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Pietas and the Southern Agrarians

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By:Tom Landess | November 09, 2017

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From the December 2000 issue of Chronicles.

Pietas—the ancient virtue of respect for family, country, and God—is becoming increasingly difficult to practice in a nation driven half mad by guilt. Our nation's past, once uncritically revered, is now uncritically condemned. Families are regarded as breeding pens of bigotry. And God is forever sticking His nose into areas where He does not belong, showing up at public schools and football games.

Southerners face peculiar problems in this regard, because the South is the ugly, ill-behaved stepchild of America, always in need of a rap in the mouth. New Englanders celebrate the Plymouth landing and are permitted to say that the Pilgrims came here to escape religious persecution in England, even though they really came to escape religious latitudinarianism in Holland. The Midwest is allowed to forget that it was once illegal for blacks to live in some parts of that region. And no one reminds the far West of its legal persecution of Chinese immigrants well into the 20th century.

But when Southerners practice regional piety, they had better do it with the doors locked and the shades drawn. Things have only become worse in recent years:

The Confederate Air Force, an organization of pilots who fly World War II planes at air shows, has been told that it will no longer be invited to perform at some events if the membership does not vote to change its name.

A dairy fired an employee because he had a Confederate flag sticker pasted on his lunchbox.

The NCAA threatened to cancel all future tournaments in South Carolina if the Confederate flag continued to fly over the capitol.

A boy in Kansas was suspended from school because he drew a picture of a Confederate flag.

This latest outbreak of anti-Southern sentiment is puzzling because, according to the most recent Gallup poll on race relations, the South was the only region where a majority of blacks believed that they were treated equally. Yet the phenomenon is easier to understand when you remember that the South is the most reactionary section of the country and the least likely to embrace conformity (which is now called "diversity"). If Americans are to be prepared for globalism, they must surrender accidental differences and learn to live in the substantive world of trade. But Southerners still cherish their differences. That has to change.

Southern resistance to the forces of change may be less widespread than in the past, but it is more intense. The first attack came before the Civil War; secession was the counterattack. During Reconstruction—a period of repression that has been shamelessly prettified by recent historians — Southerners were unable to launch a counterattack, any more than Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were able to launch a successful counterattack against their Soviet occupiers, although they tried guerrilla warfare. Next came the Era of Good Feeling, in which Broadway plays featured Southern belles who fell in love with Union officers, giving birth to a reunited nation.

Then the old attacks began anew, and the Agrarians provided the impetus for the first serious postbellum counterattack. In 1930, 12 Southerners contributed essays to a symposium called I'll Take My Stand. Seven of them—John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Gould Fletcher, Andrew Lytic, and Stark Young—were serious men of letters whose poetry, fiction, and criticism would eventually achieve national recognition. The rest were scholars of one sort or another: Frank L. Owsley was a brilliant (if controversial) historian; John Donald Wade, a biographer; H.C. Nixon, a political scientist; Lyle Lanier, a psychologist; Henry Blue Kline, a newspaperman.

The assaults on the South had recommenced following the Scopes trial, and the contributors, most of whom had connections with Vanderbilt University, felt compelled to defend their people against charges of ignorance and bigotry. Theirs was a reawakened piety toward a world they had previously taken for granted. Louis D. Rubin quotes Davidson as saying of their shared vision: "Suddenly we realized to the full what we had long been dimly feeling, that the Lost Cause might not be wholly lost after all. In its very backwardness the South had clung to some secret which embodied, it seemed, the elements out of which its own reconstruction—and possibly even the reconstruction of America—might be achieved."

The volume was published in 1930 and has never been out of print. Its publication was a defining moment for Southern self-consciousness, not so much because of what the contributors said, but because they had the wit and courage to say it. From that time forward, the South has always had its remnant of academic defenders—intellectuals heirs of the Agrarians who may have rejected some of the specific arguments in I'll Take My Stand, but who share the same pietas for their region.

From the beginning, the volume was ridiculed, mostly out of either a misapprehension or a misrepresentation of what the contributors wrote. In order to understand what they had to say about the South, it is necessary to understand what they did not say. Here are a few of the dominant errors that critics make in discussing I'll Take My Stand.

·The volume is a nostalgic hymn to the past, coupled with a wistful hope of restoring the old plantation with its cavaliers, its hoop-skirted ladies, and its happy-go-lucky slaves. In fact, the book is nothing of the sort; no intelligent reader could possibly come to such a conclusion. The essayists focused primarily on the South of 1930, and what was worth preserving in the compromised world they knew. Stark Young's contribution is the only one that takes a long look at the Old South, and he begins by saying, "If anything is clear, it is that we can never go back, and neither this essay nor any intelligent person that I know in the South desires a literal restoration of the old Southern life, even if that were possible; dead days are gone, and if by some chance they should return, we should find them intolerable."

