I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press
Library of Southern Civilization
xlviii & 410 pp., $5.95

The Fathers and Other Fiction
Allen Tate
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press
Library of Southern Civilization
xxi & 370 pp., $4.95

The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South
Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press
xv & 384 pp., $7.95

When I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition was published by Twelve Southerners in 1930, Southern Agrarianism raised its defiant voice against Progress and the American Way of life. The opening “Statement of Principles” announced that all of the symposium’s contributors “tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial.” Agrarianism they defined as a society “in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige,” and they made it quite clear that “the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.’ Conversely, Industrialism is an “evil  dispensation,” undermining proper relations between man and nature and between men, destroying families, and displacing traditional religious and social values, all in the name of the false god Progress and its incarnation, Applied Science. They presented a sort of Manichaean drama between good – Agrarianism – and evil – Industrialism, and there could be no compromise.- “It is a war to the death,” one of the essays exclaimed, “between technology and the ordinary functions of living.”

If the Twelve Southerners’ purpose was to create a controversy, then there is no doubt of their success. Certainly they were deliberately bellicose. Their tone was denunciatory and provocative; even their title seems intended to antagonize the North, to revive the sectional rivalries of a century earlier, for it comes from “Dixie,” the national anthem of the Confederacy.

“Den I wish I was in Dixie,
Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie land I’ll take my stand
to lib and die in Dixie!”

No wonder they were dubbed Neo-Confederates, diehard revivers of the Lost Cause, un-American  (hadn’t they said they were against the American Way?) reactionaries. Yet it is also no wonder that in a region of fierce pride and strong tradition they found ardent supporters, and their movement, if it can be called such, was a live issue for at least the next decade. I’ll Take My Stand was followed by a sequel, Who Owns America?, published with the English Distributists in 1936, and Agrarians continued to disseminate their views throughout the thirties in The American Review.

If their purpose, however, was to stem the tide of Industrialism that they saw pouring into the South, or to preserve the remnants of Old South social structure and attitudes, or to maintain the Solid South against the rest of the country, then they can only be said to have failed dismally. From our vantage point in the late seventies, we see the cutting edge of our industrial economy located in the very South they were trying to insulate from it—Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston. We see the drama of racial tensions, which seemed the very crux of Southern identity in the nineteenth century both before and after the Civil War, enacted no longer in the schools and courthouses of Little Rock and Selma but in the buses of Boston and Dayton. We see a Southerner in the White House, and we declare that the “Southern problem” exists no longer (or it is now a national problem) and the country is truly reunited. Even to hope that the South might have taken another course, that a modern economy could be based on subsistence farming, that anyone might “Throw out the radio and take down, the fiddle from the wall,” as one essayist actually enjoined!—even to hope such things, much less to advocate them, seems pure romantic folly.

Indeed, the book was greeted at the time as “a high spot in the year’s hilarity.” Its authors were ridiculed by one columnist for mistakenly attributing the leisurely grace of antebellum Southern society to its values and philosophy. “Perhaps,” he suggested satirically, “it was merely a symptom of uncinariasis,” that is, hookworm. More serious, of course, were charges in the thirties of Fascism. The Agrarians had indeed gotten into bad company in The American Review. They were strongly anti-Communist and conservative, but none of them ever espoused Fascism and all of them disavowed it as soon as the threat became clear. Nevertheless, the association destroyed their credibility.

Yet even apart from possible fascist tendencies, it was clear that as a political and economic program Agrarianism was weak, unrealistic, and carelessly thought out. If espousing political and economic programs had been I’ll Take My Stand’s primary goal it would long ago have been forgotten, and rightly so. But in fact, the document still has vitality and appeal. Brought back into print in 1962, it is now published again as part of the Library of Southern Civilization. It is time once again to examine the meaning and value of I’ll Take My Stand and to ask what it has to say to our age.

