Should the South Survive?

monticello 4

This essay served as the introduction to Why the South Will Survive(University of Georgia Press, 1981).

OF THE MAKING of books about the South there is no end. This one differs from most in at least one respect—its unembarrassed embrace of the notion that the South is a national asset, a priceless and irreplaceable treasure that must be conserved.

The particular group of people gathered between these covers to support and elucidate this audacious contention is occasional. All are friends, or friends of friends, of the person privileged to compose this prefatory statement. I freely admit that many other writers of equal or superior merit might have been called upon, or even an en­tirely different group assembled for this purpose. When word got around, informally, that a manifesto of Southern pride was con­templated, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the publica­tion of I’ll Take My Stand, the outpouring of interest and sympathy was surprisingly large, certainly large enough to indicate that the proposal struck a hidden vein of public feeling. Like the Confeder­acy in its first year, we had more volunteers than we could well make use of.

We will no doubt be subject to charges of presumption in claiming to speak for the South and to commemorate definitively I’ll Take My Stand. Our excuse lies in the fact that we undertook to satisfy a widely felt need at a time when it seemed that no one else was pre­pared to come forward. The contributors include a mixture of estab­lished scholars and writers, young scholars and writers, and men from public life. They include persons who disagree on many things and who vote three different ways in any one election, although the majority would not, perhaps, be uncomfortable with the label “con­servative.” The mixture is deliberate,- among other things, it serves to illustrate the breadth of thoughtful allegiance to the South that exists today, a loyalty that nowhere else has been, we feel, ade­quately described and defended.

Unlike most books about the South, this one is not designed pri­marily to analyze, to criticize, or to deplore it. While some analysis, some criticism, and some lamentation are contained herein, our pri­mary objective is to affirm. Richard M. Weaver, an apostle of the Nashville Agrarians to the Northern intelligentsia, remarked that I’ll Take My Stand was controversial—”controversial” being a jour­nalistic label for a book that is concerned with values. If he was cor­rect, then this book is also controversial. The essays that follow affirm values, many of them unfashionable. Indeed, in my opinion, the South has always been primarily a matter of values, a peculiar repository of intangible qualities in a society peculiarly preoccupied with the quantifiable. This description of the South explains to my satisfaction why some have not believed in its reality; why others, though convinced of its existence, have been baffled to define it; and why still others have found it endlessly absorbing and problematic.

The writers herein, widely dispersed and collaborators only for this occasion, lay no collective claim to the distinction, eloquence, and prophetic power of the Agrarians of a half-century ago. Even had we been as gifted as they, we have not enjoyed their opportunities for enrichment and refinement of ideas by regular mutual in­terchange. Yet the degree to which the individual essays herein converge, often in totally unexpected ways—given the different trainings, temperaments, and perspectives brought to bear—has sur­prised us all, and has provided additional evidence of the fundamen­tal nature of our identity as Southerners.

In mitigation of our presumption to speak in the tradition of the authors of I’ll Take My Stand, we present in evidence our willing­ness to pay them the homage of taking seriously what they had to say—which cannot be said of some who have sought to praise or imitate them. For the social implications of I’ll Take My Stand, at leas’ by repute and in some circles, have been evaded by rendering then abstract or by dwelling on the subsequent literary fame of the participants. Fortunately, their book is there to read, and its self-evident burden is clear. They declared that they loved the South; that they wanted to keep the South in many respects as it was; that, if it had to change, they wanted that change to be one of preservation am adaptation, rather than an abandonment of historic distinction.

Those writers loved the South because it was theirs. So do we. But, more than this, they valued its differentness and intransigence as exemplary. Southerners, they were also a part of a larger society which seemed to them to be in parlous health. Western civilization in 1929 and 1930 was like a sick man, sinking fast and surrounded by a gaggle of sharpers hawking patented nostrums, some of which Were as likely to kill as to cure the patient, and none of which of­fered much hope of reaching his fundamental malignancy. The task they had undertaken, of revitalizing the Southern tradition, suggested itself to them as having considerable relevance to the larger world’s ills.

