The Southern Agrarians (also known as the Twelve Southerners, the Vanderbilt Agrarians, the Nashville Agrarians, the Tennessee Agrarians, or the Fugitive Agrarians) were a group of twelve American writers, poets, essayists, and novelists, all with roots in the Southern United States, who joined together to write a pro-Southern agrarian manifesto, a collection of essays published in 1930 titled I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. They were major contributors to the revival of Southern literature in the 1920s and 1930s now known as the Southern Renaissance.
The Southern Agrarians included:
- Donald Davidson, poet, essayist, reviewer and historian
- John Gould Fletcher, poet and historian
- Henry Blue Kline
- Lyle H. Lanier
- Andrew Nelson Lytle, poet, novelist and essayist
- Herman Clarence Nixon
- Frank Lawrence Owsley, historian
- John Crowe Ransom, poet, professor, essayist
- Allen Tate, poet
- John Donald Wade, biographer and essayist
- Robert Penn Warren, poet, novelist, essayist and critic, later first poet laureate of the United States
- Stark Young, novelist, drama and literary critic, playwright
Background and general ideas of the Southern Agrarians
The Agrarians evolved from a philosophical discussion group known as the "Fugitives" or "Fugitive Poets". Many of the Southern Agrarians and Fugitive poets were connected to Vanderbilt University, either as students or as faculty members. Davidson, Lytle, Ransom, Tate, and Warren all attended the university; Davidson and Ransom later joined the faculty, along with Wade and Owsley. They were moved to respond by their studies of poetic modernism and by H. L. Mencken's scathing critique of Southern culture. They were offended not so much by Mencken's widely publicized essay "The Sahara of the Bozart", with which they tended to agree, but by his subsequent bitter attacks on aspects of Southern culture that they valued, such as its agrarianism, conservatism, and religiosity. They sought to confront the widespread and rapidly increasing effects of modernity, urbanism, and industrialism on American (but especially Southern) culture and tradition. The informal leader of the Fugitives and the Agrarians was John Crowe Ransom, but in a 1945 essay he announced that he no longer believed in either the possibility or the desirability of an Agrarian restoration, which he declared a "fantasy". The most eloquent exponent of the Agrarian philosophy eventually proved to be Ransom's student Richard M. Weaver, a friend of Donald Davidson. Unlike the others, Weaver taught at a Northern institution, the University of Chicago. Other writers associated with the Agrarians include Caroline Gordon, Brainard Cheney and Herbert Agar.
The Southern Agrarians bemoaned the increasing loss of Southern identity and culture to industrialization. They believed that the traditional agrarian roots of the United States, which dated back to the nation's founding in the 18th century (with many of America's most important Founding Fathers being farmers), were important to its nature. Their manifesto was a critique of the rapid industrialization and urbanization during the first few decades of the 20th century in the southern United States and elsewhere. It posited an alternative based on a return to the more traditionally rural and local/regional culture, and agrarian American values. The group opposed the rapid and destabilizing changes in the U.S. that were leading it to become more urban, national/international, and industrial. Because the book was published at the opening (1930) of what would eventually become the Great Depression, some viewed it as particularly prescient. The book's stance was anti-communist.
Seward Collins, editor of The American Review, praised Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler for thwarting a communist revolution in Germany. He published some essays by Agrarians in 1933. In 1936, Allen Tate published a critique of fascism in The New Republic to distance the Agrarians from Collins.
Under attack as reactionary
I'll Take My Stand was attacked at the time, and since, as a reactionary and romanticized defense of the Old South and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It ignored slavery and denounced "progress", for example, and some critics considered it to be moved by nostalgia.
In the 1930s, the Agrarians were challenged by the modernizing social scientists (the "Chapel Hill Sociologists") based at the University of North Carolina (in Chapel Hill), and led by Howard W. Odum, on issues of urbanism, social progress, and the very nature and definition of the South. The sociologists produced Rupert Vance's The Human Geography of the South (1932), and Odum's Southern Regions of the United States (1936), as well as numerous articles in the journal Social Forces. The sociologists argued that the problems in the South stemmed from traditionalism which ought to and could be cured by modernization, the opposite of the Agrarian viewpoint.
At a reunion of the Fugitive Poets in 1956, Warren confessed that for about a decade — from just before World War II to some years after — he had shut Agrarianism from his mind as irrelevant to the cataclysmic social and political events then playing out in the world. Now, however, he believed that, rather than being irrelevant, his old Agrarian enthusiasms were tied into the major problems of the age. In the modern world, the individual had been marginalized, stripped of any sense of responsibility, or of past or place. "In this context," writes Paul V. Murphy, "the Agrarian image of a better antebellum South came to represent for Warren a potential source of spiritual revitalization. The past recalled, not as a mythical 'golden age' but 'imaginatively conceived and historically conceived in the strictest readings of the researchers', could be a 'rebuke to the present'."
