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

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston

Who's Interviewed:
Dorothy Allison, award-winning author; Don Doyle, professor of history (Vanderbilt University); Carla Kaplan, professor of literature, American studies, and gender studies, (University of Southern California); Ramon Saldivar, professor of American literature (Stanford University); Alice Walker, award-winning author and poet; Rafia Zafar, director of African and Afro-American studies (Washington University, St. Louis)

Points Covered:
• After World War I, writers emerged in the segregated South to tell new stories. Continuing a tradition while challenging the past, writers such as William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston ushered in a renaissance of southern literature.

• Faulkner built upon the work of a group of writers known as the Southern Agrarians that emerged in the late 1920s. The Southern Agrarians defended the South's rural way of life while the world was changing around them.

• Faulkner captured the complicated, often tangled layers of southern history in countless novels and short stories. Intricately weaving the importance of time and place into everything he wrote, Faulkner was also a modernist who rebelled against linear storytelling. As I Lay Dying, with its nearly ludicrous plot and modernist style, is a good example of this stylistic innovation, while Absalom, Absalom!--a soul-searching indictment of the South--shows how some poor nineteenth-century whites tried to elevate themselves through racism, as a reaction against their own oppression.

• While Faulkner explored myths about white southerners, Zora Neale Hurston turned to African American folk traditions to present a positive view of black southern life. Hurston was a flamboyant storyteller, an anthropologist, and a respected writer.

• In her essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" Hurston observes that race is created, not given. As a folklorist and author, she captured a vision of the South that was different from what was usually recorded. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a woman's coming-of-age story and a critique of African American folk society.

• Hurston's final work was the autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road, from which her publishers removed all anti-white references prior to publication. In the 1950s she slipped into obscurity; she died in poverty in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Hurston's writing was "rediscovered" by Alice Walker in 1973. She's now seen as the most important African American woman who wrote before World War II.

• Writers like Faulkner and Hurston joined their voices with those of other writers from the South to revise southern myths. At the same time, they broke through regional barriers to speak to the American experience and to the universal human condition.

• Preview the video: In the decades following World War I, the United States experienced massive social and cultural changes in response to economic, industrial, and technological upheavals. This was especially true in the South, which had never fully recovered--economically or socially--from the Civil War and the effects of Reconstruction. Within this environment, writers like William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston emerged to write about the South, both its mythical past and its often harsh contemporary realities--including deeply entrenched racism and the hardships of lives lived under crushing poverty. Joined by the likes of Flannery O'Connor and Tennessee Williams, these writers participated in a reinvigoration of southern literature which has come to be known as the "Southern Renaissance."

• What to think about while watching: What are the main social and cultural factors that influence these writers? How do these writers depict the South? Does "the South" seem to be the same place for both Faulkner and Hurston, or do they each see it differently? What assumptions or beliefs do these writers challenge? How and why do these writers convey the importance of time and place in their writing? What are the formal innovations these writers use to convey their characters' experiences? What does the history of the critical reception of these authors tell us about American literature and the literary canon?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 13 builds upon the introductory nature of the video to provide students with a variety of ways to understand how writers in the South responded to certain changes in American life throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The curriculum materials offer additional background on both Hurston and Faulkner, as well as on some of their prominent contemporaries in the fields of fiction, poetry, and drama. The unit also explores in greater detail some of the important contexts of southern writing, including the history of racism as seen in Jim Crow laws; the share-cropping system on which much of the rural South depended at this time; and the Southern Agrarian movement, in which a group of southern writers sought to promote an alternative future for the South.

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