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A comparative study of two American cultural Renaissances.


Americans love to indulge in rebellions and rebirths, evolutions and revolutions, renewals and restorations in politics, public life, business, academia and the arts. Such movements, often mercurial in their development and explosive in their impact, may aid in the rediscovery in American life and letters works and personalities that have been neglected, or lost to the ravages of time; alternatively they may introduce wholly new and innovative ideas and elements into the American community, often audaciously transforming society in the process. Achievements like these are not for the faint of heart, and the leaders who seize upon them are often America's best and brightest, artists-cum-philosophers-cum-activists whose efforts to effect political, social and spiritual reform are energized by a heady alembic of aesthetics and argument. Such an admixture is seemingly so American, the height of the realization of the American Dream, which often harks simultaneously and ambivalently to the spirit of rebellion at the foundation of American experience, and to a just-as-permanent conservative bent toward convention, conformity and traditional mores.

In this paper I will examine wings of two famed American renaissances that fit the patterns sketched above, and significantly impacted the nation's literary, philosophical and cultural life. I will scrutinize the "preachers" of the early-to-mid nineteenth century first American Renaissance, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and also the "teachers" of the early-to-mid twentieth century Southern Renaissance, led by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and others. I will attempt to show how the Emersonian first American Renaissance and the Nashville Agrarian Southern Renaissance, though emerging from very different regions and societal milieus in the United States, sprouted from and were nourished by a common soil of cultural, religious, historical and philosophical conditions and propensities. Ultimately, I hope my examination will highlight how these two movements are located at each end of an historical/creative/intellectual continuum, which at the highest level demarks the "beginning of the beginning" and the "end of the beginning" of a critical phase of American life and letters.


At first glance these two movements and their leading actors might seem unrelated, with great time, distance and significantly different cultural settings separating them. On the one hand we find as the leading figure of the first American Renaissance Ralph Waldo Emerson, the wizened, liberal New England Unitarian, educated at Harvard and very, very much a well-connected Boston Brahmin, lording over America's imperial "Athens." The first American Renaissance was largely built around Emerson's free-thinking, universalizing, transcendental philosophy propounded in his essays, public speaking, and romantic, sometimes maudlin, but penetrating poetry. Emerson's message was embedded and embraced in Boston, the ambivalent polity of which was possessed on the one hand of deeply conservative, even reactionary social strains, while also being a hotbed of progressive activism prior to the Civil War.

A glance at the twentieth-century American Southern Renaissance indicates how different it was from Emerson's. It's epicenter, Nashville, could hardly compare to Boston in cosmopolitan impact and appeal, (1) and the movement emerged out of a U.S. region conservative to the point of backwardness, often antagonistic to any broadminded, let alone liberal, cultural and intellectual qualities, and only then emerging from the destruction and psychic torment wrought by the Civil War. To its credit, however, this group was an impressive assemblage of highly educated, often brilliant, scholars and poets. The Southern Renaissance was in some senses introduced by writers such as William Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Katherine Anne Porter, and Tennessee Williams, but it became focused in Nashville and Vanderbilt University, where prominent academics or former students such Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom were at work. I will focus on these last two in this paper, two of the most prominent of the group. Tate and Ransom were two Southern country cavaliers, smart and successful to be sure, but they were weighted by their traditionalist and often bigoted Southern upbringing (we will find that these liabilities significantly contributed to the downfall of the Southern Renaissance movement only a few years after it started). As opposed to Emerson's high-flown and broadminded Transcendentalism, Ransom and Tate explicated what they felt was straightforward, pragmatic social theory and philosophy--their so-called Agrarian ideal--alongside which (particularly in their poetry) they counterpoised a loamy combination of dark, modernist forebodings leavened with traditional romanticism, classicism, and Metaphysical conceits. (2)

In spite of their differences, however, these two congresses and their leaders exhibit remarkable similarities. At the surface, both grew out of groups of religious educators and rhetoricians who were, in a uniquely American way, at once populist and elitist, equally at ease at the university lectern, the church pulpit or the political stump. As well, both groups were not only poets, writers and speakers, but also literary and cultural theorists. Emerson's literary theorizing was perhaps less specific than Ransom's and Tate's New Criticism, but his poetry, writings and philosophy heavily influenced an important generation of American literature, from Thoreau, to Melville, Dickinson, Whitman and others. Emerson also explored and expostulated social reform ideas, notably of course, abolitionism, which were key constituents of his philosophy and public life. Similarly, in addition to Ransom and Tate's New Criticism (celebrated by some, scorned by others, but to be sure a major achievement in American letters), their social theorizing was well-developed and central to their movement, with the group envisioning a turn from industrialism and laissez-faire financial capitalism in American society, to a return to an idyllic, pastoral, rural ideal.

