Klan.

Separate Is Not Equal: Enforcing the Codes of the Jim Crow South

[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA /OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-MZ].

Although the Civil War officially settled the status of African Americans as free individuals, many Americans–especially in the South–remained unconvinced even decades later. In the immediate chaos following the war, southern whites gradually assumed the responsibility of governing the former confederate states, taking as their greatest immediate concern the problem of controlling the four million former slaves. To this end, southern states quickly began enacting Black Codes which (like the antebellum Slave Codes that had preceded them) attempted to control the lives of African Americans in virtually every aspect. These repressive laws, as well as the southern states’ refusal to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment (which provided equal protection to African Americans under the law), helped convince Congress that it needed to intervene in the process of rebuilding the South. However, the short period of Radical Reconstruction that followed (during which federal mandates enabled African Americans to vote and be elected as legislators and governors in the former confederate states) only further infuriated white southerners, making them more determined than ever to reestablish white supremacy in what they saw as their territory. Secret societies, such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, flourished in the decade following the war. For members of these groups, depriving African Americans of political equality was a holy crusade, and they were willing to use any amount of force and intimidation (including whippings, beatings, arson, and murder) to ensure victory for their cause.

By 1876, the experiments of Reconstruction had largely ended and the southern states had returned to white control. Southern leaders moved quickly to establish elaborate election codes–usually involving poll taxes and literacy tests–to disenfranchise African Americans. By removing African Americans from the political sphere, southern whites were free to do as they pleased, and they vowed to keep the races completely separate. To that end, Tennessee passed the first law against intermarriage of the races in 1870, and it adopted the first “Jim Crow” law five years later. The rest of the South quickly followed suit.

Little more than updates to the post-Civil War Black Codes, “Jim Crow” laws got their name from one of the stock characters in the minstrel shows that were a mainstay of popular entertainment throughout the nineteenth century. Such shows popularized and reinforced the pervasive stereotypes of blacks as lazy, stupid, somehow less human, and inferior to whites. Thus, as the name suggests, Jim Crow was much more than a rigorous code of anti-black laws; it was also a way of life designed to reinforce the idea that whites were superior to blacks in all important ways. While the laws segregated schools, transportation, public buildings and almost every conceivable aspect of society, Jim Crow etiquette strictly regulated every possible interaction between blacks and whites, demanding, for example, that white motorists be given the right-of-way at all intersections and that a black man should avoid even looking at a white woman if at all possible. In 1896, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” ideology was entirely legal; it would be more than fifty years before that ideology was legally overturned.

African Americans who failed to abide by the rules of Jim Crow were dealt with severely. As Richard Wright recounts in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” when he dared throw rocks at a group of white boys who were taunting him, his mother beat him and “finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn’t kill me.” Wright’s mother had good reason to give her son such a stern warning; if Jim Crow laws or etiquette were threatened or broken, violence was almost sure to follow. Vigilante white supremacist groups like the KKK needed very little encouragement to attack, and outbreaks of mob violence became a regular occurrence throughout the South.

The 3,446 lynchings of black men and women recorded between 1882 and 1969 are a stark measure of the degree to which vigilantism shaped race relations in the decades following Reconstruction. But even when the legal system was able to stop the summary justice of impassioned mobs, white supremacy often made it impossible for African Americans who were accused of crimes to get a fair trial. Such was the case with the so-called “Scottsboro Boys”–nine African American youths accused in 1931 of raping two white women one night after all of them had hopped aboard an Alabama train. Despite the lack of any physical evidence that the women had actually been harmed, eight of the nine defendants received death sentences (a mistrial was declared in the case of twelve-year-old defendant Roy Wright because the jury was split on whether to give him death or life in prison). Although the verdicts were affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court, they were overturned by the United States Supreme Court, which said the defendants had not received competent counsel. In the multiple retrials that followed, Alabama courts continued to find the defendants guilty, despite growing evidence that the crimes had never, in fact, taken place. By 1936, the trials of the Scottsboro Boys had attracted so much attention that to some observers the case had become The White People of Alabama v. The Rest of the World. Although all of the defendants were eventually released, paroled, or had escaped from prison in Alabama, all had spent years in jail for a crime that most likely never happened. For many Americans, the case became a reminder of the deep prejudice that divided the South far into the twentieth century.

