How are American historians, social scientists, and novelists to cope with the vastness and complexity of American democracy? Are they more bold than wise in attempting what European writers have rarely ventured—a composite picture of a continental area? How much reality is there in an average man? In a composite community? Do the regionalists provide an answer or an evasion?
Popular estimates and explanations of that peculiar institution, the Southern demagogue, have undergone an interesting transition during the last decade. Back in the 'twenties the analysis was simple enough. Across the human geography of the South there stretched a "Bible Belt" populated by a "moronic underworld" whose natural spokesmen were "baboons and gorillas."
It may well be, as Mr. Commager says, that the American political experience of three and a half centuries has afforded "the most elaborate political laboratory in all history and one whose findings have been pretty well recorded." For thirty years now, roughly since the publication of Mr. Beard's study of the origins of the Constitution, historical investigators in that great laboratory have been reporting findings and releasing odors not always flattering to American democracy and its institutions—often quite unflattering, in fact. Yet it is safe to say that the products of this generation of historians will long be considered monumental.
Why the Southern Renaissance ever occurred is still something of a mystery. All that is attempted here is an analysis of some explanations that have been offered by others and a few additional speculations. Before turning to the critical why, however, it is necessary to determine just what it is we are talking about. In the first place, we are stuck with a misnomer in the very word "renaissance." For neither in its literal sense nor in its classic historical usage is this French word really applicable to what happened in the South.