Related to the above points, Emerson, Ransom and Tate tapped into steadygoing currents in American life and culture, deeply rooted in the nation's religious values, cultural instrumentalities, and intellectual traditions. At one high level, both of these movements can be said to have been motivated by an "insistence upon personal freedom and spiritual reform" (Buell, Literary Transcendentalism 8), linking them across time from the founding period of American aesthetics, ethics and politics (led by 18th and early 19th-century Puritan leaders and the American founding fathers), to the progressive, reform-minded politics and morality, with dashes of emergent modernism, of America in the early twentieth century. Even more significant, each group was motivated by an "ingrained idealism," "fundamental romanticism," and an inclination toward transcendentalist thought, which has been called by Roger Asselineau "an essential characteristic and a specific trait of American literature" (Asselineau v, v, 5).

Within these broad currents I will highlight certain specific similarities and shared sources of the first American and Southern renaissances. These factors include:

* Religious doctrines and mysticism

* The influence of western/classical humanism and Enlightenment thought

* Back-to-nature sensibilities and anti-industrialism

* Internal and external conflict and rebellion

In the remainder of this paper I will analyze each of the above constituents and associated ideas, with examples from the public speaking, essays and poetry of Emerson, Ransom and Tate. I hope to show how closely related are the transcendent principles of Emersonianism and the first American Renaissance, and the pastoral/regional ideals of the Southern Renaissance. We will see that the similar conditions in both of these movements can be seen as a pungent cultural and intellectual synthesis, which to this day exerts influence on various social and arts movements in the U.S.

Religion and Mysticism

Without question, the most important and thoroughgoing factors linking the first American and Southern renaissances are religious and mystical affiliations. From these sources, which stem at heart from Puritanism and Protestantism, laced with a strong metaphysical impulse, the two movements adapted many of their central ideas and motivations. Emersonian Transcendentalism certainly emerged out of the tradition of New England Puritan Christianity by way of Unitarianism, and the Nashville Agrarians also embraced a strong fundamentalist Protestant/ Christian ethic.

As an ordained Unitarian minister, from a long line of Protestant ministers, Emerson's Christian pedigree was secure. His Unitarianism, though rejecting the rigid hierarchies of religious practices from the past, nevertheless remained a connected member in the family of New England Puritan and Protestant Christianity. Although Emerson ultimately resigned from the Unitarian church and launched the ostensibly secular Transcendental movement, he in fact largely remained one with New England Protestant traditions and beliefs, as his words make clear. In short, Emerson and his movement were "more an evolution than a revolt" from the prevailing Christian doctrines of his day (Buell, Literary Transcendentalism 38). Although his mystical Transcendentalism may at times appear to be a hammer blow to fundamental Christian beliefs, he and the other Transcendentalists (devout Unitarians one and all) were "Puritan to the core" (Goddard qtd. in Barbour 26), and their Protestant Christian beliefs were rock solid. Though Emerson's Harvard "Divinity School Address" of 15 July 1838 is often considered the opening salvo in his battle against what he believed was Unitarianism's conservatism, he couched some of his sentiments in language few Christians would have objected to, with Christ as humanity's savior, and all of the necessary commitments to associated fundamentalist doctrine. Emerson said in his famed address:
   Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets.... Alone in
   all history, he estimated the greatness of man.... He said, in
   this jubilee of sublime emotion, 'I am divine. Through me, God
   acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me'

Without question, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate had similar beliefs. Ransom rhapsodized that religion was "fundamental and prior to intelligent (or human) conduct," and that "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (both Letters 180). He also expressed frustration with "soft-headed" modernized and/or worldly views of God and religious faith (Letters 180), and his "crucial thinking on the South" comprised "a devotion to religion so strong that he took 'fundamentalism' ... as right and proper" (both Kreyling 12). Tate may have embraced fundamentalism a bit more gingerly than Ransom--his "Remarks on the Southern Religion" in the movement's manifesto, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930) posits a vaguely defined "southern religion"--but it is not hard to see ardent Christianity lurking between the lines as he "moved certainly, if somewhat hesitantly, toward the affirmation of Christian principles" (Rubin, The History of Southern Literature 330). Both Ransom and Tate in these ways "admired the capacity of orthodox religion to provide surety" and both were "concerned with the decline of religious authority in modern life" (Murphy).

