The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 24, 2019

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I'll Take My Stand
Christopher H. Hoebeke - 12/17/12

A 1930 symposium that called attention to the destructive influence of American industrialism on Southern institutions and traditions, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition was originally published under the authorship of “Twelve Southerners,” four of whom—Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—had been leading figures in the Fugitive poetry group that flourished briefly in the 1920s at Vanderbilt University. The other contributors were poet John Gould Fletcher, writer and economist Henry Blue Kline, psychologist Lyle Lanier, novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle, historians Herman Clarence Nixon and Frank Lawrence Owsley, biographer John Donald Wade, and playwright, poet, and literary critic, Stark Young.

In the diverse collection of tracts that make up I’ll Take My Stand, only Ransom’s introductory “Statement of Principles” espouses views formally endorsed by the entire group. Nevertheless, underlying the symposium’s broad spectrum of ideas on philosophy, art, religion, economics, and history is the premise that modern notions of progress are at war with traditional civilization, and that the South, as the region least affected by this war, was uniquely poised to maintain the defensive. The Southern Agrarians, as the symposium’s participants became known, took issue with “New South” advocates who sought to assimilate the region into the “industrial” or “American” way of life. They argued that the gospel of progress through science and technology elevates the pursuit of materialistic comforts above spiritual and artistic values while placing a dangerous amount of confidence in man’s ability to build his own utopia.

The authors did not totally reject mechanical innovation and scientific endeavor, but they did protest against making them the ends, rather than the means, of living. Modern society, in the Agrarians’ view, had succumbed to a perpetual state of pioneering and invention with little regard for the quality of life so-called progress actually fosters. Timesaving devices and the division of labor increase productivity but often restrict workers to dull routines. Responsible for only a fraction of the completed process, they take little pride in workmanship. The compensation that industrial society offers for this monotonous employment is more “free time,” but not “leisure” as traditionally understood.

To justify an industrial arrangement that increases productivity at the expense of human dignity, the surplus goods and services that it creates must be consumed. Modern advertisers need to entice society away from serious reflection by appealing to its appetites. The Agrarians contended that the subsequent lowering of public taste and artistic sensibility cannot be countered with the progressive shibboleths of education and institutionalized patronage because such measures are themselves aimed at mass consumption, and, hence, toward the lowest common denominator. The consequence of succumbing to the industrial ideal, as Davidson wrote, is a life divided between “mechanical and deadening” labor on the one hand, and mere amusement that is “undertaken as a nervous relief.”

By contrast, an Agrarian society offers greater harmony between physical existence and the needs of the inner life. The yeoman farmer, an ideal figure for most of the symposium’s members, is not motivated to save time and toil for its own sake. His labors, varying with the seasons and carried out on a more personal scale, are not strictly divorced from leisure. Even if, as is conceded to be the case in the South, his manner of living has not inspired the highest culture, the Agrarians argue that it has at least fostered a life of contemplation. Industrialism, on the other hand, not only discourages inner reflection, but its incessant quest for material and social improvements is a form of national hubris that takes no account of the inscrutable forces governing the universe. Its millenarian optimism is doomed to disappointment. Insofar as the agrarian way of life seeks to accommodate rather than subdue the natural order, it is better reconciled to suffering and tragedy. And because it engenders respect for the inexplicable ways of nature, it is more religious.

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