In 1920 a group of writers gathered at the home of playwright Sidney Hirsch in Nashville for bi-weekly sessions of reading and dissecting each other’s prose and poetry. It was the beginning of an outpouring of creativity from a group that would try to defend and restore the traditional Southern way of life against the rising tide of industrialism and the philosophy of progress. The group became known as the Southern Agrarians.
Two years later they launched a literary magazine called The Fugitive (1922-25) which, though short-lived, would become one of the most noteworthy literary landmarks in American history. The group was led by Vanderbilt professor and poet John Crowe Ransom. Other members included Donald Davidson, also a Vanderbilt professor, and some talented undergraduates, among them Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. These four men would in a few years become the nucleus of the Agrarians, sometimes known as the Twelve Southerners or Fugitive-Agrarians. In addition to the aforementioned, the Twelve included Andrew Nelson Lytle (novelist and essayist), Frank Lawrence Owsley (historian), Stark Young (novelist and playwright), John Gould Fletcher (poet and art critic), Henry Blue Kline (essayist), Lyle H. Lanier (psychologist), Herman Clarence Nixon (political scientist), and John Donald Wade (biographer). Later they would be joined by Cleanth Brooks and Richard Weaver.
The Agrarian heritage remains an astonishing achievement. It began with I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), a collection of essays to which each of the original Twelve contributed. Those essays defined the range and the purpose of what became the Agrarian movement. They never embraced a specific political agenda, though they came close to doing so in a second volume of essays, Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, which featured nine of the original Twelve essayists, in addition to several others, including Brooks and Hilaire Belloc. Thematically, the emphasis in the second volume is largely upon the economic foundations of industrialism, and is probably the most trenchant attack on capitalism ever published in America (outside of Marxist circles). Taken together, these volumes established a distinctive southern conservatism which has, in one way or another, continued to spread its influence down to the present. This is evident in writers as diverse as Ralph Nader and Wendell Berry, both in our political thought and in our literary heritage.
In the late 1930s, and especially the wake of World War II, many of the Fugitive-Agrarians became dispersed in the pursuit of their various vocations but continued to refer to each other as “brothers” and remained in frequent contact. Most importantly, they remained productive. The 1930s and 1940s would see poetry collections by Ransom, Tate, Davidson, and Merrill Moore; biographies by Tate on Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, and by Lytle on Nathan Bedford Forrest; literary criticism by Ransom and Tate; histories such as Frank Owsley’s ground-breaking Plain Folk Of The Old South; and fiction, including Warren’s All The King’s Men, and Caroline Gordon’s masterpiece Penhally. Gordon, who married Tate in 1925, later mentored another great southern novelist, Walker Percy.
For many of the Agrarians, literary interests predominated over sociopolitical concerns, though the South continued to be the setting and the inspiration for their work. Ransom and his students, among them Tate, Davidson, Warren, Lytle, and Moore, were determined to sever Southern verse from the perennial moonlight and magnolias school. Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad were early influences; so, too, was T.S. Eliot. Yet even as they embraced Eliot’s literary modernism, the southerners placed their stylistic innovations at the service of a traditional, deeply conservative view of history and human destiny (as did William Faulkner, later). This is clear, for example, in Tate’s great poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”
Ransom was the unquestioned leader in the early years. A poet praised by Robert Frost, he had ascended into the top ranks of American letters. Tate and Davidson were especially inspired to emulate their master. Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks became part of the larger world of American letters. They were especially productive in the realm of influential literary quarterlies: Warren and Brooks at The Southern Review, Ransom at The Kenyon Review, and Tate at The Sewanee Review. All ended up leaving the South to teach elsewhere, and, subsequently, all received honors in the Republic of Letters: Warren is the only American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry. Ransom and Tate were both awarded the Bollinger Prize. Tate served as chair of poetry at the Library of Congress, and Warren, in 1985, was appointed the nation’s first official poet laureate.
