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Syllabuzz: HNR 238A -The Southern Renaissance

Find out more about some of the interesting courses faculty are teaching at Elon.

Nancy Midgette and Janet Warmen

In his 1920 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart,” H. L. Mencken declared the American South was essentially devoid of culture. Yet over the next few decades, this region produced some of the United States’ most critically acclaimed literature. What was behind this incredible turnaround? The Southern Renaissance.

Not the movement associated with Galileo, Michelangelo or Da Vinci, but rather William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams. From World War I through the early civil rights movement, a reinvigoration of learning, literature and culture took place in the South.

Professor of History Nancy Midgette is an expert on American, military and Southern history. Professor of English and Education Janet Warman is a poet and American literature expert. Together they co-teach an honors course analyzing the literature that emerged from the Southern Renaissance and the history that contextualizes it. “It occurred to us we could each bring together what each of us understood about the time period,” Midgette says. “We were both able to see how the literature and history could feed off of and inform the other. It was almost natural.”

The course for sophomore Honor Fellows challenges students to examine how social and cultural factors influenced authors’ depictions of life in the South. Students explore these connections in class discussions and written analyses. The course culminates in a large-scale research paper connecting the Southern Renaissance to any theme or discipline.

“They also write three short essays in which we have them pull together the works that we’ve read so far in a particular way,” Warman says. “They understand the history better because they’re coming to learn about the literature. They understand literature better because they have historical context.”

This fall marks the duo’s third time teaching the course. They collaborate on almost every detail and say their partnership allows them to learn something new every day. No matter the level of knowledge a person might have on a subject, they say, there is always room for improvement.

“I think one of the most exciting things people can do is broaden their reading,” says Midgette, who holds her own in the literary world. “You never heard of Richard Wright? Robert Penn Warren? Lillian Smith? Well, come on! Read it and see what you think.

“Whether or not you take the course, just read some of this great literature.”

About the professors

Since joining Elon in 1985, Nancy Midgette has taught in a number of fields, including the American South, the American Civil War, American military history and leadership studies. Janet Warman joined Elon’s faculty in 1990. She has taught courses on composition, creative writing, American literature and teaching methods, among others.

Recommended readings

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
  • Native Son by Richard Wright

Syllabuzz is a recurrent feature in The Magazine of Elon. To read the latest edition, click here.

Keren Rivas,
11/6/2013 10:40 AM