·I'll Take My Stand is "utopian." An entire thesis was written on this misconception, despite the fact that the volume is the very opposite of a Utopia: It deals with the world of real problems and real complexities, a world the Agrarians nonetheless thought worth preserving.

Indeed, the enemies of the Agrarians, the apostles of the "New South," were the Utopians. They believed in the future rather than the present, in a desert transformed by industrialization into an economic and cultural oasis. Their world existed only in potentia—and, therefore, did not exist at all.

The Agrarians engaged in speculation about the future as well. Instead of the brave new world of the New South prophets, they predicted urban blight. As John Ransom put it in the "Statement of Principles" that preceded the essays: "The amenities of life also suffer under the curse of a strictly-business or industrial civilization. They consist in such practices as manners, conversation, hospitality, sympathy, family life, romantic love—in the social exchanges that reveal and develop sensibility in human affairs."

To determine who was "utopian" and who was realistic in their predictions, visit any major city and examine the manners, conversation, hospitality, sympathy, family life, and social exchanges practiced there.

·I'll Take My Stand is neoconfederate, secessionist, and therefore, treasonous. Ransom specifically rejects such a view: "No one now proposes for the South, or for any other community in this country, an independent political destiny. That idea is thought to have been finished in 1865."

On the other hand, just because the region is subject to the authority of the United States government does not mean that it must become indistinguishable from other regions. As Ransom puts it: "But how far shall the South surrender its moral, social, and economic autonomy to the victorious principle of Union? That question remains open." It still does.

·I'll Take My Stand promotes the idea of a Southern aristocracy. The Agrarians—with the exception, perhaps, of Stark Young—did not believe that an aristocracy existed in the South—Old or New. Steeped in European history, they knew what the word meant. Indeed, in the first essay, Ransom explains the region's social hierarchy in far less flattering terms than one would expect from a Southern apologist:

The old Southern way of life was of course not so fine as some of the traditionalists like to believe. It did not offer serious competition against the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. It hardly began to match the finish of the English or any other important European civilization . . . It may as well be admitted that Southern society was not . . . an institution of very showy elegance, for the so-called aristocrats were mostly home-made and countrified. Aristocracy is not the word which defines this organization so well as squirearchy . . . And even the squires, and other classes too, did not define themselves very strictly.

So much for the Agrarians' belief in aristocracy. For them, the normative Southerner was variously described as the "small farmer," the "tiller of the soil," the "yeoman." The economic unit was not the plantation but the family farm. Critics contend that I'll Take My Stand is wrongheaded about economics (probably) and history (arguably), but no one can legitimately charge that the symposium was Utopian, neoconfederate, or anti-American, or that it is aristocratic in its sensibilities. So why has it been so energetically condemned for so long? And why, until very recently, has every new generation of left-leaning scholars gone to war over its contents? The reasons vary.

Some of the most dedicated critics of the Agrarians were the very Southerners who believed in Henry Grady's promise of a New South, a landscape billowing with the smoke of progress. These critics saw I'll Take My Stand as a tree fallen across the road to paradise. In their view, the Agrarians were Luddites who wanted to deny Southerners their opportunity to keep up with the Joneses in the North.

This mentality has prevailed in the South, but Southern academics from liberal institutions and departments no longer lead the attack against I'll Take My Stand. For all their reactionary assumptions, the Agrarians' predictions have come tine; and now, instead of attacking the Agrarians, the left defends raw land against the invasion of developers and factory owners. A few years ago, even Mother Jones ran a complimentary article on the Agrarians.

Non-Southern critics of the symposium have a different ax to grind: They find disturbing the very assumption that the South possesses any virtues. They remember that slavery and de jure segregation flourished in the region for a long time, while conveniently forgetting that slavery and de facto segregation also flourished in the North.

They find infuriating the assertion by some Southern historians and social critics that the Civil War was not caused by slavery alone, but by numerous economic conflicts. They believe that Southerners deliberately complicate an issue that is actually very simple—and do so to exculpate a wicked and repressive society.

Furthermore, they view this kind of pietas as a form of intellectual secession and, hence, an arrogant betrayal of the American ideal that they believe is expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. They are particularly enraged when Southerners criticize Abraham Lincoln—the nation's chief secular saint, whose face, after all, is on the penny and the five-dollar bin.

