I. The Diversity of America

Parts of this chapter (along with several others) are from “Sectionalism in the United States,” Hound and Horn, VI (July-September, 1933). The link to Davidson’s “Sectionalism” essay provides some context of its genesis—some of which is a smidge uncomfortable. In The Idea of the American South (1979), Michael O’Brien portrays Davidson as a misfit compared to his peers—a Tennessee-shaped peg with no complementary hole—a romantic, reactionary, and an anachronistic knight, according to Thomas Daniel Young and M. Thomas Inge. Davidson even spoke of himself as “a lone guerilla and Banquo’s Ghost.”

I relay this history and context due solely to its relevance to this chapter. O’Brien writes, “In early 1932, the editor of the Hound and Horn suggested that Davidson might be commissioned to write a piece on sectionalism,” which led to Tate’s criticism of Davidson detailed in the link above. Davidson, although wounded, wrote “Sectionalism in the United States,” directly leading to this pertinent book.

It seems much of the criticism was in private correspondence, although the Fugitives did have a robust culture of critiquing each other’s work. Even with Tate’s hard words to an editor at Hound & Horn, Tate’s review of Leviathan, “Critical Regionalism” in The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) 13 Mar 1938—accompanied by a block print of Davidson done by his wife—lauded the work. Tate writes, “In this decade at least three great books have been written about the South and the sectional problem: Vance’s Human Geography of the South; Odum’s Southern Regions; and last fall,  Webb’s Divided We Stand. To this list must now be added a fourth, Mr. Donald Davidson’s The Attack on Leviathan.”

Tate continues, “In order to praise Mr. Davidson’s work as it deserves it is not necessary to say that it is the best of these books; but I think it is just to say that it completes them.” Tate doesn’t end there, he actually says Davidson is more knowledgeable and superior to Odum, Vance, and Webb in several disciplines—according to Tate, Davidson “knows more than they know—not more facts and statistics, but more history, more literature, and in general he commands a richer and more experienced culture than” the three mentioned above.

O’Brien writes that The Attack on Leviathan is Davidson intellectually setting out on his own, untethered from Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, partially due to his bond with Tate and Ransom weakening. I mentioned the weak sales and the book’s fate in Part I—turns out, Davidson had a few thoughts about the UNC Press and its editor Lambert Davis.

In the Attack on Leviathan file among the UNC Press Papers, the “Memorandum on Conversation with Donald Davidson,” by Lambert Davis reads, “The core of Mr. Davidson’s dissatisfaction, I am sure, is the feeling that the Press exercised some kind of censorship on his work. He is almost the only surviving member of the Nashville group of the ’20s whose southernism has been intensified rather than modified by the passage of time. He has parted company, one by one, with nearly all the members of that group, and he very definitely has the feeling that the world is against him, and that there are sinister machinations against his expression of his opinions.”

I don’t know about you—but my ”Southernism” was intensified reading Davis’s memorandum—like time is obliged to suck the oxygen from our Southern souls and extinguish the fire we were entrusted to carry. Sounds like some of these “elite” gatekeepers we have running around today, with all their talk of “respectability” and “winsomeness”. For me and mine, I pray “may our southernism never be modified.”

O’Brien lists a handful of reasons why Leviathan was unheeded, noting its “neglect has not been remedied since then” and “only Russell Kirk and Francis B. Simkins subsequently gave it any attention: see Simkins, ‘The South,’ in Regionalism in America and Russell Kirk, ‘The Poet as Guardian: Donald Davidson,’ in Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career.” Several others of note paid attention to Leviathan—M.E. Bradford and Richard M. Weaver, the first two to come to mind. Also, I hate to admit that I don’t remember how I learned of Davidson—only in the last few years—the work at Abbeville Institute, Chronicles Magazine, Imaginative Conservative, and many others, are all doing their part as links in the “folk-chain of memory.”

Part I describes Kirk’s high regard for this work. O’Brien writes the Leviathan “was one of the most impressive analyses of sectionalism and the South to be offered in the 1930s, a decade peculiarly concerned with that problem. Indeed, with the exception of Odum’s work, it was the only sustained examination of the problem, which proved both its strength and its weakness.” Young and Inge noted, “as a prose stylist, Davidson has few peers in contemporary American literature. Neither Ransom, Tate, nor Warren has written essays with a precision, a grace, a force, or a conviction to match Davidson’s. Because, however, modern society has not been entirely amenable to what Davidson had to say, it has little heeded or sought to appreciate how he said it. There is every reason to believe, when all is said and done, that Davidson will endure as a prose stylist of the first order in this century.”

