Archive for January, 2011

Book Review: I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition

January 14, 2011 15 comments

Nearly three years ago, a friend gave me a copy of I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners. The book, first published in 1930, is a collection of twelve essays by twelve different authors: Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, H. B. Kline, Lyle, H. Lanier, Stark Young, Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, H. C. Nixon, F. L. Owsley, John Crowe Ransom, John Donald Wade, and Robert Penn Warren. Known as the Agrarians, these were not men of the soil (though they favored the life and the application of its ideals), as Virginia Rock’s appended biographical essays betray, but men of letters with diverse, primarily academic, backgrounds. According to Louis D. Rubin, Jr., author of the Introduction to the 1962 edition, the collaboration between the twelve was loose. Each had some tie to Vanderbilt University, and each, through his essay for this book, aimed to contribute his views on the general notion expressed in the book’s title: “all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial.”  The Civil War was over, although it seemed to be a recent memory in the minds of many of the writers. Rubin also wrote the Introduction to the 1977 edition, in which he provided additional context for the authors:

They were writing squarely out of an old American tradition, one that we find imbedded in American thought almost from the earliest days, and that runs counter to yet another old American tradition. The tradition out of which they were writing was that of pastorale; they were invoking the humane virtues of a simpler, more elemental, nonacquisitive existence, as a needed rebuke to the acquisitive, essentially materialistic compulsions of a society that from the outset was very much engaged in seeking wealth, power, and plenty on a continent whose prolific natural resources and vast acres of usable land, forests, and rivers were there for the taking.

The particular pastorale they wrote, however, was given substance and urgency by their own historical situation. They were southerners, young men born into a society that had only belatedly experienced the full impact of the industrial dispensation, and which in their own lifetimes had become caught up in the surge of overwhelming social, economic, and political change, so that the contrasts between earlier ways and later were dramatically visible. Nor were they external observers; they felt the change within themselves, and knew at first hand the problems of definition involved, and could thus recognize and identify many of the alternatives. Moreover, there was an historical circumstance that bound them to perceive the changes that were altering their community in terms of deeply felt historical loyalties and sectional self-defense. Thus their special version of pastoral rebuke possessed a concrete imagery and an historical depth that imbued it with drama and passion. They did more than merely admonish and prescribe: they “took their stand.”

The question that remained open was, “how far shall the South surrender its moral, social, and economic autonomy to the victorious principle of Union?” The authors’ response is not “neo-Confederate nostalgia,” although modern readers likely will bristle at the casual racism that crops up in some of the essays. To the extent possible, however, it is worth overlooking these anachronisms, because much of the material “speak[s] to our economic and ecological situation with a clarity that can be recognized today as never before.”

The essays, from which I have quoted at length here and elsewhere, are varied and often dense. Some, like Wade’s “The Life and Death of Cousin Lucius” (and to an extent Lytle’s “The Hind Tit,” these also being the two essays respectively represented in the links in the previous sentence), take a narrative form, like a myth or fable. Others, like Ransom’s “Reconstructed but Unregenerate” and Lanier’s “A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress,” are more straightforward, traditional academic papers. Still others– Davidson’s “A Mirror for Artists,” Fletcher’s “Education, Past and Present,” and Tate’s “Remarks on the Southern Religion”– highlight a particular topic.

The final essay, “Not in Memoriam, but in Defense,” by Young, who Rock tells us “disavowed a personal commitment to the Agrarian cause (even though he had a long, warm correspondence with both Davidson and Tate)” but “saw himself among all of the Agrarians as ‘most truly expressing the Southern idea,'” provides some concluding perspective that also includes language that functions as introductory material. While Rubin urged a realistic approach to the texts in his Introductions, driven, as mentioned, by a belief that, despite whatever historical yearnings the authors may have harbored, their message remained important and viable in later decades, Young’s realistic outlook comes through frankly in his essay:

If anything is clear, it is that we can never go back, and neither this essay nor any intelligent person that I know in the South desires a literal restoration of the old Southern life, even if that were possible; dead days are gone, and if by some chance they should return, we should find them intolerable. But out of any epoch in civilization there may arise things worth while, that are the flowers of it. To abandon these, when another epoch arrives, is only stupid, so long as there is still in them the breath and flux of life. In our American life today good things are coming in, which we should try to understand and to share, so far as our natures allow. But it is just as obvious that good things are going out….It would be childish and dangerous for the South to be stampeded and betrayed out of its own character by the noise, force, and glittering narrowness of the industrialism and progress spreading everywhere, with varying degrees, from one region to another.

