FUGITIVE-AGRARIANS. The movement that would in time become Southern Agrarianism began in 1914 when a group of amateur poets in Nashville, Tennessee, started meeting weekly to discuss their work. All were affiliated in some fashion with Vanderbilt University, with the two main figures a young English professor named John Crowe Ransom and his future colleague, Donald Davidson. World War I temporarily halted the conversations, but when they resumed in the early 1920s a pair of extraordinarily talented undergraduates, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, became active participants. In April 1922, the Nashville poets launched The Fugitive, a magazine that would garner significant national attention during its three years of existence, due in part to the fact that much of its verse was in the advanced modernist mode—cerebral, allusive, and often experimental in form. It seemed especially striking that such writing should emerge from the South, a region long considered an intellectual backwater.
In truth, the Fugitives almost totally ignored the South, but that changed dramatically in late 1925 and 1926 when first Davidson and then Tate commenced major poems addressing their regional heritage. Within a year both had become full-fledged southern patriots, convinced that the South, with its predominantly rural life lived close to nature, was the repository of moral virtue in America. Before long their enthusiasm spread to Ransom and, to a lesser extent, Warren. Together they began planning a book of partisan essays to champion the southern cause, recruiting as contributors such notable sons of Dixie as the Arkansas poet John Gould Fletcher, the novelist Stark Young, and the historian Frank Lawrence Owsley.
When I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition appeared in 1930, authored by "Twelve Southerners," it produced an immediate sensation. Its introductory Statement of Principles observed defiantly that, while members of the group might differ on other issues, "all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way." It was the South's unique culture based on farming, they contended, that had allowed it thus far to escape the crass commercialization, impersonal cities, and polluting factories endemic to American capitalism. Subsequent articles extolled agrarian society as the perfect locale for art, religion, and education to flourish, and portrayed the region as more civilized and humane than the rest of the United States, even in regard to race relations. Previous writers of the "New South" school had labored to show that the South was rapidly catching up to the North; now members of a younger generation were insisting that Dixie was in fact superior precisely because it was so stridently old-fashioned.
The Agrarians continued their crusade for several years, but by the late 1930s the flame began to fade for all but Davidson. In different ways, Ransom, Tate, and Warren found their advocacy of the South impeding their literary careers, which now seemed more important. All three became founders of the New Criticism, by midcentury the dominant scholarly approach to understanding literature, based on an intense technical analysis of individual works. In effect, they returned to their Fugitive roots, but only after having greatly enriched the American tradition of intellectual dissent by their spirited defense of the fast-vanishing style of life of their native region.
Conkin, Paul K. The Southern Agrarians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
Rubin, Louis D., Jr. The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
Singal, Daniel Joseph. The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.