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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)

[3696] Dorothea Lange, Plantation Overseer. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009596-C DLC]

A leading force in southern letters from the 1920s on, John Crowe Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee. Educated primarily at home in his early years by his parents, Ransom enrolled in Vanderbilt University as a young man of fifteen. Ransom’s academic excellence earned him a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England, after which he taught high school briefly in Connecticut before returning to Vanderbilt to begin his career as an English professor.

Ransom’s first volume of poetry, Poems about God, was published in 1919. Around that same time, Ransom became the center of a small group of poets who called themselves the Fugitives after the name of the magazine they began publishing in 1922 as an outlet for their poetry. Ransom produced his best and best-known poetry in the 1920s, including “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” “Philomela,” “Piazza Piece,” “Equilibrists,” and “Janet Waking.” His poetry is known for its tendency to expose the ironies of existence, primarily through short lyrics about often somber or serious domestic scenes–such as the death of a child or a “lady young in beauty waiting until [her] true love comes”–into which Ransom introduces some unsettling twist.

Although Ransom is respected as an accomplished poet, he had always tended toward philosophical and theoretical pursuits and these came to dominate much of his literary output beginning in the late 1920s. Like many of his southern peers, Ransom was incensed by the “laughing stock” the national press made of the South in its coverage of the Scopes evolution trial of 1925. At the urging of Donald Davidson, Ransom joined with eleven other southern men (including several who were also members of the Fugitives) to produce I’ll Take My Stand, a volume of essays that praised southern traditions and the agrarian ways of life that dominated the Old South. For the next several years, Ransom explored Agrarianism at greater depth, while at the same time he began to write critical essays that described and defended poetry which could represent reality fully and completely without retreating into untrustworthy realms of abstraction.

Ransom’s critical pursuits soon led to the publication in 1938 of The World’s Body, a collection of essays which laid much of the groundwork for what came to be known as New Criticism, an influential critical movement that sought to focus the critic’s attention on the work of literature itself–its language and formal qualities–rather than on the historical and biographical context of the work. In that same year, two of Ransom’s former students–Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren–published Understanding Poetry, which expressed many of the critical principles Ransom was advocating, and which eventually became the standard text for teaching poetry in colleges and universities throughout the nation.

Ransom left Vanderbilt for a position at Ohio’s Kenyon College in 1937. Two years later he founded the Kenyon Review, an influential literary journal that he edited until his retirement from Kenyon in 1959.

Teaching Tips

  • Although many of Ransom’s poems focus on common domestic scenes, each uses unexpected words and turns of phrase to question the contradictions of everyday life. For example, in “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” a dead child’s expression “Astonishes us all.” At the end of the poem, the readers are “stopped” and “vexed” by the child’s expression. Ask your students to think about the effect of these verbs in this context and to look for similar, unexpected language in Ransom’s other poems.
  • Ransom is known for his frequent use of archaic language and references to classical texts and myths. Have your students identify some of these elements in Ransom’s poems and discuss their contribution to the poems’ overall effect.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is “Janet Waking” about? Summarize the “events” the poem describes.
  2. Context: As he contributed to the development of the New Criticism, Ransom argued that “criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic.” Yet, in the 1920s, as a member of the Southern Agrarians, Ransom had denounced the increasing influence of modern science and the rationalization of human life. Why do you think Ransom eventually came to advocate a “scientific method” of literary criticism?
  3. Exploration: As a writer of modern lyric poetry, Ransom argued that poetry could provide an alternative to science as a source of knowledge in the modern world. One of Ransom’s contemporaries, T. S. Eliot, has been praised for writing poetry that challenges the authority of science and the value of its achievements. Yet Eliot (whom Ransom admired) depicted the world much differently in his poems than did Ransom. Compare Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” with Ransom’s “Philomela.” If you consider each poem as an attempt to challenge the authority of science, what different strategies do these writers use to accomplish a similar goal?

Selected Archive Items

[3696] Dorothea Lange, Plantation Overseer. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009596-C DLC]. 
White overseer and land owner with black workers. Sharecropping initially appealed to freedmen because it promised benefits they had previously been denied. However, most sharecroppers ended up working in conditions that weren’t much better than slavery.

[4704] Lewis W. Hine, Home of Mrs. Jacob Stooksbury (1933), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [RG 142-H-174]. 
Family in living room of Lolston, Tennessee, home. The Southern Agrarians praised southern traditions, such as farming. John Crowe Ransom was known for using domestic scenes to deal with larger philosophical issues.

[7304] Anonymous, Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Evolution Trial, Dayton, Tennessee, July 1925
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15589]. 
The Scopes trial pitted John Thomas Scopes, a teacher from Dayton who had taught Darwin’s theory of evolution in his science class, against the State of Tennessee. The case made national news, and the famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow was challenged by ministers to a series of debates on atheism and agnosticism. Critics of the South saw the trial as evidence of the region’s lack of sophistication and progress.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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