The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 23, 2017

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Southern Agrarians
Ralph E. Ancil - 05/31/11

The Southern Agrarians comprise primarily the twelve southern writers who authored the book I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a kind of manifesto against modernism. The authors were John Crowe Ransom, Andrew Lytle, Henry B. Kline, Stark Young, Lyle H. Lanier, Frank L. Owsley, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, Herman C. Nixon, Robert Penn Warren, and John Donald Wade. Many of the contributors had earlier formed a literary group and magazine called the Fugitive. The image of the agrarian as their ideal developed later, as they became increasingly aware that the South had certain features worth preserving and that central to the good things of life they wanted to defend was social stability and closeness to the soil. Not unmindful of the flaws of Southern ways, they wanted to defend a set of characteristics that were in preponderance in the South and that perhaps could have flourished more fully, even eventually choking out more of the blemishes, had certain events not occurred. These events were not just the Civil War and the “Reconstruction” that followed. They included the rising preoccupation with material well-being based on industrialism and applied modern science.

The Southern Agrarians stressed that human nature is as frail as it is constant. The forces of rapid change and heightened consumption oppress a soul that requires stability, closeness to inscrutable creation, and a sense of the holy and mysterious in life. They complained that modern ways of living, aided and abetted by science, never let man rest, since such ways were at peace with neither society nor creation. In industrial modernity, the human soul is brutalized and exploited to an extent equaled only by the suffering of creation in general. Industrialism, in fact, wages continuous warfare on creation, ceaselessly endeavoring to exploit and manipulate her in the name of material progress. This total commitment to a Cartesian matter-in-motion elbows out the satisfaction of higher needs. Opposed to this abyss of infinite change, the Agrarians sought a way of life that could be lived with grace and piety and with enough leisure to allow tradition, custom, and manners to flourish.

While agreeing broadly on a certain vision of life, the Agrarians had no detailed agenda for social change, nor was it their goal to have one. On the specific paths of action to be taken, individual Agrarians differed somewhat in emphasis and degree. John Crowe Ransom felt political action should be taken in concert with other geographic regions of the country that also showed signs of discontent with modern life. He thought that the South could compromise and accept some industrialism, albeit with very bad grace. Donald Davidson, speaking of the effect of modern industry on the arts, believed that since the effect of industrialization was to dehumanize, it was diametrically opposed to the arts. Its “Satanic” nature required uncompromising rejection. Art must be defended by the civic-minded artist seeking to correct the errors of public policy and current trends. Allen Tate revealed a Burkean dislike for abstract reason and metaphysical “principle” in favor of inchoate images of the good life mingled with concrete facts welded together by a deep desire to be loyal to a rather unsatisfactory Southern history. For Tate, modernity had led to an insupportable separation of the religious mind from the secular or practical mind in which the latter devours the former.

Today, even if the name “Southern Agrarians” is not often explicitly mentioned, their influence is evident. A second generation of Agrarians arose and found a most eloquent spokesman in University of Chicago professor Richard M. Weaver, who refined and extended their arguments. (Other latter-day Agrarians with particular importance for cultural conservatives include M. E. Bradford and Wendell Berry.) Weaver’s work influenced conservative thought considerably after World War II. The Agrarians’ critique of industrialism, science, and the exploitation of nature not only survived in Weaver but antedated the popular rise of environmentalism and may have influenced it. A Southern Agrarian like the late Andrew Lytle can be quoted by a staunch environmentalist such as Jeremy Rifkin. The Agrarian philosophy, however, was not socialist, globalist, feminist, or neopagan. It was thoroughly steeped in and defensive of the best of the culture, tradition, and history of the Christianized West. It took seriously the linguistic connection between “culture” and “agriculture,” holding that a humane civilization requires rootedness and permanence in the land and that it must be sustained, nurtured, and protected from thoughtless change. Such a relation, the Agrarians argued, is necessary to satisfy man’s spiritual needs and to protect the higher values of life.

Further Reading
  • Agar, Herbert, and Allen Tate, eds. Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence. 2nd ed. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999.
  • Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.
  • ———. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Edited by Norman Wirzba. Counterpoint: Washington, D.C., 2002.
  • Bradford, M. E. Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
  • Lytle, Andrew Nelson. From Eden to Babylon: The Social and Political Essays of Andrew Nelson Lytle. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990.
  • Malvasi, Mark G. The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
  • Weaver, Richard M. The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver. Edited by George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson Jr. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press, 1987.
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