Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

A review of Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States: The Attack on Leviathan by Donald Davidson (Transaction Books, 1991).

August 18, 1993 will mark the centennial of Donald Davidson’s birth. On April 25 of that year, he will have been dead a quarter of a century. During his lifetime Davidson was considered the most minor of the major Fugitives, and nothing has happened since his death to force a revision of that judgment. In a recent essay, M. E. Bradford noted that today when Davidson is discussed as poet, he is portrayed as ‘“an anachronism’ and belated romantic, merely a voice of nostalgia with no irony and no sense of the ‘proper strategy for a poem.’” Those who consider his criticism point out that while Ransom, Tate. Brooks, and Warren were editing major literary quarterlies. Davidson largely confined his critical and editorial labors to the book page of the Nashville Tennessean. Finally, Davidson maintained an obstinate loyalty to the Agrarian faith when his Vanderbilt soulmates had moved on to other interests and other allegiances. Such is the conventional wisdom.

As Bradford has shown, however, this estimate of Davidson’s poetry is at best incomplete. Much of Davidson’s verse—particularly the poems written after 1950, were “works of great formal sophistication, craftsmanship, and control of tone and texture, qualities that bespeak not nineteenth-century antecedents but rather an indebtedness to classical, Renaissance, and modern poetry of a decidedly unromantic nature.” As for Davidson the critic, one need only read his discussion of Conrad in the April 1925 issue of the Sewanee Review to realize that he was doing applied new criticism earlier than any of the other Fugitives. (Cleanth Brooks has told me that he first realized the possibilities of criticism from hearing a graduate student read a paper Davidson had written on one of Kipling’s stories.)

But what are we to make of Davidson’s unreconstructed social and political views? Here the conventional wisdom is lacking not so much in accuracy as in judgment. His detractors are correct in branding Davidson a reactionary who was shaped by the prejudices of his age and region. But like others who hold fast to enduring principles, he was not only behind but also ahead of his time. By republishing Davidson’s Attack on Leviathan (over half a century after its original appearance), Russell Kirk appeals to the unconventional wisdom of those willing to reexamine Davidson’s Agrarian vision. In doing so, one can easily see why this book is included in the Library of Conservative Thought.

By reversing Davidson’s title and subtitle, Kirk emphasizes that this book is concerned with “Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States.” As a collection of previously published essays, the volume tends to repeat itself in a manner that can be irritating to one reading it from cover to cover. But redundancy is simply the flip side of consistency. From first to last, Davidson believed in the virtue of regional variety and in the banality of cultural nationalism. Unlike the countries of Europe, America possesses a huge geography and a short history. Thus, we have always identified— indeed mythologized ourselves in terms of region. The War Between the States determined that politically we were one nation. (As Carl Sandburg has noted, that war was fought over a verb: prior to the war, treaties and other official documents said “the United States are”: afterwards, they read “the United States is.”) But culturally we remain a diverse people.

Davidson represents that strain of conservative thought that sees culture as finally more important than politics. The subjugation of the South by the federal army was a military act with political consequences, but it did not impose an alien culture on the conquered territory. At their worst, the unionists were authoritarians interested only in political control. The totalitarian sensibility, however, insists on controlling the minds and hearts of people, as well. (In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was not enough to obey Big Brother; one must also love him.) When this sensibility is linked with the brute power of the police state, we have such abominations as Nazism and Communism. But totalitarianism can also wear a benign and genial face. This is what the Agrarians discerned in the false promise of industrialism so trenchantly denounced in I’ll Take My Stand. In The Attack on Leviathan, Davidson takes on essentially the same enemy, this time wearing the guise of cultural nationalism.

Although Davidson passionately loved the Old South, he realized that its culture was not exportable to other regions of the country. He respected other regions enough to leave them alone, while demanding that they show similar deference toward the South. This belief in regional autonomy (what in political terms might be called states’ rights or corporate liberty) inspired Davidson’s frequently criticized opposition to federal efforts to force racial integration on the South. Those who charge that Davidson’s belief in regionalism was inspired by his views on race simply have the priorities reversed. As Walter Sullivan recalls, Davidson told him that “when he first came to Vanderbilt, he was friendly with the black professors at Fisk University, met with them socially as well as professionally, but ceased his intercourse with them when the push for racial equality began. In his judgment, the civil rights movement was a vehicle for political upheaval.”

Leviathan is the Hebrew name given to the sea monster of the Old Testament. It was not until 1651 that Thomas Hobbes used this term as a metaphor for the all-powerful civil state. What Davidson realized was that, like Hamlet’s devil, this monster has the power to assume pleasing shapes. The Leviathan we face in twentieth century America is “the idea of the Great Society, organized under a single, complex, butstrong and highly centralized national government, motivated ultimately by man’s desire for economic welfare of a specific kind rather than the for personal liberty.”

What we have seen increasingly in American politics in the fifty-four years since the publication of Davidson’s book is a contest over the care and feeding of Leviathan. To reverse this trend, we might well begin by heeding Davidson’s eloquent call for cultural regionalism. There is more than a little truth to Mort Sahl’s quip, over twenty years ago, that the only thing standing between America and fascism is Southern distrust of central government.

It is ironic that in our own day the rhetoric of multiculturalism has been appropriated by the special interest constituencies of the political Left. Feminists, ethnic minorities, sodomites, and other “victims” of the majority culture are demanding special recognition and privileged status. There is a crucial difference, however, between their agenda and Davidson’s. Today’s multiculturalists are advocating a dogmatic, unitary view of American life, one that can only be described as Europhobic. (As the Jesse Jackson led chant at Stanford would have it: “Hey ho, hey ho. Western Culture’s got to go.”) Davidson simply urged a tolerance for the folkways of organic communities. He was not interested in teaching the Leviathan to eat grits or to speak with a Southern drawl.

No Dixieland chauvinist, Davidson harbored a genuine affection for Americans from other regions. The most famous essay in his book Still Rebels, Still Yankees illustrates the cultural difference between New England and the Deep South in the characters of “Brother Jonathon” and “Cousin Roderick.” As different as these exemplary figures were, Davidson found much to admire in each. And he knew them both intimately. For most of his adult life, he spent the academic year in Nashville and his summers at the Broad Leaf School in Vermont. As an Agrarian, he felt a spiritual kinship with the rural people of New England. Industrialism was a threat not just to the South but to the Jeffersonian ideal of America as a nation of small landowners. The modifier in the title of Davidson’s essay may refer not just to endurance but to the civil restraint that makes endurance possible. This was the sort of ideal that his New England friend Robert Frost had in mind when he said, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

It has been argued that the Civil War was a conflict between the abstract principles of the North and the concrete loyalties of the South. What this amounts to is two distinct concepts of liberty. Lincoln conceived liberty as a kind of Platonic ideal to be pursued by a benevolent central government and enforced, if need be, at the point of a bayonet. This ideal had led in our own time to an interventionist foreign policy and a welfare state that consumes a quarter of the gross national product. The alternative is to discard the Platonic ideal and to see liberty as the accommodation people make for each other in actual communities. Not only is the federal government not needed to enforce this kind of liberty, but its presence is a positive impediment to civic peace. Saint Augustine defined a people as “a gathering of many rational individuals united by loved things held in common.” Donald Davidson believed that it was in the regions of our nation that its people were to be found.

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