A review of A Defender of Southern Conservatism: M.E. Bradford and His Achievements (Missouri, 1999) by Clyde N. Wilson, ed.
Clyde Wilson, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun, has assembled and introduced this collection about a man notable, among other things, for his own affinity with Calhoun and other defenders of Southern conservativism. The contributors to this volume include Benjamin Alexander, Alan Cornett, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, Mark Malvasi, and others to be cited below.
The occasion is a book, and that book is about a man’s achievements, and not, strictly speaking, about the man. And yet the achievements (and any failures) were those of the man who stood behind them. Though M.E. Bradford sometimes seemed to live in 1787, and in his imagination and erudition he sometimes did live in 1787, in point of fact he lived in our time. I mention this obvious truth for one big reason, which is that in explicating the multifoliate aspects of the achievements of M.E. Bradford, the distinguished editor and contributors to this symposium have let slip an element of perspective. If I am right, that by no means implies any fault on their part. It only means that they, for the obvious reason of the magnetism of their subject, have themselves been to an extent bound by the horizons defined by M.E. Bradford. And that in itself is no small achievement.
Let me develop the point just a bit, for I believe it is a significant one, and particularly useful in appreciating the achievements of M.E. Bradford. The courtesy, civility, and magnanimity of Mel Bradford’s presence—his refusal of hurry and of jabber, his abstemious rejection of all vulgarity, his studied exclusion of contemporary blather from all of his dealings and discourse—amounted to a chivalric image of behavior. In short, the man was a gentleman. He was a gentleman, and an old-fashioned one at that, in the 1960’s, in the 70’s, in the 80’s, and on to his death early in our own Clintonian decade, in March of 1993. However naturally Bradford came by his manners and his self-consciousness as an “impenitent” Southerner, I think we have to see his persona as a construction. I say this with no sense of derogation, but rather of recognition. Bradford’s tone was his greatest achievement; or maybe it was being M.E. Bradford; and that achievement was necessary, because only from the platform of his achieved formality could he say the toughest of things. And perhaps more deeply, we can see that only as a gentleman and a Southern one at that, could he have seen the hard things that he did. Bradford’s absence of malice was bound to be misinterpreted by people with no such scruples as he was bound by.
I have meant to indicate that Bradford’s being was a choice; and I think that the man who knew his Yeats so well would have appreciated the point. We have to remember that he lived through the days of Elvis Presley as well as Donald Davidson, and through the days of the entrenchment of radicalism as the establishment: civil rights, radical feminism, homosexual rights, universal human rights, globalism, are national policy. The sexual revolution and rock n’ roll (and drugs too?) are in the White House. Since Bradford in one of his most remarkable essays could see the Constitutional Convention as a “comic action,” I think we should remember Mel Bradford at large in the world of Easy Rider and Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem and Kurt Cobain and Ice Cube and other idols of the Zeitgeist And however difficult it may be, I think that we should also remember that it’s precisely at the point of maximum bitterness that a good laugh is most appropriate and necessary. Bradford’s humor, no matter how earnest he was, never failed him. But having had our good laugh all around, we would then be in a better mood to understand why this Southern conservative was hated as well as loved; and why he was, among other things, a radical.
The editor of this volume has assumed that Bradford’s achievements were his writings; and that is as it should be. Yet this assumption has a certain implication, which is that it was the vision, not the inscription, that was the achievement indicated by those writings. And it is at just this point that we can see what Mel Bradford’s achievements can mean for the future.
Bradford was by training a professor of English, one formed at Vanderbilt in the presence of Donald Davidson, and reading and thinking in that light. In this volume, Thomas H. Landess has drawn for us a picture of the education he received from 1959 on in that environment. His instructive exposition reminds us not only of that background, but also that Bradford himself was a great admirer of Landess. Mark Royden Winchell has continued the story with equal authority. He has shown us Bradford’s vision of literature and his accomplishment as a critic and scholar, most particularly in his essays on Faulkner. Bradford’s Faulkner, related to Cleanth Brooks’s vision of him, is not an alienated modernist but a bardic voice rendering the survival of the Southern people as a community. Through Bradford as through Brooks, Faulkner was reclaimed as a Southerner in a powerful and necessary appropriation of what was a natural bond. Bradford made related arguments about other writers from different backgrounds, such as Robert Frost. Essentially, he denied that modernist ideology defined the literary artist, and denied therefore that alienation was a universal principle of literary construction. In short, Faulkner was not Joyce, and Frost had his humanities.
But English professors, however brilliant in their aesthetic/historical realm, do not speak directly to political matters or ordinarily come to national attention. Mel Bradford did, both because he played political cards as an activist, and more importantly because his was an informed and forceful voice about matters of national history and mythology. Marshall L. DeRosa has shown in his account of Bradford’s constitutional theory what Bradford historical/political vision means, what its authority is, and why it matters. Bradford’s vision of our country was not bound in the Civil war, but in the Constitution, its making and its context, and what he indicated so incisively departed radically from the superstitions of the spokesmen of empire.
