X. American Heroes

Originally published as “A Note on American Heroes” in the Southern Review (1935).

Whatever else we lack, we do not lack great memories. We have heroes, and we want to possess them affectionately as a mature nation ought.

The American mind is divided against itself. Our approach to “what terms we may possess our heroes” is as well balanced as a character in a Harry Crews novel. According to Davidson, the best illustration of this split mind is The Lees of Virginia by Burton J. Hendrick. Mr. Hendrick, bless his heart, took sick with a uniquely “American disease”, common among biographers and poets, where “whatever cannot be explained, or whatever confuses the neatly arranged scheme of the present, must be stigmatized as antiquarian. That is, it is myth, or near to being myth. And being myth, it is inutile and inferior.” The symptoms are about as subtle as face tattoos—disclaimers, caveats, qualifications, and such.

Davidson argues it’s also a modern malady, poetically described by I.A. Richards and from the religious angle in God Without Thunder by John Crowe Ransom. Ransom’s words, according to Davidson, “may be used to describe Mr. Hendrick’s state of mind”: Myths are construed very simply by the hard Occidental mind: they are lies. It is supposed that everything that is written in serious prose ought to be historical or scientific; that is, devoted either to authenticated facts or to generalizations about these facts. Myths, like fairy tales, like poems, are neither. They are therefore absurd. We are given to understand that their effectiveness can be only with some simple and primitive population, that they are not nearly good enough for the men of our twentieth century generation, brought up in the climatic blessedness of our scientific Occident.

Mr. Henderick’s myth-smashing hammer loves demo day at the Lee estate, yet he is swift to ditch the blue collar to don his courting clothes for his Juliet–the Illinois Rail Splitter. Davidson writes: Evidently Mr. Hendrick is a devout believer in the Lincoln myth, which for him is sublimated into a national myth. Involuntarily, quite without realizing what he is doing, he recognizes the power and dignity of the hostile Southern myth, and he would dispose of it by absorbing it and declining to treat it as hostile. In so doing he ceases to write history; he becomes a myth-maker. The action is very instructive. For while Mr. Hendrick has earlier gone on record as a thorough Modernist in his attitude toward myth, he would exempt his own myth, the Lincoln myth, and be strongly Fundamentalist toward it. It is as if a Mohammedan should argue against the deity of Jesus on the ground that the Virgin Birth is a logically untenable and “antiquarian” idea, and then turn around and accept Jesus if Christians will call Him a Moslem.

The propaganda machine—fueled by the sacrifices of neo-cons as they “spread democracy” and stack items they have failed to conserve like bodies at Thermopylae—won’t stop until every knee bows and every tongue praises Father Abraham. Davidson is among a Southern remnant of heretics that spurn the national gods. He writes, “to the sons of Confederates, the Lincoln Memorial is a reminder of tragedy, not an emblem of exaltation. If the people of Illinois wish to erect a memorial to Lincoln in Springfield, that is entirely proper. But why should the Southerner be called on to respect as a national symbol, the great image of Lincoln in the attitude of a brooding god—Lincoln, who did not receive a Southern vote in 1860; who was never president of the Southern states; who was, alas, though with some healing kindness toward the end, a destroying angel to them.”

We do not agree as to what is national and what is heroic.

Davidson notes the impossibility of a national hero from the era of “Secession, War, and Reconstruction,” and even in his time, “George Washington grows ever more faint and far away for most Americans.” It’s laughable to think the mob will be satisfied on a diet of butternut alone—damnatio memoriae is hale and hearty. Washington’s time was “Federal, not consolidated” like ours, and as Davidson quips, “we have progressed or degenerated from a time when a man could be Father of his country to a time when we are the Babies of the state.”

Herbert Agar argued in Land of the Free “that Jefferson has fared better in American respect than Washington,” but Davidson isn’t buying it. Mr. Agar’s take aged well-nigh as good as the guacamole in that seven-layer casserole at First United Methodist’s annual summer fish fry, evidenced by the Hemings crock of DNA spit and the current goings on at Monticello. This all makes Davidson’s comment on Agar’s Jefferson thesis more prescient; he writes:

We have no sense of [the founding fathers] personal presence, although we do sedulously preserve the houses they lived in and the beds they slept in, and pause to stare a moment, in wistfulness or boredom, before we finger the map that will direct us on our four or five hundred miles per day. We no longer name children, places, institutions, for them, but do occasionally use their names for things that least represent them—like hotels. Of not many counties in the United States can it be said, as it is still said of certain counties in the Old Southwest, that “they are still voting for Andrew Jackson.

“Andrew Jackson represents the Western idea of the American national tradition, which is ‘to be able to look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell,’” writes Davidson—the East lacks the stomach acid to digest such men. To whom can we turn as an American Hero?

