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On Culture and Reactions

In 1930, twelve men of letters published a book entitled I’ll Take My Stand, which defended man’s right to his land, his quiet, his leisure, and his right to say “no.”  It was and still is largely seen as a reactionary work stemming from Southern regressives against modern progress and the inevitability of cultural change.  Oftentimes, a reactionary production is indeed something to be scrutinized and rejected as the unthinking instinctual reflex of an closed mind.  Yet the mere fact that an action is reflexive does not necessitate that it is poorly chosen.  Thus the writings of the Southern Agrarians, who authored I’ll Take My Stand, may have been consonant with their initial reactions, but investigation of their writings shows that, while their cultural outlook may have been somewhat too rigid in some areas, their principles were both grounded in a virtuous disposition and thoroughly reasoned.

When the Southern Agrarians produced their manifesto, the damage which they foresaw being done to the culture of the South seemed little more than the paranoia of a few backwater hicks who had somehow managed to garner a fine literary education.  Yet what shines through in the eloquent writings of men such as Richard M. Weaver, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate is not a backwards rhetorical sophism, but a systematic defense of that which they found good.  Their taste in cultural preference was not chosen on a whim or by attraction to the superficial, but was deeply ingrained in both their personal lives and in their intellectual endeavors.  Most of the better-known Agrarians were poets or literary critics, many of whom were connected with Vanderbilt University, as either matriculants or professors.  In this life of relaxed academia and in the world of professional letters, what they discovered was not the competitive hustle and bustle that dominated the north-eastern universities which were ensconced by an industrial lifestyle, but the goodness of independent living.  Their intellectual peers who lived and worked in the centers of industry, such as H.L. Mencken, had no recourse to success but to trample down others; being good meant being better, and staying good meant being the best.  For the Southerners, good was good, and to stay good it did not need to become any better.

Southern Agrarian, Robert Penn Warren

Southern Agrarian, Robert Penn Warren

In contrast to the modern progressives who saw it as their divinely-appointed duty to ridicule southern culture, the Agrarians had a fundamental humility which, though at times obscured by the strength with which they promoted their opinions and denounced the cultural wrecking-ball of ill-defined progress, acknowledged man’s sovereignty simultaneously with and in no way separable from his ecological dependence.  Though man may conquer the soil, though he may cut down the forests, he cannot survive without either.  Thus, in order for men to have a proper sense of himself, he must have a proper sense of that upon which he is dependent.  A society which provides man with his every immediate need by the exchange of currency is a society which dehumanizes man, by the very fact that it denies to him the necessity of his connection with land, and thus deprives him of its joy.  When a man owns no land, and is in no way responsible for either the expanse of terrain upon which he lives or the production of that which sustains him, he loses some of his masculinity.  He becomes daily dependent on others for not only those things which every man needs every day and cannot give himself, such as community and conversation, but for the material sustenance which maintains his corporeal existence.

With increased dependence upon others come increased arrogance and a decreased appreciation for the value of things.  A man who has struggled to build his own rocking chair will not, because of his own experience, smash one out of carelessness; whereas a man who can afford a thousand rocking chairs on a whim will have likely little regard for the value of the craftsmanship which was poured into their making.  Consequently, such a society which idolizes the wealthy man who has no respect for the non-monetary value of property will care only for the here and now, the immediate good; which is to say that their only pleasure is the thrill, and their only thrills are those which are cheap.  Flitting desultorily from one distraction to another, the society which is dominated by a mentality of modern progressivism is a society which denies itself a true culture.  Inexpensive pleasures take little time to produce and sustain the person for just as long; and when the media of cultural transmission – art, philosophy, literature, architecture, music, and other such forms of societal consciousness – plant no deep roots in the soil of the past, then from their indolence, masked as artistic originality, no fruit is borne.

A society without direct ownership of real property is a society without responsibility; a society without responsibility is a society without care; a society without care is a society without a culture.  Southern Agrarianism was not without its problems.  Most of its chief proponents were terrible farmers; and the movement eventually fell apart through internal discord and the irreconcilable conflicts which permeated the consciousnesses of the individuals who were its leaders.  Yet despite its ultimate failure and its reactionary inception, it was a justified defense of what was a genuine culture, a culture built from man’s intimacy with his land.  In the words of literary critic and professor Dr. Cicero Bruce, “Yes, Tate was a reactionary. But he believed that one could animate Western culture only by reacting violently to the enervating forces within it.”1

Recommended Reading:

Allen Tate – Essays of Four Decades
Richard M. Weaver – Ideas Have Consequences
Various – I’ll Take My Stand
Cicero Bruce – The Stand of Allen Tate
Rev. Vincent McNabb – The Church and the Land

1 The Stand of Allen Tate – Dr. Cicero Bruce (links to page 8)

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