“In 1938 appeared the clearest and most courageous of the Agrarian documents, Donald Davidson’s Attack on Leviathan.” – Richard M. Weaver
Russell Kirk tells the story of discovering Davidson’s book in 1938 as a sophomore at Michigan State in the introduction for its reprint in 1991. Kirk writes, “The book was so good that I assumed all intelligent Americans, or almost all, were reading it. Actually, as I learned years later, the University of North Carolina Press pulped the book’s sheets after only a few hundred copies had been sold: clearly an act of discrimination against conservative views.”
Now you might grasp my gratefulness to possess one of the “few hundred copies” that escaped the book bath for the depublished and presumably turned into unnatural ingredients “Intellectuals” like in their soy smoothies and “superfood” bowls.
Several months back I rang my Grandpa to tell him I’d be there in a few to pick him up. So we saunter over to the Goodlettsville Antique Mall. Three steps into the store we come to a China Cabinet or something (I don’t know my furniture nomenclature). Inside said elderly curio holder were a few books. Yep, you guessed it, a site prettier than a June bug on a tin dipper, a copy of Davidson’s The Attack on Leviathan.
As a veteran in this here book-buying, I know to remain stoic until I see that price penciled on the first page. Naw! Is this real life? Y’all. $6. I was like, “someone made a mistake.” There had to be something wrong. Nope. Solid copy. First Edition with an inscription of an unfamiliar name and a newspaper clipping inside.
I did a roundoff (a Southern gentleman would never do a cartwheel or skip—definitely no sliding) into Alan Cornett’s dm’s because he’s an expert on such Cultural Debris and a fellow Southern bookman—my exact message: “I’m so confused. I paid $6 for Attack on Leviathan. I’m seeing it on abebooks for $100+.”
He responds, “there’s no way this dude got a 1st edition for $6.” No. No. That’s what he was thinking. His actual response, “Is it the Transaction pb?” Me not being the sharpest axe in the barn, had not a clue what he was asking. With a little interwebs surfing I deciphered the code. The 1991 reprint was originally published by Transaction, which “was sold to Taylor & Francis in 2016 and merged with its Routledge imprint.” Good luck even finding the 1991 paperback for $6.
Mr. Cornett goes full Lord Peter Wimsey and sends me the obituary for the book’s inscriber and first owner, Dr. Robert Hunter West—whose inscription reads “Robert H. West June 23, 1938” with the clear penmanship of a man of letters, not the illegible Grakliani script of a Dr. who writes prescriptions for SSRIs to the folks who decide to pulp such valuable publications.
Many of you are acquainted with Marion Montgomery (one of my favorite writers and thinkers) who studied and taught at the University of Georgia. Deal W. Hudson makes the connections for us—he writes:
“Those who are familiar with the history of American letters will remember that Georgia had enjoyed close ties to Vanderbilt’s Fugitives and Agrarians since the 1930s. The legacy of Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Andrew Lytle was strongly represented on the Georgia faculty by William Wallace Davidson (Donald’s brother), John Donald Wade (founder of the Georgia Review), and Robert Hunter West, who became Montgomery’s early mentor and lifelong friend.”
It’s an honor to own Dr. West’s copy of The Attack on Leviathan. Montgomery even dedicated his book The Reflective Journey Toward Order: Essays on Dante, Wordsworth, Eliot, and Others to Robert Hunter West. Dr. Montgomery wrote in a must-read essay “Robert Hunter West. Professor of English, ‘authority’ on Shakespeare and Milton, but of most interest locally as authority on the occult. He was already famous (locally) for fierceness in resisting corruptions of our language. He was deadly on papers using passive voice in a cowardly way, or on the sloppiness of phrases like ‘different than.’” I am 100% certain I would have failed Dr. West’s course.
Montgomery wasn’t using hyperbole mentioning West’s expertise on the occult. Vanderbilt University houses the Robert H. West Demonology and Witchcraft Collection and featured some of it in “All Hallows: Witches, Magic and Things That Go Bump.” Teresa Gray, curator of special collections, said “Professor West, who taught at Vanderbilt while earning his doctorate in English during the 1930s, had a very strong interest in the 17th-century witch trials in England and the United States.” I couldn’t find any proof West was one of Davidson’s students at Vanderbilt but it is highly likely. Dr. West died in 1988, so I can’t say how my copy ended up at the Goodlettsville Antique Mall. I hope many of the books that lined his shelves have found new homes or are awaiting discovery in bookshops and Southern antique stores.
Now to the neatly folded newspaper clipping—placed betwixt the cover and first page, now stained a tinge darker oxidized, yellow-brown than the actual clipping. It probably hasn’t been unfolded since placed there on June 30, 1963. The Nashville Tennessean ran a great Book Page “Under the Green Lamp with Floy W. Beatty”, originally edited by Richmond Croom Beatty. The clipping was the “Green Lamp” review of Leviathan, “Regionalism Reaffirmed”, an abridged reprint of Richmond C. Croom’s 1938 review in the Nashville Banner, “Searching Probe of Social Ills” on another great Book Page, “About New Books” edited by Mary Stahlman Douglas.
On a random note—As much as I appreciate Routledge/Taylor and Francis reprints, dropping $60 on a paperback isn’t my idea of a good time, not to mention, the cover design reminds me of a booth at Bayside’s favorite hangout, The Max. I will help in whatever way I can to get quality hardcover reprints of our Southern canon into the hands of fellow Southerners and booklovers.
Davidson described this work as “a series of essays and informal studies grouped around a general theme. It does not pretend to be a systematic and definitive consideration of sectionalism and regionalism in the United States. To deal adequately with that subject would require a lifetime of travel and investigation and would call for a combination of special skills, particularly in history and other branches of social science, such as I cannot claim to possess, great though my interest and assiduous my reading in those fields may have been. I can claim only the layman’s right to judge warring interpretations of American life and history, to set them beside the reality of experience, immediate or remembered, and then to choose for himself whom his soul will believe.”
I’ll highlight several of the names Davidson mentions in his acknowledgment for you to add to your reading list: John Donald Wade, Stark Young, Frank L. Owsley, Allen Tate, Seward Collins of The American Review, and James Southall Wilson. He also thanks The Southern Review, Poetry, a Magazine of Verse, and The Hound and Horn for permission to reprint his essays in this book.
On James Southall Wilson, William S. Knickerbocker (editor of The Sewanee Review back in the day), wrote in 1929:
Foremost among those who are cultivating reading and book-buying habits among Southerners may be mentioned John Southall Wilson, editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, Howard Mumford Jones, editor of The Literary Lantern, the editors of The South Atlantic Quarterly, and John H. McGinness, editor of The Southwest Review and literary editor of The Dallas News. Perhaps the most distinctive newspaper book page in the South is that of The Nashville Tennessean, edited by Donald Davidson whose weekly bulletins of literary comment have a special viewpoint and who has been unusually successful in securing the assistance of some of the best minds of the upper-middle South in reviewing books for his page.
In 1934 Mr. Knickerbocker throws a little shade at Davidson, the Agrarians, and The American Review in his editorial “Asides and Soliloquies.”
This will be the first of several posts on this book. The Attack on Leviathan is divided into four sections, the plan is to create one post per section and have a free pdf available that combines all the sources into one place for easy searchability.