Agrarians

The Agrarians were a group of social critics centered around Vanderbilt University in the 1930s. They drew their name from their frankly reactionary resistance to industrial capitalism and their insistence that southern rural and small-town culture offered the best antidote to it. The theory of agrarianism, they argued in their anthology of essays, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), "is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers." (1)

I'll Take My Stand, a complex amalgam of southernism and economic radicalism, grew out of a circle of Vanderbilt students and professors who began meeting informally to discuss ideas in the 1910s. The membership and interests of the group changed over time; in the 1920s a collective shift toward poetry resulted in The Fugitive, a literary magazine published between 1922 and 1925. The Agrarian effort, organized by Vanderbilt professors and poets John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson and their former student, poet Allen Tate, represented a distinctive intellectual offshoot of the old circle. Of the twelve contributors to I'll Take My Stand, six were current or former members of the Vanderbilt faculty (Ransom, Davidson, psychologist Lyle Lanier, economist Herman C. Nixon, historian Frank L. Owsley, and English professor John Donald Wade) and four were former students (Tate, Henry B. Kline, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren). The final two contributors--critic Stark Young and poet John Gould Fletcher--were literary acquaintances of Tate.

The Agrarians were bound tightly by ties of mutual affection but only loosely by shared intellectual commitments. The contributors attempted to adopt a unified tone and platform but differed in rhetoric, approach, and social attitudes. Some were frankly elitist, identifying with the aristocratic pretensions of the antebellum southern slaveholding elite; others were populist, upholding the hardy folk culture of the southern yeoman farmer. Although appearing on the cusp of the Great Depression, the volume represented a fundamental act of resistance to the consumer-driven mass culture that had emerged in the 1920s.

The leading Agrarians--Ransom, Davidson, and Tate--were discouraged by the banal sloganeering of American culture, and yet they were equally disgusted with conservative cultural critics such as the New Humanists, led by classicists Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. In Tate's view, the Humanists proposed nothing better than an ersatz religion of great books; in Ransom's mind they were 100 percent schoolmasters who made no effective appeal to the American public. Ransom, Davidson, and Tate envisioned an alternative southern humanism. Unlike the literary program of the Humanists, Agrarianism was an economic program. The Agrarians disdained the notion that social change occurred as elites introduced cultural material "from the top." As Davidson wrote, "A movement of reform must begin at the base of our life--that is, with its economic base. And the Humanists have practically nothing to say on the subject of economics." (2)

The Agrarians believed industrial society undercut the dignity of human labor. Modern man, they argued, was bereft of vocation and glutted with the surfeit of consumer goods churned out by the industrial economy. Industrialism eviscerated local cultures; it was antithetical to religion, arts, and the social "amenities," including manners, conversation, hospitality, sympathy, family life, and romance. The Agrarians rejected not only northern economic imperialism, but also the cultural imperialism of an incipient commercial juggernaut. They favored subsistence over commercial agriculture. "Do what we did after the war and the Reconstruction," Lytle memorably enjoined his fellow southerners. "Return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stock. Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall." (3)

Despite their robust call for economic resistance to consumer capitalism, the Agrarians' actual economic program was rather thin. In the mid-1930s the Agrarians attempted a strategic alliance with the Distributists, a group of Anglo-American thinkers who advocated a return to small property holding. Their joint manifesto, Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence (1936), was a lackluster follow-up to I'll Take My Stand. In addition, the Agrarians' decision to adopt the pose of unreconstructed southerners (the original symposium included a rather moderate defense of racial segregation authored by Warren) left them open to damaging attacks from critics, who accused them of romanticizing the Old South, overlooking the South's inequalities, ignoring the impoverished reality of much southern farm life, and fruitlessly attempting to roll back progress.

Furthermore, the Agrarians were deeply divided among themselves. Ransom, Tate, and Warren saw southernism as an alternative mythology for modern Americans. In a disenchanted age, an intense emulation of an older southern culture held out the promise of a more secure sense of moral values. At the time of the writing of I'll Take My Stand, all three embraced religious skepticism but yearned for the certainties of a faith they could not accept. Their concerns tended to be universal in nature, and Tate wearied of the book's sectionalism early on and was horrified by the title, a lyric from the Confederate tune "Dixie" which was adopted over his strenuous objections. Davidson, on the other hand, viewed the Agrarians' southernism not as myth but as an alternative faith he wholeheartedly accepted. As the attention of Ransom, Tate, and the other leading Agrarians wandered to new projects, Davidson dug deeply into regionalist commitments. His ability to reinterpret the Agrarian project as a politics of cultural identity and a thoroughgoing resistance to the "leviathan" nation-state profoundly affected the legacy of Agrarianism. Davidson's fusion of a generalized traditionalism with a conservative politics of antistatism and anti-cosmopolitanism shaped postwar neo-Agrarian thinkers such as Richard M. Weaver and M. E. Bradford. Agrarianism survived into the postwar period not only as a much-studied literary episode involving some of the South's most accomplished writers but also as a vital source for southern conservatives, who remembered I'll Take My Stand less as an anticapitalist manifesto than as the taproot of their conservative politics of philosophical antiliberalism and cultural traditionalism.

Suggested Reading

Paul K. Conkin, The Southern Agrarians (1988); Daniel J. Singal, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945 (1982).

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