M. E. Bradford, The Agrarian Aquinas

mel bradford

I have called M.E. Bradford the Agrarian Aquinas. He did not write a Summa, but his work as a whole enriched and carried into new territory the message of I’ll Take My Stand on a broad front of literature, history, and political thought. He came at a crucial time when Richard Weaver had passed his peak of influence and the active defense of Southern Agrarianism seemed moribund. Instead, in the period of the 60s through the early 90s, Bradford gave it an unexpected new vitality. His work, as I have said elsewhere, was not simply a scholarly career but an historical event. I am inclined to call it providential, a sign that the Lord has not yet willed that the South shall vanish from history. I think it likely that if it had not been for Mel Bradford we would not be here today. His influence on me, and I think others, was crucial. He showed us how the old verities we thought were lost forever could be re-energized.

It has been said that a genius is one who invents his own vocation. By this rule Mel was a genius—he created a role for himself as the multifarious defender of Southern conservatism on the very hostile terrain of American intellectual discourse. Some few of us here were privileged to know him prior to his untimely death in 1993 at the age of 59. Mel was not just an intellectual. He was a presence, a phenomenon. He had imposing physical bulk and a seemingly limitless erudition that recognized no boundaries of academic specialization. But his erudition was delivered in homely, rustic accent and manner that went with the Stetson he wore. The Stetson was as invariable as his good humour, easy dignity, and antique courtesy and magnanimity.

This demeanor was somewhat deliberate, I think. He chose to play his role on the model of a classical rhetorician as a way to affirm the reality of the South and to demonstrate that the old way of doing these things was better. Rather than be only an academic specialist, his method quietly asserted that form and substance, knowledge and ethics, are inseparable, that communication is a function not only of the expertise but of the character of the speaker. By this method the communication itself validated the pre-existing bond of the speaker and those addressed. His transmission of knowledge and opinion was not merely a utilitarian act but an ethical and communal one. It speaks to a social life that predates the rule of the expert and assumes a body of citizens who share a community of traditions, ideas, and values. Mel thus chose to conduct his scholarly discourse in a way directly opposite to that of the modern, alienated intellectual critic of society and to that of the “social scientist” pretending to empirical objectivity.

In other words, Bradford was a man of letters. His breadth of learning and old-fashioned eloquence, informed by allegiance to a living tradition and a real people, was grandly anomalous in a time in which scholarship is dominated by preoccupation with technique and ideological abstraction, and the public relies on the supposed wisdom of crude and superficial popularizers.

A meditation on Southern conservatism by Lewis P. Simpson, another Agrarian disciple, is relevant to Bradford’s career. Simpson asks, in his book Mind and the American Civil War:

“How can the traditional society be preserved as the model of the right conduct of mind in the face of the modern shift to the vision of mind as the proper model of society? This may only be accomplished, to be sure, by mind’s assertion that society is its model.”

Mel Bradford’s way of proceeding was an answer to the eternal problem of the traditionalist: how does one defend the given without entering into the revolutionary enemy’s realm of ideology?

At one period Bradford engaged in politics. Because he was ambitious for his cause he crossed paths with people who had status, celebrity, and money—of which he had none. Having never seen anything like it, the celebrity conservatives and neoconservatives of the 1980s and 90s did not know how to take him. It was as if John Taylor of Caroline, fresh from his plantation, had strolled into a hall where a gaggle of politicians and lobbyists were transacting their self-interested business-as-usual. His very existence was a reproach to them. A reproach to people like William F. Buckley, Ed Fuelner, Irving Kristol, and the numerous opportunists who climbed aboard and then took over the train of Reagan Victorious.

Mel came from Oklahoma and Texas cattle families that had migrated from Tennessee at an early period. He was a prodigy and graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a major in philosophy. He then came to Vanderbilt to study literature under Donald Davidson, the most faithful of the Agrarians. He was also influenced by Andrew Lytle and by the work of Frank Owsley. He was drawn to Agrarianism, as he made clear, not as an attractive theory, but because it expressed what he knew in his own life and that of his forebears and kinfolk to be true. The South and its way of life was not an intellectual construct. It was an inheritance, a patrimony (patrimony is a word he used often) of priceless value—because it embodied much of what was most valuable in the West, but also because it was our inheritance and good people honour their inheritance.