Much of the confusion that has attended the book in the past stems from the contradictions that exist between many of the essays. It is essential to remember that each of the twelve authors wrote alone and expressed his own thoughts. Only the “Statement of Principles” was circulated in advance and approved by all twelve. The specific qualities of Agrarianism – the image it conjured – were different for each of its adherents. And while all twelve were Southerners and intellectuals, it is difficult beyond that to generalize about them. The core of the group were poets: John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and John Gould Fletcher. All but the last had been members of the Fugitive group of poets assembled at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920s, who took their name from the little magazine The Fugitive that they published from 1922 through 1925. The others were also men of letters: the novelists Stark Young and Andrew Nelson Lytle; historians Frank Lawrence Owsley and Herman Clarence Nixon; an English professor, John Donald Wade; a psychologist, Lyle H. .Lanier; and a journalist, Henry Blue Kline. Most were from the Upper South, that is, Kentucky and Tennessee, although Fletcher was from Arkansas, Wade from Georgia, Nixon and Owsley from Alabama, and Young from Mississippi. Most were or had been associated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, as teachers or students. This is the key to the Agrarian image they held in common: it was a portrait of the country around Nashville.

Many critics, both then and later, have objected to the version of Agrarian life presented in I’l Take My Stand, a life of leisure, grace, and wholesome yeoman virtues and folk lore, because it has nothing to do with the realities of dirt farming for sharecroppers in Alabama or Mississippi (which James Agee would document so poignantly a few years later). They condemn the Agrarians for a gross and dangerous romanticization. Certainly this is a valid criticism of Lytle’s sentimentalized portrait of the “typical” farmer in his essay “The Hind Tit.” But such critics fail to recognize the truth of the image, as most of the essayists present it, to the upland, “bluegrass” country around Nashville. Many of these twelve men had had experience farming, and all of them had grown up in small towns closely tied to farm economy. The agrarian life they saw and had lived was leisurely, gracious, and civilized

Even more important to realize is that it was not a literal return to farming that they proposed—the accusations that have been made against them for hypocrisy, since none of them remained on a farm, are therefore gratuitous and relevant—nor did they pretend that either the clock or the calendar could or should be rolled back. “If anything is clear,” Young began his summary essay, “it is that we can never go back, and neither this essay nor any intelligent person that I know in the South desires a literal restoration of the old Southern life, even if that were possible; dead days are gone, and if by some chance they should return, we should find them intolerable.”

What is being argued is that there were certain qualities of life and values inherent in that vanishing civilization that must be preserved: strong family ties and a sense of community; an established social order within which the individual knew his identity. and was free to express himself; a stable economy and slow enough pace of life to create the leisure required for the arts to flourish, not only the fine arts, but the arts of life—conversation, manners, and folk customs, honor, grace, and dignity. Because they believed that life close to the soil had historically fostered such values, and because the South was still the most traditional, rural society in the country, they held up Southern Agrarianism as a model. But they were not Southern isolationists, attempting to create a backward preserve in the midst of a progressive society. Rather they spoke to all Americans suffering the ill effects of Industrialism: its frenzied, impersonal, life, its consumerism, waste, and indignity of labor. Modern man must regain control of this Leviathan, rather than blindly follow it.

Industrialism is a program under which men, using the latest scientific paraphernalia, sacrifice  comfort, leisure, and the enjoyment of life to win Pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic importance. . . . Industrialism is rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence; it needs to be strongly governed or it will destroy the economy of the household. Only a  community of tough conservative habit can master it.

Industrial America must stop Progress and ask, what is it all for? Or, as Young dramatizes the question in parable, you may boast of twenty thousand miles of concrete sidewalks in your town, but where do they lead? I’ll Take My Stand is part of the same genre of social criticism as Thoreau’s Walden or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

To compare Agrarianism with Thoreauvian Transcendentalism is to place it in the tradition of the American pastorale, a tradition that has seen its most recent resurgence in our own time in the move to agricultural communes in the late sixties and in more general ecological and environmental concerns. In retrospect we understand that each pastoral moment has come at a major economic turning point. Each has been a backward glance at a vanishing world, lamenting its passing, and offering an ideal vision of the values that seem about to be lost. Just as Emerson and Thoreau wrote their hymns to nature at the “take-off” point of the Industrial Revolution in America, so the Agrarians took their stand  against Industrialism just at its moment of triumph in the South. In both cases, the pastoral warning seemed prophetic. Emerson’s Nature was immediately followed by the Depression of 1837, and the Agrarians were read in the midst of the Great Depression. Similarly, the “counterculture” advocates of the late sixties registered their protest as the period of seemingly endless abundance and continuous economic growth came to an end. In the midst of our own economic and social crisis, the Agrarian critique seems more prophetic than ever. Its republication is timely.