It was Warren's concern with democracy, regionalism, personal liberty and individual responsibility that led him to support the civil rights movement, which he depicted in his nonfiction works Segregation (1956) and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965) as a struggle for identity and individualism. As Hugh Ruppersburg, among others, has argued, Warren's support for the civil rights movement paradoxically stemmed from Agrarianism, which by the 1950s meant something very different to him from the Agrarianism of I'll Take My Stand. As Warren's political and social views evolved, his notion of Agrarianism evolved with them. He came to support more progressive ideas and racial integration, and was a close friend of the eminent African-American author Ralph Ellison. While Donald Davidson took a leading role in the attempt to preserve the system of segregation, Warren took his stand against it. As Paul V. Murphy writes, "Loyalty to the southern past and the ambiguous lessons of Agrarianism led both men in very different directions."
In recent decades some traditionalistic conservatives such as Allan C. Carlson, Joseph Scotchie, and Eugene Genovese have praised the Agrarian themes in light of what they see as the failures of highly urbanized and industrialized modern societies.
Today, the Southern Agrarians are lauded regularly in the conservative media such as the Southern Partisan. Some of their social, economic, and political ideas have been refined and updated by writers such as Allan C. Carlson and Wendell Berry. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has published books which further explore the ideas of the Agrarians.
Statement of Principles
A key quote from the "Introduction: A Statement of Principles" to their 1930 book I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition:
All the articles bear in the same sense upon the book's title-subject: all 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. ...Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian, which does not stand in particular need of definition. An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use at all for industries, for professional vocations, for scholars and artists, and for the life of cities. Technically, perhaps, an agrarian society is one in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige – a form of labor that is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and that becomes the model to which the other forms approach as well as they may. But an agrarian regime will be secured readily enough where the superfluous industries are not allowed to rise against it. The theory of agrarianism is 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."
- Davidson et al. 2006.
- Shapiro, Edward S. (1972). "The Southern Agrarians, H. L. Mencken, and the Quest for Southern Identity", American Studies 13: 75-92.
- Ransom, John Crowe (1945). "Art and the Human Economy", Kenyon Review 7: 686.
- Rubin, Louis (1962), "Introduction", I'll take my stand: the South and the agrarian tradition, p. xxiii
- Johnson, Bethany L, ed. (2001), The Southern Agrarian and the New Deal: Essays after "I'll Take My Stand", p. 3.
- Simpson, Lewis P (2003), "1", The Fable of the Southern Writer.
- Holladay, Robert ‘Bob’ (Dec 2005), "The Gods That Failed: Agrarianism, Regionalism, and the Nashville-Chapel Hill Highway", Tennessee Historical Quarterly 64 (4): 284–307.
- Murphy, Paul V. (2001). The Rebuke of History: Introduction, University of North Carolina Press.
- Ruppenburg, Hugh (1990). Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination, University of Georgia Press.
- Smith, Sandy (2008). "Voices from the Past"
- Ealy, Steven D. (2006). "'A Friendship That Has Meant So Much': Robert Penn Warren and Ralph W. Ellison", The South Carolina Review Vol. 38, No. 2: 162-172.
- Young, Thomas Daniel (2010), Waking Their Neighbors Up: The Nashville Agrarians Rediscovered, U. of Georgia Press.
- Davidson et al. 1930.
- Davidson, Donald; Fletcher, John Gould; Kline, Henry Blue; Lanier, Lyle H; Lytle, Andrew Nelson; Nixon, Herman Clarence (2006), I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (75th anniversary ed.), Louisiana State Univ. Press, ISBN 0-8071-3208-X.
- ———; Fletcher, John Gould; Kline, Henry Blue; Lanier, Lyle H; Lytle, Andrew Nelson; Nixon, Herman Clarence (1930), "Introduction: a statement of principles", I'll Take My Stand.
- Bingham, Emily; Underwood, Thomas A, eds. (2001), The Southern Agrarians and the New Deal: Essays After I'll Take My Stand.
- Carlson, Allan (2004), The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America.
- Langdale, John (2012), Superfluous Southerners: Cultural Conservatism and the South, 1920–1990.
- Morton, Clay (2007), "Southern Orality and 'Typographic America': I'll Take My Stand Reconsidered", Themes of Conflict in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Literature of the American South.
- Murphy, Paul V (2001), The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought.
- Scotchie, Joseph, "Agrarian Valhalla: The Vanderbilt 12 and Beyond", Southern Events.