The Magazine

Book Review: Go South, Young Man

A critical vision of American life and letters

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Southern Critics

Book Review: Go South, Young Man

John Crowe Ransom

Bettmann / Corbis

An Anthology
edited by Glenn C. Arbery
ISI, 353 pp., $22

For decades the most damning argument against the New Criticism was that its focus on close reading of “the work itself” was politically reactionary and probably racist. If a New Critic like Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn found irony, ambiguity, and complexity not only in T. S. Eliot but in Robert Herrick, John Keats, and even Tennyson, it must be (so the indictment charged) because he and the other New Critics wanted to denigrate the possibility of clear moral and political judgments in general and the condemnation of the South for segregation and slavery in particular.

One answer to this charge has been that the New Criticism deserved to be judged on its merits for its ability to illuminate literary works, without regard to the political and social views of its practitioners. Yes, some of the leading New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate were among the self-professed “Southern Agrarians” who had defended segregation and, at least by implication, slavery, in their manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), but their ideas about literature were one thing and their views about politics and society another. Glenn Arbery, editor of this anthology, takes another path. He argues that there is, indeed, a connection between the social views of the New Critics and their ideas about literature, but The Southern Critics is designed to demonstrate that the relationship should not discredit their literary criticism but rather encourage a favorable reassessment of their thinking about culture and society.

Arbery points out that received opinion in the 21st century is much more friendly to some key theses of the Southern Agrarians than it was in the 1930s. Both technology and capitalism have recently undergone severe criticism, especially from the political left that was once the main opponent of the Agrarians. Today, Arbery notes, I’ll Take My Stand’s denunciation of the effects of industrialism and technology has been taken up and amplified by the very scientific experts and Eastern media whose authority the Agrarians once defied so vehemently: “Now virtually the whole scientific community, if the New Yorker and the New York Times are to be believed, has become Cassandra, warning the world of impending disasters that the abuse of technology has made inevitable.”

Similarly, the financial crisis that played a crucial role in the last presidential election has brought the left-liberal consensus closer to the anticapitalist sentiments voiced by the Agrarians 80 years ago. Arbery comments that “after the financial collapse of 2008, it would be hard to argue the point” Allen Tate made in 1936 when he asserted that “finance capitalism” was “necessarily hostile to the development of a moral nature.”

The political and social ideas presented in the first section of The Southern Critics, “In Dixieland,” now seem more “left” than “right” but remain problematic, while “The Case for Poetry” in the second section is as convincing as ever. Though the final section, “The Sacramental South,” was clearly intended to convey what Arbery calls “the sacramental vision implicit in the South,” only one of the essays does much to illuminate Southern religion and culture. Allen Tate’s two studies of Poe and Dante are perceptive as literary criticism, but say nothing about Southern religion. Caroline Gordon’s “Some Readings and Misreadings,” which focuses on Graham Greene, Henry James, James Joyce, George Bernanos, François Mauriac, and Evelyn Waugh, does not discuss Southern religion or culture, even in the one paragraph she devotes to William Faulkner. Only Flannery O’Connor, in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” illuminates the world of “the Bible Belt, where belief can be made believable.” 

“In Dixieland” includes Allen Tate’s “What Is a Traditional Society?” John Crowe Ransom’s “A Statement of Principles,” and Andrew Lytle’s “The Hind Tit” (the latter two originally published in I’ll Take My Stand). All three essays repeatedly condemn industrialism, technology, and capitalism as fervently as any radical environmentalist might wish, denouncing not only their excesses but what might be considered their virtues. Ransom, for example, warns against the dangers of “labor-saving devices” while conceding that “of course no single labor-saving process is fatal.” He fears, however, a future in which there will be “a stream of further labor-saving devices in all industries.” Of course, “the philosophy of applied science is generally quite sure that the saving of labor is a pure gain,” but then that narrow philosophy has no room for the important things in life, like art and religion. According to Ransom himself, however, art and religion can only flourish when one has the free time that “labor-saving devices” could provide. In the same essay he declares, “Art depends, in general, like religion, on a right attitude to nature; and in particular on a free and disinterested observation of nature that occurs only in leisure.”

Ransom and the other Agrarians, like the Marxists of the Frankfurt School, were unimpressed by the free time and material improvements made possible by industry and technology under capitalism because they distrusted the ability of most people to make the right choices with their new opportunities. It is hard to believe that Andrew Lytle himself supposed that the farmers for whom he claimed to speak would take the advice he offers in “The Hind Tit.” Lytle declares that “the precedence of the money economy means the end of farming as a way of life,” but he observes that decades before his 1930 essay, “[The farmer] himself began to think more and more of money.” The farmer’s wife, too, is eventually corrupted: “The time comes when the old woman succumbs to high-pressure sales talk and forces him to buy a car on the installment plan.”