Lanier’s “Critique of the Philosophy of Progress” speaks to post-Vietnam America when he questions the sufficiency of Pragmatism, with its preoccupation with means at the expense of ends, and when he rejects the naivete of John Dewey’s Utopian ideas of remaking human nature through education and capitalistic socialism. Ransom (“Reconstructed But Unregenerate”) speaks to us when he protests an idea of Progress that “never defines its ultimate objective, but thrusts its victims at once into an infinite series. . . . Our progressivists are the latest version of those pioneers who conquered the wilderness, except that they are pioneering on principle, or from force of habit, and without any recollection of what pioneering was for.” We too are ready to stop and ask where it is all supposed to lead. We too want to recover a sense of vocation, of organic relation between life and work, and conditions that foster quality of work life rather than mere quantity of goods produced. While the Agrarians’ answers may not appeal to us, their questions are still vital.

Their answers are addressed to the South of 1930. They had seen the rapid advance of industry into their region during their own lifetimes, but they believed that it was not yet too late to preserve something of the old way of life. They did not ask the South to turn its back industry, but to accept it “with very bad grace,” to control it and use it in the interest of traditional human values. The rest of the country might be lost, but perhaps they could “save” the South. Anyone who had read The Fugitive eight years earlier might have been surprised to see four Fugitives affiliated with the Agrarians. The  poets’ credo had asserted total dissociation from particular local loyalties and from the Southern tradition: “The Fugitive flees from nothing faster than from the high caste Brahmins of the Old South.” But now the four most prominent Fugitives no longer fled but stopped to take their stand for the very tradition they had disavowed.

What had changed their minds was of course personal, and differed to some extent for each of them. For example, both Tate and Warren had left Nashville, for New York and then Europe, and for Berkeley, New Haven, and then Europe, respectively, and each had discovered in absentia what his roots in the South meant to him. For all the Agrarians, it was impossible as the twenties wore on to ignore the extent to which their society was changing as industry penetrated and commercial links with the North tightened. At the same time, it was all too apparent that—the average Southerner was not reaping the benefits of “Progress.” After World War I and the prosperity it had brought to farmers in the South, prices suffered a dramatic and continuing drop. The South in fact began to feel the effects of Depression long before the Crash in 1929.

One specific event, however, probably did more than anything else to make the Agrarians conscious of their Southernness. This catalyst was the infamous “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, when John Scopes, high-school biology teacher, was brought to court for violating the state’s law against teaching the theory of evolution in the public schools. With nationally famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow arguing the defense and William Jennings Bryan of old Populist politics fame acting as prosecutor on behalf of the Fundamentalists, the trial achieved instant national attention. Several Northern newspapers actually sent sportswriters to cover the event, and it was treated more like a circus than a serious legal issue. Presented as a contest between religious bigotry and enlightened science, the incident seemed proof in Northern eyes of Southern backwardness. The adverse publicity put the South on the defensive.

Chancellor Kirkland, head of Vanderbilt, countered the attack by announcing that the University would build more laboratories and devote more funds to scientific enquiry, but John Ransom in the English Department shocked many of his progressive friends by defending the Fundamentalists. What was at issue, he said, was not just a doctrinal point and certainly not what would become known as “academic freedom” (in both of these he agreed with the liberals), but the fundamental basis of man’s relation to his world. Evolutionists would not only throw God out of Creation but out of the universe altogether, and then they would constitute Science as a god in His place. Having long felt an opposition between poetry and science, Ransom now explored the danger and falsehood of a religion of science in his book God Without Thunder, which appeared just a few months before I’ll Take My Stand.

