The Agrarians were a collection of writers primarily from Vanderbilt University, an offshoot of a poetic movement who called themselves the Fugitive Poets. The Fugitives sowed the seeds which would become New Criticism, which valued organizational unity and paradox at the center of poetry and eschewed focusing on authorial intention or emotional response. In their focus on close reading, the New Critics made philosophical assumptions about the purpose of reading: for them, form was key. In their attempt to distinguish the study of literature from that of literary history, they emphasized preserving the authenticity of literary discourse—and in fact, were quite defensive about this. They came from a point of view which saw the existence of literature as being threatened—this point of view was easily transferred to their disdain for technology and industry as similarly threatening allegedly traditional ways of life.
The introduction discusses the evils of industry. It posits that there exists a southern way of life which is different from and better than the rest of the country, primarily because it’s based on an agrarian foundation. It claims that people are happiest when their work is meaningful, which an agrarian society allows, and an industrial one does not.
John Crowe Ransom—Reconstructed by Unregenerate
Thesis: The South is unique on this continent for having a culture founded on European principles of culture. It champions the “English” model of farming. To Ransom, man and nature must work in a relationship of mutual respect. Ransom also includes a quite sexist discussion of male versus female ambition.
Donald Davidson—A Mirror for Artists
Davidson argues that industry can’t play Maecenas—the arts require a slow civilization, one that’s agrarian based and still connected with nature, to flourish. Industry is a devil’s bargain with art—the only art which is profitable is bad art. Art for Davidson should be in the romantic tradition, and he sees modernism as directly linked to the Romantics, only more fully fulfilling their mission. To Davidson, art must be beautiful. Davidson champions lyric poetry, specifically that of the 18th century which had a larger public role than that of the 20th century. In the 19th century, poets were marginalized and became personal and subjective. He claims that to succeed in the 20th century, the poet must be alienated or else he becomes commodified. Here, his work echoes that of Walter Benjamin, who saw that art was no longer part of a whole; mechanical reproduction deprived modern art of any “aura.”
Frank Lawrence Owsley—The Irrepressible Conflict
Owsley discusses the Civil War with strongly romantic tones, describing the subsequent peace as one “unique in history,” because it was a peace with “no generosity” (62). The racism in this essay is quite appalling (especially considering that he was a history professor at Vanderbilt), as it describes the freed slaves as “some of whom could still remember the taste of human flesh, and the bulk of them hardly three generations removed from cannibalism” (62). He condemns northern abolitionists and industrialists as hypocrites and Pharisees who campaigned to impose their corrupt culture upon an agrarian South. Interestingly, Owsley does address slavery, though he claims that “Slavery had been practically forced upon the country by England—over the protest of colonial assemblies” (77).
John Gould Fletcher—Education, Past and Present
Beginning with a view of education as bringing out an individual’s potential—which does not necessarily require formal education—Fletcher connects the growth of American education to the changes in American which began with the growth of industrialism. Fletcher does not see this as a positive thing. Instead, he wishes to “return” to education based on eighteenth century principles—education “on a sound, historical, and conservative basis” (95)—which had as its goal to “produce good men” (95). He opposes the public school system, because he feels that education’s goal is to produce an educated elite—something which a democratic public school system cannot do.
Lyle H. Lanier—A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress
Lanier critiques progress "as a slogan and a philosophy." (p.122) Even though critical of John Dewey's conclusions, Lanier uses Dewey's theories in an argument for balancing industrial and agrarian impulses. He argues that there are limits to industrial employment, an argument generating new force in contemporary social literature.
Allen Tate—Remarks on the Southern Religion
Tate explains that he approaches the task of commenting about religion in "the spirit of irreligion." Tate laments the loss of the class of "professional men of religion." These men used to be highly respected by laymen and unbelievers alike, and when they spoke, no one questioned whether they had the authority to speak about the "Higher Things." He laments the loss of the kind of religion professed by those in the antebellum South, which he notes as “highly illuminating,” that the Southerners had a religion which they “never profoundly believed,” but they “acted as if they did” (174). In fact, despite Tate’s own professed atheism (a religious atheism, however), he claims that the South would not have been defeated had they “possessed a sufficient faith in its own kind of God….had it been able to bring out a body of doctrine setting forth its true conviction that the ends of man require more for their realization than politics” (174). In other words, I think what Tate is saying is that the South must find a way to live paradox in order to survive—ironically, this theme of unattainable paradox seems to be a common undercurrent of many of these essays.
Herman Clarence Nixon—Whither Southern Economy?
Nixon covers the changes in the South's economy-with the proposal that one must balance the agrarian and industrial economic pressures. Employing positively a negative memory, he concludes "it is possible for the South, which has had experience with slavery, to subordinate industrial processes to the status of slaves, not masters.... From a dull industrialism Southern civilization should bepreserved with its supporting agrarian economy." (200) Onewonders, however, about the receptivity to these arguments in the socialsciences today because the agrarian option continues to be swallowed byeconomic shifts, even in the South.
Andrew Nelson Lytle—The Hind Tit
Lytle uses military language mixed with an odd attempt at vernacular speech. He idealizes the yeoman farmer and disregards the existence of slavery. He gives a detailed description of a household which is sexist and condescending.
Robert Penn Warren—The Briar Patch
This is one of the few essays in the collection to make an attempt at addressing race issues, especially those after the War. He supports Booker T. Washington’s vocational solution.
John Donald Wade—The Life and Death of Cousin Lucius
Taking the form of a biographical sketch, the essay is based on the life of Jacob Walter Frederick, Wade's maternal uncle and a man who embodied the "southern way of life" as defined by many of the book's other contributors. Frederick (fictionalized as "Cousin Lucius") is described as hard working, self-reliant, learned, and tradition bound. As he grows older and times change, Cousin Lucius sees the new generation of young people leaving for the city and recognizes that they desire and expect "without effort, things that have immemorially come as the result of effort only." Wade vividly but dispassionately dramatizes Frederick's life, avoiding the temptation to comment on its lessons until the final two sentences of the essay: "And all who wish to think that he lived insignificantly and that the sum of what he was is negligible, are welcome to think so. And may God have mercy on their souls."
Henry Blue Kline—William Remington: A Study in Individualism
This essay is about a young man named William Remington, who moved about the country trying different jobs and locations and groups of friends. Finding himself eventually back in New Orleans, he develops a group of friends who think of themselves as pioneering individualists. Apparently, their individualism consists in major part of a suspicious attitude toward Yankee materialism and a pleasing feeling of superiority to the average person, which they call "median man." He describes their grand historical perspective this way; don't zip by part in which Communism may be worse than "capitalism gone progressivist", i.e., their presumption is that the two are at least equally bad. It's not clear whether "race" here means white people or the human race.
Stark Young—Not in Memoriam, But In Defense
Author of So Red the Rose, the novel of Confederate Mississippi, in this essay, Stark states, “If anything is clear, it is that we can never go back, and neither this essay nor any intelligent person that I know in the South desires a literal restoration of the old Southern life…. But out of any epoch in civilization there may arise things worthwhile.” Young endeavored to show in his fiction and in this essay the “worthwhile things” that should survive out of the Southern tradition. Among them were, in his words, “a certain fineness of feeling, an indefinable code for yourself and others, and a certain continuity of outlook.” He also insisted upon the individual’s self-control, fairness to others, obedience to law, and respect for the social order. The essay was both a summary of his philosophy and a premise paper for So Red the Rose.