XIII. The Dilemma of the Southern Liberals

Originally published in The American Mercury, 1934 “The Dilemma of the Southern Liberals”

Back when wild-eyed suffragettes were on the losing end of Oklahoma Drills with King George V’s horse, Vanderbilt and Sewanee were Southern football giants, and the Bull Moose Party was hawking the square new deal, Southern liberals—all hopped up on Chero-Cola—were “flushed with enthusiasm for a progressive future.”

Russell Kirk observed when the garment of civilization becomes too tattered to wear, some turn tailors, and toil stitch by stitch repairing that “old suit.” Walter Hines Page & Co are cut from a newer cloth—likely synthetic—and have contempt for hand-me-downs. Progress leaves no time to focus on a single stitch. What is old must die, and Mr. “Kevorkian” Page wishes the South to “fling off the dead hand of the past.” Id est, convert or die.

The Gospel of Progress abandoned the sheep to breadlines begging for crumbs. Davidson argues, Southern libs lost their sheen as their promises and prophecies proved spurious. False prophets ofttimes worship forged gods and angels and “the liberals made up some substitute angels, called Progress, Sanitation, Education, and Progress.” Davidson prudently engaged the Southern liberals—as we do the “experts,” “elites,” Neo-cons, and Proposition Nationalists—because we care about the South. And as Davidson writes, their decisions are felt by Southerners, “for they occupy positions of influence: they edit newspapers, write books, direct education policies, and venture into politics.” Davidson notes their small numbers, yet they wield the “power to affect the trend of Southern life for the better or worse.”

“It is a queer sort of liberalism that proposes to abolish the chain-gang by putting everybody in chains.”

The ghost of Walter Hines Page abides. Davidson detects its presence in the social forces of Howard Odum, the “advocates of progressivism” George Fort Milton and Judge Robert Winston with their dissent of Southern tradition, and Broadus “industrialism fanboy” Mitchell. He also pays particular attention to Virginius Dabney and his Liberalism in the South, writing “the truth is that Mr. Dabney, for all his good will, writes not like a historian but like a doctrinaire who is trying to bolster his progressivism with an appeal to authority” (Evergreen criticism). Davidson shoots an azimuth from Jefferson pointing to Calhoun, the Bourbons, the “Utopian vision of Henry Grady”, to Ben Tillman and Bob Taylor country, leading back where the essay began—to Walter Hines Page.

Offstage the liberals and the chambers of commerce shook hands over the prostrate body of the Old South.

The Southern Liberals flew Jeffersonian colors, though Davidson reckoned them bastard pirates because “the Jefferson of political and economic theory is not the paternal ancestor of the modern Southern liberals, who worship consolidation and are likely to think of farmers as yokels. In fact, it can hardly be said that the Southern liberals have any ancestors in the South. Their intellectual pedigree, so far as it is American, must be traced out on the northern side of the Potomac. They will discover their family portraits among the New England humanitarians.”

After two decades of Southern liberal shelling the conservative opposition “was put in the wrong and made to feel the brunt of metropolitan, even of world, disapproval.” Amidst the casualties were young Southerners, the first to undergo “the new public education” and force-fed “the liberal interpretation on issues.” They weren’t ignorant of the Southern past, despite Yankee textbooks, “but they had been fully exposed to all the loose precepts of modernism and were inclined to accept without question. As a matter of course, they believed that culture comes out of books; that wealth is the road to success and is to be achieved only by industrial expansion; that religion is a silly fable; that progress is real and depends on science; that politics is unimportant; that education really educate. Everybody was shouting about the backwardness of the South.

In a 1938 review, Allen Tate wrote of this chapter and the next “for all time, I think, Mr. Davidson disposes of the work and policies of the ‘liberal’ school coming down from Grady and Page. Until the liberals of the Dabney sort can deal with Mr. Davidson’s diagnosis, they will do well not to mention nostalgia.”

* Davidson discusses this chapter in correspondence with Edwin Mims.

