"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called The Old South...Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow...Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of Slave.Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind.
I first heard of the 'Southern Agrarians', the symposium gathered here, in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, and the books are of like temperament in promoting an measured conservative response to cultural change. Both look for inspiration in tradition, both the rich intellectual, moral, and artistic traditions of the west, but are averse of the modern embrace of the conservative label with the forces of big business. The gentlemen gathered here are most certainly not fans of business; they are 'men of letters', intellectuals and artists, who share the old gentry's contempt for the naked materialism of business. A farm is a place to grow corn, not make money, one writes. The authors and those who they look to for inspiration, men like John C. Calhoun, believed in a 'graceful' life; one supported by work, of course, but devoted not to profit but to the pleasures of a good life; time with family, living out old traditions; the art of conversation; music, and art. Where Kirk and the Agrarians differ is emphasis on farming; the southerners see the South's agricultural basis as vital to maintaining civilization, which draws wisdom from the seasons to realize there are limits to everything, and a time and place for everything under the sun. The north, with its towns and factories, long abandoned the settled wisdom of Europe, which then lived on in the South, wrote the authors; they were given way to madness, to pursuing phantasms.
All this sounds rather lovely, but the appeal of their Southern Civilization is itself limited; although they look with fear and contempt upon the centralization of wealth in the north, they defend it in their own massive plantations. Farms function better at that large scale, one writes. The virtue of economics vanishes, however, when it threatens them, and the fact that a factory can produce goods more efficiently than a homestead is dismissed as being beside the point. That's not to say the agrarians are hypocrites; another praises the Gracchus brothers, the classical heroes of the left, who wanted to break up Rome's great plantations and restore the land to the common man. They are twelve individual authors of varying sentiments and approaches; most write conventional essays, but two tell stories that illustrate the points they intend to make. On the whole, however, they lean toward 'elitism'; this is not just implied given their praise of a life of culture and leisure practiced by very few (yeoman farmers given passing mention, but), but in their disdain for the masses. One dismisses the people as superstitiously religious Anglo-Saxons who need guidance, as if the southern gentry were Norman lord. If they have that level of disdain for the Saxons, woe betide the Scots-Irish working poor! There's also the matter of race and slavery. Slavery is not quite defended, but blows against it are certainly cushioned as the institution is described as obscene more in theory rather in fact.
I'll Take my Stand is a difficult book, not so much for its writing (some pieces lean toward the abstruse, but not most) or its arguments, but for those old biases. These are not twelve members of the gentry writing, but intellectuals, and even though some of them rose to culture from farming stock, their vision of the past is more idealistic than an argument for restorative action can be based on. It's intellectual and cultural history with a little too much romance, rather like the opening of Gone with the Wind which is quoted at the lead.That farming has become the province of industrial corporations is a severe loss for the American people; that our cultural links to the past, in the form of tradition, has been shredded is likewise a tragedy; we live in an age where home skills like sewing and canning are taught not by family elders, but by government bureaucracies. Yet these arguments will not take root in the modern readers' mind, accompanied as they are by noxious weeds like elitism. It's a shame, too, because many of the ideas expressed here ought to be considered, especially the notion of a simple life versus one of acquisitive materialism. Given that such ideas are argued in other books, by less impeachable authors, I'll Take My Stand's greatest enduring appeal is in the area of intellectual history, of understanding the southern mind as it attempted to find the best response to industrialism pushing its way under the Mason-Dixon line.
- The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk
- Any of Wendell Berry's books on agriculture or economics, including: The Unsettling of America, The Gift of Good Land, What Are People For, and Home Economics.