John Crowe Ransom’s Last Stand

“The modern man has lost his sense of vocation.” “A Statement of Principles,” I’ll Take My Stand

“One wonders what the authors of our Constitution would have thought
of that category, ‘permanently unemployable.’”  –Wendell Berry

A Review of Land!: The Case For an Agrarian Economy by John Crowe Ransom, Edited by Jason Peters, Introduction by Jay T. Collier University of Notre Dame Press, 2017, 127 pp

Of the twelve men who wrote the seminal classic I’ll Take My Stand none were more important to the agrarian cause, yet distanced himself more thoroughly from it, than John Crowe Ransom. It’s almost certain that without Ransom I’ll Take My Stand would never have been written, nor would the Twelve Southerners who were associated with it have existed as a definable group.

Ransom, born the son of a Methodist minister in Pulaski, Tennessee, was something of a prodigy. He entered Vanderbilt at the age of 15, graduating first in his class, then attended Oxford’s Christ Church College as a Rhodes Scholar. Just as Europe was engulfed in war, Ransom was appointed professor at Vanderbilt, only to be dragged into the war himself.

When Ransom returned to Vanderbilt he met a new crop of students who coalesced under Ransom’s leadership as a group of poets known as The Fugitives: Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren most notable among them. The friendships formed would lead ultimately to the publication of I’ll Take My Stand in 1930, a statement of defiance against Northern industrialism just as America was reeling from the market crash of the previous year.

Ransom contributed his own essay, the first in the collection, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate.” However, his most important contribution to the anthology may have been its introductory “A Statement of Principles.” The “Statement” was unsigned, but is universally attributed to Ransom’s pen.

Of the essays collected in I’ll Take My Stand, Ransom writes, “All the articles bear in the same sense upon the books’ title-subject: all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial.” It was this issue of an agrarian economy that would continue to preoccupy Ransom.

As readers of I’ll Take My Stand certainly know, the book addresses cultural issues farm more than economics, per se. Ransom himself was well aware of this, and began to work on his own project to address the fundamental economic issues of industrialism. It was this work that would become Land!, a book that was never published during his life, and was in fact believed to have been cast into the flames in disgust by Ransom himself.

Ransom simply could not find a publisher willing to take the book. Try as he might, he received rejection after rejection. As Jay Collier recounts in his Introduction, Ransom finally wrote to Allen Tate, “My poor book is nearly a total loss—I don’t like it. It would have been a passable book published a year ago. Several publishers nearly took it. Within these next ten days I will either have kicked it into the incinerator or else taken a grand new start and started over on a new outline together.”

And that was the last that anyone heard about Land!

Ransom wrote about agrarian matters in some scattered essays for a few more years, but eventually found the issue was taking him away from his poetry and criticism. In 1937 Ransom took a position at Kenyon College in Ohio where he would found and edit the important literary journal The Kenyon Review. He would remain there the rest of his career. By the end of the Second World War, Ransom broke with his past concerns altogether, dismissing them as “agrarian nostalgia.”

For decades Ransom scholars assumed the Land! manuscript lost, that Ransom really had burned it up in disgust. That is, until the mid-1990s when it was discovered by Paul Murphy in the Ransom papers that had been acquired by the Vanderbilt library. After another two decades the manuscript found its editors in Jason Peters and Jay T. Collier who have published it under the auspices of Front Porch Republic and Notre Dame Press.

The surprising thing about Land! is that unlike I’ll Take My Stand, it really is at root an economics book. Ransom seeks to tackle the science of economics itself, and critiques capitalism/industrialism on strictly economic terms.

As the Great Depression began, Ransom saw that capitalism couldn’t deliver on the economic promises it had made. He begins the book with “Homeless People and Vacant Land,” a paradox created by industrialism. “Good times,” he writes, “consist in occupation for all; an economic function for everybody; it is the first desideratum of sound political economy.”

The factory worker who is displaced by labor saving devices and efficient production—or even sinks with a now obsolete industry—finds himself, suddenly, with no such economic function, nor with any means of self-support. Ransom writes, “The old-fashioned farmers in joining this society were risking a secure if modest living for a precarious prospect of wealth, and for some of them it now definitely turns out to have been a poor gamble.”

The solution, Ransom argues, is “right under our noses”:

But the land is with us still, as patient and nearly capable as ever. Which brings us to the query: Why is not the land perfectly available today for its ancient use as a refuge individually for those who have failed in the business economy, when that refuge is needed as never before?

Ransom sees the land and freeholder farming as an escape from boom and bust industrialism, the trap of the money economy. The farmer on the land is “amphibian,” he argues, surviving in a money economy or a subsistence economy, depending on what circumstances demand.

It was never inevitable that America embrace the new industrial economy, Ransom implores. He writes, “We are assured that we have picked up the machine and cannot turn it loose; as if an electric current has bound our hands to it. But the figure is not apt in describing machinery that now, and periodically, goes dead in our hands.”

The modern reader cannot help but be struck by the current timeliness of Ransom’s observations about rootless people condemned as cogs in an economic wheel, liable to be cast aside when they no longer serve the purpose of the moment. Meanwhile, the flight from the farm has continued unabated for nearly a century, while the inherent problems of industrial capitalism that Ransom observed remain.

We know, of course, that Ransom’s little book made no impact. It was not simply unread, but unpublished. It is not hard to understand why he became disillusioned with the whole enterprise of agrarian renewal and threw himself fully into his literary world of poems, essays, and reviews. Despite the Depression, the world simply was unwilling to listen.

But the old agrarian principles remain. Some of the Twelve Agrarians kept the faith: Davidson, Andrew Lytle, and to some degree, Tate, a faith they likely would never have found if not for Ransom. For over a half century Wendell Berry has carried the mantle expressed “A Statement of Principles,” writing “I know of no criticism of industrial assumptions that can equal it in clarity, economy, and eloquence.”

The agrarian-minded John Crowe Ransom of Land! may not have had the impact he desired, but he had far more than he imagined.

Some today are listening.

And the refuge of the land is still there.

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