…Though the South…is our subject, we must remember that we are concerned first with a quality itself, not as our own but as found anywhere; and that we defend certain qualities not because they belong to the South, but because the South belongs to them.

The authors endeavor throughout to both define and defend Southern ideals and virtues and define and warn of the dangers and vices of (Northern) industrialism. Despite Rubin’s reminder that “no single author is responsible for any view outside his own article,” common themes plainly emerged, even if they might appear, to modern readers, to be in conflict. The authors write both of individualism and collectivism, for example. They expressed a desire for self-reliance, not as modern voices call for personal responsibility in behavior, but as the freedom and ability to rely on oneself alone. Collectivism appeared at different levels. At a basic level, the authors defended elements of social order, like the family and the church. Their project itself was the product of a collective effort, however loose, and they were defending the values of a collective society as against the sweep of those of an intruding society.

Warning of the destructive nature of progressive industrialism is chief among the group’s messages, and to that end, the authors defend on all fronts. There are good things in life and good ways of living life that do not lend themselves to the sort of quantification and monetization industrialism encourages. Leisure has no place in the industrial lifestyle. Slavery made possible this Southern leisure, a fact the authors, to their detriment, largely pass upon without serious consideration. Modern readers ignore the authors’ points about the virtues of leisure– stepping outside the incessant push of industrialism– to their own detriment, however. Absent a ready supply of free human labor, the Southern aristocratic lifestyle and its accordant leisure probably would not be possible. That does not mean that religion and the arts must be lost to industrial progress and commodification. The same is true of the natural environment, the destruction of which also concerned the authors.

The Agrarians don’t fit neatly into our modern political milieu; they are neither Left nor Right as we usually understand those positions today. Much of this is due to the acceptance, by both sides, of the industrial economy and its virtues, which have become the national norm. In this way, the Agrarians remain situated as critics of a philosophy and a culture that is merely more widespread today than it was in 1930. Matching the constellation of policy preferences of neither side, they (generally speaking– the group appears to include liberals and conservatives) favor community, religion, family, and environmental values, while opposing the intervening forces of the public sector (government) and private business sector (industry).

Partly because they do not fit a partisan mold, and partly because the objects of their criticism remain in force, the Agrarian critique continues to be a valuable one. Like this review, some of the essays meander at times, and I was disappointed in Warren’s contribution, as the author of All the King’s Men was the only contributor recognizable to me at the outset. I found his essay a bit lighter on salient substance and a bit heavier on anachronistic trappings than the others. Even with its meanders, I’ll Take My Stand is a robust collection, and it remains valuable and relevant for readers in 2011.

As mentioned above, I’ve posted excerpts of two of the essays here and here. Portions of the 2006 edition are available from Google Books here. (I have not seen the 2006 edition, so I would recommend the 1983 edition, pictured above.) A more complete, organized, and factually accurate history of the Agrarians is available here.

Potato Moon – “Railroad Song,” After the Harvest (2007)

Alabama – “Song of the South,” Southern Star (1989)

Alabama – “Dixieland Delight,” The Closer You Get (1983)

The Band – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band (1969)

Categories: Books, Privatize

Tucson Targets, Crosshairs and Criticisms, Violence and Victims: A Reaction to Public Discourse

January 11, 2011 3 comments

While the echoes of the recent, deadly shooting spree in Tucson, AZ continue to reverberate across the country, reaction to the tragedy came swiftly, and, frequently, in the form of ascriptions of political meaning to the event and the blaming of others for purposefully causing and intending the deaths and injuries that resulted.

I usually leave link sharing for other venues, reserving this space for more thorough writing and question-posing. In this case, though, someone else largely has made the point I would have tried to illustrate regarding the irresponsibility of those responses that stated or strongly implied that Sarah Palin and others wanted and intended the death of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. As previously discussed here, Jon Stewart is becoming a more overt commentator on public discourse, and his opening segment on last night’s The Daily Show again finds him in that realm:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Compassion also has been the subject of discussion here, see, and here, and this timely story is a welcome contribution to this discourse. Although Stewart doesn’t mention compassion, one senses he’s grasping for it, and Karen Armstrong (a leading proponent of compassion featured in the story linked in this paragraph), for herself, also echoes Stewart’s comments in the clip above: “You have to be optimistic. Because when optimism fails and despair takes over … then you’ve got a problem.”