The Agrarians saw that the choices commonly presented in their times realized neither the best of American traditions nor the best of American opportunities. It was obvious to them, as it certainly was not widely obvious to the “informed” public at the time, that Calvin Coolidge, H. L. Mencken, and Eugene Debs did not subsume all or even the best part of the American heritage. Not only was it impor­tant to them to defend and preserve the South; it was equally impor­tant that the South had something to say to a troubled nation, a nation that was not talking straight to itself and that had forgotten too much. This interpretation of the import of the Agrarian man­ifesto of 1930 is borne out by the semi-centennial reflections which have been generously contributed by Andrew Lytle and which are included as an afterword to this volume. Mr. Lytle’s concern is still the progressive disintegration of the Western social fabric and the relevance of the Southern inheritance to that problem.

The social fragmentation and demoralization that the Agrarians sought to combat have become much more evident and menacing since their work was published, increasing their status as prophets, heralded if unheeded. American society (all the Western world, per­haps) is in even worse condition today than it was fifty years ago. And the diagnoses that receive the most attention and allegiance are still as destructive, irrelevant, or superficial as they were then.

It may as well be said straight out, though many will greet the statement with hostility, derision, or incomprehension: One of the implications running through this book is that the South is, or ought to be, of compelling interest to that thoughtful minority con­cerned with conserving what is left of Christianity and Western civ­ilization. The book is full of suggestions and illustrations of why and how we think that in the providential inheritance of the South are embedded certain factors highly relevant to the nourishing of re­ligion, manners, family life, politics in the high sense, the arts, and the whole fabric of humane culture that makes for a satisfactory ex­istence. The writers in this book do not claim, any more than did the Agrarians, that these qualities belong exclusively to the South. But they believe, as the Agrarians did, that in the modern world the South relates to such qualities in a special way; that the South has been uniquely resistant to fragmentation and alienation; that the South, not through virtue but through good fortune, maintains a uniquely primary identification with things American and an un­premeditated and unself-conscious relationship with some of the ancient values of Western civilization that are increasingly attenu­ated elsewhere.

The writers who follow, each in his own way and in an assigned sphere, attempt to come to honest terms with certain questions. Does that intangible reality the American South—older than the United States, more extensive in territory and more considerable in historic and cultural import than many of the separate nations of the earth—still enjoy a distinctive existence? Is it likely to continue to do so, given the apparently overwhelming tendency of modern so­cieties toward what our forefathers decried as “consolidation”? Does the South deserve to survive? And the underlying question, which gives this book its title and its relationship to I’ll Take My Stand: What are the implications of the South’s survival or non-sur­vival for the larger American Republic?

The calm and positive tone of the answers given to these ques­tions is remarkable. There is no rancor and defensiveness, no raking over of old controversies, no self-indulgent and evasive nostalgia. Southerners have long known how to be good losers,- the writers herein have set an example of being good winners. They have care­fully observed M. E. Bradford’s admonition, in the concluding essay, that they refrain from giving the Yankees hell for having run the country into the ground and content themselves with doing what they can to save the situation.

In “The Same Old Stand?” John Shelton Reed, a talented writer and social commentator who doubles as professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, investigates the trans­formation and the persistence of Southernness, particularly as ex­emplified by the average Southerner—no longer a man in the field, but a man in the street—as he enters the 1980s. Reed’s observations are, as always, original, solidly based on objective observations, and optimistic as to the continued refusal of the ordinary Southerner to be “modernized”—at least as “modernization” is experienced in less fortunate lands.

William C. Havard, a distinguished student of Southern political thought and phenomena and chairman of the department of political science at Vanderbilt University, follows Reed with personal re­flections upon the multiple aspects of Southern distinctiveness and how these have been thrown unexpectedly into relief and vitality by developments in the nation at large. He finds this distinctiveness, on the whole, of increasing value.