Thanks in part to prominent cases like those of the Scottsboro Boys, the ideology of Jim Crow was finally declared illegal by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which legally ended segregation in U.S. public schools, beginning a trend toward greater equality in other aspects of race relations as well.



  1. Comprehension: What was the role of the U.S. government in the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War?
  2. Comprehension: What is vigilantism?
  3. Comprehension: How did white southerners justify Jim Crow laws and etiquette? Context: In her groundbreaking article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” feminist theorist Laura Mulvey argues that film often employs a “male gaze”: that is, films tend to be characterized by scopophilia–the pleasure involved in looking at other people’s bodies as erotic objects. Although Mulvey is primarily concerned with the eroticization of women, people of color are also often objects of fetishization and domination in American literature; for, as the Scottsboro trials revealed, in the South sexual pleasure was always drawn upon racial lines during this era. For Mulvey visual pleasure is dependent upon an objectification of female characters and a narcissistic process of identification with an “ideal ego” seen on the screen. To what extent do the writers of the Southern Renaissance, particularly Faulkner, rely upon an objectification of either women or African Americans? Who is the “ideal ego” of these works? What does this imply about the authority and identity of the ideal reader?
  4. Context: Explain how the Jim Crow laws could be considered legal under the Fourteenth Amendment (which guaranteed African Americans equal protection under the law). What view of segregation does Zora Neale Hurston take in her depiction of Eatonville, Florida? How does this compare to the depiction of southern segregation in photos taken by white photographers from this era?
  5. Context: How does the Jim Crow way of life affect Dave in Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”?
  6. Context: How was the Southern Agrarian literary movement related to the Jim Crow way of life?
  7. Exploration: What does Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” say about the white supremacy that was at the heart of the Jim Crow South? How does her vision of black-white relations compare to Harriet Jacobs’s over fifty years earlier (Unit 7)?
  8. Exploration: As the case of the Scottsboro Boys illustrates, African Americans in the Jim Crow South could end up in serious trouble just for being in the same place with whites at the wrong time. Do you think this is why Zora Neale Hurston’s stories rarely include white characters? Consider the advantages and disadvantages of Hurston’s approach to depicting race relations. How does Hurston’s treatment of white characters compare to the work of other Harlem Renaissance writers such as Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer?
  9. Exploration: Some of the most influential writing in the decades leading up to the Civil War was published by former slaves and abolitionists. Writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe saw the evils of slavery and worked tirelessly to end it (see Unit 7). However, as the history of Jim Crow laws shows, the work of abolishing slavery was only the beginning of a long process to confront the racism in American culture. That process was continued in the early twentieth century by prominent figures like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois (see Unit 9). Consider the context of the Jim Crow laws and the different ways these writers responded to their social conditions: How did racism change in America from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century? How did the literary response to racism change in the same period?

[2256] Russell Lee, Negro Drinking at “Colored” Water Cooler in Streetcar Terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-80126].
Jim Crow laws divided public facilities of many kinds throughout the South. Supposedly based on the “separate but equal” Supreme Court ruling, these divisions limited African Americans’ access to many resources.

[3035] Anonymous, Newspaper Headline: President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces (1948), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [microfilm 1057].
After Truman’s executive order eliminated segregation in the military, many African American veterans of World War II became local leaders in civil rights struggles in the South.

[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA /OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-M2].
African American man in a segregated waiting room at bus station. Jim Crow laws severely divided the experiences of whites and African Americans in the South.

[3696] Dorothea Lange, Plantation Overseer. Mississippi Delta, Near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009596-C DLC].
Sharecropping initially appealed to freedmen because it promised benefits they had previously been denied; however, the vast majority of sharecroppers worked in conditions that weren’t much better than slavery.

[3933] Thomas Nast, Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction and How It Works (1866), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4591].
Cartoon depicting Andrew Johnson as Shakespeare’s Iago betraying Othello, who represents African American Civil War veterans. Southerner Andrew Johnson, seventeenth President of the United States, took office after Lincoln’s assassination. His notoriously racist politics thwarted processes of legal change and compensation to African Americans during Reconstruction.

