Fugitive Agrarians

lost cause 2

I’ll Take My Stand, the classic statement of Southern Agrarianism, was first published in 1930. Since that time, it has never been out of print. You have to ask yourself why people have continued to read it. There are several good reasons why they shouldn’t.

It’s a quirky book. The 12 essays—written by men of varying backgrounds and talents—are uneven in quality, ranging from the fiercely polemical to the hyper-intellectual.

The book has little thematic unity. Ex post facto, John Crowe Ransom—a quiet little man who exercised an almost frightening intellectual authority over his colleagues—wrote a “Statement of Principles” which was published as an introduction to the essays. However, the essays themselves don’t necessarily illustrate these principles; and when they do, the illustrations seem almost accidental.

The society the essays defended has long since vanished. In 1930, the United States of America was still a nation of small towns. About 25 percent of Americans lived on farms, a disproportionate number of these in the South. Today that figure has shrunk to barely 1 percent. ADM, Mexico, and South America are feeding the country, while rural America is being gobbled up by developers armed with new legal weaponry supplied by the U.S. Supreme Court. So why talk—or even think—about a society that now exists only in the time-dimmed memory of old folks, a world as dead and irrelevant as the tribes of Cochise and Crazy Horse?

The Agrarians’ solutions to the problems of that day were rejected by Americans in general and Southerners in particular. I’ll Take My Stand and later Agrarian writings made absolutely no impact on the economic and social development of their region—or any other region. Both as theorists and strategists, they were failures.

How to respond to these reasons not to read the book—all of which are quite valid?

First, I’ll Take My Stand was indeed stitched together like a crazy quilt, assembled informally by letters, telephone calls, and—when possible—conversations. That should surprise no one familiar with rural America circa 1930. This was the way people lived: sitting on a precipice, dangling their legs over chaos, yet obedient to an inner order of the soul. Back then you lived by the rhythm of nature rather than by the unrelenting authority of the clock.

Hogs and chickens can’t tell time and wouldn’t care if they could. The corn comes up when it pleases, helped by sun and rain. In such a world, you couldn’t hope to plan your seasons with the same confidence that Ford planned its fiscal year, with estimated costs of production, demographic charts, and graphs of projected sales. No small farmer ever told another: “My philosophy of farming can be reduced to five essential points.” He planted when the weather was right and prayed.

I’ll Take My Stand was not solely about the South but was a defense of rural America in general. It is not an encomium to a white aristocracy, as too many critics have maintained. The Agrarians explicitly rejected the idea that the South had an aristocracy. They also said that industry was a necessary ingredient of an Agrarian society. Finally, the Old South was not their paradigm, but rather the South of 1930: a region of small farms, little cash, and dismal economic prospects.

I have long believed that most of the people who have written about I’ll Take My Stand have never read it, or at the very least haven’t read the whole book. The most sympathetic—and patronizing—of the critiques say the Agrarians were “tillers of myth,” apostles of nostalgia, men spellbound for a while by moonlight and magnolias. Yet ironically it was their enemies, the New South advocates, who dreamed of utopia, a Never Never Land just over the next hill. They believed that factories belching smoke over the Southern landscape would bring wealth and with it, happiness.

Read I’ll Take My Stand. With perhaps one exception, these are tough-minded essays in defense of a way of life that still existed, not just in the South but in other regions—communities of small towns that lit the landscape like galaxies of stars across a vast nation. It helps to know who some of these men were and the diverse talents that produced this book. I knew a couple of them well and several others more than casually. They changed my life, and I was not the only one.

Vanderbilt Ballads

When Richard Weaver came to Vanderbilt to get his M.A. in English, he was a committed socialist. Someone had indoctrinated him in undergraduate school. In those days it happened all the time. I’m told it still does. Socialism is too easy to explain to the young, too easy to love. In a socialist society, there is no poverty, no crime, no crooked teeth or acne. You can be certain that Little Goody Two-Shoes, Snow White, and the other heroes and heroines of fairy tales were all socialists. Shorn of romantic illusions, a grown-up Weaver remembered his socialist mentors as “dry, insistent people of shallow objectives.”