The similarities sketched here stem from common sources that developed as Christianity spread from North to South in the U.S., from the founding of the country through the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and beyond. In spite of the Agrarians' claim that New England Protestantism was tainted by its links with industrialism and commerce in the United States, the fact is that the Baptist Christianity widespread in the southern United States during Ransom and Tate's time traces its heritage directly to evangelical New England Protestantism and Puritanism. There simply was no other real choice for the "Southern religion." (3) Both Tate and Ransom would change as the years passed, with Ransom becoming more agnostic, and Tate converting to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s--but their first religion was southern, Bible-belt Christianity, and their movement during its heyday, with Ransom and Tate at the helm, was in a deep sense motivated by Christian religious impulses that sought to "assert the redemptive meaning of the classical-Christian past in its bearing on the present" (Simpson qtd. in King 6).

We must include within this understanding of essential religious values the broadly mystical elements of these philosophies. Emerson's mystical tendencies are well known, and are encapsulated in the principal tenet of Transcendentalist philosophy: "The belief ... which maintains that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses, or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world" ("An Essay on Transcendentalism" 23). (4) Emersonian Transcendentalism also sought at a higher abstract level to restore a deep mystery and vibrancy to Christian faith and belief. In his "Divinity School Address" Emerson said "Christianity destroys the power of preaching, by withdrawing it from the exploration of the moral nature of man, where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power." His aim was to restore this sublimity, this power. One way he tried to do this was with the insertion of oracular Kantian philosophy into his preaching and teaching. Emerson said in an address in January 1842:

Kant. [showed] that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms. ("The Transcendentalist")

Emerson spiced up his essentially Christian philosophy in this way with Kant and other Eastern and Western influences, and lest we think that these are somehow at odds, we find in the values of New England Puritanism "an indestructible element which was mystical ... almost pantheistic" (Miller qtd. in Barbour 70). Transcendentalism's core tenet, noted above, is simultaneously a bold mystical pronouncement and a simple variation on the Protestant precept that that believers do not require the mediation of church officialdom to obtain access to God, redemption and divine wisdom--they can achieve this on their own. While such overall "mystical pietism," is on the one hand Emersonian to the core, it has also long been "one of the most dynamic forces in the tradition of American Evangelical Protestantism as a whole," and thus can be understood to have been transplanted forward into the Christianized philosophy that infused Ransom's and Tate's lives (both Buell, Literary Transcendentalism 6).

On the surface John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate may appear less preternatural than Emerson, with their movement aligned more predictably with Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, in ways not dissimilar to Emerson's we find that Ransom's and Tate's religious (and world) views veered into oracular thinking, very much resembling transcendentalism. The views of Tate were always "fixed, really, on ultimates: on issues which ... could be dealt with only in theological terms" (Gray, Writing 129), and he professed a desire to "to see beyond the bounds of pure perception so that he might know metaphysical reality" (Rubin, The History of Southern Literature 330). Ransom, meanwhile, made his own leap from Kant's views on imagination, poetry and beauty, to a mystical view, writing that a proper conception of metaphor in poetry "gives us the sense of nature accepting the Universal readily into its infinite system, and lending to it what metaphysical sanction is possible" ("The Concrete Universal, II" in Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom 302). The essence of such a passage is not far from Kant's conception (by way of Emerson, as referred to above in "The Transcendentalist") of "a very important class of ideas.that [are] intuitions of the mind itself." Ransom went even further with his ranging religiosity, not only claiming to be something of a "pagan" in his leanings toward Aristotelian naturalist religion and a belief in "the world's body" (see Ransom Letters, 7 and elsewhere), but also announcing that God was "the ultimate mystery to which all our great experiences reduce" (Rubin, The History of Southern Literature 320), and--in another Transcendental turn--that "religion is our submission to the general intention of nature," a nature that is "something mysterious and contingent" (I'll Take My Stand xxiv).

The Influence of Western/Classical Humanism and Enlightenment Thought

In a strong sense, the religious fundamentalism and mysticism of Emerson, Ransom and Tate were reactions against the same philosophy and world view: Lockean empiricism and mechanistic Enlightenment rationalism, which were in one major sense introduced into American society in the political and social writings of the founding fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson (specifically, Emerson rejected Lockean empiricism as it was evinced in the Unitarian faith). Jefferson's writings and world view created a web of difficulty for both the Transcendentalists and the Agrarians. To be sure, both groups venerated Jefferson, with Emerson including him in a group of "men ... who are incomparably superior to the populace ..., showing them the way they should go, doing for them what they wish done and cannot do" ("Aristocracy"). With Jeffersonian democracy seen as no less than an "ideal of human perfection" (Barbour 41), the Transcendental leaders sought not only to engender a democratic impulse in New England Protestantism, but, even more broadly, "the democratization of society as a whole" (Hotchfield qtd. in Barbour 46). (5) Even more philosophically, Emerson would have happily endorsed the view that Jefferson was "more concerned with the power of transcendental statements than in their ... secular origin" (a reading of the Declaration of Independence bears this out). (6) Conversely, however, Jefferson was thoroughly Lockean in his legalistic intellect and propensities (which the Declaration of Independence also makes clear), and he, in conjunction (but also in conflict) with his transcendental leanings, endorsed a "world historical secularity," a logical positivistic approach that resulted in "the radical displacement of transcendent reference for either natural or social order" (both Rubin, The History of Southern Literature 57). Such rationalism and empiricism would have been anathema to Emerson and his compatriots, who sought to "discover divine truth ... without the aid of traditional authority or even logic" (Bowers qtd. in Barbour 11). Crowe and Tate, meanwhile, like Emerson and his compatriots, were joined-at-the-hip with Jefferson--they and their fellow Agrarians conceived of a society of "institutions that flow from the common adherence to democratic principles" (Agrarian Donald Davidson qtd. in Young 2), and they could only have been pleased that Jefferson was himself an agrarian who proclaimed that "those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God" ("Notes on the State of Virginia" 57). They never theless were at times repulsed by Jefferson's logical positivist, wholly uncontingent and unmysterious views. "The modern Southerner," lamented Tate in 1930, "inherits the [secular] Jeffersonian formula. This is only to say that he inherits a concrete and very unsatisfactory history" ("Religion and the Old South" in Collected Essays, 321; additional wording, taken from the essay, by the author).

We can perhaps see that in key senses Jefferson himself was conflicted, with Christian, idealistic, theistic and transcendental beliefs conditioning his doctrine on the one hand, and secular, positivist, Lockean legalism holding sway on the other. Both the Transcendentalists and the Agrarians revered the former but repudiated the latter, and this lodged them on the horns of a philosophical dilemma that they never disentangled themselves from, creating an ongoing cognitive dissonance and internal conflict that, ultimately, contributed to their weakening and ultimate demises.

As a final note, and even more broadly in terms of Enlightenment thinking, Ransom (who called Kant his "mentor") (7) and Tate both believed that "the South was the last stronghold of European civilization in the western hemisphere" (Tate qtd. in Gray, Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region 138), and they built their philosophy and world view on the "religious, aesthetic, and moral foundations of the old European civilization" (Murphy). Ransom himself has been viewed as a "spiritual descendent of Ruskin and Carlyle" (Gray, Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region 141), whose expansive, visionary thinking and interpretations of Kant had 100 years before heavily influenced Emerson and his contemporaries--who have themselves been called true "heirs of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment" (Barbour 44).

Back-to-Nature Sensibilities and Anti-Industrialism

The next elements common to both the Transcendentalists and Agrarians I will examine are their back-to-nature sensibilities and anti-industrialism. Like the transcendental impulse deep in the weave of these two movements, these beliefs have long been common in American culture, impacting a range of social trends and reform movements--from the early rumblings of farmer's rebellions in the 1700s, to American nature writings in the nineteenth century, to the turbulence in American labor and union movements (many of which are anti-industrial), to local-color/nativist American philosophies (many of which have primitivist, back-to-nature leanings), through widespread anti-industrial, back-to-nature movements and environmental activism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Both the Transcendentalists and the Agrarians had a twofold view of the importance of nature and a natural life, which was at once a practical ground for ideal vocational and personal development, and also a lofty metaphor for humanity's highest intellectual and spiritual aspirations. Closely linked to these ideas were the two movements' angry anti-industrialism, both believing the lives of simple farmers and other rugged individualists of their times were being devalued by the dehumanizing profit motives and mechanical (that is, unnatural) industrialism of business interests in the United States (this propensity is linked to the labor and economic reform aims, as well as certain social reforms, advocated by the two movements).

At a level both rational and embodied, nature was for Emerson "first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind" ("The American Scholar"), as well as the "flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone" ("The Method of Nature," cited in Miller 53). Humans were made "strong by the whole strength of nature" ("Divinity School Address"), but at the same time nature was imbued with highly mystical significance, with Emerson viewing the natural world as "not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool" ("Divinity School Address"). Emerson rapturously and famously further proclaimed:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.... In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,--no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground.all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. ("Nature")

Human life in nature, while mostly incorporated into Transcendental religious views, was also, as noted, linked to the movement's reform aims and anti-industrialism. Emerson and his peers lived during the first major wave of industrialism in the United States, and they did not like what they saw. At levels both philosophical and pragmatic, industrialism "cast a problematic and threatening light on the hope for democratic fulfillment" during Emerson's time (Barbour 48), and was "incompatible with the democratic ideal of individual freedom" (Hotchfield qtd. in Barbour 48). Stemming from this suspicion, the Transcendentalists evinced "a revulsion against commercialism" (Miller qtd. in Barbour 1), believing that "masses of men were the helpless victims of economic power controlled by a few" (Hotchfield qtd. in Barbour 48). Transcendental philosophy, Emerson and his colleagues believed, would rectify these failings, and provide "the basis for a new social order in which human dignity and freedom might triumph over the power of money and machines" (Hotchfield qtd. in Barbour 51).

The Agrarians had similarly diverse views of the value of human life within a natural context, with Ransom mildly contemplating on the one hand that the "The South is a place in which it is generally pleasant to be in the open air, and nature blooms and waxes prodigiously" ("The Aesthetic of Regionalism" in Essays 56) and, a tad more pragmatically, that an optimal economic society should be based on "the tiller of the soil...the most ancient and the most humane of all the modes of human livelihood" (I'll Take My Stand 18-19). Similarly, in his "Divinity School Address", Emerson celebrated the individual, enterprising worker's spirit when he said "history delights to honor" the "planters, the mechanics, the inventors, the astronomers, the builders of cities, and the captains." (8)

On another (mystical) hand, Ransom wrote that "the physical earth and its teeming life" were the sources of "an inexhaustible source of arts and religions and philosophies" (I'll Take My Stand 9); that his beloved farmers and everyday workingmen and women were endowed with "philosophical and even ... cosmic consciousness" (I'll Take My Stand 20); and, even more preternaturally, that nature is "everywhere itself, a dense 'manifold of sense,' a tissue of events whose effects are massive and intricate beyond the grasp of the understanding" ("The Concrete Universal, II" in Essays 294). Tate, meanwhile, philosophized that the Agrarian naturalist program would enable Americans "to live at the center of some way of life and to be borne up by its innermost significance" (Tate to John Peale Bishop in Gray, Writing 122). Overall, we find that, not dissimilar to the Transcendental movement, Agrarian doctrine is suffused in these ways with conceptions of ideal harmony, balance and stability (see Gray, Writing 308, note 63 for additional examples), harking to utopian, mystical and even millenarian notions of perfectionism and divine immanence. Ransom offered up "one last fantastic thought" in his contribution to I'll Take My Stand, endorsing a veritable Agrarian "Utopia on earth" (26).

More down-to-earth, and linked with their anti-industrialism, Ransom uncompromisingly announced that the "applied sciences" had "enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome" (I'll Take My Stand xxi), and that humanity was trying "to conquer nature to a degree which is quite beyond reason" (I'll Take My Stand 7). Industrialism was no less than "an insidious spirit" (I'll Take My Stand 15), and the economic system in the United States of the time was "vicious" (Ransom, Letters 180). Allen Tate, ever righteous, added in his "Remarks on the Southern Religion" that industrialism was enmeshed within an "enemy abstraction," and that "large-scale exploitation of nature" did not support "stable religious order" but invidiously "advance[d] the interests of trade as an end in itself' (I'll Take My Stand 167). In the end for the Agrarians, the "northern industrial communities" that were the engine of this "evil dispensation" were "horrible examples of a way of life we detest" (Ransom in I'll Take My Stand 23, xxx, 23). Needless to say we see here the heated animosity that often colored the North's and the South's views of each other, from Emerson's time into the early twentieth century. (9)

While Emerson, Ransom and Tate did not truly focus their poetry on these varied agrarian and rural sentiments, such ideas did make their way into their verse. Although there are similarities in some of the courtly stylings of these three poets, essentially a wide gulf separates Emerson's nineteenth century romantic expression from the angst-ridden modernism that Ransom and Tate were familiar with, and so a direct comparison is not truly feasible. However, a glance at a few poetic examples reveals a certain sense of localism in all three. (10) Emerson wrote in "The Apology"--
   One harvest from thy field
   Homeward brought the oxen strong;
   A second crop thine acres yield,
   Which I gather in a song.

--while in "Antique Harvesters," Ransom draws on the heroic rural figures that were so dear to him and his fellow Agrarians (though the harvests Ransom examines here are less homespun, and more brooding)--
   Here come the hunters, keepers of a rite;
   The horn, the hounds, the lank mares coursing by
   Straddled with archetypes of chivalry ...

   Resume, harvesters. The treasure is full bronze
   Which you will garner for the Lady, and the moon ...

--and Allen Tate hints at the better, simpler, rural life he envisioned for America in "The Mediterranean"--
   Westward, westward till the barbarous brine
   Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,
   Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine
   Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.

