Despite its appellation, the Reconstruction actually lacked constructive influence in many sectors of Southern culture, including literature. In the sluggish and onerous years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, the South found itself mired in its history and burdened by insurmountable debts, both literal and figurative. What writers and creatives remained returned invariably to the glory days of the Pre-War South, romanticizing and reimagining idyllic visions of the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” Hollow words rang with the stale and brassy discord of Dixie and even youthful creatives were at a loss as to how to shrug off the heavy vestiges of history and create a distinctly Southern, modern literature.
There were, of course, a few writers who refused to be dictated to by societal standards of Reconstruction literature. Mark Twain, of course, openly commented on the true state of the South in his popular works, and writers like Charles W. Chesnutt critiqued the racial injustices and exploitations still so prevalent in the days following the end of slavery. But it was H.L. Mencken’s 1920 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” that inspired what would come to be known as The Southern Renaissance, the reinvigoration of Southern literature.
In its very name “The Sahara of the Bozart” mocks the South, the title a pun on the Southern pronunciation of “beaux-arts” (fine arts). In his essay, Mencken labeled the South as the most rustic and intellectually sterile region in the country and blatantly cited a decline in cultural and intellectual identity in the South since the Civil War. Despite the objections of conservative Southerners, even dissenters of Mencken were unable to provide proof to refute his claims; there was little to no evidence of a creative Southern spirit outside of the glorified heroism of the Lost Cause. Rather than cower under the acrid label set forth by Mencken or stand behind the traditional romanticism of older conservatives, a younger generation of Southern creatives used the criticisms to forge a new literary path.
One of the first groups to commence the Southern Renaissance was “The Fugitives” of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The group was comprised of poets, critics and intellectuals who proudly touted their Southern-ness even as they recognized the flaws of their history. The Fugitives and their self-titled magazine, as well as the subsequent Southern Agrarians and their publication I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, which defended the inherently provincial spirit of the South against impending industrialism, paved the way for an onslaught of Southern writers and creators—the Southern Renaissance.
Members of the Southern Renaissance all share common themes among their various works, whether poems, short stories, novels, or theater. Each work addresses the history of the South with a sense of realism and honesty; unlike their predecessors, these writers did not romanticize the past, but instead exposed the harsh realities of slavery, the Reconstruction, and coping with military defeat. Works of the Southern Renaissance also tend to target the conservative culture that defined, and to an extent continues to define, the South. For inhabitants of the South, life was governed by the broad values family, religion, and community, which displaced the importance of one’s personal life. And finally, these writers addressed head-on the South’s troubled past in regard to race.
Writers who today are known as some of America’s most innovative literary artists can be included under the Southern Renaissance handle. Perhaps most notable among them is William Faulkner, whose works like As I Lay Dying and Absalom! Absalom! completely altered literature forever with his inventive use of techniques like stream of consciousness. Faulkner’s work earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, a verifiable victory for Southerners a mere twenty-nine years after Mencken’s derisive essay. Faulkner certainly does not stand alone or even among a few members of the movement. Writers like Katherine Anne Porter (who won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing), Tennessee Williams (another Pulitzer Prize winner), Robert Penn Warren (yet another Pulitzer Prize winner as well as poet laureate), Zora Neale Hurston, Caroline Gordon, and Allen Tate all helped dig the South out of her self-perpetuating quagmire of stale literature.
The Southern Renaissance was a direct rebuttal to the criticisms put forth by detractors of the South but, more than that, it served as inspiration for generations of Southerners to come. For decades, notable writers like Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Charles Frazier have cited the prolific artists of the Southern Renaissance as the stimulus for their own modern Southern literature.