VI. Still Rebels, Still Yankees
Originally published as two essays in the American Review and can be found in the anthology Modern Minds. Many will recognize this chapter’s title from another book of Davidson’s collected essays with the same title published in 1957.
Davidson begins recollecting a meeting of Southern writers in Charleston, SC. In 1932, Davidson penned a brief history of these meetings in The Bookman, where he alludes to a New York Times report on the “two-day house party”. A different NYT article informs us, “the visitors were entertained extensively and were taken to Fort Sumter and to Magnolia and Middleton Place Gardens.” J. Donald Adams, The New York Times Book Review editor, told the group “the best writing in the United States is being done in the South and that in the fields of the novel, history, and the theatre the South has turned out the best work in recent years.”
At the so-called “Southern house party”, Laurence Stallings “expressed an ardent preference for a ‘Balkanized America’” to which Davidson comments, Stallings’ view isn’t so extreme. “Discontent with the uniformity of America is common enough; what is not common is the knowledge that this uniformity, a byword ever since James Bryce looked at the American Commonwealth through the spectacles of the Gilded Age” writes Davidson. Why isn’t America as uniform as Leviathan and its minions want? Davidson has an answer: “Those of us who still believe in the map of the United States know that it marks the residence of some diverse Americans who had better not go unacknowledged. In Vermont, for instance, are people who are still Yankees, and in Georgia, and elsewhere, there are still Rebels.”
The “experts”—low T, iron deficiencies, and all—can’t see or climb over the walls of “statistics” and “progress” they’ve constructed—blocking their view of the “places where social values may be encountered in the flesh.” If they leave their laboratories and “stumble upon” the Living—folks connected to their postage stamp of native soil, drawing “nutriment from a tradition embodied in the houses, speech, crafts, music, folklore, and wisdom of an actual people”—their MKUltra programming is triggered, leading to cries for an old-fashioned gibbeting of the troglodytes.
The old-stock Yankees and unreconstructed Rebels—with all their rough edges and deep roots—cause enough friction to impede the flow of “progress”, keeping some of the erosion at bay. He contrasts the two stalwarts through Brother Jonathan of Vermont and Cousin Roderick of Georgia. He begins with Vermont—its farms resembling Currier & Ives prints and its “lakes and mountains are where one would put them if he were Aladdin or Wordsworth.” In Vermont, one might read the Burlington Free Press or The Pathfinder.
No wonder, with all this beneficence around them, that the Yankees remembered the Mayflower and forgot John Smith, honored Bunker Hill and neglected King’s Mountain If they could claim such priority in the benevolence of God, their proprietary feeling toward the Revolutionary War and their almost hereditary claim to the direction of the United States government were by comparison insignificant appurtenances, theirs as a matter of course and by general presumption.
Davidson writes, “The New England of John Greenleaf Whittier and Noah Webster was supposed to be extinct, it had been replaced by Puritan-baiters and F Scott Fitzgeraldites who drank cocktails and read Proust when not conducting the insurance business of the United States.” While visiting Vermont, Davidson experienced the New England of Whittier and Webster, writing that he “could understand what led Walter Hines Page, a quarter of a century ago, to disparage his native North Carolina and fall in love with New England.”
Defeat had possessed the Georgia Rebel and had rubbed deep into his wounds. Around him were the visible reminders of destruction and humiliation. His land had been ravaged and rebuilt, and he had been told to forget. But he would not and could not forget, and was therefore torn between his loyalty and his awareness that the great world was bored with his not forgetting. He had been rebuked for being inept at administering a newfangled government that he did not understand or like any too well, and in which he had been allowed to participate only by a kind of negligent afterthought. Turning desperately to the industrial civilization against which he had once taken arms, he had played it as a hedge against the problematic future. Though agrarian at heart, he had been forced to wonder whether the ingenious Yankee might not be right after all.