Internal and External Conflict and Rebellion

Considering the high achievement and intellects of the leaders of the Transcendental and Agrarian movements, all were surprisingly insecure internally (we have seen in one sense how this was so, in our examination of Jeffersonian influence on the two movements), while also subject to extraordinary external stresses during turbulent times in America. The sources of the transformation and associated discontent during both of the eras I am examining are manifold, with both movements occurring in periods of social, political and aesthetic transformation in America. While this is perhaps broadly true of any historical period or crossroads, the Civil War is one key specific factor that links the Transcendental and Agrarian movements across a historical fulcrum in American life. For both groups, the war fostered a sense of crisis and the need for renaissance in society. For the Transcendentalists, the war created a sense of impending disaster, and ultimately absorbed their energies to the point of distraction (virtually all of the leading Transcendentalists were anti-slavery activists). Probably even more profoundly than the Transcendentalist case, the destruction wrought by the Civil War and the chaos of Reconstruction were then-current as well as historical concerns for the Nashville Agrarians, and were utterly dismaying to them. (11) For the Nashville Agrarians and their fellows, life and their literary movement were nothing less than a continuation of the issues that had riven the nation during and after the war, and stemming from this time "the relationship between present and past which the [Southern] Renaissance writers explored was fraught with ambivalence and ambiguity" (King 7). In the best sense, this ambivalence and ambiguity about their past--this sense of their history as "monumental" (King 7)--led to great art; (12) but it also led to frustration, anger and somewhat bizarre pronouncements emerging from "the barely submerged violence" of southern culture (King 16). Tate and another "unregenerate" Agrarian, (13) Donald Davidson, vainly discussed how life would have been better if Stonewall Jackson had been the supreme commander of Confederate forces in the Civil War, which, they were convinced, would have led to a southern victory that would have left them "much better off than we are now" (qtd. in Gray, Writing 130). Spouting the warlike rhetoric commonly used by the Agrarians (such rhetoric was "as natural to the discourse of southern cultural identity as gravy is to rice" writes Kreyling [167]), Ransom endorsed in I'll Take My Stand a "counter revolution" against the ongoing "invasion of Southern soil" (26, 23), while Tate in "Remarks on the Southern Religion" asked a loaded question--"How may the Southerner take hold of his [lost] Tradition?--and then answered nastily: "by violence" (I'll Take My Stand 174; additional wording by the author). Ultimately, for the Agrarians, "discontinuity was something they knew from their own lives, felt upon their pulses" (Gray, Writing 134), and the resulting conflict created contradictions that threatened, existentially, "not only to destroy the contours of their physical world but their modes of being and perception, the solidity of their social and moral selves" (Gray, Writing 164).

In contrast to the Agrarians, Ralph Waldo Emerson might appear positively serene in his quasi-mystical world of "perfect exhilaration" ("Nature"). Indeed, as noted, Emersonian thought was more an evolution than a revolution. Conflict was, nevertheless, an ongoing element in Emerson's life. As with the Nashville Agrarians, this was not least because of the Civil War, and (also as the Agrarians) because in their day the Transcendentalists were nothing less than "the most thoroughgoing critics of society that had yet appeared on the American scene" (Hotchfield qtd. in Barbour 43). To Emerson, this world of insurgency (actually, the world in general) was "a perpetual trial of strength between man and events" ("Aristocracy" 291). Further, speaking in Boston in 1838, Emerson said (in a statement that could have come straight from the belligerent Allen Tate):

War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man. ("War")

Emerson's heated renunciation of the Unitarian church was also combative, and when "the Lucifer of Concord" (as Allen Tate called Emerson) spoke words like the following in his "Divinity School Address", he was asking for trouble, and many church leaders vigorously denounced him:
   Miracles, prophecy, poetry; the ideal life, the holy life, exist as
   ancient history merely; they are not in the belief, nor in the
   aspiration of society; but, when suggested, seem ridiculous.

   But now the priest's Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is
   unlovely; we are glad when it is done; we can make, we do make,
   even sitting in our pews, a far better, holier, sweeter, for

Overall, it seems that Emerson was anything but the touchy-feely dreamer he is often portrayed as. In his "Divinity School Address" he returned to battlefield mythology and language, first citing Napoleon amidst images of crisis, paralysis, sacrifice, the dead falling in ranks, terror, and aims which put sympathy out of question, and then no less than thanking God that a violent turning point was at hand:
   There are men who rise refreshed on hearing a threat; men to whom a
   crisis which intimidates and paralyzes the majority, demanding not
   the faculties of prudence and thrift, but comprehension,
   immovableness, the readiness of sacrifice, comes graceful and
   beloved as a bride. Napoleon said of Massena [French military
   commander, 1758-1817], that he was not himself until the battle
   began to go against him; then, when the dead began to fall in ranks
   around him, awoke his powers of combination, and he put on terror
   and victory as a robe. So it is in rugged crises, in unweariable
   endurance, and in aims which put sympathy out of question, that the
   angel is shown. But these are heights that we can scarce remember
   and look up to, without contrition and shame. Let us thank God that
   such things exist.


