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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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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.




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