In the mid-’30s he came to Vanderbilt University, where he fell under the spell of the Agrarians. John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate were still on the faculty, and Weaver would later transfer to LSU, where he studied under Robert Penn Warren. They were anything but dry and insistent. In “Up From Liberalism,” Weaver wrote, “I liked them all as persons. They were humane, more generous, and considerably less dogmatic than those with whom I had been associated under the opposing banner.”

It took him a while to move from left to right, but his perception of those men worked inside him like an antibiotic, engaging the virus he had picked up as an undergraduate. Eventually he came to understand that he was cured: “I recall very sharply how, in the autumn of 1939, as I was driving one afternoon across the monotonous prairies of Texas, it came to me as a revelation that I did not have to go on professing the clichés of liberalism.”

I understand how he felt. I came to Vanderbilt in 1949, a liberal of sorts, with half-formed notions of just about everything. I had not yet learned to put ideas and people together.

I wanted to take a creative writing course the day I arrived. Donald Davidson taught the class and he didn’t admit underclassmen, so I had to wait two years. Meanwhile I heard stories about him—that he wanted to put everyone back on farms, that he was a fire-eater in class, that he was a recruiter for the Devil’s Army.
Then one day a friend pointed him out to me as he trudged slowly across the campus, slight of figure, hunched over, plodding carefully along the sidewalk like an old man walking on ice. He had no-color hair, wore a mud-brown suit, and carried his books in a green bag.

“Are you sure that’s him?” I asked my friend.

“I’m afraid so,” he said.

The following year I registered in two of his classes, “The Ballad” and “Creative Writing.” At first I thought his ballad class was dull. His delivery was low key and matter of fact, with none of the ranting I’d been led to expect. I sat in the back row and drew caricatures of him, hardly listening. Then something he said caught my attention, and I began to listen more carefully. He never talked about anything except ballads and ballad scholarship. No mention of politics or farming. No Robert E. Lee. In those days professors were expected to keep their political and social opinions to themselves in the classroom. Davidson subscribed to that professional ethic and followed it to the letter.

However, several of us came to understand that while lecturing on English and Scottish border ballads he was also creating a parallel world for our consideration. It was a world we recognized as the one we lived in, yet he was making us see it for the first time. Most of the students missed it entirely. Halfway through the ballad class—without quite knowing why—I went to the library and checked out Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants.

Some of his disciples went further. A graduate student in English was dating a Nashville girl, one who—as the saying went—was no better than she should be. His intentions were thoroughly, unambiguously dishonorable. Over dinner one evening she told him that her parents were out of town and that she would be home alone all night. He was certain his time had come. Later that evening, as they were seated on a sofa in her parlor and he was whispering entreaties, he looked up at a painting on the wall and saw a familiar face scowling at him.

“My God,” he said. “That’s John Singleton Mosby”—I believe it was Mosby—“the greatest guerrilla fighter of the Confederacy!”

“Oh,” she said, “you mean great-granddaddy?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he went down on one knee and proposed to her. As far as I know, they lived happily ever after.

Across Hillsboro Avenue, the education professors at Peabody College were wondering how Davidson operated. They knew he inspired students, turned their thinking upside down, sent zealots charging into the world armed with quivers of knowledge and arrows of rhetoric. Since to Peabody teaching was no more than the application of a set of diagrammable techniques, the teachers of teachers wanted to analyze and reduce Davidson’s method to a formula that could be bottled and sold. So they registered students in his class and sent them scuttling across the street every morning with notebooks and pencils. Invariably they came back with blank pages.

“But what does he do?” the teachers of teachers asked.

“He just talks.”

“About what?”

“About ballads.”