Finally, in the event that there is remaining confusion about what it looks like when those in the media, including Palin, actually call for the death of another person, a reader passed along this story about public death threats made against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Is Cooperstown Y2K12 Compatible?

January 6, 2011 6 comments

Yesterday, voters inducted two former players, Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven, into the Baseball Hall of Fame. While the primary subtext to the story about the 2011 class has been the low number of votes players tied to steroids– including Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro– received and the implication that players associated with performance-enhancing substances might never make it into the Hall of Fame, ESPN’s Rob Nayer is looking ahead to 2012:

Given the history, there’s a pretty good chance that the Veterans Committee process won’t elect anyone [in 2012]. Which leaves only the BBWAA [the Baseball Writers Association of America, the main voting body for Hall of Fame induction] ballot, and there is an excellent chance that the BBWAA will, in all its collective wisdom, fail to elect anyone.

Yes, “fail” is a loaded word and not necessarily the appropriate word.

In this case, though, it’s highly appropriate. Because even after electing Alomar and Blyleven, and even considering that Bernie Williams will be the best new candidate on the ballot next year, there will still be a long list of highly qualified players on the ballot. And it’s quite possible that none of them will be elected.

A memberless 2012 class would be a failure in Nayer’s eyes because it would be “a bad year for the Hall of Fame.” This may sound like a tautology, but he meant something more specific: “For one thing, the Hall of Fame (and the Village of Cooperstown) relies on visitors, and visitors are attracted by new Hall of Famers; the Hall’s biggest weekend (by far) every summer is Induction Weekend. For another thing, it hurts the credibility of the election process — and ultimately the Hall itself — when the process so obviously fails.” For Nayer, this failure has two aspects. First, a memberless class would be a failure on its face because it would mean that no eligible players that year were worthy of induction, an outcome Nayer rejects because, in his view, there are plenty of eligible players worthy of induction. Second, it would be a failure because it would adversely affect the economic interests of the  Hall of Fame and its host city, Cooperstown, NY.

Considering these in reverse order, the economic argument seems like a non-sequitur. Exciting new inductees may boost the Hall’s revenue in a given year, but over time, the Hall’s ability to draw visitors would seem to be based on its ability to maintain its integrity as a hall of fame. Even if pandering to popular whims is the best way to fund the Hall under its current business model, a commitment to mission and integrity (something apparently at the root of many BBWAA voters’ positions on players like McGwire and Palmeiro, for example) might suggest the need for more independent funding sources. The obligation to Cooperstown’s economy is even more remote to the Hall’s purported mission.

Second, it is not obvious that a result in which the voters elect no players to the Hall in a given year plainly is a failure. It may be the case that, despite Nayer’s opinion, no eligible player will be worthy of induction in 2012. Nayer views the election in 2012 of Barry Larkin, “the top non-electee” in 2011, as the best and most likely way to avoid the “Doomsday Scenario” or “Epic Failure” that would be a year in which the voters induct no one. If it is true, as Nayer writes, that there are deserving players on the 2012 ballot and the voters don’t induct them for nefarious or otherwise inappropriate reasons, then that result does look like a failure, something that impairs the Hall’s integrity and credibility.  Neyer is but one among hundreds of voters, however, and it may be the case that the result he describes as an “Epic Failure” is the very result that would best uphold the Hall’s integrity. If none of the eligible players deserve induction in 2012 in the eyes of the voters writ large, then to induct one would be a dereliction of the voters’ duty.

When entities are created for the performance of a particular task– Congress, to legislate; prosecutors, to prosecute accused criminals; the BBWAA, to elect Hall of Famers– the entity’s exercise of discretion not to perform that task in a particular instance often is viewed as a failure, probably because it appears to conflict with the natural proclivity of the entity’s job description, which is thought of in positive, volitional terms. Are there times, though, when such an entity’s decision not to act in a manner in which it is empowered to act is the proper decision, and is Neyer’s 2012 “Doomsday Scenario” one of these times?

Is this man the only hope to save Cooperstown, NY from certain destruction in the year 2012?

Categories: Current, Poll, Sports