The Quintessential Southerner of Rebelville, “has some of the bearing of an English squire, and a good deal of the frontier heartiness that Augustus Baldwin Longstreet depicted in Georgia Scenes. And the opposite of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’.” Davidson remarks, “Precision, for the Georgian, must rank among the Utopian virtues. If New England encouraged man to believe in an ordered universe, Georgia — and a good deal of the South besides — compelled him to remember that there were snakes in Eden.” A man in Georgia might read “the anxious thunderings of the young men who reproduce, in the Macon Telegraph, the remote dynamitical poppings of the New Republic.”
In Rebelville the politics and economics of the bustling world become a faint whisper. All that matters is to see one’s friends and relatives and pass from house to house, from field to field, under Georgia skies, to gather at a simple family dinner where only three kinds of bread and four kinds of meat are flanked by collards, sweet potatoes, corn, pickles, fruits, salads, jams, and cakes, or at a barbecue for fifty or more, for which whole animals are slaughtered and, it would seem, entire pantries and gardens desolated, or to sit with the wise men in front of the store, swapping jokes and telling tales hour after hour; or to hunt for fox, possum, coon, and quail, in swamp and field, or (for the ladies) to attend meetings of UDC’s, DAR’s, and missionary societies, or church service, or the tender ceremonies of Confederate Memorial Day, or the high school entertainment, or to hear the voices of the mockingbird in moonlight, or to see the dark pines against sunset, and the old house lifting its columns far away, calling the wanderer home.
Davidson also mentions: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Great Stone Face (1850); Robert Frost, North of Boston and Brown’s Descent; Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard; Jonathan Edwards; Amy Lowell’s Magnolia Gardens; quotes L. Q. C. Lamar’s epigram in his eulogy on Charles Sumner: “My countrymen, know one another and you will love one another.”; and notes “Eugene O’Neill and others told tales of the poverty and decadence of New England life.”
VII. New York and the Hinterland
Donald Davidson, “Lands That Were Golden I: New York and the Hinterland” American Review, 1934.
“In the loud nineteen-twenties, when a Younger Generation could still hope to save the nation by disillusioning it, hardly anything American seemed to escape the scorn of the debunkers.” Davidson has a mean opening-sentence game. These “Young Intellectuals” and metropolitan “scorners” loosed arrows from New Hadrian’s Wall to keep the barbarians of the hinterland under control. The hinterland had been a problem since colonial days, consisting of “Kentucky and Tennessee, and extended through the enormous regions south and west to Texas and the Great Plains; and it covered the country north of the Ohio River and westward, athwart the upper reaches of the Mississippi Valley.”
What was the complaint against these hinterlandians? “Their impudent disrespect for the patterns of modernity that many of the critics were just in the act of putting on for the first time.” Oh, rings familiar like, but they aren’t quite finished. “The barbarism of the South” didn’t sit so well with our starch-necked betters; and “the vulgarity and dullness of the Middle West has governed the approach of the metropolitan East to” the unwashed.
Generalizations abound—in literature, sociology, and journalism—the same assumptions, packaged with the customary “shocked protest and pious exhortation.” We’ve all heard it before, according to the Eastern metropolitans “the South is a region full of little else but lynchings, shootings, chain gangs, poor whites, Ku Kluxers, hookworm, and pellagra.” But what really grinds their scientific gears, the South “is inhabited by believers in God, who pass anti-evolution laws, and is anti-progressive.”
The familiar condescension of the East for the West, of course, may be viewed in part as the condescension of the capital toward the provinces, or of the home country toward the colonial dependencies.
B.B. Kendrick has a few essays on the colonial status of the South and Herbert Agar’s essay “Culture Versus Colonialism In America” is a must-read. Davidson asserts the East’s condescension toward the hinterland “in the nineteen-twenties became for the first time the source of an aesthetic theory which professed to explain the sterility of American art, and of a literary fashion” producing “a stream of ‘realistic’ novels that repeated Mr. Van Wyck Brooks’s strictures on Puritanism or Mr. Mencken’s volatile dissatisfaction with most things indigenously American.”