[4554] Prentiss Taylor, Scottsboro Limited (1931), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4717].
Lithograph from Scottsboro Limited, a collection including four poems and a play by Langston Hughes. The collection protested the incarceration, conviction, and death sentence of the Scottsboro boys, nine African American youths unjustly accused of raping two white women.

[7652] Anonymous, Jim Crow Jubilee (1847), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-37348].
Jim Crow laws took their name from a character in minstrel shows. The shows and the character showcased racist stereotypes about African Americans, depicting them as lazy and less intelligent than whites.

[9071] Anonymous, Ku Klux Klan Parade, Washington, D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. (1926), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-59666].
This photograph of a huge KKK march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., illustrates the mainstream acceptance of the group in the 1920s and 1930s. The Ku Klux Klan, organized under the guise of a civic organization, enforced Jim Crow laws and white supremacy with intimidation and violence. The group regained popular support after the release of Birth of a Nation.

Mass Culture Invasion: The Rise of Motion Pictures

[5703] Riverside Printing Company, Elliot & Sherman Film Corp. present D. W. Griffith’s 8th Wonder of the World, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1971].

In New York City, on April 23, 1896, Thomas Edison projected the first motion picture on a public screen in the United States. At the time, few foresaw the dramatic effects motion pictures would come to have on American culture in the coming decades. Beginning as a technological novelty, motion pictures soon became popular attractions in amusement parks, music halls, traveling fairs, wax museums, and vaudeville houses all over the country (and in other countries around the world). This upstart entertainment had a tough time competing, however, against the traditional stage arts that were considered to be of higher quality, and therefore appropriate for a higher economic and social class. It wasn’t until the 1910s that film began to be taken seriously as many performance houses–formerly devoted exclusively to live drama–converted to present a mixed bill of motion pictures and live performance or abandoned live performance altogether in favor of film. With the rise of the star system during this same period (driven by the popularity of actors like Mary Pickford, Sarah Bernhardt, and Charlie Chaplin), motion pictures became an increasingly powerful force in American life. Although most of the major Hollywood motion picture studios would not be established until the mid-1920s, the motion picture was here to stay.

Along with broadcast radio and nationally circulated publications, motion pictures formed a large part of an ever-expanding “mass culture”–a culture consisting largely of standardized, mass-produced, and mass-distributed cultural products that included everything from movies to toothbrushes, and which meant that no matter where you traveled in the United States, you were likely to be able to find familiar products and entertainment. The rapid expansion of this mass culture formed a challenge to traditions of regional isolation and autonomy. In the South, the introduction of motion pictures into everyday life was fraught with controversy; therefore, the debates surrounding motion pictures often revealed a deeper and more pervasive anxiety about moral and social decay and offered, in some communities, a point around which conservative and “traditional” forces could rally. Many were quick to see that, while motion pictures offered new and unprecedented means by which to shape public opinion and teach the “right” values and behaviors, the medium was equally capable of teaching values a community didn’t like. According to historian Gregory A. Waller, “The danger, of course, was that this powerful pedagogic tool would be (or had been) utterly prostituted in the name of profit and cheap amusement.”

Many of these anxieties about the rise of mass culture–in the nation as a whole, but especially in the South–coalesced around D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which premiered in 1915. According to Russell Merritt, whose documentary “The Making of The Birth of a Nation” explores both the film’s technical achievements and its cultural reception, The Birth of a Nation was “a runaway success that paved the way for the feature movie as the most widely seen mass entertainment in history up to that time.”

Griffith, who directed hundreds of short films, is often credited with defining the art of the motion picture. From a technical perspective, Griffith pioneered and/or popularized many stylistic and technical innovations, including closeups, establishing shots, medium shots, and backlighting. The Birth of a Nation also made use of the camera to achieve other novel effects, including composed shots, camera movement, split-screens, flashbacks, fades, irises, and dissolves. Audiences were also amazed by the realism and massive scale of Griffith’s Civil War scenes, the detail and accuracy of his costuming, and the compelling combination of story-telling and editing that comprised the film.