The South was a way of being. It was an identity preceding intellectual justification. Bradford’s intellectual labor was a way of asserting that reality and its value. As he wrote: “the social identity of Southerners does not rest upon a theory concerning the future of their homeland, its goal or its meaning as a composite entity.” The Southern way, and in his view the American way before 1861, was a rebuke to the Yankee notion of America as a “propisition nation.” In the Southern way society preceded and dominated ideology and the state apparatus, “not, as in the standard modern practice, the other way around.” Society had been created by God through history and was a given blessing, not something that the state was authorized to continually tear down and re-create in accordance with a proposition. Members of society are properly seen as persons, not as instruments of the state’s goals. In this he was in a long Southern tradition beginning before Jefferson. This deviation from “the American, or prevailing way” underlies the standpoint of John Taylor, of Calhoun, of Robert Lewis Dabney, and many other Southern spokesmen.

When called upon to define the South, Bradford gave as good a definition as has ever been put forth: “a vital and long-lasting bond, a corporate identity assumed by those who have contributed to it.” He goes on in good Southern fashion to illustrate: the Confederacy in its brief period of independence behaved more like a gathering of kinfolk and neighbours than a state. Its army was not a separate professional entity “but an extension of the region’s social character.” When he thought of the South he thought “of Lee in the Wilderness that day when his men refused to let him assume a position in the line of fire and tugged at the bridle of Traveler until they had turned him aside.”

Mel’s productivity was prodigious and varied but it all holds together as one vision. Whether his topic is a Faulkner short story, Patrick Henry at the Virginia ratifying convention, Lincoln’s speeches, the colonial South, populism, Lyndon Johnson, or the latest biography of Cromwell, there is a consistent and deeply thought-out standpoint. This productivity was accomplished in the most discouraging academic situation imaginable. He came to the University of Dallas, then a new institution, half Catholic (though he was a Southern Baptsit) and half Texas Instruments corporation, brought there by Wilmoore Kendall to be one of the stars in a pioneering graduate program in Literature and Politics. Kendall died before the program was well underway and the institution fell under the dominance of the usual run of third-rate academics, some of whom belonged to the evil Straussian cult. He was barely tolerated thereafter and his salary frozen for years. Even though he had published more on literature than the entire English department, more history than the entire history department, and more political science than the entire political science department. One of the most brilliant scholars in America was not welcome anywhere, despite the highest endorsements of people like Eugene Genovese and Forrest McDonald. This tells us all we need to know about the American academy in our time.

In his essay “First Fathers: The Colonial Origins of the Southern Tradition” Bradford writes: “I must begin at the beginning, with the idea of the South as it existed in the minds of Southerners-to-be. For that evidence we must look to the poets. For they dream first and better than do other men . . . .” He then describes the 17th century vision of Virginia as a place of abundance and opportunity where the best of English rural society could be re-created and made available to all who were ready to risk and work. The obvious contrast is the Puritan “City upon a Hill” on Massachusetts Bay, which was motivated by a mission to build a collectivist commonwealth of saints, free of the taint of the Old World and its traditions. When Emerson proclaimed the New Englander to be the New Man who was leading history’s march into perfection, the Puritan mission had been secularized but had lost none of its zeal for demonizing and destroying those who refused to conform to its ideal.

In all his work, Bradford weaves together literature, history and political science, not in any self-consciously interdisciplinary way, but as a seamless fabric. His learning ranges over four centuries of English and American culture to describe a South that was early formed and has been continuous in its basic aspects. A societas that is agrarian in its chosen way of life, instinctively prefers the personal to the abstract, regards government with some distrust, is highly individualistic in behaviour but cohesive in values. The two last-mentioned qualities of the South are what Richard Weaver likewise observed and labeled “social bond individualism.” History, literature, and political behaviour all demonstrate the reality and nature of that particular cultural formation called the South, its powerful binding identity, and its continuity. Further, that the inheritance is a healthy New World version of English and Christian civilization, not some strange perversion of the American “proposition.” This description is Mel Bradford’s intellectual legacy and his enlargement of the message of his Agrarian teachers.