For all the men who would become Agrarians, the Scopes trial publicity was the last straw, the latest barrage in what they now saw as a Northern war against the South. The cruelly pointed campaign of H. L. Mencken against “The Sahara of the Bozart,” as he called the South in 1920 (it is “as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert”) was now joined by a whole army heaping ridicule upon the South. Southerners felt as unjustly slandered as they had in the years before the Civil War when Abolitionists had defined slavery as merely a moral issue and then condemned the South and everyone in it across the board as entirely immoral. The Agrarians’ sense of being under siege cannot be overemphasized. It is apparent both in the war imagery that pervades the essays of I’ll Take My Stand and in the otherwise inexplicably defensive tone.

Their war metaphors are based historically in the Civil War, of course, which was both the concrete image of conflict between North and South and the perceived turning point in the actual history of the South. It looms in the background of nearly all the essays and is the focus of several, including  Owsley’s “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in which he offers an important, although now seemingly commonplace reinterpretation of the conflict, not simply as a moral conflict between slavery and freedom, but as a much more complex clash between two, antithetical economies and ways of life, the Agrarian and the Industrial. His purpose was not to revive the Lost Cause, but to dissociate the Agrarians view of the Old South from slavery and racial tyranny. Although none of them was anachronistic enough to advocate integration and civil rights as we have come to understand them in the sixties and seventies, several were eager to point out that Jefferson—the great philosopher of Agrarianism as they conceived it—had abolitionist sympathies himself. Several also asserted that slavery was not after all the crux of the plantation economy. Even Warren’s essay “The Briar Patch,” about the proper place of blacks in the Agrarian scheme, which he later repudiated for its anti-integrationist, separate-but-equal stance, is not so racist and reactionary as one would expect.

Their war, then, is not the Lost Cause. At moments it bears a much closer resemblance to World War I, which nearly all of them had participated in. Ransom, for example, issues a call to arms to make the world safe for farmers, and there is a pervasive sense that the Great War is not yet over and the Enemy has infiltrated the North.

The point is, again, that they were no defending the Old South as it had actually existed. None of the twelve essays upholds the South as it really was—in 1800, 1830, 1860, or 1920—as an ideal. Rather their war was philosophical, ideal, imaginative. They revealed the tragedy of the South, Old and New, and in doing so, presented an image of the South as it might have been.

The tragic vision of Agrarianism is presented most powerfully in another volume reprinted in 1977 as part of the, Library of Southern Civilization, Allen Tate’s only novel, The Fathers. First published in  138, it is the story of two old Virginia families, the Buchans of Pleasant Hill (like Tara or Twelve Oaks, an archetypal Southern plantation) and the Poseys of Georgetown. Set in the days just before and during the Civil War, it tells of the breakdown of the old way of life, but it is not the stock moonlight-and-roses Civil War tale. Its catastrophe is precipitated not by the Yankees, but by a tragic flaw within Southern society.

At one level, the conflict is between Agrarianism (epitomized by old Major Buchan) and Modernism  (represented by George Posey). But it is not a simple case of Good vs. Evil. Neither Tate nor any of the Agrarians indulged in the naive’ optimism that they believed had infected America in its blind faith in  Manifest Destiny, social amelioration, and human perfectibility. Rather they saw human nature as fallen. Evil is within all men and must be recognized, accommodated, and controlled. Perhaps it was easier for Southerners, with their heritage of defeat in war and tragedy in race relations, to maintain such a Calvinistic vision of the limits of human nature and invention, as C. Vann Woodward has suggested. In any case, when the Agrarians insisted that industry should be harnessed and used for consciously chosen and articulated ends, they were enjoining society to exert the same kind of self-control over  evil forces that Tate suggests every individual must exert over his own dark impulses.

