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Intrascendence, Myth, & the Southern Agrarian Legacy ~ The Imaginative Conservative

There is more to Southern life than moonlight and magnolia. It presumed, in fact, an affection for the literal world justified by its origin, history, and destiny, infused with its own providentially given meaning and value. It was not a perfect society, to be sure. But it had at its core something which deserves respect. In particular, it was a dream of America, a heritage of European, mainly English, Christian culture, and one that is still worth defending, despite our present darkness.

“As a human document it is still very much alive; the concerns of 1930 are the concerns of 1962, and will very likely be concerns in the year 2000.” —Louis D. Rubin, Jr., editor, I’ll Take My Stand.


In the Undefeated, John Wayne plays a Northern colonel who just received news that Lee had surrendered three days earlier. Wanting to make sure the opposing Confederate troops knew this, too, he rode over to them under a flag of truce and explained the matter. The Confederate leader said they had already heard about it the day before. “You knew it?” the astonished Wayne asked and wondered why they still fought. “Because this is our land,” said the Confederate, “and you’re on it.” “We’re all Americans,” Wayne replied. “Yes, sir. That’s always been the saddest part of it.” Sad, indeed, for if the southern and northern virtues could have come together, as has been argued, they would have produced a first-class civilization. Instead, the two sections grew apart. And that is “the saddest part of it.”

That “growing apart” is treated in the book I’ll Take My Stand published by twelve southern writers nearly a century ago (1930). It’s theme is the serious cleavage between the agrarian South and the industrial North. And as we approach the centenary of the publication of the book, we should pause to re-examine their reasons and evaluate their application today. “If in its economic and social counsel I’ll Take My Stand has been so little heeded by the South,” editor Louis Rubin points out, “and if in several important respects its attitude toward crucial issues does not provide a guide for many Southerners, then what accounts for the book’s continued influence?”1 His short answer is: “It is a rebuke to materialism, a corrective to the worship of Progress, and a reaffirmation of man’s aesthetic and spiritual needs.” It is a critically different vision of the ends of living. It is “about man, what he is, what he should be, what he must be…” And this is why it still speaks to us today. As poets and men of letters, the authors were given to an image which was “marvelous in its assemblage of many properties,” in John C. Ransom’s words, and which invited exploration. “The image of the old agrarian South in I’ll Take My Stand was the image of a society that perhaps never existed, though it resembled the Old South in certain important ways. But it was a society that should have existed – one in which men could live as individuals and not as automatons, aware of their finiteness and their dependence upon God and nature, devoted to the enhancement of the moral life in its aesthetic and spiritual dimensions, possessed of a sense of the deep inscrutability of the natural world.”

More than the image of such a society, a resemblance, if not also a remembrance, of the Old South is given in the literature of the time. To get a sense of that image I quote generously the very first paragraph of Thomas Nelson Page’s novel, In Ole Virginia:

“One afternoon, in the autumn of 1872, I was riding leisurely down the sandy road that winds along the top of the water-shed between two of the smaller rivers of eastern Virginia. The road I was travelling, following ‘the ridge’ for miles, had just struck me as most significant of the character of the race which had dwelt upon it and whose only avenue of communication with the outside world it had formerly been. Their once splendid mansions, now fast falling to decay, appeared to view from time to time, set back far from the road, in proud seclusion, among groves of oak and hickory, now scarlet and gold with the early frost. Distance was nothing to this people; time was of no consequence to them. They desired but a level path in life, and that they had, though the way was longer, and the outer world strode by them as they dreamed.”2

The implications of the image are obvious. The mansions in decay (early frost) figure the Old South, secluded, and not quite in tune with the world, for they are set back from the road which communicates with that outside world, and most importantly here, is the sense of time, as though the inhabitants dwelt in another dimension. They are in a metaphysical dream which concerns themselves alone. They celebrate the immanent moral reality of human nature, but even more of their particular, historically received heritage which serves as the standard by which they measure themselves. It is a comparing of self to self rather than to others, with what is, to what should be, called here “intrascendent,” while the rest of the world is free to pass them by.3

John Crowe Ransom and Pioneering

In this internalized evaluating self with self, John C. Ransom gives two main attributes for comparison. In his essay, “Reconstructed But Unregenerate” he distinguishes between the “pioneering” stage and the “establishment” stage of society.

The “pioneering spirit” was obviously abundant in both the North and the South. To come to a new world, tackle the problem of a wilderness, build up cities, farms and homes was common to both. But in the South, pioneering was merely instrumental. It was intended to bring about an establishment where people would have the leisure to pursue the higher callings of the human spirit. In the other section, pioneering was done on principle, never defining its purpose. The “pioneering life is not the normal life,” insists Ransom; it was not a means to an end. Modern America, though, was “pioneering on principle, or from force of habit, and without any recollection of what pioneering was for.” There was always some new frontier to be conquered. So there was never an establishment that produced the leisure necessary to engage fully the human mind in its higher levels.

This modern mind is set on domination, always going forth to “trouble the earth.” Its adherents are driven by ambition. “The stuff these dreams were made on was the illusion of preeminent personal success over a material opposition. The tone was belligerence, and the euphemism under which it masqueraded was ambition.” And “[a]mbitious men fight, first of all, against nature…” They “are belligerent also in the way they look narrowly and enviously upon one another…” Industrialism is in fact “the contemporary form of pioneering.” The Northern sense of pioneering embodies the concept of Progress. It “is the concept of man’s increasing command, eventually perfect command, over the forces of nature; a concept which enhances too readily our conceit, and brutalizes our life.” The South was founded on European principles, especially English, and the European principle of conservatism is “deeply scornful of the American and pioneer doctrine of the strenuous life.” Co-author Stark Young concurs, contrasting this with the qualities of Southern establishment: “one of its aspects is a certain indifference to mere attainments, which may be left to the professors, arrivistes, and paid performers.”

Lyle Lanier contributes his study of the idea of progress, and reviews the different forms that idea has taken, including in European thought. Lanier’s essay reinforces Ransom’s sense of Northern pioneering on principle, a social commitment to endless flux. First, he shows that despite its vagueness in a sociological sense, ideologically it has been obviously quite influential especially when embodied in such forms as Hegel’s philosophical system, a kind of “evolutionism” but one which was later largely displaced by a material, positivistic evolutionism. (Pragmatism and instrumentalism are also examined. It is this sense of power over nature and social changes which instead gives us certain philosophies, such as Jamesian pragmatism.) However, he insists that the single most significant support for the idea of progress came from industrialism itself. “The conquest of the West by machine technology produced social consequences without parallel in history.” By “industrialism,” though, he doesn’t mean industrial technology as such, “but the domination of the economic, political, and social order by the notion that the greater part of a nation’s energies should be directed toward an endless process of increasing the production and consumption of goods.”

 Of course, it is a truism to note that some qualities are interdependent with each other. But that truism is foundational to Ransom’s approach to pioneering. Knowledge of character and manners, culture, and human relations may be lost or reduced by excessively cultivating the pioneering knowledge of technique and power, to dominate nature, and so, unsettling social arrangements. It is impossible to be the complete human in a society that is always changing, i.e., always pioneering on principle.

Establishment as Leisure and Completeness

The second main quality is to have a society that is final, complete, or established. Once the pioneering stage was finished, that is, once “establishment” had been achieved, the better part of life could begin. Ransom needed an appropriate standard to estimate the fullness of life in the ante-bellum period. “It is my thesis,” he says, “that all were committed to a form of leisure, and that their labor itself was leisurely.” To have leisure is to have an abundance of time and not to worry about change or speed. Preoccupation with change is a preoccupation with power, is, in fact, the opposite of leisure. Or else, it is a different kind of power, the power to employ critical intelligence in the service of goods other than material or economic ones. Good pioneering means having enough power to offer leisure. The Southerner wanted “to envelop both his work and his play with a leisure which permitted the activity of intelligence,” he says. “On this assumption the South pioneered her way to a sufficiently comfortable and rural sort of establishment, considered that establishment was something stable, and proceeded to enjoy the fruits thereof.”

