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Book Review: Go South, Young Man

A critical vision of American life and letters

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
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“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.”

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