In The Fathers Tate presents a powerful parable of The Fall. It is narrated by Lacy Buchan, a boy who  has inherited all the old Buchan values but who is passionately and inexorably drawn to George Posey. As Lacy recounts the story fifty years later, it is dominated by the image of “The Abyss,” the title of the last section and a figure that recurs throughout the book. It symbolizes not just the tragic end of this story, but the tragic potential inherent in all human nature, call it original sin, natural depravity, human fallibility, or what you will. This is the story of the fall of the South, the fall of the Buchan family, the “fall” of Lacy Buchan from innocence into knowledge, boyhood to adulthood, as well as the Fall of Man. Looking back on these events, Lacy now interprets his father’s devotion to “manners” and the entire Southern code as a way, and an effective one, of controlling man’s evil possibilities and facing the inscrutable contingencies of life.

Our ‘iveswere eternally balanced upon a pedestal below which lay an abyss that I could not name. Within that invisible tension my father knew the moves of an intricate game that he expected everyone else to play. That, I think, was because everything he was and felt was in the game itself; he had no life apart from it’and he was baffled . . . by the threat .of some untamed force that did not recognize the rules of his game.

Yet by his rigid devotion to the game Buchan helps to plunge his own family into the Abyss.

The “moral” of the story—if we dare to use such a limiting word in describing such a rich book—is that Lacy (and the South) must retain and revere the heritage of both his “fathers,” old Major Buchan and George Posey. This apparently has not been clear to some readers, however, who have been confused by Lacy’s final announcement that he loves Posey “more than any man.” To clear up the confusion, Tate has now rewritten the end of the book, explaining his motive in a new preface “This revision gives the novel two heroes: Major Buchan, the classical hero, whose hubris destroys him; George Posey, who may have seemed to some readers a villain, is now clearly a modern romantic hero.”

The Fathers is one of the great novels of our century and should be much more widely read in the classroom and by the general public than it has been. Hence its republication in paperback is cause for celebration. The new edition is also important not only for its revision of the ending, which is after all slight, but for its inclusion of two short stories, “The Migration” and “The Immortal Woman.” First  published in 1934 and 1933 in The Yale Review and Hound and Horn, respectively, they are now reprinted for the first time. More like sketches than finished stories, these were “working papers” for Tate, as the characters who were to inhabit The Fathers took form in his mind and as he worked out his narrative voice and point of view. It is fitting that they should be published with the novel, not only  because together they constitute Tate’s total output of fiction, but also because their interest lies chiefly in illuminating the larger work. (A related poem, “A Dream” of 1932, is also included.) Not that they are incorporated into the novel, as Faulkner might have done, but that through them we see Tate’s conception grow toward its final form. The narrative voice of “The Migration” is prophetic at moments of Lacy’s tone and stance in The Fathers. The characters, however, part of the pioneering Scotch-Irish strain in Southern history which Tate felt strongly as his own heritage through his father’s family do not appear in the novel at all. It focuses instead, as we have seen, on aristocratic Virginia blood, which Tate himself had inherited on his mother’s side, and which he first fictionalized in “The Immortal Woman.”

Tate’s motive in these two sketches was primarily personal. He was working at the time on a loosely  autobiographical prose work, Ancestors of Exile, about the conflict he felt in his own blood between the Tidewater aristocrats and the South western pioneers. At about the time he published these stories,  however, he gave up this project, for he flt that his public and private purposes—to tell the South’s story and his own—were not compatible. As he wrote to John Peale Bishop late in 1933, “the  discrepancy between the outward significance and the private was so enormous that I decided I could not handle the material in that form at all, without faking either the significance or the material.”

Instead he turned to frankly fictional form. The result has properly been called “the most remarkable first novel in American literature.” To read it is to wish that Tate had written more novels. It is also to understand the true nature of the Agrarian vision.

One of the most common critical mistakes in reading the Agrarians is to think that they offer a Utopian political and economic vision. Virginia Rock subtitled her unpublished dissertation on them “A Study in Utopian Conservatism,” but Alexander Karanikas in his Tillers of a Myth: Southern Agrarians as Social and Literary Critics (1969) makes this mistake most egregiously. He attempts to measure them against the most literal interpretation of their creed, as if they were a political party writing a platform or a religious order subscribing to vows. Taking the opposite polemical stand, he “proves” the impracticality of their program point by point, as if to show that poets make fools of themselves when they dabble in politics. Whether you believe this or not is irrelevant. To ignore he imaginative purpose and the poetic truth of the Agrarian vision is to refuse to take them on their own terms; to ignore the nuances and ambiguities of their image of human nature is to misread them entirely. Karanikas does both and the result is a wrongheaded and misleading account.