Poets, priests, philosophers, preachers and teachers employing an amalgam of art and argument in their aims to transform American society--Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate filled these quintessentially American roles. (14) As cultural leaders, activists and academics, they vigorously influenced public discourse and perceptions, as well as literature and rhetoric, as they developed in their respective renaissances. In this paper, looking across an historical compass, I have tried to highlight common ideas and influences, fed by a spirited transcendental impulse--which has been called a "fertilizing undercurrent" in American letters and culture (Asselineau 5). (15) If I have been successful, then we may have observed an important instance of how the cultural constants I have highlighted have played out in these two important social and political renaissances in the United States, from the years 1830-1930. The Transcendental and Agrarian movements may be conceived of as bracketing promontories--key elements at the beginning-of-the-beginning and the end-of-the-beginning of the development of a mature national literature and modern public discourse in America. Before Emerson, American literature was little more than fragments, and he was instrumental in cohering many aspects of what American literature could be. Only a few years after Emerson and his fellows, a number of other important writers would emerge--the first concrete realizations of the emergence of world-class American literature. Only a few years after that, the true beginning of modernized American literature would be under way, and this would be expanded spectacularly during the 1920s and 1930s, leading into the Southern Renaissance, whose exponents made brilliant poetic and rhetorical contributions of their own.

Additionally, before Emerson, American public life, while certainly modern (for its time) and unique in many respects, remained, in essence, 17th-century, Georgian, Lockean, and still heavily conditioned by European notions of civility and polity. Not to overstate, but Emerson's rebellion and rhetoric in many respects may have done away with these old American ways, forcing proto-modern public and wholly American discourse to the forefront of public life. Emersonian philosophy, while somewhat naive and ultimately a fairly dismal failure, paved the way toward major developments in American philosophy and literature in the later nineteenth century and beyond. The Nashville Agrarian philosophy, at the far end of this historical continuum, at this point appears backward in comparison to Emerson's bold, brilliant gestures. Rather than propelling public discourse and reform forward, they vainly reached back--their so-called "backward glance"--and their ultimate fall was dizzying and painful to witness. The Agrarians may have felt they were building on or refurbishing traditions in what they believed were productive ways, but the movement was mostly an anachronism, misrepresenting and even misunderstanding its own past in its zeal for archaic values and "reform" that was seen by most Americans as laughable. Agrarian beliefs and methods failed so utterly that many of the originators of the movement had largely abandoned their beliefs within only a few years of the movement's inception, and the few that hung on into the 1950s were seen as truly unregenerate, foolish and largely forgotten (the 1980 conference in Nashville honoring the surviving Agrarians and I'll Take My Stand as no less than a "prophetic book" indicates one more positive view [Murphy]). Though about the only thing the Agrarians could claim to have contributed to developing public discourse in America is by showing what not to do, the movement was in many other ways bold to the extreme, idealistic, and rooted in core American mores and conventions--many which were the selfsame mores and conventions that Emerson and the Transcendental movement had been motivated by some 100 years before.

Looked at from this distance we can see that there are indeed differences between the Transcendental and Agrarian movements in American literature and public history. We would expect as much, the world was a very different place in 1920 than it had been in 1840. Yet we can also see that a transcendental world view, with its combination of idealism and utopianism--galvanized with bolts of rebellion, Jeffersonian democratic ideals, religion-cum-mysticism, back-to-nature pastoralism, an optimistic desire to improve the lives of the people, and plenty of unique and often brilliant individual aesthetic contributions--constituted the fecund fertilizer that nourished the sod of these two very American renaissances.


(1) Nashville had a population of approximately 7,000 in 1840, compared to Boston's 93,000; in 1920 the population was 118,000, compared to Boston's 748,000. These approximate figures were collected from various locations on the Internet, including Wikipedia.

(2) A complete list of the Nashville Agrarians who contributed to the group's manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, includes Donald Davidson (poet, essayist, reviewer and historian), John Gould Fletcher (poet and historian), Henry Blue Kline (author), Lyle H. Lanier (writer, professor), Andrew Nelson Lytle (poet, novelist and essayist), Herman Clarence Nixon (author), Frank Lawrence Owsley (historian), John Crowe Ransom (poet, professor, essayist), Allen Tate (poet), John Donald Wade (biographer and essayist), Robert Penn Warren (poet, novelist, essayist, critic), and Stark Young (novelist, drama and literary critic, playwright).

(3) There were 3,850,278 parishioners in 23,731 Southern Baptist churches in the southern states in 1930. This information from the Southern Baptist Handbook. Linda S. Barr, ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Convention Press, 1993.

