Lewis P. Simpson, in his memorable preface to The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, evoked Thomas Carlyle’s description of Robert Burns to hail Davidson’s own achievement. Burns, wrote Carlyle, was a “piece of right Saxon stuff: strong as the Harz-rock, rooted in the depths of the world;—rock, yet with wells of living softness in it!” So, too, was Davidson rooted in the depths of his Southern world.
As a man of letters, there wasn’t much he couldn’t do: poetry, essays, a history of the Tennessee River, a novel, and a libretto for a folk opera. Just as importantly, he was an unforgettable teacher of literature and creative writing. However, his adamant stand against desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s has obscured Davidson’s long-lasting importance as a great American poet, as one of the founders of the Fugitive-Agrarian movement, and as a pivotal forerunner of paleoconservatism.
Son of a grade school principal, Davidson was born and raised in Campbellsville, Tennessee. At Vanderbilt, the young Davidson played football, while honing his verse under the tutelage of John Crowe Ransom, the initial leader of the Fugitive group. Davidson, a veteran of World War I, published his first book of verse, The Outland Piper, in 1924. He also put in long hours editing and writing for The Fugitive and, later, for The Nashville Tennesseean newspaper's Sunday book page, a page syndicated throughout the South. Davidson soon achieved equal standing with Ransom as such undergraduates as Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle and Merrill Moore sought their own admission into this circle of ambitious poets. In 1918, Davidson married Theresa Sherrer, a native of Oberlin, Ohio. He nearly settled in the Buckeye State, seriously considering a newspaper job in Cleveland, then a bustling metropolis of 800,000 people.
Davidson and the Fugitives were not yet Southern patriots. For Davidson and Tate, that would change with the legendary 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. A science teacher, John Scopes, set himself up for arrest by professing to teach evolution rather than the Biblical creationist text. He was duly tried and sentenced to a paltry fine of $100. The trial was an international sensation, with H. L. Mencken and virtually the entire American and European press blasting away at backwards Dayton and with it, the entire region.
For Tate and Davidson, it marked the breaking point. “I’ve criticized the South for the last time,” Tate wrote Davidson. Through his contacts, Tate was able to secure a contract with Harper & Row for what would become I’ll Take My Stand (1930), the Agrarian manifesto that Richard Weaver would praise as the first offensive action from the conservative region since the maneuvers of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Davidson’s contribution to the collection of essays, “A Mirror For Artists,” was brilliant. Not angry, but playful and funny, Davidson mischievously wonders what good comes from a mass society:
The shop-girl does not recite Shakespeare before breakfast. Henry Ford’s hired hands do not hum themes from Beethoven as they go to work. Instead, the shop-girl reads the comic strip with her bowl of patent cereal and puts on a jazz record while she rouges her lips. She reads the confession magazines and goes to the movies…. The industrialists in art …will naturally make their appeal to the lowest common denominator.
above: cover of Donald Davidson’s 1950s-penned book The Big Ballad Jamboree, published in 1996 (University Press of Mississippi)
Davidson’s allegiance was to the folk arts, the subject of his 1950s novel, The Big Ballad Jamboree. This austere professor enjoyed walking from his home near the Vanderbilt campus to the Ryman Auditorium downtown, where every Saturday night folks would unwind by watching the Grand Ole Opry. Davidson loved the music at the Ryman. In those days, it represented a high degree of craftsmanship without any illusion of monetary gain. Davidson disliked the creeping commercialization of the country music industry. So, in the Jamboree he created two young heroes, Danny, who plays in a country band, and Cissy, a young scholar who scours the hills looking for authentic ballads. The two come together as friends and lovers in a bid to make “our own music in our own way.” A living, yes, but no sellout either.
In verse, Davidson’s most famous work remains “Lee In the Mountains,” written in 1938. As was his habit, he sent a draft to Tate. The latter, a most exact critic, was dumbstruck by its brilliance. “Don’t touch a word, or I’ll box your ears,” Tate warned his friend. The poem, in which a disconsolate Robert E. Lee reflects on the war years, the lost opportunities of that conflict and the steel boot of military occupation on the defeated South, ends nonetheless on an inspired note, certain that the glories of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Old South in general would survive the ravages of time. The final lines are the most Southern lines in the most Southern poem by the most Southern of poets:
Young men, the God of your fathers is a just
And merciful God Who in this blood once shed
On your green altars measures out all days,
And measures out the grace
Whereby alone we live;
And in His might He waits,
Brooding within the certitude of time,
To bring this lost forsaken valor
And the fierce faith undying
And the love quenchless
To flower among the hills to which we cleave,
To fruit upon the mountains whither we flee,
Never forsaking, never denying
His children and His children’s children forever
Unto all generations of the faithful heart.