While critics agree that The Birth of a Nation represented many technical and formal firsts for the motion picture, the response to the story it told was much more divided. The film was based on a dramatic adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman (1905), which “celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as savior of the South from vengeful and vindictive blacks.” Released during the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Civil War, the film seemed calculated to revive the spirits of southerners who had begun to doubt the righteousness of the “Lost Cause.” The film’s opening was promoted by klansmen dressed in full KKK regalia, and the Klan, which had all but disappeared in the first decade of the twentieth century, was revived and went on to become a major political force for the next ten years. Knowing his message would be controversial, Griffith prefaced the film with “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture,” which addressed the potential that the film might be censored and asked that it be given “the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.” Not unexpectedly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups protested the film vigorously and succeeded in persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm “the right of state and local agencies to exercise prior restraint and censorship of motion pictures.” This did little, however, to damage the success of The Birth of a Nation, which went on to become the most popular silent movie ever made. (Woodrow Wilson even showed it in the White House.) It was revived annually through the first half of the 1920s and remained the most profitable film for over two decades before passing that title to Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

The controversy surrounding The Birth of a Nation and the film’s far-reaching influence provide vivid examples of the way the growth of motion pictures–and the mass culture of which they were a part–challenged the isolated autonomy of small communities throughout the country. However, by the 1930s, the new medium had gained enough acceptance that prominent southern writers such as William Faulkner had begun to interact with Hollywood. Faulkner went to Hollywood for the first time in 1932 to work as a scriptwriter, and he returned several times in succeeding years when he needed to supplement the meager income he was making as a writer. Meanwhile, Margaret Mitchell challenged Faulkner for the title of best-known southern writer when her romantic portrait of the Old South, Gone With the Wind (originally published in 1936, the same year as Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!), was made into a popular film.


  1. Comprehension: Why did traditionally isolated communities in the South object to the growing influence of motion pictures?
  2. Comprehension: What reasons did those who attended live theater performances give for disliking motion pictures?
  3. Context: Many communities strongly resisted Prohibition, which began in 1919. How might the cultural battle over Prohibition have been related to the controversies surrounding the spread of motion pictures?
  4. Context: While many people in the South resisted the influences of film on their culture, Hollywood was highly influential in shaping the image of the South for the rest of the world. Films such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind were wildly popular and often comprised everything non-southerners knew about the South. How do these Hollywood visions of the South compare to the South portrayed by southern writers such as the Southern Agrarians, Thomas Wolfe, or Flannery O’Connor?
  5. Context: Motion pictures are never mentioned in Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” yet the conflict at the center of that story–Dave’s desire for a gun as a way to become a man–is related to the conflict surrounding motion pictures. Think about this connection and describe how it works.
  6. Exploration: How did the growth of motion pictures relate to the growth of radio? (See Unit 10.) To what extent is film also a democratic medium?
  7. Exploration: In its early years, the motion picture had to compete with live drama for its audience. In many respects, this competition was a battle between high and low culture. Are similar battles going on in our culture today? How does the divide between high and low culture relate to the battle for local control and the problems many communities had with the introduction of “mass” culture?
  8. Exploration: The controversy surrounding The Birth of a Nation may not sound completely unfamiliar to you and may remind you of the controversy surrounding the use of derogatory language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Unit 8). Are there contemporary films that have caused similar controversies? How has the debate over the role of movies in our culture changed since 1915? How has it remained the same?

[3346] Marion Post Walcott, Rex Theatre for Colored People, Leland, Mississippi Delta (1944), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF32-052508-D].
Photograph of all-black movie theater in the South. Blacks and whites attended separate theaters and other civic facilities in the South. In the North, African Americans were isolated from white audiences by more informal social codes of segregation.

[5652] Ralph Barton, Pearl White as a Dramatic Heroine (1930), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LCPP003B-41012].
Cartoon of woman in Roman clothing posing for movie director. The popularity of movies encouraged the growth of mass culture, leading some regionalists to worry about the erosion of southern traditions.

[5687] National Photo Company, Margaret Gorman (Miss America 1921), and Stephen (?) Fegen Being Filmed for a Burlesque on the Burning of Rome by the Washington Producing Co. (1922), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-119624].
Films and beauty pageants played an important role in shaping the image of the “modern” American girl. Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, noted that Gorman “represents the type of womanhood America needs; strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of home-making and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country resides” (New York Times).

