368 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 8 illus., notes, bibl., index

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Published: Fall 2001

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The Rebuke of History
The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought

by Paul V. Murphy

Copyright (c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

The Rebuke of History

The past is always a rebuke to the present. . . . It's a better rebuke than any dream of the future. It's a better rebuke because you can see what some of the costs were, what frail virtues were achieved in the past by frail men. --Robert Penn Warren at the Fugitives' reunion, May 1956
In November 1980 the prophets returned to Nashville, Tennessee, to be honored. Vanderbilt University hosted a symposium honoring the Southern Agrarians on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930). I'll Take My Stand was an indictment of the industrial civilization of modern America. The authors hoped to preserve the manners and culture of the rural South as a healthy alternative. The book was the inspiration of two Vanderbilt English professors and poets, John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson, and their former student, the poet Allen Tate. It was composed of twelve essays written by twelve separate individuals, the title page declaring them to be Twelve Southerners.

In 1980, the three surviving contributors, novelists Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Nelson Lytle and psychologist Lyle Lanier, attended the Vanderbilt symposium to listen to papers analyzing their achievement and to participate in their own discussion of the book moderated by literary critic Cleanth Brooks, a longtime associate of the Agrarians. An essayist in Time magazine, claiming that 150 doctoral theses had been written about the book, remarked on the appeal of Agrarianism to modern-day environmentalists and theorists of the "zero-sum" society. "Why do the Agrarians, with their crusty prophecies and affirmations, still sound so pertinent, half a very non-agrarian century later?" he asked. The answer, he felt, lay in the power of Agrarianism as a poetic metaphor. This was a view shared by the organizers of the event, who, in a volume derived from it, argued that I'll Take My Stand was a prophetic book. Once dismissed as a nostalgic, backward-looking defense of a romanticized Old South, the book was rather "an affirmation of universal values" and a defense of the "religious, aesthetic, and moral foundations of the old European civilization."[1]

The book appeared at the end of a decade that had seen numerous anthologies of original essays designed to assess the state of modern civilization. Yet this collection stood out and continues to fascinate because of the sheer intransigence of its stance. Industrial society devalues human labor by replacing it with machines, argued the Twelve Southerners. Machine society undercut the dignity of labor and left modern man bereft of vocation and in an attenuated state of "satiety and aimlessness," glutted with the surfeit of consumer goods produced by the industrial economy. Industrialism, they argued, was inimical to religion, the arts, and the elements of a good life--leisure, conversation, hospitality. Modern Americans, Donald Davidson declared elsewhere, live a scattered life, condemned to follow a "thousand highly specialized pursuits" and consumed by "bits of urban piece-work." "In civilization," he argued, "time is measured in tiny units held in delicate synchronization to the central master-clock, which jerks with it, minute to minute, second to second, the servile movements of men." The critic Stark Young, who scathingly attacked the austere banalities of former president Calvin Coolidge in his contribution, imagined the boast of a modern booster: "In our town we've got twenty thousand miles of concrete walks." "And where do they lead?" was his retort.[2]

The Twelve Southerners were frankly reactionary and seriously proposed returning to an economy dominated by subsistence agriculture. The best terms to represent the opposition between southern and American ways of living, they argued, were agrarian versus industrial. The theory of agrarianism, they declared, "is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers." Why, they asked, should modern men accept a social system so manifestly inferior to what had gone before? "If a community, or a section, or a race, or an age, is groaning under industrialism, and well aware that it is an evil dispensation," the Twelve Southerners declared, "it must find the way to throw it off. To think that this cannot be done is pusillanimous." They infused their antimodernism with southern bravado and a declared willingness to live within the narrow bounds of a traditional life. As was evident in the title's reference to "Dixie," I'll Take My Stand was a self-conscious defense of the South, undertaken sixty-five years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. The Twelve Southerners were "reconstructed but unregenerate," John Crowe Ransom suggested. In confronting the forces of modernity, the Southern Agrarians adopted the strategy of the quintessential traditionalist described in John Donald Wade's essay, a man who "went about fortifying himself by his knowledge of history and of ancient fable, telling himself that man had immemorially drawn his best strength from the earth that mothered him."[3]