Since few 20th-century Southerners voiced these heretical sentiments until the Agrarians brought the pot to a boil in 1930, I'll Take My Stand becomes a perennial target for those motivated by a Northern pietas, a reverence for the Lost Causes of equality and freedom—two old enemies who can no longer get along now that the nation has become industrialized and urban. These are the main reasons why both Southerners and outsiders have continued to attack the Agrarians and their intellectual heirs, such as M.E. Bradford and Clyde Wilson.

On the other hand, Southern apologists have their reasons for keeping the quarrel alive: They are frustrated by a perverse tendency on the part of their critics to oversimplify the events surrounding the Civil War, while overcomplicating the history of all other American wars. The best statement of this frustration is found in Frank Owsley's contribution to I'll Take My Stand, when he writes: "To say that the irrepressible conflict was between slavery and freedom is either to fail to grasp the nature and magnitude of the conflict, or else to make use of a deliberate deception by employing a shibboleth to win the uninformed and unthinking to the support of a sinister undertaking."

The "sinister undertaking" to which he refers is the transformation of the federal government into an agent for Northern industrial interests at the expense of Southern agricultural interests. While slavery was one economic factor in this power grab — which ultimately led to war—Owsley cites several others, which were part of a much larger list of economic and political conflicts between the two regions.

The federal government subsidized the maritime industry and the merchant marines with tax dollars, and these enterprises supported Northern manufacturing but not Southern farming. The federal government spent millions on internal improvements designed to help Northern factories deliver their goods to Southern and Western markets—such tax-funded projects as paved roads, railroads, and canals. The Northeast favored a government-controlled national bank to serve the needs of business interests to finance further industrial expansion. And, most of all, the North favored a tariff (the higher the better) to protect goods produced in Northern factories—which forced lower-income Southerners to buy from domestic manufacturers and to pay artificially high prices.

These criticisms seem like irrelevant carping to most 21st-century readers. North and South, who drive the Interstate Highway System, buy agricultural products hauled into local markets by freight cars, and admire Alan Greenspan. Only the tariff issue continues to resonate, largely because globalists want the United States to lower its trade barriers while allowing its "trading partners" to raise theirs. But apologists for the South's past believe these economic concerns were fundamental considerations in the increasingly bitter debate that led to secession and war.

And Southern apologists believe they have a better historical imagination than their intellectual adversaries, who, they argue, want to measure the social and political arrangements of another era by modern, politically correct standards, as if the 19th century were a Harvard sociology professor reading the New York Times while jetting from Boston to San Francisco.

Southerners who harbor a neo-Agrarian piety are also bemused by the blindness of many conservatives—allies in other battles —who fail to recognize the seeds of Big Government in the Union's victory, not only on the battlefield but in every other aspect of American life; Industry and urbanization have led to increasing government involvement in the lives of all people.

An agricultural society would never have required such intervention, which necessarily involves high taxes and much "ordering about." As Owsley wrote, "The North was demanding positive action on the part of the federal government, and the South was demanding that no action be taken at all. In fact, it may be stated as a general principle that the agrarian South asked practically nothing of the federal government in domestic legislation."

These are some of the historical disagreements that spring from I'll Take My Stand and the Southern pietas it exemplifies. These quarrels continue to rage, although many of the terms have been altered. Southern apologists no longer argue for the preservation of family farms, since Prudential Life and ADM do most of the nation's farming these days. Nor do they claim that industrialism inevitably leads to mass unemployment, an argument that seemed credible in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression.

The opponents of Southern Agrarianism no longer defend the unlimited building of factories, nor do they laud the benefits of living in big cities. As an ideology, industrialism is dead, although, like Stonewall Jackson, it died only after completely routing the enemy.

Despite the shifting grounds of debate, however, the enmity is very much alive.

Outsiders and a growing number of Southerners will continue to say, "Give up and rejoin the Union. Admit that the South was wrong and wicked, that its defeat was a blessing, that the nation we live in today is better because Lee surrendered at Appomattox. And by the way, quit flying those Confederate flags and playing Dixie at athletic contests. These things are symbols of hatred and offensive to a lot of good people."

On the other hand, unreconstructed Southerners will continue to reply, "We haven't left the Union. We're simply trying to restore what the Founding Fathers established. As for the war, if we'd won—and we could have won—we would be enjoying greater freedom and equality in our part of the continent than the Yankees have in theirs. And who are you to tell us what our symbols mean? Unlike Lee, Grant didn't free his slaves until after the war; and Lincoln wanted to ship them all back to Africa."

These quarrels—kept alive by a natural conflict between pieties—are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future. They are like the ancient differences between England and Scotland; the ghost of history whispers in the ears of both sides, egging them on. And since that is the case, then we might as well try to fight with some civility and enjoy ourselves in the process.

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