This description of the South is important because it refutes the conventions of American history. Particularly since they have been dominated by Marxist class analysis, these conventions present a very different picture—that of a South in which thought and literature are of no consequence and a pretension to separate culture imaginary, and constitutional principles and complaints of regional exploitation are mere expedient smoke-screens. A South distinctive from the American norm only because of its peculiar evils of slavery and white supremacy—the race question itself being merely a false consciousness bolstering class exploitation of blacks and whites by a small plantation elite.

Here is where Frank Owsley and his Plain Folk of the Old South assume crucial importance. No more fundamental challenge has ever been offered to the standard versions of American history. Like Bradford, Owsley challenges not only Marxist interpretations but the older and more powerful orthodoxy of nationalism that rationalized the Northern victory in the War to Prevent Southern Independence. Owsley’s point is that the Old South was not an evil oligarchy that had to be suppressed because its perverted devotion to slavery was a threat to “government of, by, and for the people.” If the Old South was a consensual society with a legitimate version of democratic government, with real grievances and with real claims to cultural independence, then its invasion and conquest is much harder to justify and looks more like a crime than a war for righteousness.

If Owsley is right, what Dr. Livingston has called the nationalist narrative of American history is brought into question. And Owsley has never been disproven, simply dismissed or ignored. And if we bring into question the nationalist mythology we have a new way of looking at things. Could its assumptions be wrong? Rather than dwelling on how the South was an unfortunate deviation from the American norm, perhaps we should look at that assumed norm itself and what might be wrong with it?

Bradford began as a literary scholar, and commentary on the whole span of Southern literature forms one large part of his corpus. One of his books in this line is called Generations of the Faithful Heart. Southerners should all know where this title comes from: From the closing lines of Donald Davidson’s great poem “Lee in the Mountains” The poem portrays Lee in his last years meditating on the fate of his people. He silently urges the young men, his students, to remember the merciful God who would in his own time bring fulfilment, because God will remember “the lost forsaken valour and the fierce faith undying and the love quenchless” which is their inheritance:

“Never forsaking, never denying
His children and His children’s children forever
Unto all generations of the faithful heart.”

Bradford wrote about most of the important Southern writers of the time: Faulkner, Warren, Tate, Ransom, Caroline Gordon, Welty, Percy, Jarrell, and others, including the neglected great Texas writer John Graves. The burden of this was to place Southern literature in the great tradition. The great Southern writers of the 20th century, and this was part of the reason they were great, were not alienated artists in rebellion against their society, contra the universal 20th century assumption of the artist’s role. They could criticize their society, but they always told their stories from within the fold. The evils they portrayed were the flaws of human nature not those of the outside reformer’s critique. These writers belonged to an old tradition—they were not self-alienated from the South but rather its bardic voice—accepting their inheritance despite its flaws and casting doubt on the benefits of modernity.

This interpretation was being developed at the same time by Cleanth Brooks for understanding Faulkner, in his definitive work, Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha. Brooks was of the Vanderbilt school, a little too young to be in ITMS, though he contributed to the sequel Who Owns America? He went on to become probably the greatest literary scholar of the 20th century U.S. As Brooks and Bradford show, Faulkner was not an alienated modern, but in most respects an old-fashioned Southerner, who thought that an old-fashioned Southerner was not a bad thing to be. Bradford points out that Faulkner’s The Reivers begins with the words “Grandfather said,” followed by advice as to how an honourable man is to behave in a troublesome world—followed by a high comedy story of the bad consequences that follow when that advice is not observed. No wannabe New York liberal wrote those lines.

Mel did not write a lot about the agrarian life per se. His interest was in defending the the South in which the agrarian way was taken for granted. He recognized that modern conditions had attenuated that way of life but believed with guarded optimism that the South would survive if its city dwellers remembered the old home place and the extended family, where their roots were. And if they kept their pietas toward the universe and did not succumb to the American life of the abstract which the Agrarians had labeled “industrialism.” He believed that Southerners had had considerable success at maintaining their character even under city life. He liked often to invoke Andrew Lytle’s practice of asking a new acquaintance: “Where do you bury?” The answer would tell Mr. Lytle where you were from, who you were, and to what extent you had remained faithful to the patrimony of place and kin.

