Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Southern Agrarians

by W.P. Witcutt


“I’ll Take My Stand,” the manifesto of the Southern Agrarians, was launched in 1980, the year of the Great Crash in the United States; and the ideals which it propagated have since been advocated in the American Review – a monthly which can be regarded as the focus of Transatlantic Distributism.

Published on the very eve of what may turn out to be the death-blow of Industrialism, the manifesto still regards the system as advancing and victorious, though already betraying signs of break-down. Its purpose was, therefore, not to push forward an attack upon a stricken enemy, but to stiffen resistance in the Southern States to the attempt to create an Industrialised “New South” similar in all respects to other parts of the United States.

The contributors to the manifesto-it is actually a large size book- are bound together by two common bonds- they are Southerners, and they are Agrarians.

They are Southerners. Their intention is to preserve what is left of the “Southern way of life,” stable, agrarian, established. They take their stand on a certain historical tradition. They regard the whole quarrel that led up to the Civil War as essentially one of the deep-rooted animosity between an Industrial and an agrarian community.

“Complex though the factors were which finally caused war, they all grew out of two fundamental differences which existed between the two sections; the North was commercial and industrial, and the South was agrarian. The fundamental and passionate ideal for which the South stood and fell was the ideal of an agrarian society. All else, good and bad, revolved round this ideal – the old and accepted manner of life for which Egypt, Greece, Rome, England, and France had stood. History and literature, profane and sacred, twined their tendrils about the cottage and the villa, not the factory.

That is why the Southern Agrarians are proud to call themselves “Southern,” confident that “Southern” and “Agrarian” come to the same thing. All the same, as they state in the introduction to their manifesto, they would associate themselves with the agrarian traditions of New England and the Western States.

The chief factor that unites the contributors to the manifesto is, then, not so much their Southernness as their opposition to Industrialism, defined as “a programme under which men, using the latest scientific paraphernalia, sacrifices comfort, leisure, and the enjoyment of life to win Pyrrhie victories from nature at points of no strategic importance.”

One can distinguish as in English Distributism, a conservative and a radical wing.

John Crowe Ransom, Henry Blue Kline, and Stark Young represent the conservative wing.

“The South must be industralised,” states the first, “but to a certain extent only, in moderation.”

“We can accept the machine,” says the third, “but create our own attitude towards it.”

Henry Blue Kline, while announcing his intention of being “a monkey wrench in the wheels of progress,” nevertheless proposes the “critical and selective use of mechanical and mechanized facilities.”

Donald Davidson and Andrew Nelson Lythe represent the radical army. The former, in an essay entitled “A Mirror for Artists,” disposes of the Leisure State – that carrot which the Industrialist dangles before the nose of the donkey that pulls the chariot of progress.

“Why not a golden age of the arts,” he demands, “wherein ideal cities, grandiosely designed, shelter a race of super-beings who spend all their unemployed moments (destined to be numerous, when production is finally regulated) in visiting art museums, reading immortal works, and dwelling in beautiful homes adorned with designs approved by the best interior decorators?”

The answer is that “the kind of leisure provided by industrialism is a dubious benefit. IOT helps nobody but merchants and manufacturers, who have taught us to make in great excess over the demand. Moreover, it is spoiled as leisure, by the kind of work that industrialism compels…We do not have the free mind and easy temper that should characterize true leisure. Nor does the separation of our lives into two distinct parts, of which one is all labour – too often mechanical and deadening – and the other all play, undertaken as a nervous relief seem to be conducive to a harmonious life. The arts will not easily survive a condition under which we work and play at cross-purposes. We cannot separate our being into contradictory halves without a certain amount of spiritual damage. The leisure thus offered is really no leisure at all.”

There is only one remedy. "The supremacy of industrialism itself can be repudiated. Industrialism can be deposed as the regulating god of modern society. This is no doubt a desperate counsel. But the artist may well find in it more promise for his cause than in all the talk of progressivists about 'mastering the machine.' Mastery of the machine, he will reflect, can only begin with a despisal of the machine and the supposed benefits it offers. He has no reason to hope that those who hold the machine in awe will ever subdue it."

"To my mind Andrew Nelson Lyth's essay is the most satisfactory of the group. It is certainly the most concrete; consisting for the most part of a detailed account of life on an old-style Southern farm. It does not appeal to theory. It describes a two hundred acre Tennessean farm and its life-the log-built house with its cedar-bordered lane; the buttercuplined path that runs from the porch to the horseblock; the bell that hangs on a post behind the house and which is always run for rising and for dinner; the work of the day-milking and its problems; churning; the signs of the weather; the details of a Tennessean farm dinner; the significance of rain; the games that are played in the evenings-the ballads handed down from father to son that are sung to the music of a guitar, the Hog drovers' game, the "square dances" and their fiddlers' tunes-"Leather-Breeches," "Rats in the Meal Barrel," "Cotton-eyed Joe."

The same farm is described after industrialisation-the constant drain of money to pay for the petrol and the artificial manures; the coming of he salesman; the disappearance of provincial life; labour-saving and the consequent break-up of the family-the boys to the filling-station, the girls to the town. The farmer is caught in the toils-"each day he buys more and more from the town and makes less and less on the farm."

For "a farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grown corn."

"An agrarian culture and industrial warfare are sustained through the workings of two different economies. Nothing less than confusion can follow the attempt of one economy to react to the laws of another."

What, then, are the agrarians to do? Mr. Lyth's answer is: cut themselves off completely from the Industrial system. Refuse to buy the products of the factories. "It is not so impossible as it may seem at first, for, after all, the necessities they machine-facture were once manufactured on the land, and as for the bric-a-brac, let it rot on their hands. Do what we did after the war and the Reconstruction: return to our looms, our reproducing stock. Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall. Forsake the movies for the play-parties and the square dances. And turn away the liberal capons who fill the pulpits as preachers."

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