In The Old and the New: Double Consciousness and the Literature of Slavery, Maurice Lee uses examples from Emerson, Melville, Douglass, and Stowe to “suggest that a diversity of authors faced slavery as both a practical and a theoretical problem”. Lee demonstrates, quite convincingly, that during the American renaissance and through until the Cold War, “much of the focus was on idea, especially romanticism and New England theology; and though the prosepcts of democracy did not go unnoticed, most scholars defined the American Renaissance over and against material contexts, as did R.W.B. Lewis in 1955 when he separated ‘the history of ideas’ from ‘sociology’, ‘political history’ and ‘economic geography’”. Under these circumstances, “and despite the growing influence of American studies, such controversies as the slavery crisis were not main concerns”. It appears that ‘texts about chattel bondage, even from major figures, were considered minor works, while the shadow of blackness that casi itself over celebrated American Renaissance books seems less about slavery and race and more about the psychology and theology of sin”. This changed with the Culture Wars. To dwell on idealism was, it seemed, to miss more pressing political points and “Stowe, Douglass, Delany, Harriet Jacobs, Margaret Fuller, and others formed a new canon, while slavery and race came to the fore in a host of scholarly work”. This apparent flash point led to a “dominance of cultural studies in antebellum literature” due to the fact that it “discovered and continues to discover exciting synergies between the old canon and the new”. This flashpoint between old and new canon, and the rediscovery of the slave “story” offers an opportunity to push back against Matthiesen’s mono-culturalism. Lee posits that “The American Renaissance’s literature of slavery is a site for [a] potential synthesis” of “old- and new-fashioned criticism” and an opportunity “to explore with theoretical sophistication the possibilities of democracy, and to demonstrate the relevance of the history of ideas to matters of cultural studies”.
This coupling of idealist and materialist understanding and the attendant importance bestowed upon certain texts will allow for a more holistic understanding of what American culture has, and does, value and the narratives that are constructed to propagandize these values.