Davidson selects Ludwig Lewisohn’s Expression in America and V.F. Calverton’s The Liberation of American Literature as works using aesthetic condescension theory (ACT). ACT was falling out of fashion because the Pulitzer Prize judges tail the lead car about five or six years behind—wouldn’t want to be spotted. The judges recently named “T. S. Stribling’s The Store, as the novel of the year that best depicts American life”—leading to another classic Davidson paragraph:
Since Mr. Stribling’s theme is the old theme of the backwardness of his native Southern region, we are fairly well justified, under the circumstances, in labeling that theme as dead. Furthermore, Mr. Mencken has left The American Mercury. Mr. Bernard De Voto has demolished Mr. Brooks’s theory of Puritanism in frontier life. And Mr. Malcolm Cowley has sung a requiem over the home-coming remains of the Little Magazines and the expatriates of yesterday. Now only a Pulitzer award for Mr. Erskine Caldwell is needed to fill up the charnel house with bones of the long since dead, and to close one of the strangest, but one of the most ominous, chapters in American literary history.
An uncharted renaissance of Southern history emerged in parallel with the popular Southern literary movement, observes Davidson. Hinterland Historians “swung popular taste away from realistic fiction to biography and history and ultimately forced even the intellectuals to reconsider the historical and cultural data which they had too blithely dismissed. In these years Claude Bowers’s political studies of Jefferson and Hamilton or of the Reconstruction period swept the country; and a little later came James Truslow Adams with The Epic of America and The Adams Family.”
Several books by professional historians made waves big enough for the general public to notice. Davidson names two specifically, “the works of Frederick J. Turner’s study of the frontier and his Significance of the Sections in United States History; and on the literary side, Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought. Many great histories were written by hinterlanders; Davidson remarks, “Parrington was a man of the Far Northwest; Turner came from the Middle West, Ulrich B. Phillips, author of Life and Labor in the Old South, was a native of Georgia who taught history at the University of Chicago; Beveridge and Bowers were Middle Westerners. Their account of the American past, and, by implication, their interpretation of the present, stood out in bold contradiction to The Ordeal of Mark Twain or The Education of Henry Adams, which had worked like a sweet poison in the veins of Eastern aesthetes.”
A many a metropolitan critics “were so ill-informed historically that they thought Puritanism and Methodism the same thing. Nearly all were anti-religious, preferring an aesthetic judgment to a moral one. All were anti-Victorian, and talked a lot about Freud and sex. If they had any strong positive belief, it was in the power of science to determine the conditions of human life. They did not believe very firmly in anything; but they disbelieved stoutly in a very great deal. They were skeptics, or cynics. They had cast off loyalties to place or kin, or they had had none to begin with.”
From their skyscrapers, the cosmopolitan dispensers of soft material served Gotham-garnished “farrago to the hinterland of America as representing what was worth thinking about in all fields of thought and worth using as the exempla of the good life, was like giving to a man in ordinary health the perfected hypodermic needle with which the complaisant quack furnishes the drug addict. To the sections rebuked as lacking in civilization the critics recommended, it would seem, the diseases of civilization rather than the true urbanity and high thinking that would be expected to emanate from a civilized metropolis. To the most powerful nation on the globe, unravaged by war and anything but disheartened by circumstance, the spokesmen of New York found nothing better to offer than a gospel of impotence and defeat.”
In any given region one is sure to find warring schools of thought, opposing groups of writers, clashing social tendencies. Among the writers there are always regionalists, conscious or unconscious, old or young, who are loyal, and metropolitans who repeat the critical strictures of a decade ago. In Georgia, for example, are John Donald Wade and Erskine Caldwell, and what the one loves the other hates; in Mississippi, Stark Young and William Faulkner; in Tennessee, T. S. Stribling and Allen Tate; in the Middle West, Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser, Vachel Lindsay and Ben Hecht. The same confusion puts skyscrapers in cities whose chief resource is plenitude of land; Hollywood manners in mountain cabins; French eroticism in Puritan households; the urban wisecrack in the mouths of Sut Lovengood’s grandchildren.