The received ideas about our nation to which Bradford politely put a Texas chainsaw include the notion that it was founded by revolutionary deists of French orientation who were obsessed with equality. Bradford dismembered this fixed idea, broadcast ad infinitum today, by demonstrating the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the larger and decisive logic of the Constitution. This is a long argument and it is a Southern one descended from the constitutionalism of Calhoun, Davis, and Stephens, and before them from the Constitution itself. DeRosa’s exposition is most valuable, and refers us not only to Bradford’s arguments but also to the best tradition of political thinking in America. This would have been ‘bad” (which is to say, “good”) enough in itself if Bradford had not spoken out also about Abraham Lincoln with what Gary Wills has called “suicidal frankness.” Wills’s phrase is remarkable, first because it implies that Wills himself has in his own writing been self-servingly discreet, and second because after a generation and more of unsolicited “frankness” in all the media of expression, it must seem a bit odd to disallow truth about anything at all, much less a phenomenon so momentous as the Civil War.
But that is just the point The Civil War and everything associated with it is a contemporary and not only a historical source of power. Mel Bradford’s exploration of Lincoln the politician and rhetorician was fair game, and much that he wrote about him has been acknowledged by others. Perhaps it was Bradford’s analysis of Uncoln’s rhetorical abuses that was held against him, but it really doesn’t matter. Finally, skepticism about Uncoln’s saintliness is forbidden particularly to Southerners who want to step on the national stage. The revolutionary power-grab that was the Civil War retains its mystification. Bradford’s reasoned and scrupulous comments on Lincoln were in effect comments about the unreasoned and the unscrupulous, and they were unreasonably and unscrupulously turned against him when he was the most distinguished candidate for the Chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities that was given to William Bennett in 1982. Having dealt with the Republicans, Bradford was rejected in favor of a Democrat and awarded a lesser post
As James McClellan has pointed out in his cogent contribution to this volume, Bradford insisted that the cause of the Confederacy was the cause of the Constitution, and that therefore a salient part of the Southern allegiance was to the best tradition of the West. The country is the Founding, property understood, and that is what is to be conserved. Bradford went to the heart of things, and in detail, in order to salvage the truth for the future. That is his legacy to us, one difficult to bring to bear in the present confusion; but we do not realty have a choice about the matter when we consider the difference between the mumbo-jumbo intoned by the big-goveernment establishment and the reasoned, informed, articulated vision of M.E. Bradford. His citations of piety, of heritage, of the Fathers, were after all not antiquarian but rather the opposite. Again in this volume, Thomas Fleming has shown us the Bradford who was keenly aware of our classical heritage, and of the necessity to build on that inheritance. Memory binds the generations together, and the most important generation is the yet unborn.
This volume about the achievements of a professor of literature and political sage leaves us with a question, or with two of many. One would be, where is the man or woman to take Mel Bradford’s place? Another is, whither the South in the American polity? Before we conclude, perhaps we can address those questions.
First, we may doubt whether we are going to see the likes of Mel Bradford again, but that is no counsel of despair. Though some champion of his intellect, energy, and civility, may indeed rise up to occupy his place of leadership, the likelihood is rather that his influence will be dispersed through numerous individuals and in later generations. As for people who will take his place in the world of the mind and in regional and national thought, you may look to the contributors to this volume and to others who have been touched by his vision, to continue a tradition that stretches back not only to Richard Weaver and the Agrarians, but also, as Bradford insisted, to the South of the nineteenth century and to the young nation at its Founding. And behind that pantheon still there is the tradition of political thinking that goes back to Aristotle, and the habit of independence and self-government that was once and may be again one of the most precious defining inheritances of the Western world.
As to the second question, the outlook for the South is, to say the least, problematical, and it would be helpful here to remember that the conservative Bradford was, despite an deluge of provocation, no pessimist I believe he would have thought despair an impiety. As the South has absorbed so many outsiders, and as the South has been corrupted with the nation and even the world since the 1960’s, the ensuing confusion and political fraud have made every problem more perilous. Tire South, if it is to exist as a region and play a role in national politics, must insist on its regional identity first, in order to insist on its regional interests. Following Bradford’s instruction, the South can not in the future continue to accept the role of scapegoat and “problem” if it wishes to be respected, or not to be despised, by others. Bradford’s analysis of American history shows the South to be the solution to, and not the cause of, this country’s perplexities. In this regard, honesty would require that we remember the origins of such notable Southerners as Lyndon Johnson and William J. Clinton. It would require as well that we remember everything that has happened since the days of George Wallace and Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” The South that Bradford envisioned today owes nothing to either political party as nationally construed, and would be well advised to remove itself from the sucker list The long series of betrayals, beside being bitterly disappointing, have been so predictable that they have become rather a bore after all these years. From the instructive list of unforgivable outrages, the deceptive, dishonest ana self-serving treatment that Mel Bradford received from the “neocons” or Yankees, can never be erased, any more than can the Southern-sanctioned attacks on Southern memorials, names, and flags.
But the future is unclear. What is transparent to me is that I would not be without my volumes of Bradford’s writings any more than I would wish any self-respecting and informed Southerner to be. And to that shelf of books I certainty have added as indispensable the present volume edited by Clyde Wilson. A Defender of Southern Conservatism: M.E. Bradford and His Achievements is revolutionary in its implications, in that it outlines the way back to recovering what Mel Bradford showed that we have lost. As such, it is a major contribution to the national, not regional, discussion about this country, its past its meaning, and its possible future. Let me add that in such future as might be desirable, there would be not only a place for schools named after George Washington, but also at least for one named after that other patriot, M.E. Bradford. If America, not mention the South, is to have a future worth living in, that destiny will be shaded not by the brim of Bella Abzug, but by the capacious Stetson of Mel Bradford.
This piece was originally published in the 1st Quarter 1999 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.