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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

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Unit Overview: Glossary

Agrarianism - The belief that society and daily life should be structured around the cultivation of the soil. According to literary critic and historian M. Thomas Inge, Agrarians believe that the direct contact with nature that comes from farming will bring humans closer to God and encourage the values of "honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality." Furthermore, Agrarians believe that urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy human dignity and independence while also encouraging vice and moral weakness. In the 1920s and 1930s a prominent group of southern writers--including John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren--loosely subscribed to the basic tenets of Agrarianism and therefore became known as the Southern Agrarians.

Fugitive Poets - Group of poets and critics centered at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920s. The group included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren and 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 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."

New Criticism - School of criticism which emerged primarily in the South and which argued that critics had for too long paid too much attention to the biographical and historical contexts of a work of literature. New Critics advocated a focus on "the thing itself"--the language and the structural and formal qualities of the poem, novel, play, or story with which the critic was concerned. The foundation of New Criticism was, and remains, the exercise of "close reading," which for poetry often means a word-by-word or line-by-line analysis of the poem, the goal of which is to discern the most coherent meaning within its language and form. Although the New Criticism had become the dominant critical practice by the mid-twentieth century, most contemporary critics merely use it as a starting point for various other critical approaches. Many southern writers are closely associated with New Criticism, including John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks.

Old South - Refers to the romantic and sentimental myth of what the South once was. The myth of the Old South generally referred to the "plantation legend" of antebellum (and much postbellum) popular fiction which portrayed white southerners as genteel aristocrats and slavery as a benevolent, paternal institution from which blacks and whites benefited equally. The first few chapters of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind capture the myth of the Old South. Opposed to the myth of the Old South were ideas of the New South, including the view that southerners should try to "modernize" and reshape their region on the industrial model of the North.

paternalism - From the Latin pater, meaning to act like a father. In the context of the American South, paternalism generally refers to the attitude of many white southerners toward African Americans in the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth. According to the paternalist defense of slavery, African Americans were childlike and unable to take proper care of themselves; therefore, they needed white "masters" to take care of them and guide them through life. After the Civil War, the paternalist argument continued to be used as a pretext for the exploitative working conditions of sharecropping, as well as for the strict code of laws and etiquette known as Jim Crow.

Reconstruction - Period immediately following the Civil War during which the federal government attempted to force the former Confederate states to govern themselves according to the laws and customs of the rest of the United States. During this time (also known as the period of "Radical Reconstruction"), federal troops helped enforce universal male suffrage, and former leaders of the Confederate Army were barred from serving in public office. For the first time, African Americans were elected to serve as legislators and governors in southern states. Despite the fact that no state was ever controlled by a majority of African Americans, white southerners bitterly resented being forced to treat African Americans as equals, and by 1876 the period of Radical Reconstruction had effectively ended.

regionalism - Writing that emphasizes the importance of a regional setting and tradition to individuals' lives. While regional writing tends to focus on issues or experiences that are native to the place with which it is concerned, the best examples of regionalism have universal appeal as well.

revolt against the village - Theme in American literature in the 1920s and 1930s through which many writers (notably the members of the "Lost Generation"--see Unit 11) criticized their own society for its crudeness, materialism, and repression. Also refers more generally to early-twentieth-century changes in society--such as the rise of mass media and an increasingly mobile population--which appeared to threaten the cohesiveness and autonomy of the traditional community.

southern gothic - Style of writing marked by southern settings and characters which are somehow dark, mysterious, or grotesque, or which otherwise disturb or question the "normal" expectations of their readers. Writers associated with the southern gothic include William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. See also Unit 6.

stream of consciousness - Style of writing used by many modernists that attempts to portray the inner workings of a character's mind by cataloging or describing the character's thoughts and ideas in rapid succession and without any interpretation or explanation by an outside narrator. So-named by William James, who described human consciousness as a continuous stream of thoughts, impressions, emotions, and ideas. William Faulkner used this style in As I Lay Dying, which forces readers to assemble an overall narrative from the various thoughts, feelings, and observations of fifteen different characters. The stream-of-consciousness style challenged traditional narrative by abandoning the linear form in favor of the more confused and sometimes random jumps of the human mind.

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