The Farm or the Typewriter

I knew Andrew Lytle better than the rest. I visited him a number of times at his home in Monteagle, Tennessee, and he visited us both in South Carolina and in Dallas. He was my son’s godfather. Andrew never deserted, never surrendered. It has been said by critics of the Agrarians that they never farmed and so had no right to praise agriculture. (That’s like saying you can’t admire flowers unless you’re a florist.) Andrew was a farmer. As a young man, he ran the family farm and could talk for hours about the problems he encountered. One of his hens fell in love with him and followed him wherever he went, refusing to roost with the others. Finally, Andrew climbed up on the bar himself and squatted there. The hen followed his example but never laid eggs because he couldn’t show her how.

When asked why he quit farming, he said that it required the same kind of creative energies that writing fiction required. He couldn’t do both, so he chose fiction.
Andrew was probably the best conversationalist alive. He was a treasury of anecdotes about his family, about his friends, about his region. He could talk every evening for a lifetime and never repeat himself. When he taught at Sewanee and edited the Sewanee Review, he lived in a cabin in nearby Monteagle and would hold an informal open house on Friday and Saturday evenings. The Sewanee boys would flock there in brigades to sit around on the floor, drink Heaven Hill bourbon out of antique julep cups, and listen or ask questions. In earlier times they may have come in part to see his three beautiful daughters, who would occasionally float through the living room, retrieve something from the kitchen, and float back to the bedroom.

To Andrew more than to any of the others, the War was still raging. On quiet summer nights, between the occasional grinding down of gears as trucks made their way slowly up the steep grade, you could sit on Andrew’s front porch and almost hear the parrot guns and napoleons echoing from Lookout Mountain, where the Battle in the Clouds was still taking place. All this highly partisan history unfolded as he sat beneath a Confederate flag hanging on the wall, almost as big as a football field.

But most of Andrew’s anecdotes—the things he talked about evenings—were about his family, and often what he told was unflattering and even scandalous. He lived in a typical Southern family of that era, where the only entertainment on long winter evenings was conversation, and most of the conversation was gossip. You didn’t spend too much time talking about the saints in the family. They were much too bland. On those interminable evenings, families talked instead of their disgraceful, perverse, eccentric members: the drunks, liars, card cheats, adulterers, thieves, and certifiable idiots. All families had them, and they made the most entertaining conversation, provided the children were already in bed.

Andrew often told these anecdotes about his family in lectures and usually got a standing ovation at the end. He had the timing of a stand-up comedian and the presence of a seasoned actor, probably because in his youth he had appeared on the Broadway stage.

The last time I saw him, he was 90. I had flown to Tennessee from Washington to gather notes for a biography of him that I still hope to write. His voice was no more than a whisper. His skin was drained of moisture, like old leather. He could barely walk. It was the first time I’d seen him when he looked his age.

But the anecdotes still tumbled out—his boyhood, an early romance with a girl in Virginia, his first year at Vanderbilt, his hare-lipped Uncle Jack who was the town drunk. I stopped taking notes and just listened. I never saw him again.

Where’s Allen Tate?

When I was teaching at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, several of us persuaded the administration to fund a Creative Writing Workshop during both summer semesters. Students would take an eight-week course taught by poet-novelist-critic Marion Montgomery. Then the group would move to a mountain lodge owned by the college, where they would be joined by a fiction writer and a poet, who would discuss student manuscripts and otherwise discourse on the supreme theme of art and song. It was a good way for faculty and students alike to use up part of a summer.

By then I knew Andrew Lytle quite well and asked him to be our fiction writer. And since he knew Allen Tate quite well, we decided that Tate would be our poet. He graciously accepted.

We put together a brochure, mailed to English Departments throughout the country, and waited for applications. We got some—enough to justify the program. A week before the scheduled arrival of our novelist and poet, I got a call from Andrew.

“I ought to tell you. I don’t think Allen is coming.”

“Of course he’s coming,” I said. “I have his letter.”

“I think he plans to go to Italy instead. He told me so.”