Back to the work at hand. This isn’t a classic book review or summary—my original aim was to list every source (author, book, essay, artist, etc) Davidson mentions or refers to in the book but that doesn’t make for the best read. As usual with Davidson, I want to quote or tweet nearly every sentence but there are a few paragraphs that are the best I’ve ever read which I’ll quote as though entering evidence to prove true what Kirk, O’Brien, Young, and Inge wrote above.

As an aside, I haven’t found many essays from Hound & Horn online. A little history of The Hound and Horn: A Harvard Miscellany, you may find helpful.

If you’re like me, you might have an aversion to the word “Diversity.” Davidson isn’t your company’s DEI officer in HR or using a newly defined and manufactured diversity as a weapon to cancel and silence like your local overpaid University administrator. Davidson is discussing organic differences of people in various sections or regions that are evident, yet go purposefully unrecognized by the “experts.” He also fears—and I’d say, proven correct—in his Jeremiads against the Leviathan State and Industrial machine.

The sectionalism and regionalism of the twentieth century are an American expression of dissatisfaction with the culture, or pseudo-culture that has accompanied the diffusion of industrialism. Americans once debated the question of how much of civil liberty they must yield to the state in the common interest; they now raise the equally important question of how much of their preferred way of life they are obliged to sacrifice in order to secure economic provision and technological efficiency.

Throughout the book, Davidson is juxtaposing the work of Charles and Mary Beard, mainly The Rise of American Civilization, 2 vols (The Macmillan Company, 1927), and the works of Frederick Jackson Turner, especially The Significance of the Sections in United States History. Although, in this chapter, Davidson notes that William E. Dodd in Expansion and Conflict (Houghton Mifflin Co. 1915) “gave a somewhat definitive statement of the problem” with sectionalism and some of Dodd’s early work on the subject precedes Turner’s.

II. Two Interpretations of American History

Parts of this essay are also from “Sectionalism in the United States,” Hound and Horn, VI (July-September, 1933). Allen Tate considers this a key and brilliant essay according to his 1938 review.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s “original statement, in 1893, of the importance of the frontier, has been called (by D. R. Fox) ‘the most famous and influential paper in American historiography.’” The original statement Davidson is referring to is Turner’s “Problems of American History”.

Davidson’s descriptions in this chapter on the distinct people, geography, weather, and culture of different regions brought to mind the “four British Folkways,” so I pulled David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed off the shelf to see if he quotes Davidson—he does not.

Turner is Jeffersonian; his is the voice of the inland and Pacific America of the South and West, and his following is to be found among the historians and men of letters from those sections. Beard is Hamiltonian; and his voice is the voice of the great cities of the Northeast, whose backs are toward inland America, and whose faces are toward the Atlantic and the manifold sorrows of Europe. Turner represents the Immovable Bodies of the great American problem; Beard, the Irresistible Forces.

Benjamin F. Wright was one of the first to challenge Turner’s thesis in “Political Institutions and the Frontier” and Davidson says Wright shatters the extreme pro-Western myth and the extreme pro-Eastern view you find in Van Wyck Brooks.

According to Davidson, “Historians of the economic determinist school either ignore sectionalism or allow it a minor role.” He gives Arthur Meier Schlesinger’s New Viewpoints in American History as an example of the first type (not to mention calling Schlesinger a Marxian) and Charles A. Beard “the type that mentions sectionalism only to dismiss it” though Davidson points to Beard’s works as “the fine flower of economic determinist history.”

III. Social Science Discovers Regionalism

Published in The Southern Review as “Regionalism as Social Science” (1937)

Davidson calls the NRA (National Recovery Administration) a problem, “which illustrated as nothing else could the extraordinary difficulty of making the entire United States subject to a centralized and uniform type of economic control” and writes, “most American economists, sociologists, and political scientists have followed, until very lately, the historical theories and interpretations of the school of Charles A. Beard.”

Davidson also mentions the University of North Carolina series of monographs dealing with special regional conditions, mentioning: Clarence Heer, Income and Wages in the South; T. J. Woofter, Southern Population and Social Planning and Black Yeomanry; Guy B. Johnson, Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, South Carolina; Guion Griffis Johnson, A Social History of the Sea Islands; Rupert Vance and Claudius Murchison, Human Factors in Cotton Culture; and S. H. Hobbs, North Carolina: Economic and Social.

