Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Academic Pet Peeve #3: Renaissances

I recently read a book dealing with the "Chicago Renaissance," the period from about 1890 through 1920, when writers like Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Hamlin Garland, Edgar Lee Masters, Henry Blake Fuller, Carl Sandburg, George Ade, Jane Addams and others made Chicago into a literary boomtown.

But "boomtown" is the problem: renaissance implies—no, it doesn't imply, it means—a renewal of culture, not a first flowering. Re - naissance. There it is. What is with calling emergent movements by a term that requires that it had a direct antecedent?

The Oxford English Dictionary allows that a renaissance may be "Any revival, or period of marked improvement and new life, in art, literature, etc." but I think I already covered my antipathy toward using the OED totemically so I won't repeat myself. And anyway, the two early instances of the term in this sense are not referring to the type of case I mean—instances of wholly emergent movements rather than renewals of previous models ("1872 MORLEY Voltairism may stand for the name of the Renaissance of the eighteenth century. 1882 Athenæum 23 Dec. The most satisfactory among the signs of a theatrical renaissance."). In its "period of marked improvement" sense, the earliest usage appears to pertain to the Harlem Renaissance, and it occurs in 1925.

I suppose "Chicago Renaissance" sounds much better than "Chicago Efflorescence," and perhaps one doesn't want to offend Chicagoans by implying that there really wasn't much literary production going on until after the Great Fire. And I have to say that my peevishness may be more broadly ideological than simple etymology and semantics—I am not overly fond of the idea of shaping literary history according to these boom-and-bust models—I think it's bad historiography, too zeitgeisty for me, among other things.

So I would do away with the idea of renaissances when they refer to emergent movements, but I also don't think we have to put something in its exact place, because what might occupy that place (like "Efflorescence") would still function as a way of chalking up the movement's emergence to some mysterious subliminal collective awakening or something. I imagine something needs to go on the title page besides "Late 19th and Early 20th Century Chicago Literature," but I wish it weren't "Renaissance." Suggestions?


Brendon said...

The Chicago Emergence?

Of course, that's just one letter away from 'Emergency' so its practical value is likely nil.

At the time of the Harlem Renaissance, it was referred to as the New Negro Movement, after the anthology The New Negro. Not knowing as much as you about Chicago in that era, was there some similarly iconic publication/institution/periodical that united these writers?

Andrew Seal said...

There were groups (like the "Little Room" group), but I think that unfortunately the writers were not perceived as distinct enough from mainstream (Eastern) trends and styles to justify a similar kind of typological grouping as did The New Negro Movement.

And we're talking a much longer period, and a more diffuse population of writers--some weren't even in Chicago for the whole period.

But what you suggest would certainly be an improvement in other cases, I imagine, although I'm blanking on others to test.