The passage of years revealed an almost protean quality to Agrarianism. It came to mean very different things to a variety of different thinkers. Indeed, the contributors themselves, over the years, interpreted and reinterpreted their original impulse in light of changing convictions and interests. In 1930, I'll Take My Stand was an indictment of industrial capitalism and a warning of its potential to destroy what the Agrarians considered a more humane and leisurely social order. For some, it later came to be a statement of Christian humanism. For others, it was a rousing defense of the southern heritage and southern culture, which, in turn, meant a defense of the Western tradition. For others, Agrarianism was merely a metaphor for the simple life--one not consumed with materialism. For others still, the symposium was part of a traditional southern political discourse, which warned against centralized power and a strong state and which stood against bourgeois liberalism. After World War II, the nascent conservative movement--poised against what it perceived to be an unwise liberal elite and in defense of traditional values and American capitalism--subsumed the Agrarians within its intellectual tradition. The Agrarians became respected, if quixotic, dissenters from the main trend of American progressivism.

The question asked by the Time essayist in 1980 remains, however: Why do the Agrarians remain so pertinent years after I'll Take My Stand was first published? In 1980 Robert Penn Warren and Lyle Lanier did not dwell on the metaphorical implications of Agrarianism. At the symposium, they commented on the problems of contemporary American society. In an interview a few months before the symposium, Warren argued that technology was destroying the "human personality" and threatening the very basis of democracy. Earlier in the year, Lanier, anticipating the Vanderbilt conference, confided his doubts about the value of his own thoughts to Warren. "I don't feel overly confident now that I can have anything worthwhile to say then about what I stand for in these dismal times," he wrote. "As in 1930, what to stand against seems much easier to identify."[4] Lanier had plenty to say by the following November, listing the ills of modern America, from the condition of the environment to the prevalence of ghettos to the southward movement of midwestern industries in order to exploit cheap labor (a new kind of carpetbagger, in Lanier's view).[5] While Warren and Cleanth Brooks fretted about the social effects of machines and high technology, Lanier cited Barry Commoner on the decentralization of electric power and speculated about the nationalization of some multinational corporations.[6] Brooks cited the historian Christopher Lasch's pessimistic analysis of American culture, The Culture of Narcissism (1979), in support of the arguments in I'll Take My Stand, and Lanier confessed to checking the Wall Street Journal periodically, "just to keep up with what the enemy is up to"![7] Agrarianism had been, and remained, more than a metaphor to these men. It was a program of action, and the enemy was still industrial capitalism.

Since the founding of the nation, southerners had sought a way to reconcile modernity and tradition, to participate in the modern market economy while retaining the shockingly premodern (yet profitable) system of slave labor. Slaveholders were alternately beguiled by the riches of the capitalist marketplace and appalled at the prospect of a society based on the pecuniary impulse and the self-interest, chicanery, and competitiveness of the market.[8] I'll Take My Stand and Agrarianism were rooted, in part, in this older southern desire to reconcile tradition and progress, to become reconstructed but unregenerate. But the Agrarians were also shaped by the modernist trends in European and American thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--by the Darwinism, relativism, naturalism, and empiricism that had shaken all orthodoxies about God, history, and human nature. Their immediate context was the somewhat somnolent South of the 1920s, but these intellectuals, poets, and social scientists eagerly confronted the intellectual trends of the time: bohemianism and cultural radicalism, literary modernism, socialism, cultural nationalism, liberal Protestantism, and the cult of science and efficiency. The 1920s offered a richer discourse on the crises of faith, morals, and science produced by modernity than any decade since. Agrarianism was an attempt to respond to questions being asked by others besides southerners: Is it possible to satisfy the felt needs for community, leisure, and stability in the dizzying whirl of modern life? How do we validate values in a disenchanted and secular age?

