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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

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America Unbridled: The Iron Horse and Manifest Destiny

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White Sharecropper Family, Hartwell, Georgia

[5224] Dorothea Lange, White Sharecropper Family, Hartwell, Georgia (1937), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018147-C DLC].
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Many of the most prominent American writers of the early twentieth century responded to the social and cultural upheavals of the period by rebelling against them; however, that rebellion often took vastly different, even contradictory, forms. For example, one of the most influential literary rebellions of the period was that of the group of literary modernists who became known as the "Lost Generation," partially due to the fact that many of them were permanent or temporary expatriates. These writers left the United States because they found it lacking in the traditions and cultural richness they felt their creative lives required. Writing mostly from London and Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, modernists like Gertrude Stein, H. D., Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot experimented with new literary forms as they expressed despair and often cynicism about the course American culture seemed to be taking. As critic Lynn Dumenil has noted, "A theme that historians have called the revolt against the village pervaded the literature of the twenties. Both the young members of the Lost Generation and an older cadre of writers inveighed against the crudeness, materialism, and repression of their own society."

But while the Lost Generation often dominates literary histories of the era, theirs was not the only literary rebellion against changes in the "modern" world. At about the same time, a small group of critics and poets gathered in the South to challenge both the cynicism of the literary modernists and the more general "revolt against the village" in American culture. Because they praised the agrarian way of life in the South, this group became known as the Southern Agrarians.

Centered around Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, these poets and critics--including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren--first gained a degree of prominence for The Fugitive, the magazine they published from 1922 to 1925 as an outlet for their writing. According to critic J. A. Bryant, the group's goal as "the Fugitive poets" was simply to "demonstrate that a group of southerners could produce important work in the medium, devoid of sentimentality and carefully crafted, with special attention to the logical coherence of substance and trope."

The Fugitives' resistance to a great many prevailing social trends was catalyzed by the Scopes evolution trial, which took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial (dramatized in the play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) pitted John Thomas Scopes, a young science teacher from Dayton who had dared to teach Darwin's theories of evolution in his science class, against the State of Tennessee, which (with the support of the Ku Klux Klan) had recently passed a law forbidding the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible." Much more than a battle over classroom policy, for many southerners the Scopes trial came to symbolize the clash between religious fundamentalism and modernism, between tradition and change, and between rural and urban ways of life. Although Scopes lost the case, many in the South--especially the writers who were to become the Southern Agrarians--were incensed at the media coverage of the trial, which portrayed the South as an ignorant backwater populated by "yokels" and "bigots."

In 1930, partially as a response to the Scopes trial, but also as an expression of their longstanding resentment against the North, the Southern Agrarians produced a manifesto called I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by "Twelve Southerners." This collection of essays--whose title played on the defiance of the southern anthem "Dixie"--promoted traditional southern values and an agrarian way of life as an alternative to the course of the modern, industrial life they saw developing in the North. With essays by Ransom, Tate, and Warren, as well as contributions from Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, Henry Blue Kline, Lyle Lanier, Andrew Lytle, H. C. Nixon, Frank Owsley, John Donald Wade, and Stark Young, the manifesto questioned the very definition of "progress" by asking: Progress toward what? According to the volume's introductory "Statement of Principles" (written by Ransom), those who advocated building a "New South" on the northern model "must come back to the support of the southern tradition." Industrial society, they claimed, was soulless and alienating, and besides, it caused more problems than it solved.

Citing "overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth" as just a few of the "evils that follow in the wake of machines," the Agrarians condemned not only the means by which a new consumer culture was being built, but also consumption itself. "We have been deceived" by consumption, they wrote. "We have more time in which to consume, and many more products to be consumed. But the tempo of our labors communicates itself to our satisfactions, and these also have become brutal and hurried." What's more, they claimed, industrial society obscures "the God of nature" and makes it impossible for either religion or art to flourish. In short, the Agrarians expressed what critic Lynn Dumenil calls a dominant theme of the period--namely, despair at "the erosion of community and personal autonomy in the face of an increasingly nationalized and organized society."

"Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian," they wrote, "which does not stand in particular need of definition." One of the reasons for the Agrarians' evasiveness about precisely what should replace the industrial model of progress was that they were a disparate group who could not always agree on exactly what "the South" was or should be. Critics have noted that one of the things hidden in the Agrarians' lack of a specific plan for social reorganization is the underlying racism of the bulk of the essays in I'll Take My Stand. All twelve of the book's authors were white men, and their implicit advocacy of white supremacy is one of the reasons their attempt to establish a new cultural and literary movement has often been dismissed as simply a romantic and nostalgic attempt to return to a corrupt past. Critics remain divided about the value of the Agrarians' advocacy of an alternative in which land and other resources would be more equally distributed among the "plain (white) folk" around whom much of southern mythology revolved. Whatever their hopes might have been for leading the South in a new direction, the Agrarians' manifesto was never a big seller. Nevertheless, their work represents an important voice in the development of the South and southern literature.

  1. Comprehension: What did the Agrarians want? What did they value?

  2. Comprehension: What did the Agrarians dislike about "modern" life?

  3. Comprehension: What was at stake in the Scopes evolution trial and how did the trial affect the South?

  4. Context: How did the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War shape southern attitudes toward the North and the notion of "progress"? Context: What did advocates for the "New South" hope to achieve? How do you see these aspirations reflected in the poetry of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren?

  5. Context: Why do you think some southerners felt threatened by the development of consumer culture? How does the Birth of a Nation advertisement from the archive [5703] relate to the Agrarians' fears about a consumer society?

  6. Exploration: Consider As I Lay Dying. How does Faulkner relate to the Agrarians? Does his writing express nostalgia for the past or suggest that the South should move in a different direction?

  7. Exploration: Some critics believe that if the white supremacist argument is removed from the Southern Agrarian agenda, what remains does not seem so different from other calls for reorganizing society in more just ways. For example, how does the Agrarians' agenda compare with the activities of U.S. labor movements during this period?

  8. Exploration: Both the Agrarians and the writers of the "Lost Generation" (many of whom are covered in Unit 11) protested what they saw as the prevailing trends in American life. How were their protests similar? How did they differ? How do their concerns relate to modernism more generally?

[3347] Dorothea Lange, Power Farming Displaces Tenants. Childress County, Texas Panhandle (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-T01-018281-C DLC].
Alternately titled "Tractored Out." Mechanization made large farmowners wealthy, but left small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers without jobs. The rising use of technology, coupled with drought and falling crop prices during the Great Depression, left many farmers homeless and out of work.

[5158] Ben Shahn, Men Loafing in Crossville, Tennessee (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-006224-M4 DLC].
Men seated outside storefront in rural Tennessee. Unemployment was widespread during the Great Depression. Eventually, New Deal programs like the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) put many men back to work on national projects such as road building and maintenance in the National Parks System.

[5224] Dorothea Lange, White Sharecropper Family, Formerly Mill Workers in the Gastonia Textile Mills. When the Mills Closed Down Seven Years Ago, They Came to This Farm near Hartwell, Georgia (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018147-C DLC].
The less glamorous side of rural southern life; a white share-cropping family seated on the porch of their cabin. This family is an example of the poorer, "everyday people" that southern writers such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty focused on in their work.

[5703] Riverside Printing Co., Elliot & Sherman Film Corp Present D. W. Griffith's 8th Wonder of the World The Birth of a Nation (1915),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1971].
Advertising poster for Griffith's film adaptation of Thomas Dixon's novel, Birth of a Nation. The film was technically innovative but extremely racist. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP organized protests against the film, which glorified and promoted the Ku Klux Klan.

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