Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reconstructed but Unregenerate

This post was inspired by a conversation regarding the idea of progress on an earlier entry with my friend over at She's No Lady.

There remains, it seems, a curmudgeonly remnant who reject the Panglossian notion that Progress has brought us to the point that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." With this in mind, I'd like to commend to the reader one of the best books I've read with respect to providing critical reflection on the massive revolution in society that occurred within a generation on either side of the turn of the 20th century: I'll Take My Stand--The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners.

The Twelve Southerners were variously known as "The Fugitives" and "The Agrarians". They were a collection of classicists, poets, essayists, and novelists, all with roots in the South centered around the university where most of them met, Vanderbilt. Their ranks included such luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Andrew Nelson Lytle. In 1930, their magnum opus was published as a collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, but centered around the theme of championing the southern, agrarian way of life over and against the northern industrialism which sought to thoroughly overturn what remained of post-bellum southern culture:

After the South had been conquered by war and humiliated and impoverished by peace, there appeared still to remain something which made the South different--something intangible, incomprehensible, in the realm of the spirit. That too must be invaded and destroyed; so there commenced a second war of conquest, the conquest of the Southern mind, calculated to remake every Southern opinion, to impose the Northern way of life and thought upon the South, write "error" across the pages of Southern history which were out of keeping with the Northern legend, and set the rising and unborn generations upon stools of everlasting repentance.

The quote is taken from Frank Lawrence Owsley's essay, The Irrepressible Conflict, in which he argues that though popular history teaches that the "whole struggle from beginning to end was a conflict between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood, between slavery and freedom, between liberty and despotism," that the truth was far different, that it was actually "between the industrial and commercial civilization of the North and the agrarian civilization of the South." Owsley demonstrates that the southern way of life was foreign and incomprehensible to the northern industrialist, for whom power was the sole measure of success, and that the "irrepressible conflict" was unavoidable.

The opening essay by John Crowe Ransom is entitled Reconstructed but Unregenerate. He argues that the Southern, agrarian way of life, so opposed to the "gospel of progress," was an ideal not to be discarded in the dustbins of history but a way of life worth preserving against the "foreign invasion" of the alien god. For Ransom:

It is only too easy to define the malignant meaning of industrialism. It is the contemporary form of pioneering; yet since it never consents to define its goal, it is a pioneering on principle, and with an accelerating speed. Industrialism is a program under which men, using the latest scientific paraphernalia, sacrifice comfort, leisure, and the enjoyment of life to win Pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic importance.

Other essays include John Gould Fletcher on Education, Past and Present; Lyle H. Lanier on A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress; Allen Tate offering Remarks on the Southern Religion; and more.

In The Hind Tit, Andrew Nelson Lytle argues that a proper respect for the soil is essential for any culture to be sound and healthy. One of the memorable observations in this essay is in fact a summary: "A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn." Lytle maintains that true wealth is not found in the multiplication of material goods, but in the enjoyment of the space given to him by God. He admonishes us to remember that:

Prophets do not come from cities, promising riches and store clothes. They have always come from the wilderness, stinking of goats and running with lice and telling of a different sort of treasure, one a corporation head would not understand.

If the lover of soil does not remember these things, he may be turned into the runt pig, forced to take the little hind tit for nourishment...

The interested reader may also consider:

Henry and the Great Society, by H.L. Roush
Leisure: the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper
Who Owns America: A New Declaration of Independence, ed. by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate.

With that, I think I'll close my industrial laptop and go enjoy my land...

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