To avoid what Lytle calls “industrial imperialism,” there is “only one thing left for the farmer to do .  .  . he must deny himself the articles the industrialists offer for sale.” The farmer and his family must “throw out the radio .  .  . forsake the movies” and entertain themselves with fiddling and square dances. Of course, their free time will be extremely limited in any case, since if they follow Lytle’s advice they will make rather than buy almost everything they need. Lytle knows that the farmer “will be told that this is not economical, that he can buy clothes for much less than he can weave them, and shoes for half the labor he will put into their creation.” Andrew Lytle and the other Agrarians, however, were certain that the farmers of the South were better off without “motor-cars, picture shows, chain-store dresses for the women-folks, and all the articles in Sears-Roebuck catalogues.” The farmers themselves clearly thought otherwise.

In “Why the Modern South Has a Great Literature,” Donald Davidson, an Agrarian but not a New Critic, comes close to suggesting that widespread poverty and illiteracy in the South were, if not absolutely good things in themselves, good in their cultural effect, since without them the South would not have a great literature. He himself is no sociologist, but if he were, he would be tempted to argue that

a prevalence of rural society, devoted to cotton-growing, afflicted by sharecropping, rather poverty-stricken, conservative in religion and politics, prone to love the past rather than the future, chockful of all the prejudices and customs of the South—that is what it takes to produce a William Faulkner.

If Davidson does not quite glory in the South’s lack of “educational facilities, factories, libraries, hospitals, laboratories, art museums, theaters, labor unions, publishing houses,” etc., his rhetoric sounds very much in the spirit of what Robert Penn Warren called “the Great Alibi” in his brief, cogent The Legacy of the Civil War (not excerpted in The Southern Critics). Defeat in the Civil War, Warren observed, “gave the South the Great Alibi” that could be used to avoid taking responsibility for anything whatever; everything bad could be blamed on the Yankees: “By the Great Alibi pellagra, hookworm, and illiteracy are all explained, or explained away. .  .  . By the Great Alibi the Southerner .  .  . turns defeat into victory, defects into virtues.”

Davidson clearly enjoyed discomfiting “all those who argue that material improvements, liberalism, industrialism, science, and so on are what Mississippi and the South need to attain a high culture” and even suggesting, with mock horror, that it might be “that these factors have a negative, blighting effect,” foreclosing the possibility of great literature. Nevertheless, Davidson’s real thesis is that literature flourished in the South only after it began to “absorb modern improvements.” Davidson believes what happened in the South in the first half of the 20th century is a process that has occurred repeatedly in many traditional societies where social change temporarily triggers a literary flowering. The change “seems always to force certain individuals into an examination of their total inheritance. .  .  . They begin to compose literary works in which the whole metaphysic of the society suddenly takes dramatic or poetic or fictional form.”

Such great literature, however, has in the past failed to arrest the social change that, to a lover of the old way of life like Davidson, appears as “cultural destruction,” and Davidson in 1950 offered no hope that the South would not follow the same course.

The essays chosen for “In Dixieland” do little to answer the most serious charge made against the Agrarians’ defense of the South: It amounted to, or at least implied, a defense of segregation and white supremacy. In “The Hind Tit,” Andrew Lytle refers without irony to “the menace of the free negro.” Allen Tate in “What Is a Traditional Society?” argues for the moral superiority of the antebellum South to a society based on free labor. According to Tate, a social order based on what he calls “finance-capitalist economics” is intrinsically “hostile to the perpetuation of a moral code,” while a society based on slave labor is not. Indeed, Tate asserts that in a traditional society like the old South, “it is possible to behave morally all the time,” adding, “It is this principle that is the center of the philosophy of Jefferson.”

This conception of the third president is very different from the Jefferson Robert Penn Warren had in mind when he lamented that, in the South after 1831, “there could be no new Jefferson, the type of critic .  .  . [who could carry out] .  .  . informed and morally based self-criticism.” It also differs from the Jefferson who observed in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. .  .  . I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Glenn Arbery asserts that Donald Davidson was isolated from the other Agrarians “in part because he retained a loyalty to the South that the others had long before modified or abandoned.” Davidson was indeed a diehard segregationist, while Robert Penn Warren by the fifties had come to see desegregation as “just one small episode in the long effort for justice,” as he wrote in Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956).

But is it disloyalty to the South to ask, as Warren did in 1961, “Does the man who, in the relative safety of mob anonymity, stands howling vituperation at a little Negro girl being conducted into a school building, feel himself at one with those gaunt, barefoot, whiskery scarecrows who fought it out, breast to breast, to the death, at the Bloody Angle in Spotsylvania, in May, 1864? Can the man howling in the mob imagine General R. E. Lee, CSA, shaking hands with Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas?”

The inclusion in The Southern Critics of an excerpt from one of Warren’s books on racial issues and the South would have gone a long way to demonstrate that there was no necessary connection between racism and either loyalty to the South or the New Criticism. Robert Penn Warren was not only a renowned poet and novelist but also one of the original Agrarians and one of the most prominent New Critics. Already in his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand Warren had gone too far for Davidson, who tried to have Warren’s “The Briar Patch” removed from the collection. In that essay, Warren took a position similar to that of the fictional Atticus Finch, who did not condemn segregation but did declare to the jury that at least “in our courts all men are created equal.” In “The Briar Patch” Warren accepted segregation (“Let the negro sit beneath his own vine and fig tree”) but insisted that “justice from the law is the least that he can demand for himself or others can demand for him.” Warren in 1930 warned that “the white workman must learn .  .  . that he may respect himself as a white man, but, if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man.”

In Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the South (1956) and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965),
Warren confronted the full implications of his own beliefs. Segregation ends with a self-interview, in which Warren identifies himself as “a Southerner” who is “afraid of the power state” and thinks that “the Northern press sometimes distorts Southern news” but who is nevertheless “for desegregation,” in large part because “I don’t think you can live with yourself when you are humiliating the man next to you.” The continuity between the lesson Warren in 1930 thought the “white workman” needed to learn and what by 1956 he had learned for himself illustrates the larger truth that Warren’s political stance in the 1950s and ’60s did not require him to abandon the New Criticism, the South, or even the values that once had led him to the Agrarians. The New Criticism rejected doctrinaire thinking and emphasized the difficulty of drawing unambiguous morals from human relationships when understood in their full complexity. In both Segregation and Who Speaks for the Negro? Warren makes his own belief in racial equality clear while presenting a gallery of portraits of specific individuals, black and white, from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum, with a wealth of concrete details and
without self-righteousness.

Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom were much more persuasive when they wrote about literature than when they tackled politics. The organic unity held up as a standard by most of the New Critics is a meaningful ideal for painting, music, and literature; but applying aesthetic standards to politics, whether right or left, is a mistake. If the old South seemed to speak with one voice, that was because discordant voices were silenced by legal and extralegal coercion, including lynchings. The narrator of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting observes that the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia was welcomed at the time by “the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better” half of the population because of the appeal of their “great dream,” “an idyll of justice for all,” “a realm of harmony .  .  . where every man is a note in a magnificent Bach fugue and anyone who refuses his note is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect.”

Likewise, ideas that are attractive in politics do not necessarily work in literary criticism. In “Criticism as Pure Speculation,” Ransom, arguing against organic unity as a standard, claimed that his emphasis on “local texture” not directly related to a poem’s “logical structure” meant that a poem could be considered “so to speak, a democratic state .  .  . whereas a prose discourse .  .  . is a totalitarian state.” It is quite possible, however, to prefer democracy to totalitarianism in politics while taking organic unity as an ideal in art and literature, the kind of unity that, as Cleanth Brooks puts it, “triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern.”

It is hard to deny that there is a good deal that is attractive about the notion of a traditional society that includes, as Arbery puts it in his introduction,

such things as attachment to place from generation to generation, the traditions and communities that sprang up around such attachments, attunement to the rhythms of nature and its contingencies, strong bonds of kinship, a sense of the sacred, and indifference to an abstract idea of wealth understood in terms of monetary values.

It is also undeniable that the technological change and personal mobility encouraged by the free market weaken the attachments and bonds Arbery and the Agrarians rightly prize. One of the greatest proponents of free markets, Friedrich Hayek, freely acknowledged in The Fatal Conceit (1988) that the rules that make possible the “extended order” of the free market require the painful suppression of instincts formed during the long epoch when human beings or their ancestors lived in “small roving bands or troops.” In modern society, the ethics appropriate to family life do not work for society as a whole. Life in a clan or tribe called for solidarity within the group and “instinctual aggressiveness toward outsiders.” The marketplace, however, does not divide people into friends or enemies but instead requires equality before the law for all. While noting and even emphasizing the deep-seated emotional appeal of using the ethics of the family, clan, or tribe to condemn contemporary capitalist society (an appeal which politicians of both extreme left and right have exploited), Hayek observed that the attempt to regulate a modern economy according to family or tribal ethics would inevitably “doom a large part of mankind to poverty and death.”

Philosophers or intellectuals, Hayek pointed out, are most in thrall to instinctive longings when they concoct ideal socialist or Communist societies. For Hayek “atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage is the main source of the collectivist tradition.” The Agrarians saw themselves as opponents of rationalistic left-wing intellectuals: A number preferred the title Tracts Against Communism to I’ll Take My Stand. Yet just as left-wing intellectuals condemned capitalism for its moral flaws while ignoring or even justifying the atrocities of Communist regimes, the Agrarians vehemently condemned “finance-capitalism,” “industrialism,” and the “money economy” while accepting or even justifying slavery and segregation. Both groups yearned for a society whose unity would eliminate the frustrations and alienation that accompany the unprecedented wealth and opportunities made possible by developed capitalist societies.

Art and literature have powerfully dramatized the conflicts, frustrations, and alienation of modern life, but it would be a mistake to take the guidance of literary intellectuals urging either a leap into an (imagined) utopia of the future or a return to a (largely mythical) past. The “Southern Critics” are often wise when they write about literature and about family and personal relationships, but not so wise when they address large political and social questions. 


James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.




Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers