The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and Agrarians
by John L. Stewart.
Princeton University Press, 1965.
Hardcover, 566 pages.
The rewriting of the social, political, economic, and legal history of our nation’s most conservative and (from the perspective of “presentist” provincialism in time) most ill-behaved member, the South, has been under way a good while now. With this Orwellian reconstruction the self-appointed Ministers-of-Truth for the American Left—the intellectual minions of statism, sociology, and pseudoreligion—are utilizing the hegemony acquired for them by their rhetoric by applying that selfsame instrument to reshape the past into an apologia for their version of our present and future. In behalf of this inversion of the traditional humanist conception of history they issue periodically from out shadowy academic caverns and editorial cloudlands to assure the “enlightened” that the Reconstruction was flawed only by its mildness and brevity; that the abolitionists were sweet-tempered, reasonable gentlemen—and black slavery alone the occasion of The War Between the States; that total, immediate, and coercive “freedom now” was a boon to all (white and colored) who had to live with the Emancipation of 1863; and that the long preoccupation of the South, with the adherence of all parties involved, to the original nation-making compact was (and is) inconsistent with its interest, its experience, and the principles of its founders.
That this project should finally include treatment of the South’s literary history was inevitable. But the sophistication and aesthetic veneer of the literary high priests of the new revisionism do not make their productions any more palatable than Ashmore or Vann Woodward on Southern social customs; Stampp or Franklin on Reconstruction; or Davis, Eaton, Grantham, and Sellers on Southern thought. For example, vast edifices of willful error and distortion have been thrown up to conceal from us the true dimensions of that towering figure, William Faulkner; fascist “schemes” have been uncovered in the formal and innocuous exposition of critics who refuse to cooperate with the perversion of their calling into a secularized eschatology; and melodramatic, written-to-order treatments of Southern “horrors” have been puffed beyond recognition at the expense of genuine craftsmanship which neglected to sound the proper trumpet. But much of this flummery was skirmishing and mere prologue. Now, as far as the literature of the twentieth-century South is concerned, the major dragon-slaying has been undertaken. After several false starts and partial reconnoiterings, at last we have a “full treatment” in The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and Agrarians, by John L. Stewart (Princeton University Press, 1965).
The revival of letters in the modern South is now a commonplace of contemporary literary history. The Southern Renaissance, it is admitted even by those least pleased to do so, is a phenomenon to be conjured with. The United States has had nothing like it since the outpouring of New England talent in the middle years of the last century. And though of late its impetus is much diminished and/or diluted by the pollution of mendacious literary scalawaggery and time-serving, the groundswell of Southern writing begun in the early twenties has not yet expended itself. In the midst of (and, in one sense, behind) that current a few names stand out: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and Andrew Nelson Lytle. Single figures haveperhaps outreached or may yet outreach the individual achievements of any one of these five in poetry, fiction, or even criticism. But the Fugitives and Agrarians are, as a group (and despite their differences), the inevitable point of reference for any discussion of contemporary Southern writing. In them the Southern Renaissance acquired a self-conscious identity; by them (and those who learned from them), national and international attention was focused on this singular and—to those who measure culture by the number and costliness of Life-Adjustment schools—disturbingly inexplicable development. Together they gave imaginative and commanding voice to the Southern sensibility and made the rest of the world sit up and listen to it. With the help of like-minded and sympathetic men, they transformed the teaching and study of literature in the American college and thus helped to father a revolution in taste. Moreover, while in the process of accomplishing these changes in the republic of letters, they undertook a re-examination and redefinition of the social and moral bases of the world whose life occasioned the Renaissance of which they were a part. The Fugitives who were also Agrarians—again supported by other gifted and articulate men (Southerners)—joined to produce a manifesto (I’ll Take My Stand, 1930), to help to produce a sequel (Who Owns America?, 1935), and to write innumerable other essays in its exposition and in defense of their position. The success of the group’s collective effort moved the late Richard M. Weaver to say, “It was not until 1925 that Southern intellectuals caught up with Lee and Jackson.”
Their artistically impressive and prophetically challenging articulation of the bone and marrow convictions of the traditional South—of what Burke would call the “wise prejudice” of their people—was bound to provoke that legion of scribblers who are forever writing epitaphs for Dixie, even as was their stature certain to solicit the attention of responsible students of the nation’s mind and spirit. After two decades of calumny and reply, books, dissertations, and scholarly articles on individual members of the Fugitive and Agrarian fellowship have begun to appear in numbers; and most of their works are being reprinted. (I’ll Take My Stand reappeared in 1962 as a Harper Torchbook.) Studies of their cooperation flourish: the best (apart from personal recollections by members of the circle) are Louise Cowan’s The Fugitive Group (Louisiana State University Press, 1959), and, with certain grave reservations, Virginia Rock’s University of Minnesota dissertation, “The Making and Meaning of I’ll Take My Stand” (1961). The worst is John Bradbury’s The Fugitives (North Carolina University Press, 1958). But these and the many less ambitious or more specialized studies which have supplemented them are dwarfed in both their scope and partisanship by John L. Stewart’s The Burden of Time.