Fred Hobson, associate professor of English at the University of Alabama, describes himself as a moderate Southern liberal pleased with many of the changes that have overtaken the South in the past few decades. Yet he is no more willing to accept a world minus Southern distinctiveness than are his colleagues. A South leveled to the American norm, a South without its vestiges of aristocratic grace and populist perversity, will be a land more truly impoverished than econometricians are able to measure. Hobson challenges Southerners to prosper and progress without falling into the form­less middle.

Hamilton C. Horton, Jr., an attorney and businessman, is by avo­cation and experience intimately acquainted with the present con­dition of Southern agriculture. He has been the leader of his party in the North Carolina General Assembly, state dairy commissioner, and administrative assistant to a United States senator. Horton ar­gues convincingly that the South has had a considerable degree of success in effecting a humane synthesis of traditional ways and in­dustrialization, in that accepting of industry, but with a bad grace, that John Crowe Ransom recommended in I’ll Take My Stand. He also warns that we continue to fail to be adequate stewards of the land. Throughout his essay, Horton keeps the focus properly on ‘The Enduring Soil” and its meaning for the Southerner.

Don Anderson approaches the rural South from another perspec­tive. An attorney and former United States congressional staff mem­ber who is active as a director of self-help programs among the rural black poor, he presents a unique but vivid and perhaps increasingly exemplary view of a black Virginian’s return to his roots and his at­tempt to give new life and new context to the time-honored tradi­tions of Jeffersonian democracy.

George C. Rogers, Jr., a noted historian of South Carolina and pro­fessor at the university of that state, also concentrates upon the con­tinued relevance of certain Southern political and constitutional traditions and proclivities. He affirms that not only are these still of value, but their national restoration is desperately needed, particu­larly the awareness of the relationship between individual character and sound political institutions.

In “Foreign Policy and the South,” Samuel T. Francis, a young Tennessean associated with the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., begins with the famous analysis of C. Vann Woodward in re­gard to the Southern deviance from the American norm and ex­pands it into some original and startling observations regarding the Southern contribution (sometimes for the worse, possibly for the better) to America’s position in the world. His observations were made prior to the Shermanesque offenses to international civility in Iran and Afghanistan, in which light they appear even more original.

Thomas Fleming, a classicist and private school headmaster in South Carolina, reminds us that Southerners of another day foresaw and attempted to forestall the educational debacle that has over­taken American society. Educators closed their minds to the warn­ings of John Gould Fletcher in I’ll Take My Stand fifty years ago, just as they had failed to heed his precursors in the nineteenth century. But the alternatives Fletcher proposed are still viable, even at this late date, Fleming asserts. With admirably controlled understate­ment he reminds us of the rage we should feel at the desecration which has been inflicted upon the ancient calling of learning, and also of the inescapable relation of true learning to the survival of the South.

George Garrett, an accomplished novelist, poet, and teacher of writing, begins a discussion of “Southern Literature Here and Now” by reference to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s strictures on the oppres­sive conformity of the Western press. His essay is reminiscent of the great Russian himself in preference for truth over fashion, in moral indignation, and in love of homeland. Garrett is righteously out­raged at the colonialization of Southern writers, generously com­plimentary in his tribute to their accomplishments in the face of adverse conditions, and serenely confident that Southern literature remains and will continue to be both Southern and important.

Another branch of Southern literature, the “country music” that has recently taken the world by storm, is examined in its origins and its ultimate appeal by David B. Sentelle. Lawyer, judge, and local of­ficial, Sentelle appears here as the purveyor of memory, based upon his own upbringing in the mountains of North Carolina. Taking the Southerner and his music without apology or equivocation, he viv­idly evokes the experiences out of which that music came and which it celebrates.

In “A Note on the Origin of Southern Ways,” Thomas H. Landess, chairman of the department of English at the University of Dallas, throws into arresting and original perspective the interrelatedness of Southern manners, family life, and literature, and the ultimate dependence of all three on the South’s purchase upon Christian orthodoxy. His exploration of these matters should be of interest to ill students of the South and to all persons concerned with the weakening position of Christianity in American society today.