XIV. Howard Odum and the Sociological Proteus

Howard Odum and the Sociological ProteusAmerican Review, 1934

Howard Odum and “the moderate school of Southern sociologists” ‘rassled Proteus for several years winning an answer or two they published in Odum’s Southern Regions, which Davidson praises as “surprisingly free from the agitating and crusading spirit that has animated many of the North Carolinians.” Davidson describes the soil producing the largest Southern sociologist crop, UNC, as “a center of radiation for ideas that began by being liberal and have swung more and more toward the Left position of Southern thought.”

The Southern picture that emerges slowly from the mass of assembled details is in outline familiar. Southern Regions confirms what we already knew or guessed was true. The South is an overwhelmingly, invincibly agrarian area, caught helplessly between its own dimly understood and still living past and the demands of an assertive, recklessly exploitative nation that, under Northeastern leadership, has committed itself rather deeply to an urban, industrial vision of the future.

I’m not witty or intelligent enough to summarize much of this chapter and Davidson is in full Sgt. York mode—picking off the enemy one by one—so I’m going to hop out the way for a hot minute. Davidson writes:

“It may be true that sociology here, as in many another case, simply proves what common-sense persons already knew. But in our violently statistical, researching age, it is extremely useful to have on hand several bales of data to feed the asses. Those particular asses who have argued that the South has refused to put itself in order only because of some blind and wicked infatuation with false gods are here refuted.”

“But what will now happen to their vituperative vocabulary? You cannot accuse a page of statistics of being nostalgic. There is no Jahveh-worship in a chart of taxation figures. It is impossible to charge Mr. Odum with renewing the War Between the States when he points out that the per capita farm income for New York state in 1929 was $493, while in Tennessee it was $137. Yet no doubt the South-baiters will have a verbal shillelagh ready. They will probably call Mr. Odum a Fascist!”

“Puzzled liberals like Virginius Dabney damn the South for not repairing its deficiencies, and by way of tonic they offer another swig of the patent medicine that has been costly without being curative. They do not know or do not care to know that the debtor South, already ravaged by its creditors, cannot, out of its limited substance, pay for modern improvements and at the same time maintain its creditors in luxury.”

Davidson pulls a few of Odum’s stats not likely to pop up at your local trivia night.

– In 1929 there were less than 175 motor cars per 1000 inhabitants in all Southern states except Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, as compared with 175 to 225 in the Northeast and over 275 in the Middle West.

– The Southeast has 175 million acres in farmlands as compared with 60 million in the Northeast.

– The Southeast buys 59.5% of all the fertilizer bought in the nation. The Northeast buys 12.3%; the Middle States 19.8%.

– Less than 10% of Southern farms use tractors.

– In interstate migration since 1900 the heaviest net loss was in the South: 3,400,000.

– Southern states, which are at the bottom of the national list in income, land values, and all sorts of other tangibles, are at the top of the list in tax increases since 1913. The ratios of increase for the six regions of the United States are as follows: Southeast, 307.5%; Southwest, 281.9%; Northeast, 222.3%; Middle States, 232.4%; Northwest, 203%; Far West, 158.2%.

Have Southern critics and the eager missionaries (those “who will take his chances of getting popped into the cannibal pot if, with the Great White Father’s bureaus at his back, he can proselyte the Southern savages”) ever “wondered whether a certain kind of valid cultural preference might be tied up with the economic unbalance: the kind of preference that would make a Georgia cracker want to spend an extra quarter on ammunition to shoot squirrels rather than on a copy of The New Yorker?”

The South is sectionally self-conscious. Without realizing what he is doing, the average Southerner in practice often separates his private folkways from his public opinions and actions. For himself as an individual he is responsible; for what goes on in the greater world he is not responsible. After long years of subjection he has learned to take social programs as he takes the weather. They generally come from far away, he is not responsible for them, he will do nothing about them until it is necessary. The Southerner might be called Oriental in his tolerance of social movements originating elsewhere, until they begin to intrude upon his English-Scotch notion of private and clan responsibility.

