The American Renaissance Tarot is a traditional 78-card Tarot deck written by Thea Wirsching and illustrated by Celeste Pille. The project pays homage to America’s most talented writers and the iconic figures who inspired them in the years 1825-1875. Though the term “American Renaissance” was originally conceived by a literary critic to describe a very narrow but spectacular period in American literature (the years 1850 through 1855), I have chosen to extend the parameters of America’s literary flourishing to include the Transcendentalist movement of the 1830s and 1840s, as well as some notable postbellum achievements. Short but detailed chapters accompany each card and are rich with quotations from the thirty-six writers included in the project.
Many people believe the twenty-two Major Arcana of a standard Tarot deck tell a story, that of the Fool’s journey. The truth is that the enigmatic imagery of Tarot lends itself to any number of stories, and in a project devoted to writers and their craft, those possibilities stretch out into the infinite. One story that may be easily picked out of The American Renaissance Tarot is the rise of the nation’s political conscience in the years before the Civil War. William Lloyd Garrison (the Chariot) published the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator for over thirty years, vowing never to rest his efforts until the slaves were freed. Henry David Thoreau (the Hermit) attempted to reject society’s ills by retreating to the woods, but ultimately returned from a two-years’ stay in Walden with an uncompromising political philosophy. Lydia Maria Child (Strength) gave her life to social activism, and campaigned tirelessly on behalf of equal rights for women, slaves, Native Americans, and religious minorities.
This story has its martyrs (John Brown: the Hanged Man), its villains (scientific racism: the Devil), and its epic climax (Civil War: the Tower). But, appropriately, it is also a tale of redemption, and concludes gloriously with Abraham Lincoln (Judgment) delivering the Emancipation Proclamation, the document which both turned the tide of war and announced the liberation of America’s slaves.
Sensitive viewers of The American Renaissance Tarot may perceive a wholly other narrative at work in the Major Arcana, one which would seem to have nothing to do with the political sphere. The dynamic history of American religious life is told in a series of uncanny images: Joseph Smith (the Fool) divines gold in the hills of Palmyra, New York. Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (the Star) augurs the Transcendentalist movement in a sermon declaring humanity’s “Likeness to God.” Henry Ward Beecher (the Pope) breaks with national and family tradition in his promotion of a kinder, gentler Protestantism. More shadowy religious expressions may be traced in the Moon card, which features the two weird sisters who invented the popular practice of spirit-rapping. The Lover card is an ode to Paschal Beverly Randolph, whose occult system of sex magic would prove highly influential on latter-day esoteric societies.
The Minor Arcana of The American Renaissance Tarot delve more deeply into the plot-points and characters of America’s most beloved literary creations. These “small cards” of the Tarot are divided into four suits as with playing cards, and each suit has its rulers, its Kings and Queens. Herman Melville is the King of Wands, and the ten numbered Wands cards detail key moments from Melville’s sea epic, Moby-Dick. Related sailing adventures from Melville’s oeuvre, Typee and Benito Cereno, also make an appearance in the Wands suit. Whereas the theme of the Wands suit is passion, the Coins suit is concerned with far more practical matters, such as home, career, finances, and sustenance. The several autobiographies of escaped slave Frederick Douglass (King of Coins) are represented in the Coins cards, as are defining moments from the lives of those in his “court”: Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, and Martin Delaney.
Swords, the suit devoted to problems and conflicts, is given over completely to that literary master of predicaments, Edgar Allan Poe. From “The Raven” (the Ace of Swords) to Eureka (the Ten of Swords), Poe’s macabre vision brings the Swords suit to life – at times unsettlingly. Finally, the Cups suit draws us into the region of the heart, and here two equally powerful rulers hold sway: Nathaniel Hawthorne, the King of Cups, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Queen. While these two writers had no personal connection to one another, they are united here by their literary appeals to fantasy, romance, and melodrama. Hawthorne’s major novels and stories are illustrated in the numbered Cups cards, as are major scenes from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century.