Marion Montgomery poet, novelist, and professor of English at the University of Georgia, approaches the peculiarly Southern hold upon ancient ways of feeling and living from another direction. He also sees Southern religion, literature, and common life as a seam­less whole, and goes on to show that “regionalist” resistance to modernity in the South is based upon the same “piety toward cre­ation” that informs Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s resistance to the total­itarian materialist state.

Cleanth Brooks, Gray Professor of Rhetoric Emeritus at Yale Uni­versity and one of the most distinguished literary scholars and crit­ics yet produced in America, returns to the subject he took up more than four decades ago in Who Owns America!—the condition of re­ligion. While the South’s religious stance is flawed by the lack of a sufficient theology, the region has retained an amazing freedom from the Puritan heresies that have decimated Protestantism else­where. The South remains, Professor Brooks tells us, the best foun­dation for Christianity to build upon in this country. Without undue optimism but with the courage to hope, he reminds us that, while the hour is late, all is not yet lost.

Of course, there are many important aspects of the South today, and of its relation to the nation, that these essays have not touched upon at all or have only hinted at. We will be content if we are able to play a part in bringing about the discussion that these issues demand.

Many objections will undoubtedly be raised to this book, a num­ber of which we can anticipate. It will be said that we have made a great to-do about “the South” without bothering to define what we mean by the term. I reply that it is not necessary, for our purposes, to engage in the parlor game of defining the South. The South is all around us. It has arrested the attention of countless observers. Hun­dreds of presumably rational persons spread around the globe are devoting their lives to studying its history, culture, and current con­dition. It has provided a compelling means of self-identification for millions of people over many generations. Not only has it been meaningful to Southerners; in addition, it has attracted many sym­pathizers from outside its borders (wherever they be drawn) and con­tinues to do so at this moment. The South is as real and as amenable to discussion as are France, Hollywood, poetry, capitalism, astron­omy, or corn.

It is not necessary for the reader to agree with me in order for us to participate in a useful exchange of ideas, but 1 would define the South as an inherited way of life, expressed in a number of cultural and personality characteristics that are spontaneously shared, to a greater or lesser degree, by a substantial number of inhabitants of the United States. This way of life correlates with a particular his­tory and geography but has an independent existence.

Nowhere in I’ll Take My Stand will one find a precisely drawn-up definition of the South. The South was taken in the terms in which I have defined it. Though the Agrarians’ discussion was somewhat focused on the economic crisis of their time, at bottom those writ­ers were concerned with ways of life, with how men might live so as to best realize the potential of their existence. The answer, they said, was already given in the South. It did not have to be invented; it had only to be recognized, participated in, and preserved.

Another common objection will be that the South is not really all that different. Perhaps it never was (so the argument runs), but if so, it certainly no longer is, or soon will cease to be. Those who believe this are evidently not looking in the same places as the writers of these essays, which are full of observations tending to disprove the objection. The essays may be full of admissions that the South has changed, but they reject the hidden premise that all change is inev­itably toward some presumed American norm. Such an inaccurate expectation of reality is related to the kind of self-deluding expecta­tions that Americans bring to other countries; it also contains a fal­lacious assumption that there is a stable American norm toward which the Southern people are or should be approximating them­selves. The fact is that American society outside the South has changed in recent decades so rapidly and in so many critical ways that the South is becoming more, rather than less, different.

It is even possible that “the South,” thought by many to be a myth or a product of peculiar circumstances, doomed eventually to merge into the American mass, may prove in the long run more able to sur­vive change without losing its identity than can America at large. Indeed, the Southerner may be justified in wondering whether there is any American culture anymore, whether America is anything other than a collection of people sharing a common territory, gov­ernment, and standard of living, but otherwise having no identity. This is to overstate the case, but the misgiving is a genuine one.