One can restate the concepts of pioneering and establishment in Aristotelian terms: “the becoming is for the sake of the end.” All the changes entailed in that becoming serve the purpose, and its permanence, and cease when the end is attained. Changes after that are for maintenance, and beyond that they are mere decay. Or, we can follow Edmund Burke’s famous example of an organism which is never entirely new or completely old. The cellular changes occur but the organism as a whole is preserved. The application to society is straight-forward; the complete or mature organism is balanced and therefore stable. In another application along similar lines, the analogy may be called “homeostasis” and would apply, also, to groups of organisms in a community in which balance is maintained: compensating action is used to maintain constancy of equilibrium.

But “homeostatic” is a cringeworthy name, and a more intuitive example is need to communicate the same thing. The farm itself would serve the agrarian better. It is a microcosm of homeostatic qualities with its various restorative cycles involving the changes of seasons, planting and harvesting, and the numerous corresponding activities within the home. Throughout, the farm and the way of life endure. The Southerner, says Ransom, is one “who persists in his regard for a certain terrain, a certain history, and a certain inherited way of living.” And again, “it is the character of a seasoned provincial life that it is realistic, or successfully adapted to its natural environment, and that as a consequence it is stable, or heritable.” It includes the family, home, parents, the extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles, and more broadly, the “nostalgia for one’s own blood.” (Young)

In other ways, the Agrarians give a strong showing of intrascendence. Accordingly, the individual, and the society in question, compares himself with an embraced/internalized standard of value, rather than with another individual or society. Lytle gives an economic instance: “If an abundance of those things which a people considers the goods and the riches of the earth defines wealth, then it follows that that particular culture is wealthy in proportion to the production and distribution of just those things and no others; and it does not depend upon what another people may consider the goods and riches, no matter how greatly those things have multiplied for them [emphasis added]…” And again he adds: “In a society which recognizes the supremacy of nature and man’s frailty each individual enjoys or subdues nature according to his capacity and desires [emphasis added]…” And for the “plain man” and yeoman farmer, he writes “no matter how wealthy or how powerful a neighbor might grow…the small farmer who lived next to his plantation was still a free man so long as he paid his taxes and provided his family with food, clothes and shelter. He was economically and politically independent [emphasis added].”

The agrarian qualities the yeomen did pay attention to are described by Stark Young in which he gives us a sense of family arising not so much from a genealogy of blood as from the soil itself and the manner of life arising from it. “And a sense of family,” he writes, “followed our connection with the land, a gracious domain where the events of the day began with the sky and light, the bread you ate came from the fields around you, your father’s, your own; and life has been led; where you have known man’s great desire, that generation of himself in the body of life, of which the earth is the eternal and natural symbol; and where there was, of all occupations, the form of labor in which the mystery and drama of life – the seed, the flower and harvest, the darkness, the renewal – is most represented to us.”

But the highest qualities Young is concerned with are not restricted to one provincial mode of life or one region of the country. They are a part of the “gentle things…that gentle people everywhere believe.” So, in the whole body of these qualities, the South is not alone. Plenty of people, says Mr. Young, in New England, for example, object to recent modern trends and want to preserve certain elements on the same grounds the Agrarians do, and sometimes more coherently and intelligently. (One thinks of Emerson’s essay, “Farming,” as a sympathetic example.4) Young argues that “we are concerned first with a quality itself, not as our own but as found anywhere; and that we defend certain qualities not because they belong to the South, but because the South belongs to them. The intelligent course sees first our Southern culture in relation to other cultures, and then in the light of its own sum [emphasis added].” We have here a more complex case of intrascendent thinking: though mindful of other cultures with the same qualities, the final judgment is self-comparison. Elsewhere, in evaluating Southern qualities, he makes this point stronger: “It is clear that we have come now to where our discussion concerns no outside argument but strictly ourselves. As a matter of fact it has been from the first less a defense of certain Southern qualities than a strengthening of ourselves in them [emphasis added].” There are also more important things in life than the benefits of industrialism for the complete society: “There are also,” he says, “more fleeting and eternal things to be thought of; more grace, sweetness and time; more security in our instincts, and chance to follow our inmost nature, as Jesus meant when he said he must be about his Father’s business [emphasis added]…”

To underscore this view, Young adds: “[F]or no thing can there be any completeness that is outside its own nature, and no thing for which there is any advance save in its own kind.” Changes which life invariably brings in following our “inmost nature” are yet those which support permanence, and which are manifested in the enduring manners, mores, and traditions of a stable society.

There is also a piety surrounding the social identity which aids that stability, and impertinent questions of the professional philosopher are avoided. In fact, the pursuit of philosophical questions (ratiocination) is a part of the pioneering phase, but its answers are a part of the establishment. “In a curious way this defines our Southern notion of the aristocratic,” says Young. “It is a thing forever annoying to those who, from the outside of such traditions, wish to put them into reasonable terms, and it will never be understandable by those born in a different scheme of life.” Nor is there a rush to establish those answers; they, like rationality itself, come in the fullness of time and the completeness of the establishment. “And I must not make the mistake of saying,” says Young, “that any of these qualities that I would promote has reason for its basis; it is based on preference only, and it achieves its consummation, or perfection, in becoming rational. It is then a thing complete in itself, making its own kind of sense.” Rationality presupposes the complete society; one reasons from within it. “It was one of those things half of whose mysterious virtue,” says Young, “lies in their arbitrariness.” Arbitrary in that there is no anterior starting point, not arbitrary in the sense of being whimsical or capricious.

A further note on Agrarian completeness is their sense, not only of what was completed, but also in the “pioneering” phase how it was done. The former depends upon the latter. The establishment must come about by means of an agrarian process, as well as result in an agrarian state. Merely having an agricultural sector, with an otherwise industrialized society, would not be the same thing, or an agricultural sector that was overly mechanized. Donald Davidson illustrates this trait when discussing the origin of a taste for good art. How people achieve that taste matters. Imitating the technique of their rivals, artists abdicate the function by which they set the tone of society. Good art cannot flourish in a society dedicated to efficiency and gross material productivity. Great art cannot be manufactured, certainly not en masse, cannot be industrialized. Good art retains its intimacy with ordinary life; it is populist, not aristocratic. “[T]he aesthetic experience is not curtained off but is mixed up with all sorts of instruments and occupations pertaining to the round of daily life.” But even if good art achieved an expanded audience through the agency of industrialism, he writes, “I should still suspect the validity of the process by which they achieved good taste.” Good taste cannot be attained simply by going into the market for it. “It will be but a superficial property, the less valued because it was easily got…” It would be merely gilded with culture, not permeated. It would simply not be the same thing.

Perhaps the worst threat to leisure and completeness which industrialism presents is the transplanting of people from one community or way of life to another, even if that is over time and not necessarily a change of place. The motto of the age is that we are to be always on the move, figuratively or literally. Ransom explains: “Affections, and long memories, attach to the ancient bowers of life in the provinces; but they will not attach to what is always changing.” For this reasons there is a positive role for nostalgia. It is this instinctive objection to being torn away from one’s place of origin which “prevents the deracination of human communities and their complete geographical dispersion as the casualties of an insatiable wanderlust.” Suppress nostalgia, and any other wholesome protections, and the ordinary human is completely subject to the rootless progressivist ideology which is as easily capable of formulating behavior involving “self-torture and suicide” as readily as anything healthy. In a healthy establishment “citizens are comparatively satisfied with the life they have inherited, and are careful to look backward quite as much as they look forward.”

