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

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
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- Learning
•  Using the Video
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Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
For many people in the United States, the first half of the twentieth century was a period of tremendous change in almost every facet of life. Breakthroughs in science--including Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, as well as the increasing influence of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution--challenged conventional views of both the world we live in and our place within it. In the social sciences, the increasingly popular ideas of Sigmund Freud became conceptual tools used by many to question the sexual and social restraints of a tradition-bound culture they saw as highly repressed. Meanwhile, technological advances began to create the vast array of consumer goods we take for granted today, including movies, automobiles, airplanes, radios, and myriad other items--all produced on a massive scale previously unknown in human history. The industry needed to produce all these goods helped accelerate yet another great shift in American life as people migrated in ever greater numbers from their traditional, rural homes--where agriculture was the main focus of life--to the ever-expanding urban, industrial centers, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. However, much of this migration was from the South to the booming cities of the North--notably Chicago and New York--a trend that began around the time of the Civil War and continued into the mid-twentieth century. The period marked the first time in American history that fewer people lived in rural than urban areas, and as the focus of American life moved to the cities, the consumption of mass-produced goods became every bit as important as their production.

Historians sometimes refer to the massive social and cultural transformations of the early twentieth century as distinctively "modern." For many--and especially for many writers during the period--such great change and social upheaval raised the question: What kind of life is the best to live? Is the "modern" world headed in the right direction, or are we going the wrong way? For writers in the South, such questions often involved a desire to protect tradition and myth from being destroyed by the influx of new ways of thinking and living.

Such questions found expression in attempts by social reformers to legislate the kind of society they wished to inhabit. One prominent result of such efforts was the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, from 1919 to 1933, banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicants throughout the nation. According to historian Michael Parrish, "The prohibition battle divided the nation along sharp geographic, religious, and ethnic boundaries that defined much of America's political landscape" in the years following World War I. Specifically, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment "symbolized the political and cultural victory of the small towns over the big cities; of evangelical and pietistic Protestants over Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews; of old-stock Anglo-Saxons over newer immigrants; and finally, of rich over poor." Like the Eighteenth Amendment, the countless "Jim Crow" laws that divided the South into black and white were also attempts to legislate a certain kind of society--in this case, one based on the racial divisions that had segregated U.S. society since the introduction of slavery nearly three centuries earlier. The Ku Klux Klan, which had virtually disappeared in the first decade of the twentieth century, was reborn in 1915 and remained a formidable force in U.S. politics and race relations--particularly in the South--for the next ten years.

Unit 13, "Southern Renaissance," explores some of the ways writers who either lived in, wrote about, or were otherwise associated with the South between 1920 and 1950 responded to the many changes during the period. Not surprisingly, much of the writing in this unit features the struggle between those who embraced social change and those who were more skeptical or challenged social change outright. According to literary critic Richard H. King, "The writers and intellectuals of the South after the late 1920s were engaged in an attempt to come to terms not only with the inherited values of the southern tradition but also with a certain way of perceiving and dealing with the past, what Nietzsche called 'monumental' historical consciousness." In the work of John Crowe Ransom, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O'Connor, the diverse wealth of voices in the early-twentieth-century South comes alive.

The video for Unit 13 explores some of the most influential texts from William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom situate their writing firmly within the South even as they question southern myths and traditions. Both Faulkner and Hurston are concerned with questions of historical time: How does the past shape the present and future? To what extent are our lives predetermined by our skin color, economic situation, or what our ancestors have or have not done? In Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, for example, multiple narrators attempt to discover, understand, and cope with the legacy of Thomas Sutpen, a Virginian of low birth who created a grand plantation out of the Mississippi wilderness of the 1830s and 1840s. In contrast to the gothic and sometimes malevolent qualities of Faulkner's novel, in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" Hurston takes a stand against letting her skin color or the legacy of slavery determine who she is or what her life will be. "I am not tragically colored," Hurston asserts, going on to ask, "How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me."

As the video explores the similarities and differences between these two influential writers, it introduces students to the complex relationship between writers and the place and time in and about which they write. How do Hurston and Faulkner depict "the South"? How do these texts engage the legacies of slavery as well as economic poverty? What innovative formal strategies did they use to bring their characters to life and to give their readers a rich sense of the South in the 1920s? What do Faulkner and Hurston seem to be saying about human possibility and about what America is or should be in the early twentieth century? Unit 13 helps answer these and related questions by situating Faulkner and Hurston within their literary and historical contexts, and by guiding students to connections between these writers and others in their era, as well as to writers within other units.

Through an exploration of the historical and literary contexts with which the Southern Renaissance was most concerned, the video, the archive, and the curriculum materials work together to give students a broad understanding of "the South" within the larger fabric of U.S. history in the early twentieth century. Those contexts include (1) the goals, values, and influence of the literary group known as the "Southern Agrarians"; (2) the extensive and complicated history of racial segregation in the South as maintained by "Jim Crow" laws and etiquette; (3) the rise of the motion picture as popular entertainment and the ways in which mass culture began to reshape American life; (4) the ways in which the increasing ubiquity of automobiles and an improved national highway system increased geographic mobility and encouraged the breakdown of local isolation; and (5) the system of tenancy farming, or sharecropping, under which many of the South's poorest inhabitants--both black and white--labored in the early twentieth century.

The archive and curriculum materials also make connections with how writers of the Southern Renaissance relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How does the Southern Renaissance relate to the Harlem Renaissance and other regional literary movements? How do writers of the Southern Renaissance relate to literary modernism and the "Lost Generation" with which that movement is often associated? How did writers like Hurston and Wright break new ground for literature written by African Americans? How does the "Southern gothic" tradition relate to earlier examples of the American gothic? How did southern writers benefit from the WPA, and what is their relationship to the farm workers' movement?

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