The Twelve Southerners' response was both radical and conservative. In large part, the participation of figures such as Ransom and Tate (and also Davidson) was motivated by concerns resulting from cultural modernism. Tate and Ransom were conservative modernists themselves; both were concerned with the decline of religious authority in modern life. In some ways, the Agrarians sought to preserve the values and structure of Victorian society, as it was known in the South prior to the 1920s, from the solvent of modernist culture. But I'll Take My Stand was also a response to modernization, the sweeping economic and social changes that were reshaping the South at the time the symposium was written. The Agrarians did not preach a blanket resistance to modernity; nor, although far from taking a pluralist stance, did they desire to scapegoat ethnic minorities or conspiratorial elites for the ills of modernity. They did not simply retreat into a disengaged advocacy of the Great Books and moral absolutes, nor did they call for the reestablishment of a patriarchal Christian order (although Allen Tate, for one, would seem to have welcomed such an event). Instead, they rejected industrial capitalism and the culture it produced. In I'll Take My Stand they called for a return to the small-scale economy of rural America as a means to preserve the cultural amenities of the society they knew. Ransom and Tate believed that only by arresting the progress of industrial capitalism and its imperatives of science and efficiency could a social order capable of fostering and validating humane values and traditional religious faith be preserved. Skeptical and unorthodox themselves, they admired the capacity of orthodox religion to provide surety in life.

For Ransom and Tate, the two things--the modernist challenge to Victorian values and the industrial challenge to the agrarian economy--were related. Later conservatives would not see this as the case. In 1930, agrarianism as an economic program was at the heart of the Agrarian movement; by the 1950s, practical agrarianism had been displaced from this position. Rather, the South as a symbolic marker of both traditional society and Western civilization became the central element of the Agrarian discourse. Modernism and modernization were no longer deeply related; what was a radical conservatism was now southern traditionalism. This bifurcation of economic and cultural analysis, which the Agrarians had originally resisted, reflects a distinctive attribute of the conservative movement that was emerging in the 1950s and transforming the leadership of the American Right.

Three distinct groups of intellectuals have preserved the memory of the Agrarians since 1930. Students of southern culture have long been fascinated by I'll Take My Stand, not only because of its volatile mix of sharp-edged modernist critics like Ransom, Tate, and Warren and heartfelt, southern nationalists such as Davidson and the historian Frank L. Owsley but also because of its role in formulating the idea of the South in modern culture. Richard H. Gray, Fred Hobson, Richard H. King, Michael Kreyling, Michael O'Brien, and Daniel Joseph Singal illuminate the contours of the white southern mentality. They place I'll Take My Stand in the long tradition of southern apologetics and stress the ways in which the culturally constructed idea of the South served the personal intellectual needs and political purposes of particular southern writers, including the Agrarians.[9] Historians Michael O'Brien and Daniel Joseph Singal have pointed to the role this concept played in mediating between the fading values of Victorianism and the emerging ethos of modernism for a generation of southerners.[10] Literary scholar Michael Kreyling has recently emphasized the role that the Agrarians played in constructing the southern literary tradition, arguing that they created an image of the South to function as a conservative cultural center for their society and to buttress their own cultural authority.[11]

At the same time, generations of southern literary academics have nurtured the reputation of the Agrarians because of their role in creating and promoting the extraordinarily rich tradition of the literary arts in the modern South. For many of these scholars, the Agrarians were both vital figures in the mid-twentieth-century southern literary renascence and much respected role models. Following Allen Tate, who was, for them, perhaps the most influential southern intellectual in the mid-twentieth century, they interpreted Agrarianism as a defense of the humanistic tradition of the West. In this, they tended to depoliticize I'll Take My Stand; the book, as O'Brien observed, was "edited into a metaphor." According to Louis D. Rubin Jr., Agrarianism was not a practical program but an "extended metaphor," akin to Jefferson's pastoral myth of the sturdy yeoman, for the importance of the arts, family relations, and religious faith to the southern mind.[12] In a 1967 study of southern writers, he stated his position more forcefully: "Neither a treatise on economics, nor a guide to political action, nor yet a sociological blueprint, the Agrarian symposium was an image of what the good life could be."[13] Lewis Simpson shared this view. Agrarianism, Simpson pointedly declared, "although it has been widely misinterpreted as a political movement--a misunderstanding promoted by the Agrarians' own misinterpretation of their basic motives--was a literary movement."[14] C. Hugh Holman characterized Agrarianism as a "mythic embodiment" of such values as individual integrity, a religious and moral view of life, and family.[15]