Establishment and the Problem of Change

All this brings us to the problem of change as such. For many philosophers change is embellished to a point where questions become more important than answers. Eric Voegelin, for example, writes that the “quest” for truth is a permanent struggle with pre-analytical notions of existence, as well as with the erroneous analytical conceptions. There is a “perpetual task of disengaging [truth] from error, of refining its expression in contest with the inexhaustible ingenuity of error.” To do this we must focus not so much on what are represented as “true answers” but more on the questions themselves. “[I]t is the questions that the philosopher must keep alive…” in order to stay close to that original, authentic experience from which philosophy arises. So “the philosopher is more interested today in the experiential structure which motivates speculation than in the answers themselves.”5

Not so for the agrarian. If he is considered a philosopher at all, it is of the kind that prefers answers to mere questions, and where philosophy is itself seen as a pioneering endeavor. Once the relevant questions are settled, they are left alone; they become part of the establishment. In fact, the agrarian begins with the answers, that is with a settled, established society, no pre-social state of mankind, and with creation as the doneé of the world. He already starts out with answers to the Leibnizian questions, why there is something rather than nothing, and why something is as it is, and not different. As Young says of education at a certain older venerable university: “I have seen some fellow in that larger institution battle with philosophy and the Lord for hours, where one of my country cousins would have dropped the matter automatically, merely as something beneath him.” The South in general, says Weaver, has never done much in the way of “speculative philosophy” and despite the expansion of Southern universities, “Southern departments of philosophy have remained pitifully small.” Not a surprising view from men of letters who are more comfortable with rhetoric than dialectic. Instead, “The Southerner…has tended to live in the finite, balanced, and proportional world which Classical man conceived…The idea of stasis is not abhorrent to him, because it affords a ground for the identity of things.”6

The sense that change is in the service of permanence (stasis) is summarized in Young’s quotation from Spenser on mutability:

“They are not changéd from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate:
And turning to themselves at length again,
Do work their own perfection so by fate.
Then over them change doth not rule and reign,
But they rule over change and do themselves maintain.”

Spencer’s concept of “first estate” deserves some elaboration. We all intuitively understand that we cannot go back in time and repeat certain favored periods because that would not really be the same thing. The mere fact of understanding it as past puts us “outside” it as it were, and we can never get back “inside.” And if we did, we wouldn’t know ourselves to be experiencing again what we sought. The charm of the first time cannot be recaptured by repeated efforts to experience firstness again. Those first experiences, like our first falling in love, summarize a variety of experiences which we feast off of for many years, perhaps the rest of our lives. “Some hours of joy,” says Pamela Tudsbury in the Winds of War, “weigh against a whole lifetime…” They are definitive, not merely because of their position in a sequence, but because of their summary nature. All the subsequent experiences within its scope are assured of fitting in. The lesser ones are tolerated or enjoyed as the case may be because they are seen in the light of that first estate; indeed, they are a part of it. The harmony is also assured so long as the subject lives the truth of existence (Voegelin’s phrase) and not a false or secondary reality. This is especially important when another, though lesser, firstness is experienced. Our being is not changed but our character is deepened. That is why the Agrarians did not argue to rebuild exactly the pre-Civil War South. Its “firstness,” or summary experience, had passed away in that form. But at least some of its important qualities continued to inform their thinking and values. The South was their first estate, or rather the tragedy of the Civil War and its aftermath. So, the human heart, or Burke’s moral imagination, is both conservative and dynamic. It keeps the summary experience while remaining open to its lesser manifestations and ultimately, to another summary experience, whose harmony is guaranteed by the providential order of things.

A Pioneering Strategy

As important as the “establishment” is, Ransom holds an important place for pioneering to deal with periodic problems. “[T]he pioneering energy,” he says, “must be kept ready for call when the establishment needs overhauling.” And there was a certain amount of overhauling needed in the South. “But to keep on living shabbily on an insufficient patrimony is to decline, both physically and spiritually. The South declined.” Of course, this overhauling, or reconstruction, which he has in mind need not involve the identical restoration of the South. “It does not greatly matter,” says Ransom, “to what extent the identical features of the old Southern establishment are restored; the important consideration is that there be an establishment for the sake of stability.” The new pioneering need is an establishment which will “defend home, stability of life, the practice of leisure” and which recognizes that its natural enemy is “the insidious industrial system.”

Furthermore, the pioneering strategy involves working with other communities which hold the same goals. The South was to pool her stakes “with the stakes of other minority groups in the Union which are circumstanced similarly.” He identifies the “Western agrarian party” and parts of New England – and any other like-minded communities – as potential allies in this cause. “The combination of these elements with the Western farmers and the old-fashioned South would make a formidable bloc.” The effect of this union would “be the clean-cut policy that the rural life of America must be defended, and the world made safe for the farmers.” Lytle likewise identifies the “agrarian West and all conservative communities” as potential allies in their cause.

And Stark Young becomes even more abstract and independent of a specific geography while also being very intrascendent. “Provincialism,” he says, “does not at all imply living in the places on which you base your beliefs and choices. It is a state of mind or persuasion. It is a source. With or without knowing the rest of the world, you can, against all odds, defend your provincialism to yourself quite by simple inner necessity, as you think of your own nature, which you would not at bottom change with anyone else. You need not, for instance, live in the South, but you feel your roots are there.”

With pioneering in its “overhauling” mode, Agrarians were quite in favor of change to restore a humane manner of living. Henry Blue Kline in his essay “William Remington: A Study in Individualism” favors a directed and limited change which contrasts with a pointless doing, the “progressivist fetich” of change. People would live happier lives “if the culture of aimless flux were brought to an end”; and the “aimless fluxers, too – the factory workers, the middle and professional classes, even a few millionaires after they should have got used to being half-millionaires – would find more joy in life if they would give more of themselves to being something and less to a perpetual becoming something else, more to the social arts and graces and less to going places and doing things, more to such strenuous activity as writing verses – no matter how bad ones – and less to such passive business as globe-trotting with one’s sensations.”

Kline wants to reclaim his independence and humanity with what he calls an “eutectic” balance, that is, a harmony of the various elements of a humane existence with the minimum use of modern technology and conveniences. This can be done “only by fighting for it” which he wants to do with a “Roman fighting fervor.” It is to be “an individual civil revolt against the established economic fetich.” In intrascendent fashion he pledges “himself to himself,” that is, with his own humane needs and desires. In his words this is “self-development and humane pursuits social, political, economic, and moral.” It is to be brought about by the “critical and selective use of mechanical and mechanized facilities…in the camps of idolaters.” And by renouncing “manufactured products for which he had no real need.” In all cases it is a matter of critical, intelligent choice. Or, as Stark Young says, “We can accept the machine, but create our own attitude toward it.”

But more than merely individual action, Kline saw the change he aimed at could become socially devastating, too. He was well aware of what in current jargon would be called the “tipping point” of social change. “[A] militant minority,” he writes, “ has a leavening effect beyond its numerical proportion in the apathetic mass.” The change would occur “when a hundred or a few hundred thousand median men suddenly become aware that they had fallen into moral slavery…” Such is his aggressive pioneering plan for re-establishing the establishment. A non-leftist form of “change agent” though to make his point sterner still, he says such change “would set about a repetition of the Russian noble experiment” as far as intensity and extent are concerned.

All this stands in contrast to those who share Robert Penn Warren’s later views on implementing agrarian policy. In an article on this agrarian, Mary Cuff promotes the view that one can only internalize the Agrarian values. In her words: “[T]here is often a sense that agrarianism is unhelpful as a solution in the twenty-first century,” and that “a retreat to economically outmoded agrarian sanctums is a realistic option only for elites, leaving behind the Americans hardest hit by the social fragmentation of modern culture.”7 But she rightly notes this was the same critique that the original Twelve faced. To which one may also add that the internalization of values expressed in sophisticated literature may also be seen as something elitist.

As shown above, though, for the original Twelve it was not enough merely to internalize a perspective of values that would keep them humane. Their mission was most definitely to change things socially and politically. To be sure, the matter begins with the internal embrace of these values. But like all beginnings the project seems difficult or impossible in the hostile context of the times. But the impulse of the Agrarian view was always to advocate practical adjustments of lifestyles, whether at the household, local community, or the national levels. As stated in the introduction: “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…But an agrarian regime will be secured readily enough where the superfluous industries are not allowed to rise against it.” Their policy goal was to take advantage of opportunities as circumstances allowed, as well as for more deliberate approaches. That it did not convert American national policy was not because of an inherent practical impossibility, but for other deeper impediments. Ransom’s famous lines come to mind here: “If a community, or a section, or a race, or an age, is groaning under industrialism, and well aware that it is an evil dispensation, it must find the way to throw it off. To think that this cannot be done is pusillanimous. And if the whole community, section, race, or age thinks it cannot be done, then it has simply lost its political genius and doomed itself to impotence.” To rest content with merely internalizing their values is to give up the ghost, and the Agrarians knew that faith without works is dead.