Outside of the East, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain boys are hardly more than hearsay. John Sevier and the King’s Mountain patriots belong to the regional Valhalla of a few Southern states; Maine and Oregon do not celebrate their names. Sam Houston in his time was a “national” figure, but he would not be well remembered today if he were not dear to Texan and Southwestern tradition. A Louisianian, arriving in Albany, New York, will hardly know for whom the DeWitt Clinton hotel was named. The upstate New Yorker is no more likely to know for whom Fort Sumter was named. The frontier West might fare better on a test of this sort. Few Americans are likely to miss the significance of Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, and Custer. But here we begin to deal with types rather than individuals and approach the borderland of true folk-myth, wherein a legendary, rather than a historical, Daniel Boone, becomes a general national figure, as unassailable as Washington and much better visualized.

Where does that leave us? Davidson thinks there might be some unwritten law on the subject, “which could be stated as follows: To be an American hero, a man must be a sectional hero, but no true sectional hero can be a true, or complete, national hero.” This leads him to believe “the only kind of really national hero we can have ought to be a hero who embodies the Federal conception. The Federal sphere will accommodate the statesman, but not the hero.”

XI. Regionalism and Nationalism in American Literature

Originally published in 1935 as “Regionalism and Nationalism in American Literature” in the American Review.

No Englishman ever needed to ask of a given work in his own language: “But is it really English?” Yet in America for a hundred years we have con­tinually felt obliged to ask of this or that American work: “But is it really American? Does it represent the nation?”

Words matter; they carry meaning. The science-tongued metropolitans—with their high rates of dysgeusia and ageusia—strip the words region and regionalism of all flavor or consider regionalism a shibboleth used “almost as a formula of dismissal for tendencies that they do not bother to take seriously.” Davidson pits the first group with a second, to whom “regionalism is a battle-cry, the symbol of all they feel is worth fighting for in the reconstruction of American literature.”

The quarrel betwixt the two groups may never be settled, but Davidson reckons the issue at stake worthy and vital. One might ask, “what exactly are they all worked up about?” According to Davidson, “the issue is: What are the conditions under which American literature can achieve its full maturity?”

Representing team Metro is Granville “the Marxian” Hicks and his book, The Great Tradition. Davidson dismisses Hicks’ reasoning with several thought-jostling questions: If the re­gional work of art is to be distinguished by its “re­gional” subject-matter, then what is the subject-­matter of the national work of art? Must it include the whole vast complex of our regional areas, or is it a magic elixir that can be extracted from them? It is not easy to discover an American work of art that meets either of these requirements. Where is the novel, poem, or play that deals with an experience of life common to all Americans, as Americans?

Davidson names Henry James’s The American, as a “book that attempts to interpret the typical American,” but it misses the mark “for it suggests that a novelist must forsake Amer­ica and become an exile if he is going to purify the American type from all the clinging alloys of local circumstance.” Davidson notes the rarity of “writers who have at­tempted the great national theme are rare” and cites Whitman as possibly the only example. Yet, “Whitman assures us that the national American poem must be written, and he is always telling us in what terms it will have to be written; but he himself does not write it.”

To define regionalism, nationalism must also be defined. Davidson defines Regionalism as “a name for a condition under which the national American literature exists as a literature: that is, its constant tendency to decentralize rather than to centralize; or to correct over-centralization by conscious decen­tralization.” So, “regional literature may thus be a self-conscious expression of the life of a region. The national literature is the compound of the re­gional impulses, not antithetical to them, but em­bracing them and living in them as the roots, branch, and flower of its being.”

“The concept of a national literature is a modern phenomenon, produced by the rise of the European nations to self-consciousness during the later stages of the Renaissance. The European idea of a national literature comes well after such literatures have taken definite shape. The historians of national literatures in nineteenth-century Europe could define the nation’s literature as the expression of a character that might be described as national.”

The creation of a national literature is no cosmic accident. According to Davidson, “the existence of such a literature depended upon certain conditions: one language, one race, a definite cultural homogeneity–intellectual leadership associated with the cen­tralizing presence of a capital like Paris or London, and a long period of growth under aristocratic and learned guidance–and a second period of critical and retrospective exploration of the cultural tradi­tion.”

We can have, we do have, a national American literature, but not in the European sense, because we have not fulfilled the European conditions. One language we do have, and the rough cultural homogeneity that originates in our basic racial stock. But in the midst of our nation-making we both expanded into the West and received mixed popula­tion-elements that are still far from perfectly fused. Thus we cut ourselves off from all immediate pros­pect of achieving the kind of unity that in Europe has produced national literatures.

We are a heterogeneous people, who in sheer consistency of democratic principle have learned to tolerate a mix­ture of religions and races, and not even the levelling power of an industrial system has been able to efface the resulting diversities. But to increase the difficulty, these diversities have shown a tendency to concen­trate within geographic areas, which we call sections or regions. Finally, we have no centre. No one city, for us, combines the functions of an economic and political capital with those of an intellectual capital. Never have we been of one mind nationally.

Davidson concludes, “The function of a region is to endow the American artist with character and purpose. He is born of a region. He will deny its parenthood to his own hurt. Without its background he is a homeless exile in the wilderness of modern life.” It is the nation’s responsibility to “conserve and cherish” what the regional artist organically creates and “surely never by precept or example to delude us into thinking that a novel about a plough­boy is only a regional curiosity, but a novel about a bellboy, a national masterpiece.”