[5703] Riverside Printing Co., Elliot & Sherman Film Corp Present D. W. Griffith’s 8th Wonder of the World, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1971].
Advertising poster for The Birth of a Nation. The film was technologically innovative but racist. Glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, it was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman.

[5719] Cleveland Advocate, Article: Oppose “Birth of a Nation” (1915), 
courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.
Civil rights groups, including the NAACP, organized protests against The Birth of a Nation. The film glorified the Ku Klux Klan and helped the organization regain strength.

[7641] Anonymous, NAACP Members Picketing outside the Republic Theatre, New York City, to Protest the Screening of the Movie “Birth of a Nation” (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-84505].
Despite the protests of civil rights groups, The Birth of a Nation achieved massive popularity and even was shown in the White House.

Hitting the Road: How Automobiles and Highways Transformed American Life

[5170] Marion Post Walcott, Saturday Afternoon, Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030640-M3 DLC].

In 1900, Americans rarely moved or traveled beyond a radius of a few miles from where they were born. However, the introduction and rapid adoption of the automobile as America’s primary means of transportation, combined with the development and construction of reliable roads on which those cars could travel, quickly transformed the traditional rootedness and stability of American life.

The first American automobile, the Duryea, was produced in 1893 and was little more than a horse-drawn buggy with an engine bolted on, with a top speed of approximately 15 miles per hour. By 1900, there were only about 8,000 cars in the United States. At that time, cars were handmade and cost well over $1,000 each, making them far too expensive for all but the wealthiest of Americans. However, in 1908, Henry Ford ushered in the era of the mass-produced automobile; by using a conveyor belt to move the car frame through each stage of its assembly, Ford was able to cut hundreds of dollars from the cost of building his Model-Ts, while at the same time cutting production time for each car from a day and a half to just 93 minutes. Ford’s competitors quickly copied his production methods, and by 1920 millions of cars traveled American roads.

It took a while for American roads to catch up to American cars, though. In the early 1900s, the vast majority of roads in the United States were mere dirt tracks that quickly turned to treacherous and rut-filled swamps in the rain, then froze into rough and icy ridges in the winter. Only the most courageous or foolish travelers dared to venture far beyond major cities in their automobiles. As the number of cars rapidly multiplied, state and local governments experimented with an array of paving materials and road designs. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), whose purpose was to create jobs for millions of unemployed Americans, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) did much to improve America’s roads. During the 1930s, WPA and CCC workers built 75,000 bridges and constructed or improved nearly 600,000 miles of public roads.

It was World War II, however, that finally convinced the U.S. government that it should do more to improve America’s roads and enforce quality standards throughout the nation. As the commander of Allied forces in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower saw how Germany’s autobahn aided its war effort by allowing it to quickly and reliably move troops, supplies, and raw materials around the country. In 1944, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which established uniform design criteria for all U.S. highways. Twelve years later, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established funding for nearly 45,000 miles of paved interstate highways–the largest peacetime construction project ever undertaken. About that effort Eisenhower would later write: “Its impact on the American economy–the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up–was beyond calculation.”

Travel has always figured prominently in American literature, beginning with the Puritan trope of an errand into the wilderness and the narratives of Caveza de Vaca and other Spanish explorers to the New World. More recently, automobiles and the highway were important aspects of self-exploration and commentary in twentieth-century American literature. Writers like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Zora Neale Hurston have invoked the highway as a rejection of the familiar and an embrace of the unknown. The advent of cars and other mechanized, high-speed travel has also come to represent the disconnectivity and rootlessness of society and has given voice to fears about changes brought about by technology and modernization. In contemporary Native American poetry, for example, cars are often used as metaphors for wreckage and social dislocation, illustrating one way that cars symbolize the impact of cultural exchange and the influence of technology and white culture upon migration stories and the cultures that produce them. For the writers of the Southern Renaissance, cars symbolized both progress and the possibilities of modernization as well as the threat of industrialization to more traditional practices and values.