Much better is John L. Stewart’s prodigious The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and Agrarians (1965), but it is still marred, not only by his personal prejudices (he likes Warren’s fiction, he doesn’t much like Tate or Ransom, and thoroughly denigrates Davidson) but also by his tendency to judge his subjects according to liberal political standards of the sixties.

To be fair to Karanikas and Stewart and others who have taken similar points of view, however, we should note that several of the Agrarians themselves thought they were offering an actual political or economic solution. Ransom dared to conclude his essay with the “fantastic thought” that the Democratic Party might adopt Agrarian principles. Davidson announced that it was time for the artist to fight for changes in society “even though for the time being he may become less of an artist. He must enter the common arena and become a citizen.” And to the question, “How may the Southerner take hold of his Tradition?” Tate answered, “by violence…. [The] method is political, active, and, in the nature of the case, violent and revolutionary.” In the sequel, Ransom, most thoroughly the rationalist of the lot, took literal Agrarianism more and more seriously; he went to London to study economics for a year and in the years immediately following I’ll Take My Stand he wrote almost exclusively about economics and politics. Davidson, too, seemed literal in his commitment, and he berated his colleagues in subsequent years when their Agrarian fervor seemed to die down.

Tate, however, was being deliberately hyperbolic, never intending to incite political violence but only a great exertion of will. As he wrote to Davidson, even before the book was published, “the issue on the plane of action is uncertain. At least I am wholly sceptical on that point.” Ransom was later  disillusioned with his early commitment. In 1945 he repudiated Agrarianism as “an act of nostalgia.” At  about the same time, however, Tate wrote his last word on the episode to Davidson.

You evidently believe that agrarianism was a failure; I think it was and is a very great success; but then I never expected it to have any political influence. It is a reaffirmation of the humane tradition, and to reaffirm that is an end in itself. Never fear: we shall be remembered when our snipers are forgotten.

Certainly Tate’s prophecy has come true, and it would seem that his assessment is the right one. We realize now that the lasting value of I’ll Take My Stand is in its humane vision, in its image of the South in imaginative and literary terms. The very language the Agrarians used—”the Southern idea,” “fable,” “myth,” even “fairy story”—provides clues to the book’s lasting meaning. It is a myth they create, not in the unrealistic, silly sense in which Karanikas denounces their romantic mythmaking, but in the sense of an ideal construct that modern myth critics have taught us to believe is a necessary basis of human culture. As Davidson summarized their goals many years later:

Our total purpose was to seek the image of the South which we could cherish with high conviction and to give it, wherever we could the finality of art in those forms, fictional, poetical, or dramatic, that have the character of myth and therefore, resting on belief, secure belief in others, and, unlike arguments, are unanswerable, are in themselves fulfilled and complete.

I’ll Take My Stand was a sort of “declaratory preface” to that total purpose. It is finally as literature that the book should be read.

This has long been Louis Rubin’s view, who has been writing about the Agrarians since 1951. In his 1962 introduction to I’ll Take My Stand he advanced this view in an extreme form, contending that the book “can best be considered as an extended metaphor of which the image of the agrarian community is the figure, standing for and embodying something else. The something else is modern society.” Now, in his new introduction to the 1977 edition, he quotes Davidson’s strong objection to that metaphor formulation: “If you say that,” he wrote to Rubin, “it’s very easy, because you don’t have to believe it at all.” Which is true, Rubin admits. In the midst of the racial tensions of 1962 it was easier and perhaps necessary to ignore the controversial programmatic issues of Agrarianism, and it was probably also easier for Rubin (and any other modern Southerner) who could not embrace the literal program of writers he clearly admires so deeply to sidestep the question of their, belief in that program. Now he is more willing to let the Agrarians speak for themselves, to assess their faults and their virtues more dispassionately, and to recognize their contradictions and weaknesses for what they are – products of real differences of opinion and of marked variations in the literary and imaginative powers among the contributors.