Another spacious part of Bradford’s work is devoted to the history of the American Founding. He explored in depth the Revolutionary and Constitution-making generation—what they really said and did and the real social, intellectual and religious fabric of Americans of the time. He was able to show persuasively in ways that had not been done before what in the Revolution was normative and what was a radical fringe that was later claimed as the true legacy of the Founding. The American Revolution, he liked to say, was not a revolution made but a revolution prevented. Americans, including the substantial weight of the North, did not set out to create a new social order but to save what they had from a revolution attempted by English politicians. And, of course, in this light the Confederacy was a repeat of the American Revolution, just as its people believed.

So that I might put a little meat on the bones of my rather general discussion of Bradford’s writings, let me describe just two of my most favourite of many essays. First, “The Great Convention as Comic Action” from Original Intentions. To the equipment of a historian deeply learned in the primary sources and a student of political thought with a brilliant grasp of the intellectual milieu, Bradford adds a playful, unexpected awareness of the literary conventions of the day. The result is an amusing and persuasive revision of the familiar story of James Madison’s role at the Philadelphia Convention. We see that the Constitutional Convention was not like what we have been taught and not the triumph of nationalism that has been claimed.

Perhaps my favourite of the many essays is “Franklin and Jefferson: The Making and Binding of Self” from A Better Guide Than Reason. Bradford lays Franklin’s Autobiography and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia side by side for examination. We have been taught that the two Founders were liberals and cosmopolitans together, saints of the Enlightenment and allies on the left wing of the Revolution. Here Bradford is at his most subtle and perceptive. He shows that Franklin and Jefferson were very different kinds of cosmopolitans and radicals. From their own mouths we see Franklin as the prototype for the rootless, self-creating and open-ended American of the future, and Jefferson, with all his notions, firmly planted in the given reality of Virginia.

Bradford is able to see the American Founding truly because of his ability to surmount the barrier of different disciplines and the barrier of alienation between the scholar and society. For him, exactly as it was for the Founders, politics, history, and literature are not separate, mutually exclusive, and merely professional activities. They are, rather, ethical pursuits, the end of which is the cultivation of good men. And since the quality of men is expressed in the quality of their citizenship, politics and learning and literature should be united in a seamless fabric. Along with his retrieval of lost knowledge, Bradford shows how to go about finding the lost treasure that is humane learning itself.

And there are the Lincoln essays. Four essays in different journals and different books and different years, all rather obscurely published: “Lincoln, the Declaration, and Secular Puritanism: A Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution”; “Lincoln and the Language of Hate and Fear”; “The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View”; and “Against Lincoln: A Speech at Gettysburg.” Mel always expressed surprise at what a swathe these four little pieces, well short of a hundred pages all together, had made through the world—becoming the subject of discussion among nationally syndicated columnists and intimates of the Oval Office itself. His approach is the same combination of perspectives as in his studies of the Founders. The essays focus particularly on Lincoln’s rhetoric—his way of addressing the crises of his time. The analysis shows that Lincoln, even in some of his most famous utterances, did not embody noble and disinterested wisdom but displayed the crafty and frequently irresponsible posturing of an opportunistically ambitious man. Further, that by clothing his agenda in Biblical language as though he were speaking for the gods, Lincoln created for the American polity a dangerous tradition of politics as righteous revolutionary imperialism that had caused and would continue to cause much trouble and distortion.

Bradford’s analysis cannot be and has not been refuted. It can only be denounced, and it certainly was, after it came to the attention of the powers that be. Of course he should not have been surprised. To question the sainthood of Lincoln is to challenge the sacred texts of Americanism and the self-love of the rulers of America and vast numbers of their subjects. Bradford was before his time, a situation which is always highly unrewarding. It appears that today Lincoln’s sainthood is being re-examined by a great many thoughtful people who have doffed their rose-colored glasses for the occasion.

In observation of the 50th anniversary of the Agrarian manifesto, Bradford wrote this:

The measure of any regime, of any economic, social, or political system is its human product. . . . That the industrial system as we have known it and energetic government cannot produce the complete man taken as a norm by the Nashville circle is no longer a proposition subject to intelligent dispute. What we were told would be progress has left a vacuum in which solipsism and deracination, Marxism and related nostrums have moved at will. The Gross National Product at its best cannot negate this truth, nor may religion be expected to flourish under such circumstances.

There is yet some comfort and hope, he thought. In the South the independent farmer remains a kind of prototype, stewardship is still a compelling ideal, remote power is still regarded with suspicion, and ancestors are still honoured.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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