VIII. The Two Old Wests
Donald Davidson, “Lands That Were Golden II: The Two Old Wests” American Review, 1934.
This chapter and the next promptly called to mind M.E. Bradford’s essay “The Literature of the American West” and Dr. Clyde Wilson’s lectures “The South and the West” from Abbeville Institute’s 2007 Summer School: The Origin of Southern Identity and the Culture of the Old South (Part 1, Part 2).
The Trans-Appalachia regions weren’t content as wards of the East—groveling for scraps from the Master’s table. They wrought their own region, with its own history—well-known, yet “nearly always presented as ‘national’ history or ‘state’ history.” How did “the land beyond the mountains” become a region? Davidson answers. Of the sundry migration streams leaving the East “the Southern one, which broke through the mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee, was the earliest. Indeed, at first it peopled the Northwest as well as the Southwest, and the states of the Old Northwest bear even today the marks of the powerful Southern invasion which was nearly a conquest. But the lands of the Western Reserve and other places attracted New England settlers, too; and after the defeat of the Indian tribes, the advance of men from New England and the Middle Atlantic states began in earnest. The Old Northwest attracted a fairly heterogeneous population: Yankees, Pennsylvanians, late-coming Germans, Southerners, and others. But the Old Southwest was homogeneous: it was settled almost entirely from Virginia and the Carolinas.”
The first of American Wests, Davidson proposes, is actually two Wests, “a Southwest and a Northwest,” and “the cleavage between North and South, on a line roughly indicated by the Ohio river, began very early. The Old Southwest represented a western transplantation of the political economy of Jefferson and the agrarian culture of the Old Southeast.” Understanding the polarity of the Two West is key in Davidson’s argument. He writes:
He who would understand the regions today must find a way to visualize the old differences of origin as they affect present circumstances. He must remind himself that the states of the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi basin are decidedly Western and yet remain Southern; and that the states of the Old Northwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the states beyond—while in a sense Northern, retain, or in fact cherish, a Western antagonism to the East as firm as that of their Southern neighbours, and sometimes more intense.
Davidson names several traits of Southwestern settlements: for one “the process of settlement was achieved, on the whole, rather by infiltration of families and individuals than by planned colonization. The Southern pioneers looked for their own land of Canaan and found it, in spite of the will of the home states rather than by their help. Their early tendencies were decidedly separatist.” Another one “was the irregular diffusion rather than the ordered concentration of the population. The cause of this was largely the Southern land policy, laissez-faire if not haphazard, which gave the best lands to first comers, and the worst to the last.”
Settlement begot friction—with the land, other settlers, the elements, and the Indians. Soft edges sharpened. Davidson writes, “The man of the Old Southwest quickly learned (what he was already disposed to believe) that in an emergency he would have only his own and his neighbours’ valor to count on. Thus the spirit of the Old Southwest, which connected liberty with free-hold of land, also meant from the beginning that one defended one’s own substance by one’s own valor. By such valor (call it acquisitive if you will) the Southwest in general was extended and mastered.”
In his suspicion of government the Southwesterner became more Jeffersonian than the Jeffersonians, and to this day he remains so. His valor, developed at times to the point of sheer pugnacity, became a habit which has had its fatality as well as its glory. For fifty years the Old Southwesterner fought Creeks and Cherokees on the eastern side of the Mississippi; and then, for another fifty years, he fought Apache and Comanche on the western side. Unaided by Federal troops the men of the Old Southwest fought the British at King’s Mountain and New Orleans. Under Andrew Jackson they invaded and took Spanish Florida, in a manner shocking to the Monroe administration. Under Sam Houston, a Southwestern army captured the dictator, Santa Ana, routed his army, and reduced him to a comic-opera figure. Under William Walker, the “grey-eyed man of destiny”, they filibustered and fought in Central America.