In its design, in its attention to the relationship between the “doctrine” of Agrarianism and the creative performance of the men who subscribed to that doctrine, and in the thoroughness and brilliance of some of the discussions of individual poems, essays, or fiction it contains, Stewart’s book is admirable. He is good on much of John Ransom’s poetry, on Merrill Moore, on some of Allen Tate, and especially on Robert Penn Warren. Moreover, the last 336 pages of his study (the pages which contain his full-length critiques of Ransom, Tate, and Warren) are valuable even when wrongheaded because here he considers total performances, generally depends upon a well-developed sense of literary history to provide a context for his judgments, and usually offers some evidence in support of these judgments. But the first 205 pages, because they contain numerous errors of fact and because they have none of the virtues of those which follow them, are worth study only as an example of how not to write literary history.
When free of the exactions imposed upon him by the role of critic and away from the business of explication (from whose jargon he derives his protective coloration), John Stewart reveals himself to be a petulant doctrinaire. He gives no adequate account of the position of the Nashville Agrarians on questions to which they addressed themselves, no acknowledgement of their substantial and ancient intellectual antecedents, no support for his viperish ex cathedra assertions and bold-faced condescension. For example, Professor Stewart assures us that “professional historians looked with . . . laughter and scorn” upon the essays of Frank Owsley, a man elected by professional historians in 1960 to be president of the Southern Historical Association. He repeatedly insists that Donald Davidson, one of the most fully engaged, outspoken, and philosophically consistent of American men of letters, is an “escapist” who has “in place of a comprehensive moral scheme . . . only a set of prejudices.” And he writes of Andrew Lytle (one of the Fugitive and/or Agrarian connection whom—along with Caroline Gordon, Stark Young, John Wade, and John Gould Fletcher—he most neglects or abuses) that he was “provokingly immature” until he came free “of the shadows of provincialism and the influence of the older agrarians”—thus misrepresenting both past and present.
From the way in which he offers his observations on Owsley, Davidson, and Lytle as if they were self-evident truths, and indeed from the air of mastery with which he touches on all of his subjects save one, it may reasonably be inferred that Professor Stewart’s objective is to act the revisionist, to bury the Fugitives and Agrarians (or at least everything about them that owes significantly to their Southern origins, everything that might attach to them the “onus” of conservatism) and not to study them. Because he has such an objective, he can lavish praises on the reputably Liberal Warren (the commercialization of whose considerable talents is the most melancholy development in the recent history of the Fugitives) and yet must not praise overmuch the unreformed Mr. Tate or consider the later and most impressive work of Lytle and Davidson. Further evidence of Stewart’s “design” exists in his selection of documentation for readings of Tate, Ransom, and Davidson, in his calculated juxtaposition, his diction, and in his approval of only such writings by these men (regardless of their artistic merit) as have either no connection with the South or indicate disapprobation of it. Nothing that Stewart cites from previous comment on Agrarian writings or Fugitive poetry with Agrarian overtones does anything to illuminate these works, save in a few cases where he tosses in, as a part of his technique of camouflaging his assaults and disguising his purposes with mild compliments, a vague comment about the “mythic value” of images.
Professor Louis D. Rubin, in a recent and perceptive discussion of The Burden of Time in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer, 1965), detects with some surprise the presence in Stewart’s work of an “interesting kind of yardstick silently being used” in the author’s literary evaluation of Fugitive and Agrarian “attainments.” That it is there and that it is political Dr. Rubin should not be surprised to discover. The devout Liberal, when masquerading as a scholar, is almost always interested chiefly in (whatever the field of study or other intellectual activity) convincing the gullible that everyone who is anyone is on his side and that everyone who refuses to keep in step is a barbarian. Most of these gentlemen thus behave automatically—reflexively. For to do otherwise is to doubt themselves and the direction of the wave they ride; and they cannot bear such doubts. We should not expect to deter them from their practice. Instead we must be content with labeling, exposing, and then ignoring their displays until the hubris of their scholarly practice, along with their politics, collapses under the weight of its own artificiality. In the meantime we can rejoice in the knowledge that the Fugitives, Agrarians, and the younger men and women who have learned from them continue to keep faithful custody of the truths of art and life which have thus far, in defiance of the Liberal calculus, sustained them.
Dr. M. E. Bradford (1934–1993) was professor of English at the University of Dallas.