Southern Agrarians

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Meeting fortnightly at the apartment of a Nashville eccentric named Sydney Mttron Hirsch, John Crowe Ransom and Walter Clyde Curry, both of whom taught English at Vanderbilt University, launched the fugitive movement in 1914. Although American entry into the first world war temporarily dispersed the group, by 1921 the gatherings had resumed at the home of James M. Frank, a Nashville businessman and Hirsch's brother-in-law. Besides Ransom, Curry, and Hirsch, the original fugitives included Donald Davidson, William Yandell Elliott, Stanley Johnson, and Alec B. Stevenson. After the war, a number of younger poets also participated, among them Merrill Moore, Alfred Starr, Jesse Wills, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren.

Initially confining themselves to the discussion of literature, the Fugitive poets, by 1925, had begun to examine the culture and history of the South and to voice their growing opposition to science, industrialism, capitalism, and the other forces shaping the modern world. During the next several years Ransom, Davidson, Tate, and Warren conferred with thinkers outside the Fugitive circle, including psychologist Lyle H. Lanier, political economist Herman Clarence Nixon, historian Frank Lawrence Owsley, and literary scholar John Donald Wade, all of whom, like Ransom and Davidson, were then members of the faculty at Vanderbilt. Andrew Nelson Lytle, a former Vanderbilt undergraduate and a future novelist, and Henry Blue Kline, who completed a master's degree in English at Vanderbilt in 1929, also joined the deliberations. The most celebrated figures of the 1920s associated with Southern Agrarianism were John Gould Fletcher, who enjoyed an international reputation as an Imagist poet, and Stark Young, already renowned as a playwright, journalist, and theater critic.

Believing the "American industrial ideal" inimical to the humane traditions of the South, the Agrarians sought to develop political, economic, social, and moral alternatives. In I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, published by Harper and Brothers in 1930, and in dozens of essays written over the next decade, the Agrarians argued that industrialism had enslaved human beings, rendering modern life hurried, brutal, servile, and mercenary. To rescue society from the rigors of the assembly line, the blast furnace, and the book-keeper's ledger, the Agrarians championed an "imaginatively balanced life lived out in a definite social tradition." For them, the historic South offered ideal terrain from which to mount a defense of family, community, manners, art, and religion against the destructive and dehumanizing onslaught of unbridled industrial capitalism.

The onset of the Great Depression made the Agrarian critique of modern America seem even more credible and prophetic. Although their proposals to resolve the economic crisis of the 1930s often lacked specificity, most of the Agrarians remained ambivalent about New Deal policies and programs. Fearful that the rise of bureaucracy and the emphasis on planning characteristic of the New Deal would result in the establishment of a collectivist regime, the Agrarians suggested that Americans preserve their independence by returning to the land. Only the abandonment of commercial farming and the adoption of production for use, sustained through the widespread ownership of property, could restore economic health and safeguard political liberty.

In practical terms, the Southern Agrarians failed. They never organized an Agrarian political party, secured control of a wing of the Democratic Party, or cultivated a mass following among fellow southerners. Even the appearance in 1937 of Who Owns America?: A New Declaration of Independence, which brought the Agrarians together with Hilaire Belloc's and G. K. Chesterton's English Distributists, who also advocated political decentralization and broad property ownership, could not prevent their movement from languishing. Yet, whatever their political weaknesses and philosophical defects, the Agrarians did raise fundamental questions about the beneficence of American national development and the impact of industrial capitalismon the spiritual welfare of the American people.



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Mark G. Malvasi

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Southern Agrarians

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Southern Agrarians