Further Evaluation and Critique

There are three limitations in the agrarian analysis. One is the exclusive focus on domestic economic policy, a second is the intellectualizing effect of their analysis, and the third is their view of religion and science. For the first problem, it is easy to see that trade and foreign policy could be treated by an extension of Ransom’s pioneering/overhauling approach. Policies to protect against unwanted changes would be necessary and especially to preserve a vibrant farming class from the vicissitudes of international trade, as well as for effective self-defense policy. This is at least conceptually relatively easy within their framework. Their emphasis on the principle of critical choice allows for the flexibility, within limits, needed on the practical side.

The second problem, though, is another matter. To defend the agrarian South, the Twelve were compelled to engage in a bit of intellectualizing which was alien to the tradition itself and may have had an alienating effect. “The Agrarian intellectualized himself enough to make a case for agrarian living. In doing so, he was ceasing to be native.”8 But that may be going too far. For their intellectualizing was nothing more than Ransom’s “pioneering” applied to the life of the mind, and from there to society, or the “unorthodox defense of orthodoxy.” Overhauling, that is, correcting defects, is one of the necessities, comparing where one is with where one ought to be. It was not alienating except in regard to those faults which most needed correction. This kind of reflection Southerners would rather have presented to them in literary forms, rhetoric, rather than dialectic, as mentioned above. But more skill in the latter would have been beneficial, again understood in Ransom’s pioneering sense, that is, instrumentally, not as an end in itself. So doing would not have undermined their way of life, though it may have temporarily interrupted its “dream,” but would have preserved their ability to continue the dream, and with greater security as its results became an explicit part of the establishment. The trick is to have the results of the analysis without alienation, to find that “eutectic” point, a successful defense with the minimum amount of abstraction.

The third, and more serious intellectualizing quality, however, though not unrelated to the above, was their view of religion in relation to agriculture and to science. In his “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” Allan Tate speaks of the South as a feudal society without the feudal form of religion. The aggressive, Protestant, materialistic religion was held by the South only theoretically. Protestantism, he says, was after all, a non-agrarian, trading religion. As he unfolds further, Tate begins to sound, partially, like Karl Marx: “the social structure depends on the economic structure,” he says, but “economic conviction is the secular image of religion.” Since the South never created its own fitting religion its social structure began to break down two generations after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the South was able to entertain “biblical mythology” along with the Greek and a lively mediaevalism from Walter Scott. Indeed, the concept of “myth,” as a form of narration to communicate higher truths, plays an important part in the agrarian response.

By “feudal” Tate means the hierarchical social structure, intermediate institutions, local attachments, and checks and balances of the South resembled those of the Middle Ages. But, there were plenty of non-feudal qualities, too: wide-spread ownership of small and medium-sized farms, and a wider participation in government and public policies. There were, of course, plenty of gaps and spaces in this social arrangement, especially on the frontier. Still, Lytle speaks of yeoman farmers – “that great body of free men” – from which arose the aristocratic class, rather different from the feudal manner.

As to Walter Scott’s novels: his handling of Roman Catholics and Protestants is pretty even. He specifically deals with the non-feudal Swiss in Anne of Geierstein, celebrating their fierce independence, for the Swiss had not been feudal since c. 1291. Scott writes that “those who were intrusted with the command of the troops of the Republic in battle, were wont to resume the shepherd’s staff when they laid down the truncheon, and, like the Roman dictators, to retire to complete equality with their fellow-citizens, from the eminence of military command to which their talents, and the call of their country, had raised them.” This comports with a similar assessment that the South identified with “[e]arly Switzerland and Rome before the Principate…They were closed, rural, religious, and corporate societies: places where the achievement of honor by one citizen is, through the social identity, a gift to all.”9

On the other hand, if we want an example of feudalism, we have only to look to the post-Civil War North in the greater Pittsburgh area at about the same time the Agrarians wrote. John P. Hoerr in his extensive history of the steel industry explains that political corruption in general, and the numbers racket in particular which stabilized local politics and usually retuned the Republican candidate to office, flourished in a fragmented set of relatively isolated ethnic communities which had little or no civic identity. The steel companies controlled nearly every aspect of public life: town councils, school boards, and political affairs. (Some might argue that with its mixture of corporation and governmental functions, it resembled more of a fascist system.) Most people were locked into economic, that is, caste-like stations with little chance for advancement. One high school counselor asked a student, “Why do you want to go to college, you’re just the son of a steel-worker?”10 A vassal-like obedience was required, and given the European, especially many Eastern European, peoples that came to work in the mill, the feudal habit of obsequious service was forthcoming, at least in the original immigrant generation.

Also important in Tate’s assessment is the notion that the South didn’t have a feudal religion. (Mr. Tate later became Roman Catholic.) So when the South tried to encompass its destiny in Protestant terms it naturally failed; it could not realize its native, truly Catholic, genius. But, to the contrary, Weaver writes that throughout the South and West, visitors were struck by the multiplicity of sects which yet co-existed with an amazing lack of friction. The religious Solid South was determined to preserve for religion the character of divine revelation. Whether a backwoods convert with his emotionalism, or a refined Episcopalian, restrained and well-mannered, both were “inimical to the spirit of rationalism.” And so, orthodox Christianity was safe in the hands of the one as well as in the other.11 This, despite the assertion that their religion was a trading one, arising, that is, from that social/economic base, instead of an agrarian one. That Christianity might be more portable, more independent of a society’s economic base, that is, universal, catholic in the most fundamental sense of the word, is a feature that is conspicuously absent. After all, Christianity flourished even in the degenerate urban areas of imperial Rome.

What was not compatible, was the teaching of its sacred literature regarding the origin of the world – what Tate calls “biblical mythology” – with either Greek views or what passed for “science.” Here Weaver writes: “To most Southerners the term ‘creation’ comes with its literal meaning.” The Southern scientist, in fact, “did not carry his scientific speculation to the point at which it became an interpretation of the whole of life.”12 The subject of origins with its non-repeatable events may scarcely fit the definition of science and comes with something else, an ideology, or another religion, in the guise of science. By treating creation accounts as myth they are replicating the Greek problem of consistency without contingency, that is, without the centrality that contingency should play in their thinking, creation ex nihilo. The Christian understanding of origins is banished to an increasingly distant past so as to attenuate that sense of contingency. The greater the attenuation, the greater the room for pagan beliefs.13

This is especially odd since Weaver notes the significance of origins in Agrarians’ thinking. After explaining the importance of their poetic view of the world, he points out: “It is instructive to know that the Scopes ‘anti-evolution’ trial…was the decisive factor in turning the Nashville group against scientific rationalism [emphasis added].”14 The Nashville group, i.e., the Southern Agrarians, seeing that rationalists were guilty of overreaching in what could be legitimately called science, opted for emphasizing the humane, poetic, myth-making qualities of man’s nature. In doing so, of course, they succumbed to the temptation of separating a contingent creation from morals, a feat which was not necessary since the unity of the facts of nature and of “higher moral truth” was taken for granted by, and was an integral part of, Christian teaching.

