1. The Southern Renascence
1.1. The Beginnings
1.1.1. The Sahara of the Bozart
1.1.2. The Fugitives
1.2 The Agrarians
2. I'll Take My Stand
2.1. A Statement of Principles
2.1.1. A Certain Terrain
2.1.2. A Certain History
2.1.3. A Certain Inherited Way of Living
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. (Davidson "Lee in the Mountains" 37)
After a brief recession following World War I the United States experienced a technological revolution leading to an economic boom and into an age of consumerism. This “consumer society ... did not respect inherited values or the social status quo” (Parrish x), quite to the distress of some Southern intellectuals who were “opposed to industrialism, and wanting a much simpler economy to live by ("Introduction: A Statement of Principles" xliii)1 2. These intellectuals were the Southern Agrarians, a group of twelve writers, all of whom were “well acquainted with one another” (xli), and connected to Vanderbilt University. In their manifesto I'll Take My Stand published in 1930 they argued against industrialism and for a regress to a more conservative life, a life Southerners had lived not that long ago.
Although they published their book at the onset of the Great Depression, the roots of their movement have to be located some years earlier, as the present paper will suggest. After a brief overview of the of the Southern Renascence, the “attempt to come to terms not only with the inherited values of the Southern tradition but also a certain way of perceiving and dealing with the past” (King 7), the beginnings of this literary movement will be analyzed. In this regard, special attention is paid to Henry Louis Mencken, a journalist who, with his outspoken critique of the Southern Way of Life, triggered literary responses from the above-mentioned group.
It will further be argued, that the Southern Agrarians have their origins in the Fugitives, a group of sixteen poets who started meeting in 1915 to discuss their literary work among each other. While four of their members would also be part of the Agrarians, it will be shown that there are significant differences between the two groups.
A discussion of I'll Take My Stand constitutes the second part of this essay. After having a look at the writers' statement of principles, three specific qualities of their work will be analyzed, with the third giving an impetus for a rather controversial analysis of the Agrarians' standpoint.
Finally, the last part of this work will treat once again Mencken as the first and foremost critic of the Agrarians. In this final part, not only his review of the book will be looked at, but also an essay published five years after the manifesto.
1. The Southern Renascence
The great Civil War left the South in a terrible shape. While "during the War the North enjoyed a boom" (Warren 51), Southern soldiers returning home, if there was any to return to, found themselves with little prospect. Many farms and cities were destroyed and there was no money to rebuild them. Confederate bonds, sold to help finance the war, were now worthless and many people did not have any other savings. With the abolition of slavery the antebellum labor system had to be restructured, as plantations needed slaves to be functioning; slaves that now were free and had to find their place in the new nation.
It is this era that gave birth to the new literary movement now known as the Southern Renascence. From the 1920s onward the South hosted significant literary groups such as the Fugitives or the Agrarians. Questions concerning the reasons why an economically unstable and intellectually poor region such as the postbellum South would develop such a movement are far from being resolved (T. D. Young 261-62). Nonetheless, there have been intents made to explain this phenomenon. While there is a broad consensus that the Southern Renascence had its beginnings in the 1920s (e.g. Vann Woodward; T. D. Young), Manning argues that this only holds true for works written by Southern men "[b]ut some Southerners, Southern women in particular, began to awake earlier" (39). Kate Chopin was "[a]head of her time" (Rowe 232) and Ellen Glasgow was "simply, the first really modern novelist" (Rubin 4).
In contrast to these progressive female writers by far the most literary contributions by women after the War were romances about the antebellum Old South. These works, oftentimes written as a means of contributing to the household income, stuck the chord of a Northern public that was interested in the antebellum South more than ever (Muhlenfeld 185).