Together, the mass-produced automobile and a reliable and uniform system of highways reshaped America. The ability of Americans to travel and move long distances broke down cultural barriers and meant that even remote rural areas could no longer remain isolated from the larger life of the nation, and the world.



  1. Comprehension: Why was Henry Ford’s assembly line production method such an important innovation? How did it change American industry as a whole?
  2. Context: Increased mobility and the shambles of the southern economy after the Civil War opened up many opportunities to anyone willing to exploit them. Many northerners traveled or moved to the South to exploit cheap labor and an abundance of raw materials and to capitalize on the relative naíveté of the largely rural population. How are these trends manifested in Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits” and Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”?
  3. Exploration: How did the growing number of automobiles and the expanded and improved national highway system relate to the spread of mass culture in the early twentieth century?
  4. Exploration: Trace the metaphors of transportation in the poetry of Joy Harjo (Unit 15) and Robert Penn Warren. What roles do cars, planes, trains, roads, and horses play in their verse?

[4733] Dorothea Lange, Mississippi Delta, on Mississippi Highway No. 1 between Greenville and Clarksdale. Negro Laborer’s Family Being Moved from Arkansas to Mississippi by White Tenant (1938), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018952-E DLC].
The automobile is an important trope in American literature and culture: in this image the power relations between the workers and the tenant are reflected in their positions in the vehicle.

[4789] Arthur Rothstein, Farm along Highway near Dickson, Tennessee (1942), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-024597-D].
As highways reached rural locations, some worried that small-town and southern values and traditions would be eroded by access to travel and mass culture.

[4835] Marion Post Walcott, Negroes Brought in by Truck from Nearby Towns as Day Labor for Cotton Picking. Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi Delta (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030601-M4 DLC].
Cotton was an important but resource-taxing and labor-intensive crop in the South. Although the Southern Agrarians romanticized agricultural life, work on cotton plantations was difficult and rarely lucrative for African Americans.

[5170] Marion Post Walcott, Saturday Afternoon, Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030640-M3 DLC].
A street scene in the Mississippi Delta. Older black men talking on sidewalk in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi. Blanche Cutrer, the model for Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, was from Clarksdale.

[5594] Anonymous, It Was Common Practice for Small Town and Country Dealers to Bring Radios Directly to Prospects and Customers Alike (1925), 
courtesy of the George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Photograph of dealers delivering radios from vehicle. Growth in geographical mobility and mass culture were intertwined. As travel became easier, small towns became less culturally isolated.

[6422] Detroit Publishing Co., Highway Construction Equipment, Probably Michigan State Highway Dept., Michigan (1915),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-D418-629].
The mass development of automobiles and reliable roads altered travel, work, and residence patterns. Automobiles and roads became laden with cultural meanings, such as freedom and adventure.

Promises Unfulfilled: Sharecropping in the South

[4833] Marion Post Walcott, Tenant Family on Their Porch, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030534-M2].

In the tumultuous South in the decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction, four million freedmen (former slaves) found themselves faced with choices many had scarcely imagined would ever be theirs: How should we make our way in the world? At the same time, while the war had ravaged the southern economy, that economy remained dependent on the production of cotton, which had traditionally been taken care of by slave labor in the plantation system. Therefore, southern farmers and plantation owners faced a dilemma of their own: What would replace slave labor in the southern economy?

Sharecropping was the system of tenant farming which gradually emerged as the answer to the dilemmas of both freedman and planter. In this system, freedmen and poor whites who were unable to afford land of their own contracted with landowners to work a particular piece of land in exchange for a share of the crops or revenue they produced in a given season. Typically, a small group of laborers–often a family but sometimes simply a group of workers who got along well together–would agree to cultivate a certain parcel of land in exchange for one-quarter to one-half the crop as wages, to be paid at the end of the season. The landowner would also generally provide the tenants with a small cabin to live in and food to eat.