At last, under the Confederate flag, they fought the armies of Grant and Sherman in the fiercest battles of all. By these, for the first time in their experience, they were ultimately defeated. For what it was worth, they had the satisfaction of knowing that the defeat was inflicted by armies composed largely of Northwesterners—men of their own breed—and led by Northwesterners; whereas Jefferson Davis, who had too grievously “gone Virginian”, seemed incapable of discovering the Andrew Jacksons who ought to be leading Southwestern armies.
Davidson’s following paragraphs describing the qualities of the Southwesterner are brilliant, yet too long to detail here. I implore you to read the essay in full but his closing section on the subject is worth quoting at length:
It will not be easy to convince the Southwesterner that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be reduced to such pale equivalences as are represented in statistical tables. Not for such equations was he born of Highland Scottish or English blood. Hardly can he, of all men, be expected to keep a straight face before such hieroglyphics. Only for manners’ sake, and that in very high company, will he refrain from laughter.
What do such abstractions mean when he strides away from office or field, with the sun on his shoulders, and looks at the hills, whose every fold in the blue distance both hides and discloses lands that are still golden, whether one seeks them for refuge or adventure. Here, though there be old battlefields at every step, or new highways riving the green with a scurry of motors, no fatality broods, but every prospect invites with the notion that happiness is not only pursuable but tangible. One has only to pitch his house on a fair piece of rising ground, in a grove of oaks or hackberries, and happiness is already touched. Let there be a fence around the grove, with a gate that opens upon a boxwood walk leading to a high-columned porch. And between fence and road let there be a pasture for the horses, with a creek flowing in it, and limestone outcroppings, and iron-weed scattered about (who cares?) and blackberries in the fence corners. Let there be fields of corn to left and right, and beyond them a high hill, well forested, a range for turkeys only half tame, and for possum and ’coon that are wholly wild.
If that don’t get your blood moving—I pray all your affairs are in order—he then goes and drops a smattering of lines I assume were punctuated with a good ‘ol Rebel Yell: “This is perhaps only a Kentucky-Tennessee version of happiness and liberty located and made real. But in one form or another, with the details changed only a little, it represents the eternal desire of the Southwest: location, elbow-room, a citadel, a family hearth. This is the stand from which he watches the approach of the Irresistible Forces. Before this he has heard of invaders bloodthirsty and invincible, and he is impressed only to the extent of reflecting that it has been a while since he has had a good fight.”
Davidson shifts his keen observations up yonder to the Northwest, capturing their peculiar landscape. He writes “The paternal support that the Northwest won from the Federal government helped to shape its genius and to distinguish it from its Western sister-region in the South. The man of the Northwest, like his Southern kinsman, came seeking free lands; for him, too, the conception of liberty found expression in the free-holding of the most substantial form of property. But the Northwesterner learned to think—and since pioneer times has with growing enthusiasm believed—that the function of a government, especially of a national government, is to safeguard one’s substance against destruction or alienation.”
The East thought of factory production, but the Middle West thought of Fordism and mass-production. The Connecticut Yankee got up the wooden nutmeg; but the Middle West devised salesmanship. What is Eli Whitney’s lone cotton-gin beside the teeming inventions of Edison of Ohio, who might be said, almost, to have invented the idea of invention? As for public education, the Middle West fosters not only public schools but state universities gigantic beyond the dreams of Harvard and Yale. Then there is Prohibition. How could it ever have been mistaken for simply a crass reversion to Puritanism? It was much more the transcendentalism of the latter-day Yankee saints, a perfectly logical and innocent Western attempt to unshackle man from the clogs that Emerson was always wanting to strike off. Really, that wispy creature, transcendentalism, never took a deep breath till it struck Kansas air.
Davidson mentions John Crow Ransom’s “Captain Carpenter”, Thomas Hardy, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Robinson Jeffers, Whitman, Bruce Barton, Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter, and James Truslow Adams.
IX. The Great Plains
To my knowledge, this is the first essay not previously published elsewhere.