But there were other circumstances aside from economic motivation in writing that led up to the Southern Renascence. According to Robert Penn Warren, "[t]he War claimed the Confederate States for the Union, but at the same time, paradoxically, it made them more Southern." During the War the South was far from a coherent mass but once defeated, it became a "City of the Soul" representing a "mystique of prideful 'difference', identity, and defensiveness [and people] could now think of [themselves] as ... 'Southerners'" (14). With that they distanced themselves from the North and defined themselves as a remnant of the good ol' times, a social phenomenon later called the "Great Alibi [with which] the Southerner ... turns defeat into victory, defects into virtues" (55). As a consequence, Southern writers suddenly saw the need to show their version of the South and tried to justify their way of thinking. Newly founded Southern journals served as a means of publishing since it had become a difficult business in the North. Although most of these journals only lasted about twenty years, they gave Southern artists a canvas for communicating their opinions (Muhlenfeld 183-84). Their works, mediated through the Great Alibi, created a nostalgic version of the grand South, full of chivalry, southern belles and romance.
Maybe one of the most prominent examples is Thomas Nelson Page's In Ole Virginia or Marse Chan and Other Stories published in 1895. It depicts a rather romanticized version of slavery in the Old South that differs greatly from what really happened at that time. Sam, a former slave, tells the narrator the story about his master Marse Chan to whom he had been given to by his father. Even though Sam was supposed to be Marse Chan's body-servant, the relationship between the two is of a different nature. Since they "wuz boys togerr" (4), and children seldom are born racist, they form a bond that could easily be mistaken for a friendship. In his work Page creates a mythical land filled with chivalry, fair ladies, and happy slaves that, even though it held its charms for Northern readers, could not have been more far from the truth.
1.1. The Beginnings
Fourteen years into the new century had not changed much. The South was still inferior to the North, in fact, "[i]t was at the bottom of the list in almost everything" (Odum and Moore qtd. in T. D. Young 262). But, with World War I this changed suddenly. The United States experienced an economic boom that was especially good for the agricultural South resulting in a steady increase in demands for its products, so that the "[n]et farm income more than doubled during the war years." Following the War the agricultural boom stopped as suddenly as it had begun: demands suddenly plunged and the farmer saw himself confronted with economic devastation. Not only did he sell less of his products but he also overproduced them since technical innovations, such as the gasoline-powered tractor, lowered the costs and time of production (Parrish 83). Industrial workers on the other hand, profited from the agrarians' loss. With "low inflation and a rise in real income experienced by many," food prices were especially low for them (88-89).
As far as literature was concerned "[w]ith the war of 1914-1918, the South reentered the world—but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border: that backward glance gave us the Southern renascence, a literature conscious of the past in the present" (Tate "New Provincialism" 272). Discounting women's writing as rather economically motivated, the beginnings of this movement can be traced back to Henry Louis Mencken and his rather provoking article The Sahara of the Bozart published in 1917 in its original form and in 1920 as an extended version.
1.1.1. The Sahara ofthe Bozart
Even though Samuel Langhorne Clemens, writing under the pseudonym Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and thereby criticized the Southern state of mind, it was H.L. Mencken who made a more outspoken and direct attack on the South, a place where "[t]he old romanticism is gone" ("Bozart" 168). According to him the Southern aristocracy that had died in the War was replaced by the “poor white trash" resulting in “cheap, ignorant, parochial [and] idiotic" politics (159). Southern culture he saw “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert" (157) and as far as literature was concerned he stated that “you will not find a single Southern prose writer who can actually write" (emphasis added, 159).
As Mencken himself later stated, his essay caused quite a stir amongst Southern intellectuals and he “was belabored for months, and even years afterward in a very extravagant manner". While elder Southerners posed “violent denunciations" the “more civilized youngsters" responded in a more adequate way (157). Using Mencken as propaganda, these writers founded The Fugitive, a literary journal of poetry and criticism (Shapiro 76). It is understandable then, that Mencken is considered by many as the “father of the South's literary renaissance" (81).
1.1.2. The Fugitives
The history of the Fugitives dates back further than the publishing date of Mencken's essay. This group of sixteen poets3 started meeting in 1915 to read and discuss their writings amongst themselves (Tate "The Fugitive" 76).
1 Henceforth referred to as “Principles”.
2 See Kling for a complete list ofThe Fugitives and biographical information.
3 See Kling for a complete list ofThe Fugitives and biographical information.
- Quote paper
- Nico Hübner (Author), 2013, I'll Take My Stand. The Southern Renascence Revisited, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/230476