XV. Expedients vs. Principles—Cross-Purposes in the South

“Expedients vs. Principles—Cross-Purposes in the South” Southern Review, 1937

The marketplace of Southron ideas in Davidson’s time was about as tranquil as Appalachian auctioneer night at your local watering hole. The South was a land flowing with antithetical schools of thought—all competing for the role of Joshua, all claiming to speak for the South—several worth listening to and a handful of Hookworm Oil salesmen hollering “follow me! I know the way to the promised land (in other words, lay down your plow, abandon your fields, and come to the factory. Here’s your time card.)”

Which way Southern man? That was the question of the day; the question to which Davidson says is on the Southern mind, especially the mind of Rupert Vance. In The South’s Place in the Nation, Vance recounts several “contradictory voices” on the Southern question. One “holds that the South might be better off if it could have remained a part of the British Commonwealth.” Another “feels that the South will never raise its low level of living because of its inability to develop an industrial economy free of outside control. A social scientist maintains that the region has no choice but to admit its colonial status and ask to become the territorial ward of the nation. Communist leaders advocate self-determination for the black belt … and are charged with organizing share-croppers as the shock troops of the new revolution. Southern industrialists want the situation to remain unchanged. And still other voices, doubtful of the industrial economy, insist that Southern problems cannot even approach a good solution until Southerners understand the new meaning and the contemporary validity of the South’s agrarian tradition.”

The Agrarians, Davidson included, had a few suggestions and “old principles” to offer. They found a not-so-laissez-faire marketplace. According to Davidson “they found that even to utter the phrase, ‘agrarian tradition,’ was, in the opinion of many educated Southerners, heresy of the most absurd and violent kind. They found that a man could be verbally, if not actually, tarred and feathered for talking about such principles; and that nobody would be quicker in applying the tarbrush than some of the upholders of liberalism, tolerance, education, and progress.”

The attempted Agrarian purge by the Southern Policy Conference led Davidson to ask “what circumstances could have produced such a grave disparity of views among men who presumably have the common and sincere desire to better Southern conditions?” Naturally, the circumstances were complicated as rocket surgery, but Davidson ferries us back to the time when Woodrow Wilson called the White House home. “The old feuds between North and South had seemingly died away. The North was amiable and philanthropic. The South seemed disposed to follow the conciliatory policy of the Henry Grady liberals. When the United States entered the World War, many editors remarked—with less nervousness than they had shown in 1898—upon the amicable enlistment of Southerner with Northerner under the Stars and Stripes.”

The effects of the peace pipe withered quicker than the flavor of Fruit Stripe gum, and as Davidson notes, when Wilson left office “the party of Lodge made its triumphal reéntry, the truce was quickly broken. The history of the South since that time has been marked by four series of events occurring simultaneously and closely interrelated.”

The first series of these historical events was Harding’s Charge, an attack “upon Southern life and its characteristic institutions.” by the Harding administration. Davidson observes, “this attack has been more abusive and unrelenting than anything the Southern states have experienced since the last Federal soldier was withdrawn from their soil. In the 1920s there was no single institution, like slavery, upon which attacks could be centered. They had a vaguer objective in the so-called backwardness, or ‘cultural lag,’ of the South. The Northern press, with all of the Southern press that takes its cue from New York, have unanimously agreed that the South is guilty of numerous crimes against progress.”

Whenever the Northeast has felt a threat against its power or has wished to gain new power, the familiar story of the Southern “outrage” has flooded the press or appeared in the halls of Congress. The technique is automatic. I do not argue that it represents some deliberate, highly wrought conspiracy against the South, but rather that it is the nature of an urban, industrialized society to behave thus toward whatever stands in its path, and to feel quite self-righteous in so doing.