In contrast, this study treats Agrarianism as a tradition of social thought and traces its transmutation and splintering in the years after 1930 in order to illuminate often overlooked trends in American intellectual life as well as the development of American conservative thought in this century. Intellectual historians usually relegate the Agrarians to the role of colorful, if compelling, exponents of regionalism.[16] Similarly, historians of the conservative movement have studied the conservative thinker Richard M. Weaver, an important interpreter of Agrarianism, in the context of postwar traditionalism but have not fully explored his intellectual roots in Agrarianism.[17] Later conservative thinkers--even many of the Agrarians themselves--walked away from the radical implications of Agrarianism.[18] Conservatives, southern and otherwise, constitute the final group to preserve the memory of the Agrarians. Conservatives have proudly honored the Agrarians as perceptive forefathers and tend to present them as southern traditionalists--proponents of a social order based on religion, opponents of a godless and untraditional leviathan state, critics of a rootless individualism, and, above all, stout defenders of the South, which necessarily entails a defense of southern tradition, culture, and values. The late literary scholar M. E. Bradford and the historian Eugene D. Genovese have argued that the Agrarians were part of a long tradition of southern conservatism. This tradition of antistatist conservatism was, for Bradford, patriarchal and republican in nature and is, in Genovese's eyes, the most convincing American critique of bourgeois individualism.[19] Mark G. Malvasi has published a recent study in this vein.[20]

The modernist anxiety over religious faith, which profoundly shaped Ransom and Tate, has faded among these conservatives. Postwar inheritors of the Agrarian tradition, such as Weaver and Bradford or some of the writers published in the conservative magazine Chronicles, exhibited no doubt in the absolute authority of Christian revelation. (As a consequence, their ability to appeal to the secular and the skeptical has been limited.) Tate almost immediately began to argue that Agrarianism was really a mode of Christian humanism. Weaver, too, sought to universalize Agrarianism. He made of it an antiliberal philosophy of order, one suitable to the needs of an anxious America after World War II. This study is, in part, an explanation of the way figures such as Davidson, Weaver, and Bradford converged with the Right and how the Right, in turn, was reshaped into a postwar "conservative movement" by individuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. and his associates at the National Review. Buckley and his colleagues were, in their support of a strong military state and their faith in free-market capitalism, in some ways antithetical to the Old Right that existed prior to the 1950s. Their ability to seize control of and redirect the Right is a phenomenon in need of fuller analysis--a task for which this study provides some beginnings.

A final element of the study is an attempt to understand the role of the past in Agrarian thought. If the modernists Ransom and Tate believed in 1930 that a radical restructuring of the social economy of the nation might lead to the renewal of Christian faith, Davidson saw in Agrarianism a simpler route to faith. For Davidson, southern history itself proved sufficient to validate values. In submission to the past, Davidson found who he was. Agrarianism became for him a form of white southern identity politics. "Identity" is a relatively recent concept in American culture. As historian Philip Gleason observed, the term became popular among social psychologists and sociologists because it fit the concerns of post-World War II America. Whether used to describe the process of socialization (as Erik Erikson intended when speaking of the "identity crisis") or the role of ethnicity or race in social relations, the concept enabled intellectuals to talk about the relationship between the individual and the larger collectivity, particularly the way in which individual personality and a sense of selfhood were engendered by the larger society through cultural norms, status requirements, and role-playing.[21] Ironically, it is Davidson, the most reactionary of the original Agrarians, who is, in many ways, the most relevant of the Agrarians to contemporary concerns. He was a harbinger of identity politics, the Agrarian for whom history and heritage formed the core of personal meaning and self-esteem.

Looked at from a broader perspective, Davidson emerges as a pivotal figure in the Agrarian tradition. It was Davidson, along with neo-Agrarians such as Weaver, who was crucial to transforming Agrarianism into a form of traditionalist conservatism after World War II. Davidson and others came to see the South as a synecdoche for Western civilization. The impetus for I'll Take My Stand had been two sets of concerns--one raised by modernism's challenge to Victorian values and the other by modernization's challenge to the agrarian economy. For Davidson, these two challenges resolved into one: the challenge that proponents of the new order--whether modernists critics of traditional culture or progressive advocates of the regulatory and social welfare state--posed to the South. Davidson shifted his focus from the effects of progress to the progressives who seemed to favor them. Long treated as a rather narrow and somewhat simple representative of Agrarianism because of his hardy romanticism and his overt racism and white supremacy, it was Davidson who most influenced contemporary neo-Agrarianism. He most shaped many conservative postwar interpretations of Agrarianism. It was his ideas and instincts that were most predictive of future trends in the South and the nation.