The most serious charge we anticipate is that of divisiveness. But divisiveness is a matter of perspective, of whose ox is being divided and for what purpose. The belief that Southerners become more American by becoming less Southern is and always has been both false and imperialistic. Rather, the contrary is true: it is doubtful whether Southerners can be American without first being Southern. The periods during which Southerners have been most American— when they have taken part in national life most positively and with least reservation, have made their greatest contributions to the na­tion, have indeed often been at the forefront of national life—have been exactly those periods when they have been permitted to be Southern, those times when they were not forced to arrange their fundamental allegiances into hierarchies.

The cry against divisiveness is most likely to be raised by those who profit from the status quo. Many elements have vested inter­ests—economic, political, cultural, psychological—in a subservient South. But why should a society supposedly dedicated to pluralism exclude from respectability and self-determination, as it normally has heretofore, its largest, most important, and oldest minority?

When an American turns to the South, it is often to a South of his own imagining, tailored to his own needs, rather than to the real South. Hard as it may be for many of today’s intellectuals to believe, there was a time when the South was considered the natural home and mainstay of American liberalism; more lately the South has been courted by the conservatives. The truth is that the expecta­tions of both have been colonialist. At certain times the various poles of mainstream America have united to execrate the South; at other times each group has based its strategy and hopes upon the South. Each has its Southern heroes and Southern demons. Both have tended to find in the South what they wanted or needed at a particular moment, a convenient ally or a ready-made scapegoat. They have, in other words, felt free to range through the South as though it were a conquered province, and to take what they liked without feeling any obligation to take the whole.

In contradistinction, Southerners have always known and have sometimes successfully maintained that true Union is a process of consent, not of conquest. The true friends of Union are those who willingly collaborate while frankly recognizing and cherishing their differences. It is the effort to wipe out differences that is properly defined as divisiveness. A respect for differences flows naturally from that “piety toward creation” which is explicitly or implicitly a part of all the essays which follow. Its opposite flows from the same sources as does tyranny.

For better or worse, the South’s fate is identified with that of the Union. Those mellow Southern voices and slow Southern ways, that unpragmatic and unprogrammed preference for chivalry, personality and piety, that sense of life as a drama and duty rather than a business—all those characteristics which from time to time have driven other Americans to frenzy and malice—are an inextricable part of American history, and doubtless will continue to be.

“Nobody now proposes for the South,” declared the Twelve South­erners in 1930, “or for any other community in this country, an inde­pendent political destiny. . . . But how far shall the South surrender its moral, social, and economic autonomy to the victorious princi­ple of Union? That question remains open.”

What, then, should Southerners do with that moral, social, and economic autonomy that they are entitled to exercise within the Union? In the final essay, M. E. Bradford of the University of Dallas, one of the most eloquent and energetic disciples of Agrarianism, calls upon Southerners to embark upon calculated resistance to standardization and anonymity, to cherish and cultivate—deliber­ately, individually, and vigorously—their “obdurate particularity.” In so doing, he maintains, they will be serving themselves, America, civilization, and posterity.

Such a program presents a challenge of great magnitude. But I sus­pect that this challenge is already being met by many in their own places and ways, with or without deliberate recognition of what they are about. At any rate, such a challenge should not be too great for a people who have seen the reduction of a lawless frontier to order and prosperity, who have experienced defeat in war and failure of cher­ished hopes, who have suffered unstinting scorn, unrelenting pov­erty and toil, and recalcitrant problems of human relationships without defeat of spirit. Southerners have learned not to depend upon Utopian visions of an accommodating future, not to insist upon easy solutions and happy endings.

Our Southern people are still stubbornly themselves in ways that need telling about, in ways that need understanding, in ways that need preserving. Aside from a religious vocation, preserving and en­hancing a people’s way of life is as worthy an enterprise for civilized men and women as may be imagined. That is the affirmative busi­ness of the essays which follow. Their affirmation is a modest one, a cautious one, not made at anyone else’s expense. Nevertheless, it is an affirmation: The South exists. It ought to exist. If Southerners can be brought to acknowledge that “ought,” then it undoubtedly will not only endure but prevail.

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