Sure enough, he went to Italy. I was shocked. (Had I known Allen a little better, I wouldn’t have been.) When next year rolled around, I was determined to get Tate. Again he agreed to come. Again I got the call from Andrew.

“He’s hiding out from his wife. He isn’t coming. But I enlisted a backup a couple of months ago.”

“Whom did you get?” I asked.

“John Ransom.”

We were delighted. At the time, Ransom’s work was in every anthology of contemporary poetry. In form, diction, and tone Ransom’s spare, carefully chiseled lyrics were as identifiable as those of A.E. Housman or John Donne. I believe they will be read 100 years from now, assuming anyone can read.

He had all but stopped writing verse before the end of the 1920s and published only criticism from then on. When someone attending his public lecture asked him belligerently why he had forsaken poetry, he said in his quiet still-Southern voice: “It’s a free country.”

When he arrived in Spartanburg, he charmed everyone with his quiet courtesy and apparent sweetness. He was short and plump, with white wispy hair and the smoothest skin I ever saw on a man his age. He had a cheerful disposition, seemed to enjoy the students, and was quite convivial over a drink in the late afternoon.
Our plan was to allow students to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with these men, discuss literature and other important matters, and then, in private sessions, have their manuscripts critiqued—the fiction by Lytle, the poetry by Ransom.

I remember one student, a boy named Spear, who was a poor apprentice in the craft of poetry. He came to the campus sporting a beard—not as common a practice in the early ’60s as it was a few years later. In one of his poems he compared himself to Christ, arguing that Jesus was crucified because he wore a beard. He asked one of the Converse girls for date, and she said she wouldn’t go out with him unless he got rid of that beard, whereupon he immediately went to the dormitory and came back clean-shaven. The next day, Marion Montgomery asked the boy why Jesus didn’t shave His beard to avoid crucifixion.

So when Spear took his portfolio into the room to discuss it with Mr. Ransom, we shook our heads. Spear didn’t return to poolside after the two-hour conference, but Mr. Ransom joined us with a benign smile on his face.

“Well,” he said, “Young Spear”—he pronounced it “spare”—“tells me he intends to devote his life to poetry.”

We were stunned. How could he possibly think that Young Spear had talent, or even rudimentary skill? More to the point, how could he encourage an inarticulate, self-centered boy to waste his life writing bad verse? At that point, we concluded that the Jesus-beard poem would be appearing in the next issue of Ransom’s Kenyon Review.

At dinnertime Young Spear was nowhere to be seen. One of the other students told us he was sulking in his tent.

“Why?” we asked.

“He came back pumped up with enthusiasm, but the more he thought about what Mr. Ransom had told him, the more depressed he became. He says he’ll never write another poem.”

Mr. Ransom furrowed his brow. “Oh, dear,” he said, and then smiled an angelic smile.

Mean as a Snake

In 1970, the University of Dallas hosted the Southern Literary Festival; and with Louise Cowan, Mel Bradford, and I well connected with the group, we decided to ask the surviving Agrarians to read their works at the festival and then stay over for a private recorded session. Andrew Lytle, Donald Davidson, John Ransom, and Allen Tate accepted immediately, Robert Penn Warren when we sweetened the pot. Davidson was too sick to come and died a few days after the festival.
Warren read from his poetry to an audience of well over 1,000. When he came to the podium, he looked down to see Ransom, Lytle, and Tate sitting on the first row. He stepped back and shook his head.

“I’m not sure I can read these poems with those cold, merciless eyes staring up at me.”

Then he pointed a trembling finger. “There’s John Ransom. You all think he’s a sweet old man. But he’s not. He’s as mean as a snake.”