Davidson continues, “These studies came at the time when the renascent Southern literature was growing into major importance, and when historians like B. B. Kendrick (my guess is he’s referring to The South Looks at Its Past) and Frank L. Owsley were restating the historic position of the South. At about the same time the agrarian authors of I’ll Take My Stand had begun to argue the Southern case with a vehemence that provoked a reconsideration of neglected sectional issues.”

The Southern theory of regionalism, as expressed in terms of social science, took shape in two notable books, Rupert Vance‘s Human Geography of the South and Howard Odum‘s Southern Regions. “Vance’s Human Geography of the South is the first book written by a social scientist in which the working philosophy of the New Regionalism, as applied to one of the historic regions—or sections—of the United States”, writes Davidson. Howard Odums Southern Regions, according to Davidson,carries out on an extended scale all the implications of Vance’s study, but with an emphasis that gives us further insight into the theory and purpose of regionalism.”

Davidson writes:

The Roosevelt administration was the first administration to commit itself openly and officially to a broad study of the regional problem. The record of this study is contained in a notable report, issued Late in 1935 under the auspices of the National Resources Committee (a presidential, not a congressional committee), with the title Regional Factors in National Planning (“one of the most amazing documents ever issued by any bureau or committee of the United States government”). It is proper to note that two prominent social scientists, Charles E. Merriam and Wesley G. Mitchell with the technical committee on regional planning, which is headed by John M. Gaus of Wisconsin (Davidson concludes that “Professor Gaus is well-nigh the pioneer in political science that Turner was in history”).

IV. Regionalism in the Arts

Sections of this essay are from “Sectionalism in the United States,” Hound and Horn, VI (July-September, 1933)

Davidson summarizes “the condition of the arts in America during the last twenty-five years”—“From 1912, the year when Poetry: A Magazine of Verse was founded in Chicago, up to some time, not easily fixed, in the nineteen-twenties, the trend of American art, especially in poetry and fiction, was strongly urban and cosmopolitan.”

He thought “the typical literary figure of the day, in America, was a composite of Ezra Pound and Sinclair Lewis. He had refinement without strength, or strength without refinement. At his rare best he might be like Donne or Keates, who worked with a certain desperate exaltation.” The “typical figure” Davidson describes despises “American ways” and is a caricature of “the Parisian cafe” and can be found in Ernest Boyd’s “Aesthete: Model 1924.”

Most American cities, in their period of sudden expansion, would fit the general description given by Joseph E. Baker for New York and Chicago. For all their seeming newness they were actually “late colonial offshoots of a European civilization already in decline when they were built.” They lacked “the cultural past native to American cities.” They did not have “the vital organic relation to our American culture, which is growing up now where cultures have always grown: in the smaller cities and the countryside.”

“Whatever was foreign or had a foreign air had prestige. Whatever was American acquired merit only as it imitated the foreign or satirized the domestic. Duchamp‘s “Nude Descending a Staircase” had merit; so did Joyce‘s Ulysses, and The Little Review, which published parts of it; so did the Imagist anthologies, The Dial, The American Mercury, the books of Floyd Dell, Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell, Theodore Dreiser, the music of Stravinski, the psychology of Freud, the photography of Stieglitz, the world history of H. G. Wells. And Whitman, Stephen Crane, and Melville.

America, Davidson writes, “belonged to the immigrant masses whose claims had been set forth by Waldo Frank in Our America; or to any artist who could achieve a parallel expatriation by carefully blotting out all traces of his origin and tradition.”

Technology fertilized the growth of cities and industries, leading to scientific discoveries and manufactured comforts—creating the “high standard of living” of consumer culture—an unsatiated creature that devoured our culture’s choice cuts. Ultimately, being remade, creatio ex materia, into economic cyborgs—designed for abstraction, specialization, selling, and buying. As Davidson put it, “Persons were becoming negligible. Function was all.”

To fully understand this soul-stripping process, Davidson writes, “we must grasp the meaning of what happens when, in the greater cities of the hinterland, swayed by Hollywood movies and newspapers cut to a metropolitan pattern Gilbert Seldess, The Seven Lively Arts replace the folk arts of the region to which the cities belong. Abe Martin gives way to Krazy Kat, and Poor Richard and Sut Lovengood yield to Walter Winchell.”

According to Davidson, New York distributed the cosmopolitan protest literature. He gives as examples: D.H. Lawrence’s novels, “which mocked the sterile pretensions of urban civilization”,  Knut Hamsun’s peasant novels, T.S. Eliot’s poems, and “the grim predictions of Oswald Spengler.” Davidson adds examples for the American counterparts of the works just listed: “the stories of Sherwood Anderson,” and the poetry of Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, and John Crowe Ransom, “whose import was not yet understood.”