(4) Interestingly, this Transcendental world view is seen reflected (if obliquely) in the southern Agrarians' belief in the "immanent, intrinsic value" of the South (William Terry Couch qtd. in Kreyling 15).

(5) Such a democratic impulse, as with the Nashville Agrarians, in some senses represents the deepest social reform aim of the two movements.

(6) Quote in Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge 239.

(7) Quote from "The Concrete Universal, II" in Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom 286.

(8) These homespun ideas and images made their way into the public personas of Emerson, Ransom, and Tate, with each donning the habiliments of the "commoner," the "laborer," "the farmer," the American everyman. "I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low" said Emerson in "The American Scholar," while Ransom, portrayed himself as an aw-shucks "philosophical regionalist" in his writing ("The Aesthetic of Regionalism" in Essays 45 and passim). Allen Tate, meanwhile, called himself, (with what sounds like disingenuousness, given his lofty reputation) "a layman of the more ordinary kind" (Essays 305).

(9) In a stark denunciation of southern life, Emerson wrote of the "dangerous ascendency [sic] of Southern manners," which supported "this foul business" (of slavery). "We poor men in the country who might once have thought it an honor to shake hands with them [Southerners]," he continued, "would now shrink from their touch" ("The Fugitive Slave Law").

(10) While obvious with the Agrarians, even the Transcendental movement was in a sense "local," or "regional" in its leanings, with indigenously fashioned ideas and something of an attempt to rediscover a regional pastoral ideal that would provide Americans with a more satisfying and refined existence. Emerson wrote with a regional tinge in "The American Scholar" of a literature of "the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common," and that this was a locality "which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts."

(11) During their time the Agrarians and their generation also faced a confusing new modernizing world and, like other Americans, the recent devastation of World War I. As important as these conditions are, however, the southern self of this time in important ways continued to react to a the amalgam of corrosive influences emerging from the South's historical lot--principally the Civil War--and long struggle with its own contradictions, creating deep social and personal discord.

(12) Emerson too looked to the past as a living element of the present, writing in "The American Scholar" that a "great influence into the spirit of the scholar" was "the mind of the Past, in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions."

(13) The wording is from John Crowe Ransom's essay in I'll Take My Stand, "Reconstructed but Unregenerate."

(14) I have borrowed Lawrence Buell's expression of "art and argument," from his Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance.

(15) Indeed, we may posit that virtually every social movement in the United States from the late nineteenth and into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that has endeavored for greater personal freedom, free-form spiritual growth, and rebellion against social and political hierarchy can trace much of its ancestry to Emerson and Co.

Works Cited

Asselineau, Roger. The Transcendentalist Constant in American Literature. New York and London: New York UP, 1980.

Barbour, Brian M. ed. American Transcendentalism: An Anthology of Criticism. Notre Dame, London: U of Notre Dame P, 1973.

Buell, Lawrence. Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1973.

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." The Works of Ralph Waldo September 2013 < option=com_content&task=view&id=116&Itemid=42>.

--. "Aristocracy." The Works of Ralph Waldo January 2006 < 159&Itemid=42>.

--. "Divinity School Address, July 15, 1838." The Works of Ralph Waldo November 2013 < =com_content&task=view&id=117&Itemid=42>.

--. "Nature." The Works of Ralph Waldo January 2014 < &Itemid=42>.

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--. "The Fugitive Slave Law." The Works of Ralph Waldo May 2014 <>.

--. ""Aristocracy"." The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry. Perry Miller, ed. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957.

--. "An Essay on Transcendentalism." The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry, Perry Miller, ed. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957.

--. "The Method of Nature." The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry, Perry Miller, ed. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957.

Gray, Richard. Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

--. The Literature of Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1977. I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by 12 Southerners. Introduction by Louis D. Rubin. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Jefferson, Thomas. "Notes on the State of Virginia." The Literary South, Louis D. Rubin, ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979.

King, Richard. A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980.

Kreyling, Michael. Inventing Southern Literature. Jackson, Miss.: UP of Mississippi, 1998.

Miller, Perry, ed. The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957.

Murphy, Paul. The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001.

Ransom, John Crowe. Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1984.

--. Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom. Thomas Daniel Young, George Core, eds. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1985.

Rubin, Louis D. Jr, ed. The History of Southern Literature. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1985.

Tate, Allen. Collected Essays. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959.

Wilson, Edd O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Young, Thomas Daniel. The Past in the Present: A Thematic Study of Modern Southern Fiction. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1981.

[Received 10 Feb. 2014; accepted 19 Jun. 2014]

David Pendery is currently an assistant professor at National Taipei University of Business. He is an American who has lived in Taiwan since 2000. Here he has worked for several universities and language schools, taught as a tutor, and been an editor. He is married with no children.
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