After the Agrarian session was over, I took Mr. Ransom back to his motel. He was to celebrate his 80th birthday in a few months, and I thought he might want to rest, but he insisted that I come in. He wanted to talk—to gossip, mostly. We talked about Vanderbilt in the old days, about Dr. Mims, the dictatorial English Department chairman who had made life so hard for the Fugitives. Dr. Mims was a notorious lecher, even in his late 80s. When I was at Vanderbilt, some 30 years after the Fugitives, Dr. Mims was still stumping around the campus, eyeing the coeds. The young women at the library learned to issue him books by sliding them across the counter, because at his advanced years, his hand was as quick as a young boy’s catching flies.

Mr. Ransom smiled and said, “You mustn’t be too hard on him. Mrs. Mims denied him the privileges.”

That sounded too charitable. Knowing the history of the Department—and the fact that when Kenyon made Ransom an offer, Mims saw to it that Vanderbilt didn’t match it—I asked him how the Fugitives really felt about the old guy.

He replied very gently, “Dr. Mims kept coming around, saying ‘Why don’t you boys love me?’ And we would always say, ‘Oh, Dr. Mims we do love you.’ But of course we didn’t. We hated him.”

I brought up Warren’s remarks, and he said, “I admire his poetry greatly. I believe he’s one of our finest poets.” Then he began to reminisce about Warren the young man and about his first marriage.

“His wife, Cinina, was an Italian girl,” he said, “and very high strung. I remember that when we would play croquet, if someone struck her ball and knocked it away, she would throw herself on the ground and begin kicking and screaming.”

He told me that eventually she had what doctors then called a nervous breakdown and became suicidal. Her psychiatrist told her that her animosity toward Warren was the root of her problems. So they separated and eventually divorced.

“He was so concerned about her,” Ransom said, “that he rented the apartment across the street and watched over her until she went to sleep each night. That’s the kind of man he is.”

Later, I told Mr. Warren how much Mr. Ransom said he admired his poetry. Warren laughed and shook his head. “Don’t believe a word he says.”

I took Mr. Ransom to the plane the next day; and as we were sitting, waiting for his flight to be called, somehow our conversation turned to dying.

“I think we’re meant to die so others can take our place,” he said. “When my time comes, I’ll be happy to make room for somebody else.”

His flight was called, and I watched him walk through the gate, waving to me, nodding and smiling to the strangers also boarding. That’s the last time I saw him. He died a few years later. But as I remember that last conversation—the one about dying—I can’t help thinking that if I were the Lord, I would be willing to trade several million Baby Boomers just to keep a place for a mind that subtle, a manner that courtly, and a heart as deep and dangerous as quicksand.

The Kingfish Calls

Robert Penn Warren was the youngest member of the Fugitive Agrarians. His essay in I’ll Take My Stand was on the race question. Years later—when interviewed by the fiercely left-wing Partisan Review—he said the essay was an apology for segregation, that he had not read it since it was published, and that he had been uncomfortable with the subject matter from the outset. By then he was a self-styled liberal who had written a famous book-length dissection of Jim Crow called Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the South.

We thought Warren posed the greatest threat to a harmonious discussion at the reunion. Ransom and Tate were no longer militantly Southern, but neither were they militantly anti-Southern, as Warren seemed to be. We imagined him savaging Davidson and Lytle, heaping scorn on I’ll Take My Stand, and attacking the gathering and the university in the New York Times. But if the reunion was to be credible, we had to have him.

When he arrived, I was assigned the task of picking him up at Love Field, while the others, already in town, were enjoying a dinner at the house of one of the University’s rich patrons. I was honored to pick him up, but wary. Among other things, he was the only one I had never met. I needn’t have worried. He was one of the most charming men I’d ever met. From the beginning I understood why Weaver, who studied under Warren at LSU, was so impressed by him and so tempted to give up socialism for such a man. I wondered if, with renewed exposure to the liberal Warren, Weaver would now return to the left.