The authors of I'll Take My Stand evoked the mythology of the Lost Cause; the anthology was consciously underwritten by an explicit appeal to southern nationalism. To be southern and of the Agrarians' generation was, in some ways, to feel as inheritors of a noble but failed tradition. The Agrarians felt social tradition in the form of the pressure of the past. A culture is inherited. It is communicated as history, which is a master narrative of society's development but also a set of cultural myths, assumptions, and values that intercut in complex ways with one's own personal development. Part of the reason that the original Agrarian project failed lay in this connection between the social and the personal as well as in the announced intention of Agrarianism to return to an older form of social organization. Not only was the historical validity of the Agrarians' reconstruction of the antebellum social order open to dispute, but the projected loyalty to the southern past became entirely too demanding for many of the Agrarians. The psychological toll of deep historical introspection would evidence itself in striking ways. Caroline Gordon exhibited a southern nostalgia as strong as any member of the group, including Davidson, the most unreconstructed of the Agrarians. Married to Tate and relegated to the margins of the cultural agitation of the Nashville "brethren" as she wrote her own filiopietist books on the South, Gordon wrote the young aesthete and future impresario of the New York City Ballet Lincoln Kirstein in 1931 of her "regret for the lost cause." "It would have been better, I think, if our grandfathers had been carried off the field dead," she declared. "The South that exists today has little of the Old South in it--we have sold out, certainly."[22] Gordon's comment, if taken seriously, suggests the level of guilt that a contemporary southerner might have faced. He or she lived with the ceaseless rebuke of the honored dead fathers--the men whose sacrifice on the battlefields of the Civil War was in vain if their posterity allowed the precious cultural heritage of the South to slip through their fingers. Gordon's belief that her contemporaries betrayed the past for mere material satisfactions suggests an even greater level of culpability. The paradox for southerners of the Agrarians' generation--to change but to remain loyal to history--remained a continuing source of division for the Agrarians and undercut the radical conservatism of I'll Take My Stand.

At a reunion of the Fugitive poets in May 1956, Warren confessed that for many years he had shut Agrarianism from his mind, being more preoccupied with the cataclysmic social and political forces that played forth in Europe and Asia. Agrarian discussions--"a sort of quarreling over the third highball"--seemed irrelevant, a sentimental product of his long-ago student homesickness. But he now believed that his old Agrarian enthusiasms were an attempt "to recapture, to reassess." Rather than being irrelevant, they were tied into the major problems of the age. The growth of great nation-states, even if democratic, had marginalized the individual. Indeed, the individual was reduced to meaninglessness, with no sense of responsibility, no sense of past and place. In this context, the Agrarian image of a better antebellum South came to represent for Warren a potential source of spiritual revitalization.[23] The past recalled not as a mythical "golden age" but "imaginatively conceived and historically conceived in the strictest readings of the researchers" could be a "rebuke to the present." [24]

In the end, the history of the Agrarian tradition was shaped by the pressure of the past on this group of southern intellectuals--a past whose legacy included segregation and white supremacy. The pressure of the past pitted Warren against his friend and former teacher Davidson. In the 1950s and 1960s, Davidson played a leading role in the attempt to preserve the system of segregation. Warren took his stand against it. Loyalty to the southern past and the ambiguous lessons of Agrarianism led both men in very different directions. The southerner, Ransom wrote in I'll Take My Stand, "identifies himself with a spot of ground, and this ground carries a good deal of meaning; it defines itself for him as nature."[25] This may be so, but the interpretation of this meaning has been the subject of much conflict among southerners, white and black, throughout the century. At the heart of Agrarianism was the question not only of where do I stand, but also, who belongs? And it was not the ground that provided the answers but the human beings who took their stands upon it.

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