Second on Davidson’s historical event timeline “is the new advance of large-scale industrialism into the Southern area.” Industry is not the enemy but industries “on a national rather than a local scale, and that are concerned in the mass-purchasing, mass-production, mass-distribution cycle.”

The “high standard” of living has brought him into the industrial system of buying continually a series of articles that must continually be replaced. The result of this process in the South has been a wholesale exportation of Southern cash and, more devastatingly, of physical resources—and all without adequate compensation. It has meant depletion of resources, debt, and parasitism more vast than the South has ever experienced.

The third sequence of events, parallelling the previous two, is “the sudden expansion of the functions of state and local governments throughout the South, and the correspondingly sudden and enormous increase of public expenditures. Such expansion is everywhere a part of the cost of going modern.”  You’d be prudent to give the price tag a gander on that “high standard” of living.

Fourth on Davidson’s list is somewhat a whitepill, and comes stamped: Made in the South. He writes, “within the past fifteen years we have witnessed the rise of a new Southern literature, a brilliant and powerful school of Southern historians, and an able group of economists. sociologists, and political scientists.” Even with the accolades, the Southern was rarely tried by his peers.

The Southerner is always pleading a sectional case before a court that insists upon ruling sectional issue irrelevant. In this dilemma, Harper and Dew were driven into a defense of slavery, and Calhoun into an attack upon majority rule and an advocacy of secession. In 1850 the logic of the Northern argument was: Southern notions about democracy and the Constitution are invalid because the Southerner is an inhumane slaveholder and belongs to an arrogant “‘slaveocracy”’; and he is speaking as a Southerner only, while we of the North are speaking as Americans and have the nation’s good in mind. In 1937 the argument runs: there’s no merit in a Southern approach to regional or national affairs, because the South is a backward region, addicted to lynching, illiteracy, demagogues, and hookworm. And so, if the Southerner voices a preference for a different brand of education from what is being offered, he is assailed as an enemy of education. If he questions the economy and usefulness of a certain road-building program on the ground that it serves the through-truck-and-tourist traffic but does not help the farmer, then he is asked whether he proposes to return to ox-carts. If he points out that the Constitution guarantees freedom of worship and by no means charges the government with fostering pseudo-religion disguised as science, then he is called a Fundamentalist from the Bible Belt. If he questions the wisdom of introducing large mass-production units into an agricultural area, he is accused of wanting to do away with machinery. He must, in short, deal with arguments that continually beg the question. How shall the Southerner escape from this dilemma? How can he meet criticism, improve Southern conditions, and still be true to the South?

Davidson ends the chapter with several first-rate paragraphs on Thomas Jefferson, Jeffersonianism, the differences between Europe and America, and heavily quoting John Taylor of Caroline. I exhort you to give it a read.

XVI. The Southern Poet and His Tradition

The Southern Poet and His TraditionPoetry, Southern Number, vol. 40, no. 2, 1932

Some desired to prescribe the subject matter, constructing guardrails for Southern poets, but the Fugitives and others weren’t knit together in the genteel womb of magnolias and moonlight—they were sons of the western South, “still half-horse, half-alligator, and ready to fight all comers.” Davidson writes “it is a fair question to ask why Southern poets, as artists with a very special local heritage, cannot write like Southerners, rather than like ‘advanced’ Parisians or Greenwich Villagers; and why they cannot, among other things, write about the indubitably Southern themes, even the Southern legends, places. heroes, though that alone, of course, will not make them Southern poets, or in fact, poets of any sort.”

It almost amounts to this: that a poet cannot be “Southern” without behaving like a fool; and if he tries not to be a fool, he will not be recognizably “Southern.” Yet they should not be blamed too harshly. In America—or at least in the progressive America which has been most vocal in recent years—every man who starts out to be an artist is subjected to a subtle but powerful pressure to emancipate himself from his native surroundings.