With due respect paid to The Tall Men (1927), an epic praising the manliness of mountain men who stake out their own ground and aim to keep it, and to his 1961 volume The Long Street, readers unfamiliar with Davidson’s poetry would also do well to seek out his “To The Army of Tennessee,” which appears only in the collected Tate-Davidson letters. To Tate, a nervous Davidson, anticipating that his friend would dislike its romantic features, joked: “Here it is for you to gobble up, Grandpa Wolf!”
“To the Army of Tennessee” was composed in the days when one could say nice things about Confederate armies and their generals. The Army of Northern Virginia, led by Lee and Jackson and Jeb Stuart, loomed majestic, yet the Army of Tennessee was nearly forgotten. Davidson brings those conquered warriors back to life:
To Albert Sidney Johnston, he was our first,
To Braxton Bragg, Lord help his shaky hand,
To Joe Johnston, he was our Fabius,
To Bedford Forrest, he was our sword of Gideon.
And you too Farewell, John Hood, for you have
One good conclusion written on our brows:
Better to die and never see the end.
Better to die while the South is still the South
Than live without arms to strike, and witness her
Under the grass, when the Old Republic withers
(As wither it must if this our strength shall fail)
Our bones will sleep unknowing what will come
Remembering that our country still was here
Where still our arms, our flags advance.
This day in ‘Sixty-four, when on these fields
Shoulder to shoulder with our kin we stood.
The charge quickens. I see the enemy now.
There, there are the Yankees.Yell, gray lines.
The Army of Tennessee knows how to charge.
Not how to surrender, but how to charge, to die.
Ransom worried that Davidson’s “patriotism,” meaning his polemics, would ruin his poetry. The man, however, could do two things at once. For years, leftists at neighboring Peabody College for Teachers sent spies into Davidson’s classroom, hoping to nail him on incriminating remarks. They came back empty-handed. Tom Landess, Davidson’s student, recalled an exchange between Peabody professors and one of their students:
“But what does he do?” the teacher of teachers asked.
“He just talks.”
Davidson was a born polemicist. He would not hide from a political scrap. After I’ll Take My Stand and its 1937 follow-up, Who Owns America?, he wanted more. An Agrarian political party was needed to advance the cause, but the odds were overwhelmingly against it. During the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt dominated American politics. With World War II, the liberal nationalist revolution seemed unstoppable. Davidson plunged on. The essence of his conservatism was a staunch regionalism. His contribution to Who Owns America? was entitled, “That This Nation May Endure.” Regional cultures served as a bulwark against a centralized state. Folks didn’t need government largess. Everything they needed was in the backyard. (Or, as Wendell Berry would put it, “hanging” on the wall.) The folk arts offered not just entertainment, but the joy of creativity.
Davidson spent his entire life in Middle Tennessee, but he spent summers in Vermont teaching at Robert Frost’s legendary Bread Loaf School for aspiring writers. The two poets were soulmates. Frost was named after the Confederate general. Even as the nation’s most beloved poet, he sympathized with the South’s tortured history, including the Second Reconstruction of the 1950s and ’60s. Davidson loved those summers in Vermont. He could get away from the liberalism of the Vanderbilt administration while spending endless hours discussing his first love, poetry. He also liked the locals. Time spent in Vermont and later, at John Donald Wade’s farm in Georgia, inspired Davidson’s most famous essay, “Still Rebels, Still Yankees” (1957), which celebrates the lives of Brother Jonathan of Vermont and Cousin Roderick of Georgia, both captured in a memorable passage:
Such moderns prefer to grasp the familiar. They want to engage both their reason and their love…. The future is not yet…. But the past was, the present is; of that they can be sure. So they attach themselves…to a home-section. … They seek spiritual and cultural autonomy…. They are learning how to meet the subtlest and the most dangerous foe of humanity—the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence. They are attacking Leviathan.
Great essays don’t win elections, however. In 1948, Davidson broke ranks with the Democratic Party and supported Strom Thurmond’s States' Rights Party candidacy. When the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling was delivered, Davidson was entirely pessimistic. A lifelong journal writer, he wrote of the decision: “U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 decision against segregation—9 justices against how many millions [of] white folks in the South and elsewhere! A black day. More black days to come. All foreseen, not for that reason either welcome or tolerable.”