Beyond the Mississippi is the land of our last Viking Age
Davidson lauds Walter Prescott Webb’s “remarkable book” The Great Plains, calling it “the most clearly outlined and convincing study that has yet been made within narrow limits of the process of regional differentiation and its causes.” Davidson summarizes Webb’s thesis and we learn—back in the day, geographers referred to the Great Plains, a “treeless, level and arid or semi-arid” region as “the Great American Desert.” Davidson even mentions Jefferson Davis’s camel experiment in the region.
An 1849 Texas State Gazette blurb reads, “The Boston Times announces that a company is forming in that city to introduce the use of camels upon the great prairies of the West. Bring them on.” I like the enthusiasm. I’ll give Walter L. Fleming the last word on ‘ol Jeff Davis and the Camels (great name for a band or trivia night).
The wildlife of the Great Plains—American Bison and Antelope, the prairie dog, and such—was one factor in the pioneer’s formation. The Plains Indians, “one of the marvels of history” in Davidson’s estimation, “constituted the real obstacle to American settlement.” When “a Texan—lately come from the timbered hills of Tennessee”, Hawken rifle in tote; wagons, their speed set to molasses—encountered the Comanche—he was either quenched and tempered or two yardsticks tip to tip below some fellas singing:
And the cowboys now as they cross the plains
Have marked the spot where his bones are lain
Fling a handful of roses on his grave
And pray to the Lord that his soul is saved
In a narrow grave, just six by three
We buried him there on the lone prairie
Davidson describes the stages of this “strange and new kind of pioneering.” First, it was “warlike”, the Colt revolver had a say. The second stage “Was the great days of the Cattle Kingdom.” The Great Plains played a noteworthy role leading up to the War Between the States—which tipped the scales for the Yankees, turning “the advantage to the North, making its ideals, rather than those of the South, national.” Webb compares the South’s Cotton Kingdom and Cattle Kingdom of the Great Plains, on which Davidson speculates, “The defeat of the South by the North meant also the defeat of the Cattle Kingdom and the rapid submergence of one of the most remarkable regional cultures that America has known.”
From the Cattle Kingdom, with its well-fertilized soil, bloomed a rich literary tradition “centered about heroes and legends.”
Its heroes are Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, or outlaws like Jesse James, Sam Bass, and Billy the Kid; and all of them, like Jesse James in the song, “came of a great race.” Its legends are of lost mines and buried treasure, or western adaptations of the tall tale of the Old Southwest; they deal with the high doings of Pecos Bill and the miraculous phenomena of the “Peetrified” Forest. The songs of the cowboys are in part repetitions and recreations of the balladry of the eastern highlands and lowlands. In them often, too, one gets a memorable record of the loneliness and revulsion which eastern America first felt toward the Plains.
“Among known authors,” Davidson writes, “only Mark Twain and Bret Harte have written conclusively in the spirit of this West.” He argues many writers have attempted to write the Great Western Novel, yet it remains unwritten. Several tried, like John G. Neihardt in The Song of the Indian Wars. Davidson’s hottest take on the subject is for Owen Wister’s The Virginian which “is to the West what Uncle Tom’s Cabin is to the South.”
Davidson lists the songs: “Bury me not on the lone prairie”; “The Cowboy’s Lament”; “The Dreary Black Hills”; “The Buffalo Skinners”; “Home on the Range”; the ballads of Jesse James and Sam Bass. He mentions Peter Molyneaux; calls the works of Zane Grey, Bill Hart, and Emerson Hough vulgar romance; speaks negatively of Sinclair Lewis and Robinson Jeffers, and praises Willa Cather.
The chivalrous cowboy and the rousing desperado, whether in high art or low romance, belong to the American gallery of folk types, along with the Yankee farmer and skipper, Rip Van Winkle, the Parson Weems Washington, Uncle Remus, Old Hickory, David Crockett, Huckleberry Finn, and the Kentucky Colonel.