In fact, on this same topic, but in a later work, Weaver critically reviews some of the reasoning for the notion of evolution. He concludes, “The question still at issue is whether the facts and the logic dictate so complete a surrender as has been urged on one party.” Not all that passes for the facts are in fact facts. Instead, he believes the variations within limits is a better explanation, and prefers Aristotle’s “inner perfecting tendency” as an explanation which works to preserve the unity of type, as well as final design and purpose, or “entelechy.”15 Later, Thomas Molnar, writing about the earlier Epicurean-Lucretian philosophy of continuous change, would echo the same thought: “But this theory is instantly refuted by the simple observation that animals and human beings, as well as the objects of the inanimate world, present themselves in virtually unchanging shape throughout the ages – a rock resembles another rock, not a bird; the offspring looks like the parent; and even hybridization has narrow limits.”16

Even with this contribution, Weaver still holds that the lower physical truths, the reality of nature, are to be separated from the higher, moral truths, and the former must not be allowed to disturb the latter. Moral values, moral truth, cannot wait upon science every time it widens its field of induction.17 Yet Agrarians tended to widen their own field of literary induction, to make their agrarianism include religion and philosophy. Ransom, for example, holds that “out of so simple a thing as respect for the physical earth and its teeming life” a “primary joy” arises which is “an inexhaustible source of arts and religions and philosophies.” This sense of respect for the earth, though wholesome in itself, and indeed, good creation piety, makes a doubtful history about the origins of religions and philosophies. More to the point, it indicates an implicit, incipient turn away from received revelation and toward the East. In God Without Thunder Ransom is more explicit about this: ‘“By poets, religionists, Orientalists, and sensitive people, nature is feared and loved – hardly the one without the other. But by scientists and modern Occidentals nature is only studied and possessed.’” Because the Eastern view is more favorable to “myth,” it is attractive to the literary mind. It is proposed to replace scientific rationalism with “myth” understood as a form of cognition and an “expression of essential truth.” Ransom even conjectures that we should perhaps be on the look-out for a “‘brand-new myth, not shop worn, not ridiculed, and not unrepresentative of what little taste we may have yet for the enjoyment of myths.’”18 But it is not necessary to pit the aesthetic impulse against the utilitarian one by pitting the Oriental against the Occidental. This involves a misunderstanding of both the Occidental problem of rationalism and the spiritual dead-end of the Oriental view.

Nor is mythmaking a solution. The nature of “myth,” understood as actual pagan myths or some other literary form as an extended metaphor, is not needed by the Christian. The Christian “possessed history and supernatural truth,” writes Thomas Molnar. “The strongly bound unity and organic wholeness of the Christian religion, from which the speculative theses, demonstrations, and conclusions logically followed, rendered the elaboration of special myths superfluous – even more, forbidden…The pagan could afford to live in two worlds, the mythical and the speculative. The Christian could not, however, because Christian faith was articulated not only by a well-rounded philosophy but also by an elaborate theology.” Using an agrarian example, he explains further: “The passage of the seed through the subsoil and its bursting into bread-giving wheat give rise to a myth that is intertwined with the observed operations of agriculture. The Christian sacred story, on the other hand, does not allow such a combination. Historical reality demands of the worshippers that they deal with natural events, but also that they deal with the theological subtleties expressed therein as reality and not as myth” [emphasis added].19

The spiritual subtleties and the facts of nature come together as intensified “etymons,” the literal sense of the thing which is inseparably tied to a moral meaning. If this be an intertwining also, it is different from the pagan form; it is the harmony of two kinds of fact. But Agrarians wanted to rescue the humane higher truths (“spiritual subtleties”) by means of “myth” separated from the mundane rationalism of “science.” Unfortunately, it is a separation paralleling, and to some extent reinforcing, the separation of faith and reason.

Using myth, understood as including extended metaphor, to save moral truth is itself problematic. The artist’s obligation qua artist is still to begin his project by an appropriate response, literally, to objective values, according to Weaver’s own theory of axiological realism. That is to say, it involves a rational choice. The proper selection and direction of the metaphor – based first on the etymon – is critical for it both reflects our values (or disvalues) and directs the reader/listener/viewer to them. In short, there is nothing in metaphorizing which is inherently salvific. One may choose bad metaphors as well as good ones and end with bad myths as well as good ones. Metaphors conserve if they are rightly used; if not, they dissolve the social order. The elaborate metaphor of pantheism, for example, collapses man into an identity with nature. (The world of “wokeness” is full of bad metaphors.)

If the Southerners typically were enamored with the novels of Walter Scott we may take a point from him about bad story-telling and misguided “myths.” In the Middle Ages the troubadour played the part of the poetic story-teller in the service of romance, and in the latter days it did so in the service of a decayed chivalry. “It is by giving fair names to foul actions,” says the main character in Anne of Geierstein, “that those who would start at real vice are led to practise its lessons, under the disguise of virtue.” Aesthetics in the service of sin, in the guise of flowery metaphor, is still bad art for Scott.

So, before one can celebrate poetry and literary “myths,” the literal anterior reality (the etymon) must be recognized – which is the special revelation of the transcending God in all of life’s questions. There is no metaphorical ladder of ascendency which guarantees leading us to the highest good. There is no way to get the highest good, or to get the social bond and the social order right, unless God has revealed himself to man. Poetry begins with the etymon, not with myth-making.

Agrarian Myth in Andrew Lytle

Which brings us to the other writings of Mr. Lytle. In these other works, Lytle criticizes modern man’s will to power using gnostic or fusionist ideas. For example, in his early stories (“Alchemy” and At the Moon’s Inn) he describes the corruption arising from that lust based on the assertion of man’s will over God’s in the late Mediaeval and early modern period. Hernando de Soto’s exploits in America detail the transmutation of that man, not from dross into gold, but from ordinary humanity into pure will, so much so that he was unable to see any reality that did not conform to his will. But this metaphoric alchemy was also, like its more literal counterpart, problematically out of place. In Bradford’s review, Medieval alchemy “was always an anomaly in the accommodation of Grace with Nature that was feudal Christendom: an ominous anomaly that augured the disruption of that pious dispensation. The given creation always rankled in the bosom of the grimy denizens of ancient laboratories.” We see the anomaly again in play with Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest of the Incas born of private human judgement over revealed truth. It was a story, says Bradford, of “alchemy in men, a movement of the spirit for[e]shadowing all else accomplished by certain hispanic gentlemen in the Eldorado of their wicked dreams.” (Interestingly, Bradford points out that Lytle’s “Alchemy” was written before he had read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy.)20

However, Lytle also uses gnostic and alchemical concepts favorably for his other stories. Thus, in the “Mahogany Frame,” he writes about a boy’s initiation into manhood. When the boy learns something about the sexual conflict in society and in men and women, Lytle writes: ‘“But now that he [the boy] thought of things in a way he never had thought before, all of which touched him dearly lay bright and clear before his vision, the beginning, the middle, and the end clarified in a burst of illumination, where the parts were the whole and the whole defined in parts.”’ [emphasis added].21 We have here unity understood as the fusion of time (beginning, middle, and end) and also the merging of parts into wholeness. Or so it would seem: an incipient but positive role for the alchemist’s rejection of the “given creation,” that is, based on a rejection of the differentiated order of nature.

The boy experiences further literary alchemy, a magical unity, understood as a loss of separateness, a loss of a distinct thing-in-being. Lytle describes the boy’s new perception: “‘Never had he [the boy] been able [to] see so clearly and so far. He thought it must be like this with animal eyes at night or whenever they hunt, to see and not know they are seeing, when the vision and prey are made one for the spring”’ [emphasis added]22 One is reminded of the same thought in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, “Brahma,” where he writes, “I am the doubter and the doubt.” Or, as Madison Smartt Bell admits, writing in the preface to Lytle’s A Wake for the Living, Lytle seems to want “to merge into nature.”23 Lytle describes the (American) Indian’s view of life as one with a special “sense of the world’s concreteness,” but one in which he still “did not conceive of the spirit apart from the object or believe that the spirit had entered therein. Spirit was indwelling, not transubstantial.” In A Wake for the Living, the governing image is inseparable from its implications and “[t]he perception cannot be rendered out from the image whereby it is perceived.”24

Again, in Wake, Lytle collapses time into itself. “For if Lytle sees idea and thing as a unity, his vision of time is also unitary,” says Bell. “Time, as logicians understand it, is only an illusion.” Instead, Lytle aims at “simultaneity of expression” so that past and present, and even the living and the dead become one.25 Dr. Thomas Landess adds that Lytle’s unity of action in his novel The Velvet Horn is neither logical nor chronological, but is ordered according to human consciousness.26 But Lytle, like Jung, seems to derive conscious understanding from the unconscious merging or surfacing into his consciousness. Overall, then, Lytle’s sense of “idea” is that it is never meaningful unless it is merged into literal fact, merged into a concrete form. “[U]nless it can be apprehended by the senses, experienced fully in flesh and blood, it can mean nothing,” summarizes Mr. Bell.27