As we rode to the motel, Warren talked about problems the Agrarians might discuss at these sessions. “The overarching question,” he said, “is whether or not man’s capacity for abstraction is a good thing or a bad thing.” He spoke with a Kentucky twang in his voice that sounded earthier and less cultivated than the accents of the others, all of which were still identifiably Southern despite the fact that Ransom and Tate had spent most of the intervening years in the North, as had Warren.
He greeted the others as warmly as if they had met in the Vanderbilt student union only yesterday. All of them had a sense of loyalty to one another that transcended mere politics. Recently I read somewhere that Warren’s son had said contemptuously, “Donald Davidson was never mentioned in our house.” He might have been surprised to learn that Warren had once told writer Jesse Stuart that he learned more from Davidson than any of the rest.

When the Agrarian conversations began—behind closed doors, tape recorder running—the participants were unresponsive. It soon became clear that they didn’t want to talk about I’ll Take My Stand. Ransom was diffident. Lytle was willing but could elicit little response with what he said. Tate was almost hostile in his curt answers. Warren seemed unwilling to attack the past. Our plan had been to devote the first session to factual questions about how the project got started, and the manner in which they did or didn’t work together. They’d forgotten all those details.

At the first break, Warren called me aside.

“Why don’t you ask us if we knew anything about economics?”

It was a loaded question. Except for one of the contributors—the late H.C. Nixon— you could be reasonably sure not one of them had read Keynes or Samuelson or Hayek and the other emerging free-market theorists who would soon begin capturing Nobel prizes.

I asked the question, and it fell on the table like a dying fish, eyes bulging, gasping for air.

At the next break, Warren said, “Ask us about the minority psychology that over-defends itself.”

I asked. Another dying fish.

Then John Crowe Ransom started talking, not about I’ll Take My Stand or the Agrarians, but about one of his colleagues at Kenyon who was a foot fetishist. The story went on and on about this man’s obsessive attraction to women’s feet, which got him into all sorts of difficult situations and a marriage he had not intended. At that point we realized that the discussions could never be transcribed and published, not without a lawsuit from the foot man in Gambier. But the ice was broken.

Warren started to talk, and the result was a brilliant off-the-cuff monologue, filled with concrete images and anecdotes—vivid, earthy, original. We sat there and listened in awe. I can’t remember what he was talking about. I tried to get the transcript to refresh my memory, but the University of Dallas couldn’t locate it.
At some later moment, Warren also discussed the founding of the Southern Review, a world-famous literary quarterly that he and Cleanth Brooks initially edited. The idea for an LSU-based literary journal came not from Brooks and Warren but from a unlikely source.

As I remember what Warren told us during that session, one day the two English professors got a call from the office of Huey P. Long, then governor of Louisiana. Long’s secretary said the governor would like to meet with them, today if possible. They agreed on a time, and the secretary told Brooks and Warren to go down to the Baton Rouge town square and wait for a long black limousine to pick them up. They were there at the appointed time, and sure enough the car came slowly around the corner and stopped. They got in, and there sat the Kingfish himself.

The car began to move slowly and made a right turn, as Governor Long asked them, “Do you fellows think a literary magazine would bring prestige to the University?” They both assured him that it would. The limousine made another right turn. “Do you two think you could put one together?” They assured him they could. The limousine made yet another right turn. “How long do you think it would take to get it up and running?” They said pretty quick. The limousine made a final right turn and stopped. “O.K.,” Long said, “you figure out how much you’ll need and I’ll get you the money pretty quick.” They thanked him and got out of the car—on precisely the spot where they’d been picked up, maybe 90 seconds earlier.

Prophets in Their Own Country

The Agrarians are all fading names now—12 men who shared for a while the illusion that they could stop the inevitable unraveling of a traditional society. Like Cassandra, they predicted the future and no one listened. Lytle said in his last years, “We were better prophets than we knew. Things are worse now than we ever imagined. The problem was, no one believed that the society they knew could ever be taken from them. Now it’s gone forever.” Perhaps the greater tragedy—more modern than Aeschylean—is that people today don’t even know it existed.

This essay, which appeared in The American Conservative, is adapted from a talk delivered to the Ciceronian Society.

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