Davidson, thankfully, did not live to see state flags being redesigned, monuments and statues vandalized and torn down, or public schools renamed. With the help of his wife, an attorney, and Jack Kershaw, another lawyer and a prominent Tennessee segregationist, Davidson formed the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government. Throughout the mid-1950s and into the early 1960s, the team, through legal means, fought desegregation orders. Since the percentage of the black population of the Volunteer State was smaller than that of its Deep South neighbors, the Federation failed to attract much support. Such Tennessee politicos as Estes Kefauver, Al Gore, Sr., and Frank Clement had their eyes on the White House. They would foreswear any resistance and become national Democrats.
above: Dr. Donald Davidson, standing left, chairman of the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government and Vanderbilt professor, tells the city school board members sitting in the middle of the crowded board room March 9, 1956, that any desegregation plan is illegal under Tennessee’s laws. (© Joe Rudis/The Tennessean-USA TODAY NETWORK)
It should be noted, though, that Davidson’s segregationist politics were motivated not by racial hatred but, rather, by his focus on regional identity. As historian Paul V. Murphy, author of a major history of Agrarian thought, has argued, “[Davidson] rejected federal civil rights legislation on antistatist grounds, but his defense of racial segregation in the 1950s was a logical extension of his version of Agrarianism.” He saw segregation as a defense of southern Anglo-Saxon racial identity, and questioned whether such an identity could survive in a fully equal and integrated culture.
By 1962, Davidson gave up on politics entirely and went back to teaching and writing poetry. The Long Street marked a capstone to a bountiful career. The reviews from his fellow Agrarians were positive, even touching. If the volume represented the end of an era, it came with a great success. Tate praised it as one of the century’s greatest collections of poetry. “To bring one’s attention and admiration together, so that these emotions … are indistinguisable, is a privilege enjoyed not more than three or four times in one’s life.”
Although a prolific writer, Davidson’s greatest legacy may be his teaching. At Vanderbilt, where he spent 46 years in the English Department, the number of future writers who passed through his classroom door remains unprecedented in American letters: Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, Cleanth Brooks, Jesse Stuart, Peter Taylor, Richard Weaver, Madison Jones, Elizabeth Spencer, Robert Drake, M. E. Bradford, Randall Jarrell, James Dickey and Roy Blount, Jr. Brooks claimed that Davidson taught him how to read fiction in purely aesthetic terms, paving the way for the triumph of the New Criticism. Lytle, a song and dance man in his youth, remembers Davidson shaking his head at him when he misbehaved in class. Dickey recalls Davidson bringing a guitar to class and singing ballads before beginning a lecture on British poetry.
above: a note handwritten by Davidson reads: “From 'The Ninth Part of Speech,' Few are left who know the ancient rule/That tame abstract must wed the wild particular/In school or art, but most of all in school,/Else learning’s spent to gild a fool/At market, altar, bench, or bar.” (private collection)
Davidson’s closest teacher-student relationship was with M. E. Bradford. Davidson and his wife had only one child, a daughter, so there was very much a father-son element to this friendship. Bradford revered the Agrarians. By the time he made it to Vanderbilt in the 1950s, Davidson was the only one left on the faculty. Their correspondence, on file in that university’s Jean and Alexander Heard collection, is quite moving: The older Davidson instructs “Melvin” to earn his Ph.D, his “union card,” as a ticket to academia and the culture wars that would follow. Davidson predicted great things for his loyal student.
Bradford did not disappoint. In a career cut short by an untimely death at age 58 in 1993, he published a number of books and over 300 essays and reviews, specializing in William Faulkner studies, plus those on the Agrarians, not to mention a thorough exposition on the Founding Era, especially his mini-biographies on all of the 57 signers of the Constitution collected in Worthy Company (1982). Yet his critique of the Abraham Lincoln legacy, particularly in the pages of Modern Age, where he repeatedly crossed swords with Harry V. Jaffa in the 1970s, may best define his literary persona.
Davidson’s influence, especially as reflected in the work of Weaver and Bradford, paved the way eventually for the 1980 publication of Why The South Will Survive, edited by Clyde Wilson and featuring essays by Thomas Fleming, Samuel Francis, Marion Montgomery, Lytle, and Bradford, would keep the fires burning. The emerging paleoconservatism, likewise, was Davidsonian in its emphasis on regional cultures and their “generations of the faithful heart.”
Still, Davidson and his compatriots have long been scorned as history’s losers. In his final years, Russell Kirk would end his correspondence with the plea, “Say not the struggle nought availeth,” which sounds like a man at the end of his rope. Weaver was not known for optimism, either. In Davidson, he found a remnant. “There is no need to despair as long as there is one courageous voice among ten thousand,” Weaver wrote. “Professor Davidson is such a voice, and he ought to be heard by all who believe in value, in the dignity of true sentiments and in the idea of loyalty to one’s own tradition.”
Davidson’s courage was undeniable. It did not bother him that the New York literati ignored his achievement. Davidson’s allegiance was indeed to the home folks. Their sufferings were his, their fate his also to bear. Donald Davidson was a faithful Tennessee patriot.