Davidson shifts the subject to education, giving a brutal evisceration of the whole system. To him, the sponsors of universal education “were education to become a mere ‘conditioning’ process: they were training producers to produce, consumers to consume, and technicians to technologize.” In one of the most devastating paragraphs I’ve read, Davidson writes:

Education is only one example of how the means used by industrialism to gain its ends results in perverting the ends. The high standard of living uplifted the masses at great cost to their humanity and self-respect. The mountain boy could get a college education, but the system that built him a school also took out of his mouth the traditional ballad that was his ancient heritage, and instead of a ballad gave him a “mammy song” devised in Tin Pan Alley by the urbanized descendant of a Russian Jew. Meanwhile, the system, working through another specialized department, recorded the ballad and stowed it away on the shelf of a library to be studied and annotated, as the artifact of a lost culture, by men who would never sing it. To the country boy, newly become a millhand, the system gave more money than he had ever seen; but or­ganized capital and labor told him how to spend it. The new woman, advancing into pursuits denied her grandmother, gained a profession or a job; but she lost her right to become a mother. The farmer got an automobile; but he lost his home.

The Great Depression slowed and weakened the cosmopolitan current, leading to the death of The Dial and The Little Review—New York’s “great general magazines” lost circulation. Some committed suicide, “like The Century Magazine” or became “somewhat less heavy and intellectual” like Harper’s and the Atlantic, Davidson writes. Also noting “H.L. Mencken left his post on The American Mercury.

Davidson thought the best criticism published in the 1920s was found in The New Republic and The Nation, but they “sacrificed their general literary function to serve the collectivist programs to which they were now openly committed.” In their place rose “magazines in the South and West, far from metropolitan surroundings.” He lists: The Virginia Quarterly Review; The Southern Review; The Frontier and Midland; American Prefaces; The Southwest Review; The Symposium; and lesser regional magazines

Davidson indicates a change in metropolitan New York with Seward Collins, who “after waging a vigorous campaign in The Bookman for the Humanist program, converted the old literary periodical into a new magazine, The American Review.” Seward’s magazine was “a thoughtful insurgence” against “Marixian periodicals” like The New Masses.

The Marxians and Communists, to Davidson, “were the most uninteresting revolutionaries that America had ever known. Most of what was really vigorous in American literature was coming from the South, the West, and from non-­metropolitan regions of the East. ‘Regional’ fiction, as re­viewers now learned to call it, began to replace the realistic and satirical fiction of the nineteen-twenties.”

The Regional fiction “rejected cosmopolitanism and took delight in what Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser had deplored. The typical bestsellers of the nineteen-thirties were romantic, sweeping novels like Hervey Allen‘s Anthony Adverse, H.L. Davis‘s Honey in the Horn, Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone with the Wind, Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage, and Walter Edmonds Drums Along the Mohawk.” Davidson also mentions the criticism of T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and R.P. Blackmur.

Biography went from “debunking” to “large-scale, affirmative study of American heroes, statesmen, and literary figures” like Carl Sandburg‘s Lincoln: The Prairie Years and Douglas Southall Freeman’s R.E. Lee. Van Wyck Brooks’ The Ordeal of Mark Twain “was answered and exploded in” Bernard De Voto‘s Mark Twain’s America, “a book which bristled with documentation and belligerency; it was a Western dismissal, uproarious and salty, of the thin-blooded folly of the urban East.” Constance Rourke’s studies of American Humor and of the lives of David Crockett and Audubon. Vernon Parrington‘s Main Currents in American Thought.

The graphic arts—ruled by modernism—the art of propagandists “Orozco and Rivera was blanched by the work of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. And the “prints of Currier and Ives” were revived along with many other American artists.

Allen Tate in “The Profession of Letters in the South” mediates “upon the lack of a literary tradition to support the Southern artist, apply to all regions.” Davidson continues, “Of every region it can be said, as [Tate] says of the South, that while each contains a unified culture, there is rarely a cultural landmark, of an artistic nature. Acknowledgment of such landmarks comes, if it comes at all, in retrospect. The politically minded South, after driving out Edgar Allan Poe, later claims him as a Southern writer, just as the East, after similar behavior, claims Herman Melville, or the West, Mark Twain. In nineteenth-century England about the same thing happened to many great men of letters; and modern Ireland at first greeted Yeats and Synge with jeers and rioting.”