In the 1930s Ransom and Tate, along with Warren and Brooks, became the founders of the so-called New Criticism, which became a driving force in academia for decades, beginning at Yale, where Warren and Brooks taught. The New Critics had no use for a Marxist (or any political) reading of literature. They simply examined the text, searching for what Brooks memorably termed a “shaping joy” in works of art. Ironically, Yale became the site of the undoing of the New Criticism when a French import, deconstructionism, took hold there in the late 1960s. Deconstructionists focused on canonical authors, but in their hands the text was shorn of its formal integrity and the very idea that a literary artifact might convey a stable meaning was attacked.
As an offshoot of their literary criticism, the Agrarians excelled in another genre: textbooks. For decades, Warren and Brooks’s Understanding Poetry enlightened generations of undergraduates. Similarly, Davidson’s American Composition and Rhetoric, first published in 1938 and revised for later editions, exerted a lasting influence, along with and Weaver’s A Rhetoric and Composition Handbook, published in 1967. Open these books on almost any page and you will find samples from Aristotle, Quintilian, John Milton, Robert Frost, Kenneth Burke, Francis Bacon, Herman Melville, and many others of the same caliber. One might trace an almost direct line of descent from the classical Greek and Latin curricula that predominated in southern schools in the 19th century, down to many of the readings and rhetorical principles featured in these textbooks.
Lytle, Davidson, Weaver, and Owsley traveled a different path. All were far too conservative to gain much recognition from the Manhattan-Ivy League literati. Instead, they, like Flannery O’Connor later, stayed home: Davidson at Vanderbilt, Owsley at the University of Alabama and Lytle at the University of Florida, while Weaver escaped the University of Chicago to summer at his ancestral home in Weaverville, North Carolina.
Lytle and Davidson never wavered in their devotion to the cause. Both represented the whole man: Lytle was a novelist, short story writer, teacher, editor, biographer, and memoirist. There was more to the man than the printed word. As a teacher, he nurtured O’Connor, James Dickey, and Harry Crews. He was also a legendary raconteur. In the 1970s, Lytle retired to his ancestral log cabin in Monteagle, near the University of the South in Sewanee. There, he enjoyed his golden years, entertaining an endless stream of visitors and well-wishers with song, stories, and good cheer. His home, a friend recalled, was the closest thing to a Confederate Valhalla on this earth.
Davidson continued to pursue multiple vocations as poet, novelist, essayist, historian, and teacher. His roster of students-turned-author is impressive: Warren, Lytle, Brooks, Weaver, Mel Bradford, Dickey, Elizabeth Spencer, Madison Jones, Randall Jarrell, Walter Sullivan, and Roy Blount, Sr., all passed through his classroom. After the war, Davidson and his wife, Theresa, along with like-minded allies, formed the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, designed to fight the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Like many southerners of his generation, Davidson feared the social upheaval that the Brown decision mandated. Yet as early as the 1920s, he befriended fellow poets at Fisk University, the historically black college in Nashville and opened space on his Nashville Tennessean book page to members of the Fisk English department.
In 1961 Davidson published his final volume of poetry, The Long Street. There, as he had for much of his career, Davidson expresses himself as a “citizen-poet,” one deeply rooted in the traditions and folkways of the South. As Lewis P. Simpson has noted, “Davidson was virtually unique in his complete adoption of the role of vates—in taking on the ancient vocation of the poet as the seer and prophet who speaks out of the whole and living tradition of his people.”
Davidson’s regionalism inspired Weaver, Bradford, and much of the paleoconservative rebirth of the 1980s. By contrast, William F. Buckley, Jr., kept the southern tradition at arm’s length: It was too reactionary to have any national appeal. Yet it may be that what seemed “reactionary” in the heyday of our long embrace of technological progress and industrial expansion is beginning to look more like prophetic wisdom. The Agrarians wrote for the survival of their homeland. They knew, as Davidson knew in his poem “Sanctuary,” that if we forsake the past we forsake ourselves. It is a “trust laid on your lips as though a vow/ To generations past and yet to come.”