Beneath the American Renaissance

Publishing history:

Cloth edition: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988; Paperback: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991; Paperback, with preface by Sean Wilentz: New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Also available as an e-book and audiobook.




“Arguably the most significant volume in American literary studies to be published in the past three decades.”

           —Harold K Bush, Introduction to Above the American Renaissance: David S. Reynolds and the Spiritual Imagination in American Literary Studies

“Sets a new agenda for American literary and cultural studies.”

                 -Alan Trachtenberg, Yale University

Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville

by David S. Reynolds

In this classic work of criticism and cultural history, the seven great writers of the American Renaissance– Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Dickinson–are examined together in their literary and social contexts.

            Anne Rice on David S. Reynolds:

            “I want to recommend again David S. Reynolds, and specifically his brilliant book: “Beneath the American Renaissance: the Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville.” Reynolds is a champion at putting venerated American authors such as Whitman or Melville or Hawthorne in full rich historical & cultural context as to forgotten popular novels they might have read, newspapers they would have seen, stories they might have heard, and all the elements making up the tenor of their times. He thinks in terms of huge currents in American history and huge cultural development, but he writes so clearly and eloquently that you don’t have to be a scholar to understand him. — His works are completely accessible to readers outside of the academic world and its dense terminology. — He is a great thinker. And this is a great book. — Anybody in love with 19th century America would love this work; I’m loving it as I go deeper and deeper into the century. — I recommend it highly. —- Scholars like this win a popular audience, as I see it, because of their skill as explaining profound questions in simple terms. — The book is filled with stories of forgotten authors, forgotten best sellers, including women and women’s writings, which invite greater study today. — Frankly, I find this fun.”

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Beneath the American Renaissance D S Reynolds


“A major accomplishment….We are all in David Reynolds’s debt for this genuine and substantive contribution to our knowledge of the entire American Renaissance.” —Joel Myerson, New England Quarterly

“One of those rare books whose accomplishment equals its ambition….It will stand beside F. O. Matthiessen’s great American Renaissance (1941) as a foundation to our knowledge about this seminal period in American cultural history.”  Philip F. Gura, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

About the Book

The magisterial Beneath the American Renaissance is a classic work on American literature. It immeasurably broadens our knowledge of our most important literary period, as first identified by F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance. With its combination of sharp critical insight, engaging observation, and narrative drive, it represents the kind of masterful cultural history for which David Reynolds is known. Here the major works of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson receive striking, original readings set against the rich backdrop of contemporary popular writing. Reynolds brings to our attention a whole lost world of sensational literature: pamphlet novels that purveyed hair-raising adventure, reverend rakes, and mythic sea-monsters; gory crime books derived from real-life case histories; reform writings that dwelled on the grisly and perverse results of vice; novels, openly sold in the street, that combined intense violence with explicit eroticism. He shows how this wildly energized popular literature reflected the fantasies and aggressions of Americans in a period of rapid social change—and how it echoes throughout the major America works—in the ambiguities of Melville and Hawthorne, in Poe’s portrayal of psychopathic killers, in Whitman’s open expression of sexuality. Reynolds finds strong traces of such popular types as the fallen woman, the sensual woman, and the feminist criminal in the multifaceted heroines of Hawthorne. He shows how the experimental style and explosive imagery of the sophisticated women’s rights novels of the 1850s and the feminist “literature of misery” of the 1850s and 1860s set the stage for Emily Dickinson’s work—he sees in her poems closer ties to the popular culture than have previously been revealed.

He demonstrates as well how common concerns with religion, slavery, and workers’ (as well as women’s) rights resonate in the major writings.

Throughout, Reynolds uses what he calls “reconstructive criticism” to reveal the social roots of literary texts to make clear the ways in which cultural images that were crude and formless in their original state were reconstructed and put to the uses of art by the American masters. The result is a landmark study of the richest period in American literary history and a notable contribution to the theory and practice of literary criticism.

Now back in print, the volume includes a new foreword by historian Sean Wilentz that reveals the book’s impact and influence. A magisterial work of criticism and cultural history, Beneath the American Renaissance will fascinate anyone interested in the genesis of America’s most significant literary epoch and the iconic figures who defined it.

Critical Praise for Beneath the American Renaissance:

“Impressively informed and heroic . . . An original piece of work that gives the literary canon and its contexts a good shaking.” —Justin Kaplan, The New York Times Book Review

“More than 40 years ago the critic F.O. Matthiessen published ‘The American Renaissance,’ his landmark study of the flowering of American writing in the years before the Civil War . . . David Reynolds’s large, richly suggestive book expands Matthiessen’s thesis, not only adding Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson as central figures but also focusing on the forgotten mass of popular literature of the time.” —The Economist

“A monumental revisionist study of 19th-century American literature that challenges both popular critical conceptions of Emerson, Whitman, Poe, et al., as well as fashionable schools of literary analysis. . . . A tremendous work of scholarship.” —Kirkus

“What Reynolds challenges in a book of remarkable verve, comparable in length and richness to Matthiessen’s book but otherwise very different, is the view that the foremost figures of the nation’s literary past were isolated and estranged from the American mainstream…Reynolds has excellent things to say about all of his chief writers….[He] offers fresh insights into the deliberate paradoxes of democratic republicanism…Social historians will gain intriguing new material from this book.” —Marcus Cunliffe, American Historical Review

Beneath the American Renaissance is a welcome contribution to American literary scholarship, much of which has attempted to preserve a cultural hegemony . . . Reynolds merits praise for his painstaking survey of popular writing and the brilliance with which he locates elements of popular culture in the major texts.” —American Literature

“A stimulating and imaginative study of the major antebellum writers….A useful and important book because it helps clear the ground for a new area of critical studies, and it address the issue of a revised canon in a positive way….Post-Reynolds, judgments about literary value, relative merit, and cultural relevance can no longer be supported by repeating the old generalizations or by excluding from serious study works that have not been read.” – American Quarterly

“For once, the pre-publication puffs on the dust wrapper are true: Alan Trachtenberg says Reynolds ‘helps set a new agenda for American literary and cultural studies.’….Reynolds is so informed that no paragraph passes without a refreshing or intriguing perception.’” – Journal of American Studies

“A rich, grand, transforming book, an inspired feat of literary and historical imagination. David S. Reynolds massively recreates the vanished literary culture that was shared by both canonical and popular writers of the period. The surprising and exiting result is that the most familiar classics seem wholly new, as we come to understand for the first time the language in which they were written.” —Kenneth Silverman, New York University

“One of the most powerful pieces of scholarship and criticism on American literature in a very long time.” – Alan Trachtenberg, Yale University

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