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The Fugitives

The Fugitives were a group of influential early twentieth-century poets and writers. In 1914 John Crowe Ransom and Walter Clyde Curry, both of whom taught English at Vanderbilt University, began meeting informally with a group of their undergraduates to discuss poetry and ideas. They frequently gathered at the apartment of a local eccentric named Sidney M. Hirsch, who presided over the assembly from his chaise lounge. These early, relaxed conversations gradually evolved into the regular meetings of the Fugitive poets that began a few years later.

American entry into World War I temporarily dispersed the members of the group, several of whom enlisted in the military, but by 1920 the principals had reconvened at Vanderbilt. In addition to Ransom, Curry, and Hirsch, the original Fugitives included Donald Davidson, William Yandell Elliott, Stanley Johnson, and Alec B. Stevenson. After the war a number of younger undergraduates and poets from outside the Fugitive circle also began to attend meetings. Among their number were Merrill Moore, Allen Tate, Jesse Wills, and subsequently Alfred Starr and Robert Penn Warren. When she won the 1924 Nashville Poetry Prize, which the Fugitives sponsored, Laura Riding Gottschalk, then the wife of a professor of history at the University of Louisville, became an honorary member of the group.

By the autumn of 1921 the group was meeting fortnightly at the home of James M. Frank, a Nashville businessman and the brother-in-law of Hirsch. These meetings had no prescribed organization. Participants merely read their poems in turn, always providing copies for the audience. An intense and relentless critical discussion followed each of the presentations. No aspect of a poem escaped scrutiny. Exquisite or daring poems often excited the greatest controversy, while mediocre or conventional poems did not evoke much comment. "In its cumulative effect," Davidson recalled, "this severe discipline made us self-conscious craftsmen, abhorring looseness of expression, perfectly aware that a somewhat cold-blooded process of revision, after the first ardor of creation had subsided, would do no harm to art." (1)

At Hirsch's suggestion the group resolved to publish a magazine of verse. Having already accumulated a substantial body of manuscripts, they needed only to choose the poems that would comprise the first issue. They did so by secret ballot without designating anyone to assume editorial responsibilities. Davidson recorded the outcome of the first vote on the back of a letter from Vanderbilt chancellor James H. Kirkland informing him that no university apartments were available.

The recommendation of a title for the magazine, and hence of a name for the group itself, came from Stevenson. No one was fully certain about the meaning of The Fugitive or the rationale for selecting it. In his memoir about the group, Tate explained that "a Fugitive was quite simply a Poet: the Wanderer, or even the Wander Jew, the Outcast, the man who carries the secret wisdom around the world." (2)

The inaugural number of The Fugitive appeared in April 1922. The journal continued for more than three years until the group, still lacking a full-time editor to perform administrative duties, suspended publication in December 1925. Unlike numerous other "little magazines" that emerged and vanished during the 1920s, The Fugitive did not suffer from a scarcity of funds. An annual subscription rate of one dollar and the patronage of the Associated Retailers of Nashville kept the magazine solvent throughout its brief existence.

Much of the poetry to appear in the pages of The Fugitive was tentative and experimental. With the exception of Ransom, who had published a slender volume entitled Poems About God in 1919, the rest of the Fugitives were apprentices at their craft. Yet they instinctively rejected the sentimentalism of romantic poetry and consciously embraced the formalism of traditional poetry. Preferring adaptations of traditional poetic forms to rash and careless innovation, they also questioned the fundamental tenets of modernist poetry. Although they did not categorically repudiate novelty, the Fugitives insisted that all poetic experimentation must stand up to the most demanding critiques and the most meticulous judgments.

The Fugitive poets may be unique in the annals of American literary history. With the partial exception of the New England Transcendentalists, there has never been another coterie of writers who, like the Fugitives, shared so many assumptions about nature, society, humanity, and God. Nowhere has there been a group so united in its singular devotion to poetry as were the Fugitives between approximately 1920 and 1928. Davidson portrayed this common attachment metaphorically as the "cousinship of poetry." He wrote of the Fugitives: "the pursuit of poetry as an art was the conclusion of the whole matter of living, learning, and being. It subsumed everything, but it was also as natural and reasonable an act as conversation on the front porch." (3)

The Fugitive movement effectively came to an end with the publication of the Fugitive Anthology in 1928. As early as 1925 some of the Fugitives had already sensed new concerns entering into their discussion, which had hitherto been focused exclusively on poetry and literary criticism. Although poetry still dominated their conversations, Ransom, Davidson, Tate, Warren, and others now began to talk and correspond about the South and to express their growing opposition to the assumptions and values that were directing American political, social, economic, and cultural life. They sought to produce a manifesto in which to set forth southern Agrarianism as a moral alternative to the "American industrial ideal," which in their conception amounted to a national myth of innocence, omnipotence, and invincibility.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, which appeared in 1930, was the result of their efforts. In I'll Take My Stand, as well as in dozens of essays written during the next decade, the Fugitive-Agrarians exposed the reality of defeat and tragedy amid the growing conviction of purity and righteousness that characterized America during the 1920s. For Ransom, Davidson, Tate, Warren, and a new cadre of allies and friends, the defense of poetry had, temporarily at least, become inseparable from the defense of the South.

Suggested Reading

John M. Bradbury, The Fugitives: A Critical Account (1958); Louise Cowan, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History (1959); Mark G. Malavasi, The Unregenerated South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson (1997); Louis D. Rubin Jr., The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South (1978); John L. Stewart, The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and Agrarians (1965).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010