The American Renaissance Tarot is a standard 78-card Tarot deck and may be used as anyone would any other Tarot deck. Though many people think of a Tarot deck as a divination tool, today Tarot cards are more likely to be used as instruments of meditation and self-reflection. The American Renaissance Tarot takes some creative departures from the imagery of the influential Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which has become the template for most contemporary decks; however, the images we’ve created yet evoke the traditional meanings associated with each card. In many cases, my choices about the artwork and symbols were modeled after formative Renaissance decks such as the Marseilles, the Visconti-Sforza, and the Sola-Busca, and not on the Rider-Waite-Smith deck which first appeared in 1910.
No knowledge of literature or literary history is required to use The American Renaissance Tarot. Yet the seventy-eight images could easily function as mnemonic aids to college students enrolled in a nineteenth-century American literature course. Non-standard symbols on these literary Tarot cards generally follow from symbols invoked by the writers themselves. For example, Thoreau closes his protest essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” with the contemplation of a white water-lily or lotus. The lotus is a universal and therefore rather generous symbol, and on the Hermit card in The American Renaissance Tarot it may be understood to represent the enlightenment that is the object of the Hermit’s quest.
A hummingbird flutters over Emily Dickinson’s shoulder in the Priestess card; this uniquely American bird connotes a hidden magic in the way it treads the air, moving faster than human eyes can comprehend, a wonder Dickinson wrote of lovingly in her poem, “A Route of Evanescence.” The special ability of the Priestess to know (but not necessarily to reveal) the essence of things is indicated by Dickinson’s possession of a bottle of rose attar, and is inspired by her poem, “Essential oils are wrung.”
Perhaps the cynic will object, “You have styled a collective of quixotic writers as archetypes. How could someone with as complex an inner life as Melville, or as socially conditioned a position as Douglass, ever serve as an archetype?” I answer that the extent to which the individual card-reader engages with the personalities and experiences of the writers is entirely dependent on the individual’s knowledge and perception of the writers included in the project. In other words, it’s personal, as is fitting for a tool designed to stimulate personal revelations.
The seasoned professor of American literature who takes up the deck might find much to marvel at when he pulls the Emperor (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and the King of Swords (Edgar Allan Poe), knowing as he does of the embarrassing and unfounded accusations of plagiarism Poe leveled against his literary peer. The green college student who draws the King of Wands (Herman Melville) might be entirely focused on Melville’s homosexuality, while the haggard novelist who draws the same card might be reminded of Melville’s struggle with mental illness in his latter-day philosophical explorations. Tarot imagery prompts personal associations, and the surplus of symbols afforded by writers and their works is a benefit of a project such as this, not a liability.