THE REBUKE OF HISTORY. The Southern Agrarians and American conservative thought – Paul V Murphy. 

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.

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.”

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.

The Twelve Southerners were frankly reactionary and seriously proposed returning to an economy dominated by subsistence agriculture.

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.”

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 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 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.

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. 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.”

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 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.”

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.

***

THE REBUKE OF HISTORY. The Southern Agrarians and American conservative thought. 

Paul V Murphy

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