Young and aspiring Southern poets of the time seemed incapable of dodging two traps according to Davidson. The first error ensues when the Southern poet “utterly divorces himself from all sense of locality and at once begins to write clever but trifling imitations of decadent poetasters in New York, London, and Paris.” The second ensnares them when they “write ‘Southern’ poetry containing very proper local references” but the Southern isn’t even extract—just imitation flavoring. “One tendency gives us modernists of every type—people who begin by grandly renouncing their birthright and by contributing to woolly Messiah magazine. The other tendency begets local laureates—cheerful infants who commit monstrosities such as state songs on the model of Katharine Lee Bates’ America the Beautiful.”

While the North has been changing its apparatus of civilization every ten years or so—this being, I fear, the peculiar curse inherited from that restless haunted soul, Abraham Lincoln—the South has stood its ground at a fairly safe distance and happily remained some forty or fifty years behind the times. Having once got hold of an idea, even though it be not quite a perfect idea, the South does not hasten to discard it but keeps holding on. The South has never been able to understand how the North, in its astonishing quest for perfection, can junk an entire system of ideas almost overnight, and start on another one which is newer but no better than the first. This is one of the principal differences, out of many real differences, between the sections.

When it comes to the poetry of the Old South, Yankee and Southern critics exaggerated their case. “The poetry of the Old South and of the post-bellum South had the virtues and defects of American poetry in general; it was Romantic, or it was Victorian, with some sporadic excellence.” Davidson names a handful of poets who have done the South proud: Edgar Alan Poe, Sidney Lanier, Henry Timrod, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Irwin Russell (I think. Davidson uses surnames), Josephine Pinckney, Thomas Holley Chivers, and Davidson also mentions the folk-singers and “makers of ballads, songs, and spirituals.”

Left undisturbed, the Southern tradition would undoubtedly register effectively in art. But it has not been left undisturbed. Instead, the so-called Southern liberal group, who have of late grown much in power, aided by Northern philanthropy and by agitation in Northern journals, have bent every energy to persuade the South to make over its civilization on the progressive Northern plan, largely through the combined agencies of a sweeping industrialization and a large-scale “liberalized” scheme of public education. The effect of this program has undoubtedly been to dislocate many Southern writers from a proper relation to their own people and their own tradition.

XVII. The Shape of Things and Men: H.G. Wells and Æ on the World State

“The Shape of Things and Men: Two Views of the World State” American Review, 1936

In the Wellsian future, no moment will have a meaning until it has been seized, recorded, and tabulated. The dream of the Great Society which runs through all of Mr. Wells’s books has its foundation upon the Victorian idea of science as man’s Promethean deliverer from all of the old discords and tyrannies.

The last chapter in Attack On Leviathan stands alone, the sole chapter in the section titled “The World State” and Davidson tells it like he sees it concerning H.G. Wells and his The Shape of Things to Come. Davidson is not a fan of Wells’ pseudo-scientific cocktail—two parts history infused with fiction, one part “theory of inevitable human progress,” and garnished with a sprig of “Victorian optimism.”  Davidson writes “for Mr. Wells, Progress is the dogmatic certainty that is sufficient to motivate all human actions, and Technology is the instrument by which Progress is to be made effective. Progress is his God, and Technology is his Messiah.”

The final test of any Utopia, as of the forms of Utopianism that appear in economic systems, governments, and religions, lies in whether it provides a way of life for humanity that is actually a human way. It must call out other faculties than skill or intellect alone. Why should the human species survive, if it cannot survive nobly? The Wellsian salvation is only another form of destruction, for his Utopia rests upon technology and power at the expense of all else.

Davidson contrasts Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come with George William Russell’s (“AE”) The Interpreters—a work Davidson holds in high regard—judging one section as “one of the finest pieces of dialectic written in modern times. In Wells, the old goal of technological specialization becomes a club of fear with which to beat the unruly into subjection. But in Russell, there is the voice of a wisdom that we might have thought departed from the earth.”

* I’d also recommend reading James Poulos, “The Technology of MemoryThe New Atlantis, No. 20 (Spring 2008)

Chase Steely

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

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