XII. Regionalism and Education

Donald Davidson, “Regionalism and Education” American Review, 1935

The Eye of Cromwell—Leviathan’s lidless busybody—keeps unceasing watch over the South. The impact of its fiery gaze is easily seen in Southern politics, literature, art, and education. In this essay, Davidson sifts through the ruins assessing the damage inflicted on regional education, beginning with textbook changes in Freshman composition courses.

All had changed, per Davidson. Previously, textbooks included selections from the time-tested classics, solely aiming to improve a student’s English. Now, “Freshman must not only abhor the dangling participle; he must also be led to establish ‘desirable cultural attitudes’ and to understand ‘this astonishing world of the present decade’.’” Discarding the classics, textbooks “bristle with topicality and controversy”, with popular titles like “Opinions and Attitudes, Essays Toward Truth, Challengings Essays.”

Naturally, the industrious and progressive North or New South will not squander a money-making opportunity. So, publishers manufactured incessant updates fraught with the regime’s newfangled consensus “opinions and attitudes.” Davidson gives examples of articles students are likely to find in the new textbooks: “What’s Wrong with the United States,” “Is Progress a Delusion?”, or “The Good Communist.” Today, I’d expect to come across articles like “The Family Lynching Tree: Genealogy, the Klan, and Jim Crow,” “The Tumbleweed Option: the Beauty and Freedom of a Deracinated Life,” and “Birthing Persons in Second Wave Indigenous Vegan Literature”.

The Levellers of Leviathan shipped Madame Defarge’s Box to the South, and the scalawags were itching to get it open. As a result, many a equilibrium went all sigogglin—shared foundations were cracked; common points of reference bulldozed and clearcut like subdivisions christened Oak Hill Estates. Davidson describes the problem: “The trouble lies, however, in finding the point of reference. Modern thought is notoriously abstract. We are aware, as never before, that the world is full of knowledge; but never before was it so difficult to apply knowledge to the concrete and specifically human needs.” The progressive educators give their focus to the what and how regarding curriculum, yet give scant attention to “whom they are teaching, and where.”

Although regionalism is sometimes called a theory, and sometimes a literary movement, it could better be taken as the new name for a process of differentiation within geographic limits that is as old as the American republic and perhaps was predestined in the settlement of our continental area. The regionalists are those who wish to see the cultural differences respected, and not thwarted or obliterated. No matter from what field they draw their data — whether historical, scientific, or artistic — the regionalists agree that America, far from being perfectly homogeneous and standardized, is amazingly heterogeneous and diverse.

“In education, it now happens to be the metropolitan East, and especially metropolitan New York, which is offering its ideas in the disguise of national ideas, and so is tending to assume a central authority that does not properly belong to it. We would not desire a conquest by New York so complete as to impoverish the national life by robbing it of diversity; or a retaliation from some regional quarter so fierce as to introduce disorder and irritation.”

In surveying current Freshman composition texts, Davidson describes an editorial sleight of hand where all things diverse are showcased, with claims to present “conflicting opinions and attitudes,” yet the diversity is merely skin deep. Davidson writes, “in the books I have examined, there is far less conflict of opinion than the editors claim. With a unanimity that is striking, our anthologists have favored selections that represent, on the whole, the range of opinion in the metropolitan East alone.”

André Siegfried or Bertrand Russell may possibly be called in to make pronouncement on Fundamentalism in the South, but not John Donald Wade of Georgia or John Crowe Ransom of Tennessee, who can tell that story from the inside. The New York critics are invited to deliver their gloomy harangues on literature and art, but Vernon Louis Parrington of the Northwest is nowhere to be discovered. We may get something on politics from Harold Laski or Walter Lippmann, but nothing whatever from the great group of regional historians and biographers who have rebuilt, in bold and lively terms, the image of the diverse American tradition that our iconoclasts have been engaged in repudiating: nothing, that is to say, from Beveridge, Dodd, Bowers, Phillips, Owsley, Milton, Webb, Freeman, Eckenrode, Tate, Lytle, and a host of other able writers.

Davidson outlines what a regional approach might entail, giving reasonable advice to textbook authors and publishers, professors, and academic institutions. He also lists a handful of educators, institutions, and academic departments embracing a robust regionalism like contributors to Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PLMA), The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review,  The Midland, The Sewanee Review, and The Frontier. Of course, most if not all of these publications have turned enemy of the South—which is why the work of Abbeville Institute is so important.

We have had enough of this one-way traffic of educational and social ideas. We need a two-way system, which allows ideas not only to come in but to go out. A right principle of cultural diffusion would hold that our colleges ought to become true cultural centres, receiving at least as much cultural vitality from their environing regions as from more distant ones. For such centres, regional but not in any sense parochial, the region becomes laboratory, audience, and judge. Their educational direction may be toward the universal, but it will then be a universal that is wrapped up with a particular way of life.

Chase Steely

Chase Steely is a Tennessean, Veteran, and Student of all things Southern.

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