January 07, 2006

Myth and Myopia VI: The Fugitive-Agrarians Take Their Stand

Aside from Glasgow’s novels, the first true rumblings of Renaissance began with the publication, in April of 1922, of the first issue of the Fugitive, a small literary magazine created by a group of academics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Fugitive Poets would soon become extremely important to the literary rejuvenation of the South. Despite the initial movement to reject and flee the region suggested by their name, they would eventually seek to speak for traditional Southern values.

Although more than a dozen people moved in and out of the group over the years, the four major forces in terms of literary contribution were Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. After the Fugitive ceased publication in 1925, the four of them, and others, continued to write about and discuss the South from a variety of viewpoints.

The shift in perspective which changed the Fugitives, fleeing the South, into Agrarians, defending what they believed to be its central values, most likely had its focal point in the image of the Benighted South, which reached a fever pitch during the Scopes trial in 1925 thanks to men like H. L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow.

In 1930, the four major Fugitive Poets, along with eight others, compiled and published I’ll Take My Stand as “12 Southerners.” The work was a manifesto, of sorts, with the Agrarians declaring their belief that Southern culture and identity depended on its agrarian heritage; a heritage that would be destroyed by industrialization. In addition to the major Fugitive Poets, Stark Young and Andrew Lytle were also important literary contributors to the manifesto.

The 12 Southerners’ aims as part of the movement (although some of them would later abandon the position) were truly ambitious, amounting to nothing less than to create a myth, "an aesthetic, religious humanism [. . .] intended to [. . .] subvert progressive, industrial, scientific values." Their values were, perhaps, a bit naïve, but they stood for (among other things) the inherent value of individual human beings. They “found the worship of the Old South and the hymns to the New South equally repellent,” and earnestly and openly sought a middle ground, embracing the best of both worlds without glorifying either.

At this point, proceeding chronologically rather than thematically becomes somewhat useless in a discussion of the works of a wide variety of authors.
Most of John Crowe Ransom’s major poetry was already published by the time I’ll Take My Stand was compiled, and Ransom’s poetry often showed only a tenuous connection with the South in any case. Quite the contrary, his initial goal, like that of the other Fugitives, was to revolt against and flee from that heritage. Nevertheless, his influence on the other Fugitives, and later Agrarians, was profound. Having already established himself as a poet and respected professor by the time the Fugitive began publication in 1922, he had become, and would remain, a central figure in the group.

The shift from Fugitives to Agrarians is most strongly evident in the writings of Allen Tate and Donald Davidson. Within a few years of the Scopes trial, Tate published the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," called "the centerpiece of modern Southern poetry." In it, he asked, "[. . .] Shall we take the act/To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave/In the house? The ravenous grave?" It is a moving reflection on the power of the past over the present, even as it questions the wisdom of granting too much power to the past.

While Davidson reflected nostalgically on the past, Tate maintained the perspective of modern man’s inability to regard history objectively. Both Tate and Donaldson wrote profusely during their lives, mostly in the form of poetry and essays. Between them they commented with eloquence and wisdom on the changes taking place in the South during the Renaissance.

Robert Penn Warren, a younger classmate of both Davidson and Tate, was the most gifted writer of the Agrarians. He is the only person to receive a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction (for All the King’s Men, 1946) and poetry (for Promises: Poems 1954-1956), and he received a third Pulitzer (for Now and Then) in 1978. His first novel, Night Rider, was published in the 1930s, but most of his major fiction was published after 1943. Often his novels operate (ostensibly) within the framework of actual history, but the circumstances are reworked freely for Warren’s purposes. His main themes largely revolve around the effects of Original Sin on characters whose idealism and certainty of laboring for an upright cause draw them into guilty involvement in activities which are less than morally upright. Sometimes they are able to find ultimate redemption, and sometimes they fall short.

Andrew Lytle’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand, like much of his fiction, revolved around the importance of the deteriorating yeoman farmer to the South, and lamented the resultant decline of folk culture. Another key aspect of Lytle’s fiction was the centrality of the family unit in Southern history. Many of his novels and nonfiction works are set during or near the Civil War, and Lytle carefully examined both positive and negative aspects of Southern history.

Caroline Gordon, the wife of Allen Tate, was one of the earliest and most prolific novelists among the Agrarians, although she did not contribute to I’ll Take My Stand. She was intimately familiar with Southern life, and each of her novels represented a successful experiment with a new form. Her 1937 novel, None Shall Look Back, has been called "possibly the best novel ever written about the Civil War experience."

Stark Young’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, the final piece in the book, was entitled "Not in Memoriam, But in Defense." In it he stated that "out of any epoch in civilization there may arise things worth while, that are the flowers of it. To abandon these, when another epoch arrives, is only stupid." Young’s fiction reflects his desire to identify and preserve the positive elements of life in the Old South. His historical novels often paint a very rosy picture of the past, particularly So Red the Rose (1934).

Near the end of that novel, one of the characters says, "Democracy, a good theory, a great human right, which works out none too well; slavery, a great human wrong, which works out none too badly." Many of the Fugitive-Agrarians "skirted perilously close to the line that separated their traditionalism from that of the plantation myth." Stark Young embraced that line.

Posted by Jared at January 7, 2006 08:42 PM | TrackBack