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Southern Agrarians

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 10 months ago

Southern Agrarians

by Lady Bell



I. Introduction


Considered to be the most pronounced critics of Modernism, Southern Agrarians  defended "the Southern way." Their philosophy condemned not only modernism, but other early 20th century developments such as capitalism, indrustrialization, consumerism, and centralization, all of which the Agrarians considered to be a threat to the traditional southern culture.


John Crowe Ransom, "leader" of the Southern Agrarians

The Southern Agrarians started as a philosophical discussion group known as "the Fugitives," and evolved into a full-fledged literary movement consisting of twleve members: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Frank Lawerence Owsley, John Gould Fletcher, Lyle H. Lanier, Allen Tate, Herman Clarence Nixon, Anderw Nelson Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, John Donald Wade, Henry Blue Kline and Stark Young. These traditionalists collectively published a book of essays titled "I'll Take My Stand: the South and Agrarian Tradition," that served as a counter to the industrialist north.














 II. The Southern Way

"It is strange, of course, that a majority of men anywhere could even as with on mind become enamored of industrialism: a system that has so little regard for individual wants."

 - Twelve Southerners, I'll Take my Stand


Southern life in the early 1900's was highly structured on a social hierarchy, including class and race. A strict Southern Etiquette (written and unwritten) governed the behavior of the individual, putting an emphasis on hospitality, politeness and respect. This led to a strong sense of familial responsibility and social community (amongst the whites, at least) and therefore, stability. Everyone was expected to fulfill their social roles.


As industrialization progressed, new culture began to trickle its way into the south. With the introduction of “New South” businessmen (propagandizing industrialist enthusiasts), local economy and culture began to suffer as relationships between the farmer and yeomen and the store owner and sharecropper began to fail. This caused a mass exodus of people from the rural to the urban in search of work, usually at textile mills (see Great Migration). Traditionalists began to criticize this movement, calling it a “sellout” to the north's monopolizing capitalism. One southerner asked, “Is it essential that a southern man must eat dirt or wallow therein, denounce his ancestry or ridicule their foibles, or otherwise degrade himself to prove his newborn loyalty and devotion to the new order of things?”


“The Grand Old Opry,” a radio program established in 1925, appealed to the southern public with country, bluegrass, and “hillbilly” music. This seemed  to be “instant nostalgia,” a reminder for all southerners - rural and urban - that the Capitalist north was infiltrating their culture and disrupting their tradition.


In response to modernisms threatening southern institutions, including etiquette and the established hierarchy of class and race, the public became increasingly protective of its culture and customs and began radically defending it. Though White supremacists were already in reign, racial violence and hatred exploded, resulting in segregation, lynchings and racial terrorism in an effort to save “white power.”




III. Agrarian Motives


Originally, Agrarians believed that the primary social ill was an excess of government favoritism, over-dependence on "oversized" institutions, and wealth concentration.  Seeing these problems fester in the economic environment of modern capitalism -- represented by the city -- Agrarians favored small, independent property ownership.  Many of these ideas derived from Thomas Jefferson, who believed that widespread distribution of land properly disperses power. 


I'll Take My Stand discusses two American ideologies. On the one hand is the Industrialism referred to as "the economic organization of the collective American society" (para. 5). In an industrial society, the only aim of production is achieving a final product. There is no love of the work itself. The opposing ideology is the concept of Agrarianism. According to I'll Take My Stand, "the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations" (para. 18). Love of the land leads to love of work.


These two opposing ideologies are based fundamentally on the differing visions of some of the nation's founding fathers. Hamilton proposed a vision of America as a manufacturing and trading country, with a focus on economic enterprise. Jefferson, however, valued the agrarian vision of the nation as a land of farmers. He wanted the power to be in the hands of the common people, and wanted the primary enterprise of the people to be working the land. Ultimately, it was the vision of Hamilton that dominated our American society; America has become a manufacturing and trading nation. But the ideals of Jefferson continue to display themselves in such contexts as the document I'll Take My Stand.





IV.  Agrarians as Modernists


William Faulkner



Though the modernism of the industrialized north is perhaps cited more and considered to be the ideal movement of the modernist time period, the Southern Agrarian movement is indeed it's own strand of modernism. Just as the "Lost Generation" and the "Harlem Renaissance" held their own grounds as modernist movements, so does the Southern Agrarian Rebellion. Many important writers and literary works were brough forth from this movement. Among those writers is William Faulkner, author of As I Lay Dying. Many of his works seem anxious yet sympathetic toward the jobless farmer and poor southerner as well as aesthetically reminiscent toward the land and culture of the south. Though Faulkner was southern, his literature reflected ambivilance toward the ideology of the southern agrarians.


Southern Agrarian literature often draws on spoken word methods of storytelling prevalent in the south.  As I Lay Dying, for example, tells a story through multiple points of view, using colloquial language, instead of through a disconnected omniscient narrator. 















V. Evolution of Agrarian Thought

"The cause of the Southern was and is the cause of Western Civilization."

- Donald Davidson, Southern Writers in the Modern World


Perhaps the Southern Agrarians biggest weakness was a surplus of opinions. Though obviously rebelling against the industrialist's modernism, too many disagreements on what the south was or should be festered. In turn, this "southern modernism" was without a unified voice and could not progress.



However, the agrarian impetus is still alive and well in the writings of prominent essayist, poet and novelist Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry was born in 1934 and began publishing in the 1960's, which makes him the johnny-come-lately of the movement. After teaching English at New York University's University College, Mr. Berry returned to his native Kentucky to reunite himself with the agricultural tradition of his family (see regionalism). He taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky until 1977, when he resigned and turned entirely to farming and writing. Despite his latter-day position within the movement, the basic tenents of his "back to the land" ethos are perfectly in tune with the earlier Southern Agrarians. In fact, his essay A Native Hill might almost be the impressionistic essay version of the manifesto I'll Take My Stand.





 Wendell Berry


Works Cited

Wilson, Clyde.  "The Road Not Taken: Southern Agrarians and the New Deal: Essays After I'll Take My Stand"  http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org


American Passages-- "America Unbridled: The Iron horse and manifest destiny." http://www.learner.org/amerpass/unit13/context_activ-1.html


Feldman, Glenn. "Book Review: Fugitive Theory: Political Theory, the Southern Agrarians, and America by Christopher M. Duncan"

The Journal of Politics, Vol. 63, No.3 (Aug., 2001), pp. 967-969


Murphy, Paul V. The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought

2001, The university of Nothern Carolina Press


The Academy of American Poets. "Wendell Berry." Poets.org. <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/675> Apr. 18 2007.




Link back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature

Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 8:53 am on Mar 28, 2007

Lady Bell, I agree with Louie's sense that investigating southern agrarianism as a form of modernism would be very important and worthwhile. How is it like other modernisms and how did it differ. Also, I think your discussion of agrarianism can get much more specific in relating things to the writers we'll be reading next week. Faulkner, of course, especially. You could also tie Southern Agrarianism more specifically to our discussion or urbanism and cosmopolitanism, things that the Agrarians were deeply suspicious of.

Anonymous said

at 8:22 am on Apr 25, 2007

Good basic page format, Lady Bell. Could make greater use of external links, it seems to me. For instance, parts of I'll Take my stand are available on the internet for the reader's own perusal. Why not include a link in your text to get them there./

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