Most Southern writers of the 1920s, Davidson notes, “seemed to think that they could not acknowledge their obligations to art without at the same time repudiating the Southern past and accepting the progressive view of the Southern present.” (I don’t think this ever fully went away and all the once-great Southern publications mentioned by Davidson seem to hate the South.)  Yet, “the twelve Southerners who in 1930 announced their views in I’ll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition disavowed the progressive view itself as unfit for Southern needs and as in many respects a betrayal of what was most worth cherishing.”

“In their fight against giant industrialism and its obverse, giant socialism, the Agrarians in effect were redefining the Jeffersonian principles that had set America off from Europe and had played an important part in forming American character. In their attempt at redefinition they soon found that others were inclined to join forces with them.” Davidson then names: Herbert Agar, Land of the Free, and Agar’s books, lecture platform, in the columns of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and Who Owns America? Edited along with Allen Tate; Seward Collins and The American Review; followers of Ralph Borsodi’s ideas; Joseph E. Baker, “Four Arguments for Regionalism” The Saturday Review, 1936

Commenting on Vernon Louis Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, Davidson remarks this book is “where the development of an economic-political thesis makes the history of American literature in large part a study in sectionalism and nationalism, roughly parallel to Turner’s study of general American history.”

V. Federation or Disunion: The Political Economy of Regionalism

“Federation or Disunion” is a revised form of an essay entitled “That the Nation May Endure,” which appeared in Who Owns America? This is the second key essay in this volume according to Allen Tate.

They are extremists who, whether they call themselves idealists or pragmatists, agree in believing that the Leviathan State, in not only a national form but a world form, is necessary to secure to humankind the equal benefits of technological advance, to which they would sacrifice all else. These men, like the followers of Mahomet, will hear no appeal to reason, but will choose rather to put unbelievers to the sword.

After reading the following from Davidson, I have to wonder if we only know the National Anthem due to televised sports. Davidson writes, “We do not know what to call a citizen of the United States. American is a large word, to which Eskimo, Cuban, and Brazilian also have some claim. Our most characteristic songs are those which embody sectional experience, like “Old Kentucky Home,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Home on the Range”; nobody can remember the words or sing the tune of the officially national songs, like “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Davidson writes, “When the older school of American historians had to record the actions of contiguous groups of states that united to protect their common interests, they called the phenomenon sectionalism and stigmatized it as anti-national. The younger historians—and with them sociologists, political scientists, economists, and even men of letters—encountering the same phenomenon, name it regionalism. To them it is not an anti-national force but the condition itself of nationalism in a country as large and as notably diverse in its geographic divisions as our country is. Seemingly they grant that the nation has already fulfilled a prophecy made nearly twenty years ago by F. J. Turner. If the reader will substitute the more fashionable word region for the word section in the passage which follows, he will have a description of the sort of nation that students of regionalism now believe the United States to be.

The Southern planter or farmer (and not only the Southern one!) gullied and exhausted his lands, sold his timber, held his tenants pinned with a dollar mark, not because he was a limb of Satan but because money had to be forthcoming and that quickly—for shoes and hats from tariff-protected factories; money for farm machinery, kerosene, gasoline, fertilizer, cooking-stoves, knives, axes, automobiles, all financed and produced under the imperial scheme; money for mortgages and loans, to placate the sucking tentacle-tip of the money octopus flung far to seize him; money for taxes to run schools on the new model furnished by the Northeast—and, yes, indirectly to swell the endowment of Teachers College of Columbia University and keep its well-marshalled hosts employed; money for more taxes for still more public improvements—new roads, new courthouses (with steel filing cabinets), and new bureaus upon bureaus; money for interest on the national debt, covered by bonds gilt-edged, good as gold, offering Hamiltonian conveniences to banks and security venders; money for the new Northeastern idea of insurance, to hedge him against the liabilities and calamities forced upon him by the system and to bury him when, lifeless, moneyless, and propertyless, he delivers his soul to his Maker and his body to a mortician who is one of the highly valued members of the Chamber of Commerce. For all the while prodigious and faithful though his labor might have been, the money for these things came to him in a trickle, if at all, but it poured Northeast in flood. The South has learned this lesson well. And now the West may learn it, too—may know that the West goes in shoddy that the Northeast may walk in silk and satin.

Davidson’s footnote to the paragraph above: “The extent to which both West and South are owned, controlled, and exploited by the Northeast is set forth in detail by Walter Prescott Webb in Divided We Stand, which was published late in 1937 after this book went to press.

Chase Steely

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

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