Lytle’s considerations of “flesh and blood” also hint at a loss of moral standards, of going beyond good and evil in the name of wholeness and exhaustive detail. In his analysis of Lytle’s The Long Night, H.L. Weatherby writes: “[T]hat just as the community involves both good and evil in inextricable connection with one another, it also involves life and death in the same close bond. In fact the bond is so close and the relationship so complex that it can never be expressed simply as idea…The meaning of the pattern resides in the life of the details which make it up, and at the same time the life of those details gains its meaning from the whole.” So close is this relationship we cannot say that to be drawn into the pattern of wholeness is, according to Weatherby, “simply good or simply evil.”28

But there is even more at stake about morality than this in Lytle’s absorption of Jungian ideas. Dr. Benjamin Alexander in his book on Flannery O’Connor notes that Lytle “enthusiastically recounts ‘his Jungian reading’ of the Garden of Eden myth in the Book of Genesis. Lytle notes that the sacred text concerns ‘spiritual incest.’… Lytle uses Jungian semantics to advance the idea that The Velvet Horn presented an ‘incest of the spirit which seemed my [Lytle’s] subject.’ [Caroline] Gordon advocates in several letters Lytle’s Jungian approach, but O’Connor, as well as [Walker] Percy, did not take her advice.”29 It is interesting that in A Wake for the Living Lytle also refers to physical incest in his own family.30

Yet more than incest, spiritual or physical, O’Connor recognized the doctrinal danger in this approach. Regarding Jung’s, and perhaps by extension Lytle’s, “syncretist religion,” she writes: “Jung has something to offer religion but is at the same time very dangerous for it. Jung would say, for instance that Christ did not rise from the dead literally but we must realize that we need the symbol, that the notion has significance for our lives symbolically, etc” [emphasis added].31 Of course, she is right, one must begin with the literal, with the given creation, and the other instances of divine manifestation, including the resurrection. To metaphorize doctrine is to abolish faith. Love cannot be like a red, red rose without the literal rose.

But there is more of metaphoric morality in The Velvet Horn, arguably his most accomplished work. Mr. Lytle here explains the rather apocryphal meaning of the title: ‘“[T]he horn stands for both the masculine and feminine parts of being, the two aspects of the [o]pposites which make a whole: the two in one contained by a single form…In human nature the horn’s counterpart would be the hermaphrodite, Hermes and Aphrodite contained within the one form.’” This is the controlling image for the novel. And indeed, at the end of the story, when the two lovers are united, Lytle describes ‘“the rejoining of the male and the female in the sexual act’” as a metaphoric regaining of lost innocence and wholeness. Jack Cropleigh, the martyr-redeemer in the story, Lytle calls a ‘“spiritual hermaphrodite.’” And this hermaphrodite gives us the broader pagan picture: ‘“Out of all the combinations possible,’” he wonders, ‘“is fatality so dull as to find one posture, one only, that self-begetting, self-perpetuating wholeness before division, division which is knowledge, the bitter first fruit whose aftertaste set us slobbering, wanderers in this world?’” [emphasis added]32

Elimination of the “division which is knowledge” is further seen when Jack explains to his nephew the meaning of the Indian boy’s initiation into manhood. It includes a painful, almost tortuous, ceremony introducing the boy to the reality of death. In doing this, Landess says, Lytle is underscoring “the importance of this archetype.” Lytle’s main character, Jack, explains that after the painful process: ‘“[T]he horizon did not seem the promise or terror of space, nor did he [the Indian boy] see in the seasons the grind of time but in both that eternal reflection, for he had seen the circle come back on itself, and that great distance the sun come down to the eye, one blinding whiteness, one bright pain – flesh, body, time, space, center, circumference – forever drowned in that illumination which is all.’”33 Such an all-encompassing oneness – time, space, color, matter, shape – reflects the influence of Eastern thought. As Thomas Molnar makes clear, it is “the Oriental-pagan ideal of the completed human being, produced by the fusion of elements that Christianity had always held in distinction and that rationalism had finally rent wholly asunder…[As an alternative to Christianity] Jung suggests the alchemical-psychological fusion of the soul’s bipolarity – an obvious replacement of the vertical elevation of the soul to its creator with a horizontal conjunction of opposites.”34

This tendency was already latently present in Lytle’s essay for I’ll Take My Stand. As Virginia Hall writes, in the biography at the end of that book, Lytle often treats reality as an image in the sense that he selects or heightens aspects for their dramatic or symbolic effect. This he did especially in this essay where he “deliberately overstated his case for the simple agrarian life…The details of the yeoman farmer’s daily routine represent an idyllic life, merged into symbol or ritual.” And that is consistent with the Eastern tendency in Lytle’s work. “The Oriental is far more ready than the Westerner to find mystery and symbol in things. But…this aptitude is often carried to extremes, and things tend to lose their being as things. Their symbolic aspect alone is considered, which then authorizes the most extravagant imagination…” The loss of balance between the literal and symbolic by fusion is not unique to alchemy but is also central “to Taoism (the principles of yin and yang), and to the cabala, and…finds expression in the androgynous figure and in other symbols of completeness.” 35 (But, of course, in syncretistic fashion, pagan and Christian images and impressions are mixed in his works.)

One can only speculate how all this ties in, if does, with Mr. Lytle’s homosexual tendencies. In his now famous essay, author John Jeremiah Sullivan gives his eyewitness account of this inclination, and adds that, “His [Lytle’s] tastes in that area were more or less an open secret.” Even more disturbing was Mr. Lytle’s claim that there had been “a homoerotic side to the Agrarian movement itself,” claiming still further that Allen Tate had propositioned him, that Robert Penn Warren had had “a more-than-platonic interest in Tate,” and that Stark Young “was openly gay.” 36 Freud and Jung would surely have had a field day with all this.

There is one final rather curious observation. In a letter to Walker Percy in 1952, many years after the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, Allen Tate refers to Lytle’s refusal to join the Catholic Church (reflecting Tate’s earlier view mentioned above). “When Andrew Lytle…says he can’t join the Catholic Church because it isn’t in the Southern tradition, what he ought to mean is that the South has no tradition without the Church; for the thing that we all still cherish in the South was originally and fundamentally Catholic Christianity.” 37 How very much at odds this view is with that second generation agrarian, Richard Weaver, whose doctoral dissertation is titled, The Southern Tradition at Bay, a tradition which Weaver characterizes as heavily Protestant. The South’s attitude toward religion was to preserve the received Gospel; Southerners were not given to bold flights of speculation as occurred in New England. They “did not want a reasoned belief, but a satisfying dogma…” 38 That is the tradition.

All this about Lytle raises the question that there are possibly two kinds of “agrarianism” in play here, one pagan, the other Christian. The former is, in part, overly impressed with the immanent qualities of the natural world, especially its stability and orderliness. But the contingency of that order, that is, its dependency for its existence and continuity on a Creator who transcends it is also essential for the Christian view. Though the Southern Agrarians largely operated within the circle of Christian influence, they sometimes disappoint with a less than robust traditional view. But, of course, that depends on which agrarian one means. The crediting of nature, or the life of the soil, as the source of religions and philosophies may be a politeness or indirection, a manner of speaking, but, if so, it remains a misdirection. God’s special revelation to man as well as his general one are needed; history and nature run parallel to one another.

Concluding Thoughts

As we approach the centennial of the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, we celebrate the authors for their positive, practical contributions. They are well-remembered for their desire to maintain or re-establish a humane economy and social life, based on a critical assessment of methods and approaches. In this they drew upon their Southern tradition for insights while mindful of other communities outside the South with similar views. At the time, though, the book received greater attention in the North than in the South since, as Weaver says, the North had already been enduring the consequences of industrialization while the South had not yet been fully transformed to the new economy. They had had enough of the black, flame-shot smoke that soiled the blue heaven. So “there arose a natural impulse to wonder whether the right road had been taken.” 39 As a result, the book struck a chord then which continues to resonate with many people today, both North and South. All the more so since we suffer from the further decay of American society, morally, politically, and socially as well as economically. And the meaning of “industrialism” can obviously be expanded to include all other de-humanizing technologies, or their inappropriate applications.

