The canonical period identified by the label “American Renaissance” has enjoyed a durable place in American literary history. However, its origins and its particular shape are peculiar to say the least. F. O. Matthieson’s book by that title concentrated on a half decade from 1850 to 1855 and on specific texts from five authors whose collective output consists of at least ten times as many volumes. Even more odd is that these particular writers-Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman-were not widely read in their time, and one book in Matthieson’s canon, /Moby Dick/, was all but forgotten by the time the literary historian made this group of writers so central to the study of American literature. In this one day seminar, we’ll discuss some excerpts from Matthieson’s gang of five and consider some of the reasons for his argument that they are exceptional examples of American literary greatness; indeed, we’ll consider what “greatness” is or is supposed to be, and if it matters.
Seminar led by Lawrence Howe, Roosevelt University