For he has come to recognize the truth tht Virginia Rock points to in her expanded biographical essays at the end of the new edition—that “the implications of biography, collective and individual, are fundamental in any analysis of the symposium and the cause it embodied.” At the reunion of the Fugitives in 1956, Robert Penn Warren implied that the meaning of Agrarianism was in the most important sense personal for each of its participants. Rubin in his new book, The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South (1978), explores that personal meaning for Ransom, Tate, Davidson, and Warren. His design is to trace “how the major Fugitive poets arrived at their involvement in agrarianism, what the commitment meant for them, and how the concerns embodied in it carried over into their  subsequent writings.” The cover hails it as “Surely the most important book of Rubin’s distinguished career.” It is also the best book available on the Agrarians. It is an intensely partisan book but being such it humanizes them, brings them to life, as never before. It also points to the fact that among this group were three of the foremost American writers of the twentieth century: Ransom and Tate in poetry and criticism, Warren in poetry, criticism, and fiction. That alone would guarantee for I’ll Take My Stand a place in literary history.

Rubin’s approach also suggests that I’ll Take My Stand should be read for its formal qualities as well as its ideas, as a part of the literary continuum between the poetry that these men wrote as Fugitives and the New Criticism they were to develop later. Their concern with the “forms” of Southern society is a mirror of their commitment to literary forms. Wade’s “The Life and Death of Cousin Lucius” can best be read as a short story, and a very powerful one at that. Ransom’s “Reconstructed But Unregenerate” belongs with the best-in the American tradition of the essay (a tradition always strong in the South, we might add). It is as full of conscious literary strategy and carefully chosen language, even puns, and as carefully structured as the best of Emerson’s essays. There are in fact, echoes of Emerson’s “Our age is retrospective” (Nature, 1836) in Ransom’s opening section which says, in effedt, “Our age is progressive.” There are other essays that are weak or pedestrian, of course, such as Nixon’s, or Fletcher’s, or Lanier’s, but Tate’s and Young’s and Lytle’s are models of the form.

Davidson’s “Mirror for Artists” is important for signaling the meaning of Agrarianism for the artists involved. His key assumptions are that art grows only out of a harmonious community and that art finds its chief subject in nature, hence an agrarian community is best for artists. But he reveals to readers familiar with his biography and that of his colleagues that he is railing against literary modernism in its  extreme forms and protesting the commercial ascendancy of New York City in the arts, just as much as he is castigating industry and its ill effects. And it is specifically the Fugitive group at Vanderbilt, which was indeed a close-knit fellowship, that provides the model of community in his mind and the minds of his three closest colleagues.

One more essay deserves mention in this connection, Kline’s “William Remington: A Study in Individualism.” A character study without the force and appeal of “Cousin Lucius,” it has usually been ignored or pronounced a weak link. I think it is a great sleeper. It seems disjointed and unfinished and  quite unsatisfying after Wade’s story. Although there are occasional echoes of Henry Adams and Transcendentalism, the purpose of the essay is unclear. It isn’t a great piece of writing, but it illuminates the entire symposium if it is read as a parable of the biography of the typical Agrarian. A member of a “displaced” intelligentsia, Remington resists the frenzied mainstream of life, around him, looking for more stable human values “on the bank” of the stream. “His devotion,” like the Agrarians’ in the final analysis, “is to no cause, but only to a pleasant place to live in.” The world they imagine is still one of the most appealing Houses of Fiction available.

Both Kline and Davidson end their essays with pessimistic assessments of the actual state of literature in the South. “I do not suggest,” Davidson was careful to say, “that the South itself is about to become the seat of some grand revival of the arts.” We know now that he was wrong. Faulkner was already writing some of his mature works; the great outpouring by Porter, Welty, Wolfe, McCullers, Warren, Williams, Hellman, O’Connor, and others that has become known as the Southern Renaissance was already underway. Now we know that I’ll Take My Stand is properly a part of that literary movement,  perhaps the work most important in revealing the vision that lay behind it.