Sharecropping initially appealed to freedmen because it promised benefits they had previously been denied, such as the right to work in families or groups of their choice, the freedom to work under their own supervision in their daily activities, and the potential that extra effort might eventually earn them enough profit that they could buy a small piece of land for themselves. However, the vast majority of sharecroppers ended up working in conditions that weren’t much better than slavery. Landowners generally retained the right to dictate what their tenants planted and how they worked the land; some even kept their tenants under near-constant supervision. What’s more, sharecropping rarely produced a profit for the tenants. In a good year, sharecroppers could earn enough to save a few dollars, but it was generally more likely that they would end up in debt at the end of the season. If a group of sharecroppers encountered a series of bad years–due to poor weather, for example, or infestations of crop-destroying insects–they could quickly find themselves buried in more debt than they could ever hope to repay.

Despite its exploitative nature (and in part because of it), by the early 1900s sharecropping had become the norm throughout the South, allowing white landowners to continue to prosper while ensuring that those who could not afford land–both black and white–remained poor. During the Great Depression, government programs designed to aid southern agriculture only deepened the racial and class divides upon which sharecropping flourished. This was particularly true of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which paid landowners to reduce their output and adopt production quotas in order to raise the profit they could make on what they did produce. When landowners agreed to take some of their acreage out of production, the tenants who had been working those acres found themselves homeless and jobless. Furthermore, government payments to landowners gave them the capital they needed to buy tractors and other farm equipment that further reduced their need for tenant labor. In 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) emerged to unite sharecroppers against these inhumane conditions, and for the next few years it made considerable gains. However, neither government aid nor the STFU could reverse falling cotton prices or the fact that mechanized farming methods were increasingly making sharecroppers obsolete. By the end of World War II, sharecropping had largely faded into history as farming became increasingly mechanized and former tenants were forced to migrate to cities, where industrial work was more plentiful.


  1. Comprehension: If sharecroppers were unable to make a satisfactory living by sharecropping, why did they continue doing it?
  2. Context: As Abner Snopes looks upon his white landlord’s plantation house in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” he tells his son, Sartie: “That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it.” How does this illustrate the difference Snopes sees between himself and his fellow sharecroppers who are African American? How did white supremacy in the South draw on an argument of paternalism to maintain sharecropping as an exploitative system of agricultural production?
  3. Exploration: The agrarian life associated with farming has always been an important but contested ideal in American life. Thomas Jefferson, for example, famously supported the ideal of the “gentleman farmer” (see Unit 4). Compare Jefferson’s ideas about the agrarian life with the system of sharecropping as it developed in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Why do you think Jefferson’s ideal was never realized?

[1452] Anonymous, The Whole Black Family at the Hermitage, Savannah, GA (1907), 
courtesy of the Detroit Publishing Company. 
In the 1850s, the Hermitage was home to over two hundred slaves. There was a brick factory on the plantation, and the slaves made both the bricks and their homes. These structures still stand today, while other slave cottages made of wood have deteriorated. Sharecropping perpetuated the economic disenfranchisement of African Americans well into the twentieth century.

[2929] Anonymous, Adults Seated, Facing Camera, Child Playing in Barrel in Foreground, Plantation Setting (1880), 
courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. 
While many former slaves left the plantation after emancipation, an even larger number stayed in the area and rented farms for either cash or, more commonly, a share of their harvest. The latter system, called sharecropping, was practiced by both blacks and poor whites throughout the South.

[4099] Anonymous, Tenants (c. 1880 – 1900), 
courtesy of Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. 
Photograph of African American tenant farmers working in a cotton field. After the Civil War, “cotton remained king” and was a main staple of the southern economy through the first quarter of the twentieth century. Southern life was inextricably tied to the crop; political scientists and economists have even shown a strong link between the price of cotton and the number of lynchings in the South during the Jim Crow era.

[4806] Arthur Rothstein, Evicted Sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-002968-M1].
After the Civil War, sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slave labor on many plantations throughout the South. Conditions were arguably little better than slavery for many African Americans, who were given freedom but rented the land and often owed more than they made. During the Great Depression, white and black sharecroppers and farmers, like this family, were displaced from their land and homes.

[4833] Marion Post Walcott, Tenant Family on Their Porch, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi Delta (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030534-M2].
African American sharecropping family seated on their porch. Plantation owners were generally also the owners of share-croppers’ homes, which resembled, and sometimes were, old slave cabins. The plantation owners also controlled the rent and decided which crops should be planted. As payment, landlords usually received most of the profits.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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