However, some of their deeper, underlying views, along with various uncertainties, doubts, and partial retrenchments are also instructive. Their rush away from excessive rationalism was understandable, but less so was their over-reliance on metaphor and myth with its rejection in some measure of the West. It was an over-reliance due to a misunderstanding of the nature of the reason/faith problem. Industrialism, scientism, and technification to be sure are a part of the West’s history and, like Marxism, cannot be imagined without the Christian Western heritage. But they clearly are not its highest and best forms. And it is looking to that image of the highest and best that they started out to delineate.

What is needed is the “strengthening of ourselves” (Young) in those values essential to a Christian society, values which give not merely a sense of style but which inform standards of “right and not right,” and which permeate everything in that society. Elaborating on an axiologically realist social order, Weaver says that it “depends upon the centripetal image of an ideal of perfection and goodness and upon confidence in ruling out what is unlike or fortuitous…The task in our time of the conservative is to defend this concentration and to expose as erroneous attempts to break down the discriminations of a culture. For once the inward-looking vision and the impulse to resist the alien are lost, disruption must ensue [emphasis added].”40 Just so. And ruling out what is unlike is the etymonic, rather than the metaphoric/mythic, task of the present.

There is more, then, to Thomas Nelson Page’s description of Southern life, quoted at the beginning, than moonlight and magnolia. “The outer world strode by them as they dreamed,” he says. It was an “inward-looking vision” of how best to live in this world, not an escape from reality. It presumed, in fact, an affection for the literal world justified by its origin, history, and destiny, infused with its own providentially given meaning and value. It was not a perfect society, to be sure. But it had at its core something which deserves respect. In particular, it was a dream of America, a heritage of European, mainly English, Christian culture, and one that is still worth defending, despite our present darkness.

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1 Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take My Stand. 1962, 1958, 1930. Harper and Row, Publishers.

New York. Louis Rubin (ed.), pp. xi, xii, xiv. The authors are: John C. Ransom, Donald Davidson, Frank. L, Owsley, John G. Fletcher, Lyle H. Lanier, Allen Tate, Herman C. Nixon, Andfrew N. Lytle, Robert P. Warren, John D. Wade, Henry B. Kline, and Stark Young. All references to these authors are taken from this book unless otherwise indicated. For a sample of other conservative agrarian articles see also Sean R. Busick and H. Lee Cheek, Jr. “Mel Bradford’s Scholarly Legacy at 20” in Modern Age, Spring 2015 (Vol. 57, No. 2), pp. 75-80, and Mary Cuff, “Is It Time for the Robert Penn Warren Option?” in Modern Age, Winter 2019 (Vol. 61, No. 1), pp. 21-27. In this essay I am not providing a survey of the literature on this topic but am employing a private judgment.

2 Page, Thomas Nelson. 1896. In Ole Virginia. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York, pp. 3-4.

3 The intrascendent nature of man requires that he compare himself to himself as the Apostle

Paul says: “But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.” (Gal. 6:4, NIV). Such as always been the Christian standard. And with that standard comes a sense of completeness, an abundance of being, and hence leisure, and where change is understood as intensification and elaboration (progress) of what is, and not as eternal flux, or of change for its own sake, or for power over others.

4 Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Farming” would serve as one example from the heart of New

England that coincides with this judgment. Emerson even says of the famer: “He is permanent, clings to his land as the rocks do. In the town where I live, farms remain in the same families for seven and eight generations; and most of the first settlers (in 1635), should they reappear on the farms today, would find their own blood and names still in possession. And the like fact holds in the surrounding towns.”

5 Voegelin, Eric, “On Debate and Existence” in A Public Philosophy Reader, Richard J. Bishirjian, ed. 1978. Arlington House Publishers, New Rochelle, New York, pp. 154,

159, 165.

6 Weaver, Richard M., “The South and the American Union” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, George M. Curtis and James J. Thompson, Jr., ed. 1987. Liberty Press, Indianapolis, pp. 35, 36, 240. Richard Weaver, though not one of the original Twelve, was certainly an important second generation member. Busick and Cheek write that Weaver was not just another agrarian: “He was essential to understanding agrarian thought. [M.E.] Bradford believed that Weaver completed the moral and political enterprise of the original agrarians.” See Sean R. Busick and H. Lee Cheek Jr., “Mel Bradford’s Scholarly Legacy at 20” in Modern Age (Spring 2015, Vo. 57, No. 2), p. 77.

7 Cuff, Mary, “Is It Time for the Robert Penn Warren Option?” in Modern Age, Winter 2019

(Vol. 61, No. 1), pp. 21-27. Her summary of Mr. Warren’s concern is that World War II taught him the importance of massive industrial power and the unworkability of the agrarian vision, except, as she argues, as a personal perspective.

8 Weaver, op. cit., p. 40.

9 Taylor, John. 1977. Arator. Liberty Classics. Indianapolis, p. 18.

10 Hoerr, John P. 1988. And the Wolf Finally Came, The Decline of the American Steel Industry. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 172, 173.

11 Weaver, Southern Essays, op. cit., p. 136.

12 Ibid., pp. 145, 236. Rather than describe the South as feudal it would be better to describe it as pre-Averroes (b. 1126) or perhaps pre-Paduan, since it was the Paduan students of Averroes who took his distinction and turned it into a separation. In doing so, “they could pacify church authorities with assurances of orthodox faith,” says Molnar, “yet free themselves for the elaboration of a materialist system.” Notice this double capacity parallels that of the Agrarians themselves: they could accept secular doctrines of origins while reserving moral truth in a separate, protected sphere. In the case of Weaver, however, that was only an inclination, since he quite properly criticized the materialistic doctrine on its own terms. That separation also lends itself to the social division into two main classes: the esoteric elites (rationalists) and exoteric plebeians (fideists). In this regard, Molnar says Averroes wanted “to pacify the vulgar crowd by offering them a literal reading of the Koran and reserving esoteric teaching for the thinkers.” In doing so the new scientific enterprise was freed in advance to postulate what it wanted to believe. See Molnar, Thomas. 1987. The Pagan Temptation. The William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 61, 62.

13 Molnar, Thomas. 1987. The Pagan Temptation. The William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 50, 150f, 186.

14 Weaver, SE. op. cit., p. 37. It is the pagan and his myths that don’t need to do this. “Dissatisfied with the weaker negations of both Protestant and many Catholic opponents of Darwinism, Brownson called for a categorical repudiation of nineteenth-century geology and biology, which he said represented a regression from the science of Aquinas…The Genesis version of creation is still in possession, he concluded, and must be maintained until the contrary is fully demonstrated…” (Hofstadter, Richard. 1959. Social Darwinism in American Thought. George Braziller, Inc., New York, p. 26.) Among the many criticisms Samual T. Coleridge gave of the modern industrial world is the complaint that, “The old verities were being displaced by the ‘mechanico-corpuscular theory raised to the title of the mechanic philosophy’ and ‘a state of nature, or the Oran Outang theology of the origin of the human race, substituted for the first ten chapters of the Book of Genesis.’” (See Kirk, Russell. 1986. The Conservative Mind (7th ed. ). Regnery Books, Chicago, Washington, DC, p. 143.)

15 Weaver, Richard M. 1964. Visions of Order, The Cultural Crisis of Our Time. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA (in the Conservative Book Club, Omnibus Volume 6, New Rochelle, New York), pp. 282, 283, cf. p. 186.

