Mel Bradford has argued that no individual has exerted more influence upon the development of a profession of letters this century in the South than Donald Davidson. The poet, essayist, and social critic is well known to most literary scholars and historians of the South; however, Davidson’s critique of the Southern experience remains largely unappreciated.
Several years ago the author of this essay had the opportunity to spend a weekend with Andrew Lytle, one of the original Nashville Agrarians and a contributor to I’ll Take My Stand, at his home in Monteagle, Tennessee. In the course of our conversation, Lytle was asked to describe how one might better understand Donald Davidson. Mr. Lytle replied he too had often pondered this question and that he had come to a plausible conclusion concerning that dilemma a half century earlier while examining a family portrait of the Davidson clan. As Lytle describes the picture, all the Davidson family members were standing erect and without smiles; the stalwart Davidsons were, in essence, puritans of an older order. Donald Davidson’s life exemplified a puritanical approach to most matters; Allen Tate once criticized his close friend Davidson for possessing a “dense barrier” between himself and his friends and that he had a private life “his friends could not penetrate.” However, it is Davidson’s prudent life and his concern for transmitting his Southern heritage that are remembered as his greatest achievements. Donald Davidson was part of a generation of Southerners who, while not personally experiencing the Civil War or Reconstruction, nevertheless, had among them a large number of the participants in these events. This generation of Southerners saw themselves as part of a “folk chain” (to borrow from Burke) of which they were only a link, and as part of the chain, it was their duty to protect the structure. It is this devotion to preserving and transmitting the Southern experience, an attitude attached to Davidson’s youthful experiences, that dominated much of his scholarly effort.
Davidson was a product of frontiersman stock; his great-great-grandfather had been one of the early settlers of Bedford County, Tennessee. His father, a learned school master, encouraged the young Davidson to pursue the scholarly life. Louise Cowan, the foremost historian of the Fugitive Group, describes the environment in the Davidson household:
There was a good library in the Davidson home; the boy pored over Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare’s works, Ramsey’s Annals of Tennessee, and the ninth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. By the time he enrolled in Branham and Hughes (a prep school) in 1905, he had already grown familiar with the world existing behind the printed page.
The impact of Davidson’s upbringing, combined with his education at Vanderbilt University, prescribed much of the direction for his life’s work.
Donald Davidson saw the modern dilemma as basically a thorough division between those who believe in tradition and those who seek to limit the importance of tradition as it relates to social and political life. His most famous poetic works, The Tall Men and Lee in the Mountains, are biographic accounts of the lives of great Southern men. The overriding tenet of his two volume history of the Tennessee River is the importance of the folk experience to the river people and how it was being destroyed by the decadent industrialism of the 1930s.
Of the twelve Southerners who contrived to produce I’ll Take My Stand, one of the most poignant statements of American agrarian sentiment, Davidson was the sternest. He argued that the South was part of a continuum of Western civilization; however, he never presented his readers with a precise description of the patrimony. His approach to the reversing of what he saw as the slide into an historical gnosticism of sorts was a reassembling of the older folk tradition. Davidson the poet believed poetic enterprise was one of the most significant elements of a civilization’s success; conversely, the rejection of poetry was a sign that the civilization was “preparing for its own doom.” The most penetrative poetic effort, according to this view, was the epic. Davidson came to believe that the South, the last remnant of the epic narrative, would soon be like the rest of the country.
In addition to Davidson’s poetic critique, his writings on the subject of regionalism provide the reader with another important perspective in understanding his worldview. At heart, Davidson was an unreconstructed Southerner in the sense that he believed the United States possessed important regional differences. The regionalism of Donald Davidson differed in a number of important aspects from the definition of regionalism presented by Rupert Vance or Howard Odum; Davidson’s regionalism was based on culture, not geographic or ecological concerns. Also, he was of the opinion that students of regionalism frequently committed a most grievous error by over-generalizing the salient aspects of regions, while refusing to note intra-regional differentiations. Davidson believed the American South was culturally diverse and to study the “culture of the South” was to study “many cultures within one.”
Donald Davidson passed away over two decades ago; however, his efforts and criticisms continue to deserve much attention—the Gleichgesichtem or the levelers are marching on—full speed ahead! Since his death in 1968, the South has become more decadent in its disregard for the past; we have, as Joad reminded us, “lost the object.” The situation after the Civil War found a South feeling as if it were in spirit and actuality a separate nation. Of course, matters have changed, but we are still as Richard Weaver pointed out-a section unified by a different religious allegiance and a different way of life and a different worldview. Being a Southerner is a spiritual condition; as Davidson reminded us it “…is not altogether different from being a Catholic, or a Jew; and members of the group can recognize one another by the signs which are eloquent to them though too small to be noticed by others.”
To be frank, the South has nearly lost its identity. Southerners lack today an intensely self-conscious intellectual and literary community such as the Fugitive Group and that most important of roles, the man of letters. The office has proved uncongenial to modem Southerners. It is difficult to determine when a Southern literary imagination began to develop or when it began to move towards an idea of the South as a redemptive community, but one would have to place this before the American Revolution. Our tradition of the man of letters as a cultural spokesman certainly must have come from our European heritage. Davidson’s teacher and colleague John Crowe Ransom elucidated this idea in his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand:
The South is unique in this continent for having founded and defended a culture which was according to European principles of culture; and the European principles had better look to the South if they are to be perpetuated in this country.
Davidson’s answer to the question of how our part of the world has produced such a great literature is even more accurate today. It is still hinged upon Vergil’s deliberate contrast of the “Happy Man” (felix) and the “Blessed Man” (fortunatus). We have become increasingly under the influence of scientific ex-pertism. Before George Bush dare send a message to Congress, he must consult scientific experts. Who have this community of experts accepted to be the great Southern writers? Faulkner and Caldwell. They have made icons of these writers because they help them their warped sociological analysis. As Davidson frequently asserted:
…the way to produce a John Crowe Ransom, an Allen Tate, a Robert Penn Warren, a Julia Peterkin, a Stark Young, a Eudora Welty, a Thomas Wolfe, a Jesse Stuart, a Elizabeth Roberts, is to have them born and grow up in a backward Southern community that loves everything Massachusetts condemns and lacks nearly everything Massachusetts deems admirable and necessary.
The tradition, I am proud to say, continues with Fred Chappell, Marion Montgomery and Alan Fredricksen—although not with the same intensity. We have chosen the life of the happy man; a life of pursuing knowledge with all abandonment. We have forgotten the “Blessed Man,” a life that rests on traditional religion. In Allen Tate’s famous poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” it is “knowledge carried to the heart.” This is the type of knowledge we Southerners have faithfully cultivated throughout our history.
Devotion to this type of wisdom is the dominant characteristic of Southern society. Because of this tradition we continue to possess the most important element for the survival of our culture: hope. The tradition Davidson helped to foster continues with a remnant, but a solid remnant. The battle the South faces today is much larger than agrarianism; the American South of the 1990s is much more complex and less unique than the South of the 1920s. Nevertheless, the works of Donald Davidson provide a basis for a counterrevolution against the forces of nihilism rampant
throughout our region.
The article was originally published in the First Quarter 1991 of Southern Partisan magazine.