16 Molnar, op. cit., p. 23.

17 Weaver, Southern Essays, op. cit., p. 142.

18 Ibid., pp. 36, 37. In a critical, if not hostile and secular, assessment of Ransom’s work including God Without Thunder, Michael O’Brien claims that Mr. Ransom there “tried to use the mythic reconstitution of religion to oppose its inadequate rendering of reality.” O’Brien is appealing to his interpretation of Ransom’s philosophical but abandoned musings as the underpinning for his work in I’ll Take My Stand, called “The Third Moment,” a “phenomenological position,” more or less Hegelian. The assessment of Ransom’s work overall is strikingly different from Weaver’s, despite the overlap of the concept of “mythic.” In the order of historical experience Ransom defines his “first moment, understood as original experience, as unreflective, concrete and singular.” Trying to recapture these “first and original” experiences through poetic imagery was inadequate because ‘“we are trying to reconstitute an experience which we once had, only to handle and mutilate. Only, we cannot quite reconstitute them.”’ There is perhaps a partial parallel with the treatment above on “firstness.” His “second moment” involves “concepts” with a corresponding loss of “wholeness.” His “third moment” comes with the “recognition that the second moment had been an inadequate awareness of experience. ‘“All our concepts and all our histories put together,’” he says to Allen Tate, ‘“cannot add up into the wholeness with which we started out.”’ All this is perhaps akin to some points raised in regard to Lytle’s fusionist views. See O’Brien, Michael. 2019. The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 117-135.

19 Molnar, op. cit., pp. 78, 86. Molnar is somewhat ambiguous, though. He seems to say Christians have no need of myth because they have history and the supernatural, but then he later speaks of the need for a Christian myth.

20 Bradford, M.E. 1973. The Form Discovered, Essays on the Achievement of Andrew Lytle. The University and College Press of Mississippi, Jackson, p. 58.

21 Krickel, Edward, “The Whole and the Parts: Initiation in ‘The Mahogany Frame’” in Bradford, Form Discovered, op. cit., p. 53.

22 Ibid., p. 54. His sense of metaphor is therefore deceptive: he doesn’t want mere analogy, but fusion. His literalness and metaphor merge; symbol and fact are one. See p. xv. But there is no analogy when metaphor and etymon are fused.

23 Bell, Madison Smartt (preface) in A Wake for the Living by Andrew Lytle. 1975. J.S. Sanders & Co. Nashville, p. xiii. Mr. Bell apparently has similar gnostic inclinations. In “About Madison Smartt Bell: A Profile,” Wyn Cooper writes about one of Bell’s novels, Doctor Sleep: “Bell’s [religious] pilgrimage ended with Doctor Sleep, which embraced hermetic gnosticism and the writings of Giordano Bruno. ‘This seemed like the answer,’ Bell says. ‘I think the idea that the universe is divinity is viable as a fundamental precept for a reformed religion for our time.”’ (About Madison Smartt Bell: A Profile | Ploughshares ( The connection, if any, with the Gnostics of Princeton, Bell’s alma mater, is a separate question.

24 Bell, ibid., pp. xxiii, xxiv.

25 Bell, ibid., p. xxiv.

26 Landess, Thomas H., “Unity of Action in The Velvet Horn” in The Form Discovered, M. E. Bradford, ed., op. cit., pp. 10, 11.

27 Bell, op. cit., pp. xxii-xxiii. In this regard it is also pertinent to note Molnar’s comment on time (p. 11): “It may be said that mythic thinking necessitates a concept of time that does not distinguish past and present but rather puts on the same level both what happened then…and what happens now, both filled with an always identical content. As an example, foundation rites, when reenacted in the sacred time of the present – made sacred because the rites re-presented and re-performed the original act of foundation – were events that never completely ceased and were never entirely of the present.” It also raises thoughts of eternal recurrence.

28 Weatherby, H.L., “The Quality of Richness: Observations on Andrew Lytle’s The Long Night” in Bradford, The Form Discovered, op. cit., p. 39.

29 Alexander, Benjamin B. (ed.) 2019. Good Things out of Nazareth, The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends. Convergent, New York, p. 363, note 37.

30 Lytle, Wake, op. cit., p. 131.

31 Alexander, op. cit., pp, 151, 152.

32 Landess, op. cit., pp. 7, 9, 10, 11. This is reminiscent of the self-sustaining, self-sufficient, monistic world of Renaissance magicians.

33 Ibid., p. 12. Dr. Landess praises The Velvet Horn a great literary achievement. However, he adds: “Its marvelous complexity has made it inaccessible to a wide readership…” (p. 15) Its involuted symbolism is no small reason for that inaccessibility, along with arguably unorthodox views of doctrine. Perhaps only the elite literati can come to terms with it.

34 Molnar, op. cit., p. 183. Lytle may be claiming in pagan fashion that original sin is a metaphysical issue, a fall into being, rather than a moral one. The loss of wholeness that this results in motivates a conjoining of opposites clearly aligned with Jung. But it does not lead to a Christian “oneness” since in the latter the parties are left with their separate identities and responsibilities, with separate moral accountability. Though in the pagan view, as Molnar points out, nature’s enduring and stable qualities are a rich source for the imagination, the Christian faith supplies that need with its emphasis on a glorious creation which declares the power and stability of God, but is combined with a parallel and independent truth: His special revelation to man, the institution of the church, and His providential, historical care, all of which provide some measure of satisfaction for what the pagan myth provides. This is why the homeostatic conception of agrarian life is helpful: it preserves the distinctions of things-in-being and understands their harmony (oneness) from their interdependency, not their ontology. For another example of problematic agrarianism see my article “Economy of the Tao: Wendell Berry and Economic Health” @Wendell Berry & Economic Health – The Imaginative Conservative.

35 Molnar, op. cit., pp. 155, 160. If the West has decayed by an excessive rationalism, it is possible to decay by an excessive mysticism and mythic overindulgence. See, for example, John A. Jillions’ article about Alexander Schmemann in Orthodox Christian Laity @“Thicket of Idols”: Alexander Schmemann’s Critique of Orthodoxy – Orthodox Christian Laity (

36 Sullivan, John Jeremiah, “Mister Lytle: An Essay” in Paris Review, Fall 2010. See also “John Jeremiah Sullivan Delivers Lecture on Legendary Andrew Lytle” by Katy Davenport, staff writer for The Sewanee Purple (February 26, 2016). Not everyone agrees with Mr. Sullivan’s suspicion of a “larger trend” of homosexuality. Miss Davenport notes: “[Professor Tam] Carlson believes that the literature produced by the Agrarians does not evidence the ‘larger trend’ that Sullivan discussed.” In Wake Lytle describes how as a little boy he watched the fire engine horses walk back from a fire after it had been raining. Lytle then notes he had been eating Cuticura, a salve for minor cuts and burns his mother used. “To be eating this, at just this time, must have been very bad; but we were living then before the general knowledge of Freud and Jung, and nobody seemed to think anything of it…but the salve was tasteless, though soft and glistening” (p. 14). In view of Mr. Sullivan’s essay, the event is both suggestive and symbolic.

For another view of Lytle see “The Georgic Vision of Andrew Lytle” by Jeffrey O. Nelson, Mark G. Malvasi, and Jeffrey Nelson in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute ( article, June 10, 2015. (Originally published in the Winter-Spring 2013 issue of Modern Age.)

37 Alexander, op. cit., p. 89. There may have been an attempt at forming their own mythic world of historical revision here in the effort to make Thomas More a cornerstone of Southern thought. Walker Percy says that More was the “spiritual ancestor of Lee” and that if Allen Tate was “forming a St. Thomas More Society I want in.” But while Lytle also was enthusiastic about More’s stand against nationalistic tyranny, often quoting More’s famous dictum, he apparently still wasn’t persuaded to become Catholic. See Alexander, pp. 46, 47. It would seem questionable to reach back to More for ancestors of liberty when the South had a number of its own heroes to draw upon. (See my article M.E. Bradford: Nuancing American Whiggism ~ The Imaginative Conservative.) One suspects a sectarian motive at work here.

38 Weaver, Richard M. 1989. The Southern Tradition at Bay, A History of Postbellum Thought. Regnery Gateway. Washington, D.C., pp. 82, 83.

39 Weaver, Southern Essays, op. cit., p. 38.

40 Weaver, Vision of Order, op. cit., p. 186.

The featured image is “My Harvest Home” (1835) by John Glover, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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