The Southern Critics: An Anthology
Edited by Glenn C. Arbery, ISI Books
A Southern critic by any other name would be an Agrarian or Fugitive. Four of the writers featured in this book defended their way of life against modernity 80 years ago at Vanderbilt University in “I’ll Take My Stand.” The others given voice here are literary critics, writers of fiction, poets and teachers. They never apologize for the South but shelter and uphold the best of their heritage.
The first section of the book is called “In Dixieland” and has four essays. The first, “Introduction: A Statement of Principles,” by John Crowe Ransom, is the only chapter from “I’ll Take My Stand.” Industrialization, Ransom argues, does not just take its toll on business but on “practices such as manners, conversation, hospitality, sympathy, family life, [and] romantic love.”
Andrew Lytle’s “The Hind Tit” conveys a serious tone about achieving a life through work by making it a means and not an end, while staying relatively tongue-in-cheek; Lytle says a farm is not a place to grow wealthy, but a place to grown corn. Allen Tate appeals to history in “What Is a Traditional Society?” in order to explain the Southern culture, myth and imagination. His argument centers on ties between economics and moral behavior and the value of trusting experience over the experiment of a nontraditional society.
“Why the Modern South Has a Great Literature” by Donald Davidson is one of the best essays in the anthology and the last of the section. Davidson says William Faulkner did not write as a reaction to or against “the so-called backwardness of the South.” Instead, it was that very environment that produced him and that he embraced. Davidson acknowledges this as a “moment of consciousness” and says, “It is the moment when a writer awakes to realize what he and his people truly are, in comparison with what they are being urged to become.”
The second section, “The Case of Poetry,” has eight accessible academic essays, starting with Ransom’s “Forms and Citizens.” Tradition, he says, “is the handing down of a thing by society, and the thing handed down is just a formula, a form.” Economics and art are similar in this capacity; both adhere to forms while shaping ideas. In “Three Types of Poetry,” Tate argues “that poetry finds its true usefulness in its perfect inutility.”
Ransom, featured often in this anthology, emphasizes in “Poetry: A Note in Ontology”: “Metre is the gentlest violence [the poet] can do [poems], if he is expected to do some violence.”
The double feature, “Letter to the Teacher” and “Imagery” by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, comes from a book they co-wrote for academics who, in their opinion, did students no favors by isolating poems and giving background study more weight than deserved. “The book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry,” they write.
“The Southern Critics” gives ample space to the academic contributions and insight of these Southerners. The essays are carefully written and masterfully supported.
Ransom’s “Criticism as Pure Speculation” depicts the poem as a democratic state. Brooks argues for “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” which deprives readers of total comprehension. “The Themes of Robert Frost,” by Warren, is the only essay specifically focused on a modern poet. “Poetry as Tradition,” by Davidson, does not disappoint in its passionate plea for a resurgence of poetry and the need to deep-root it into modern culture.
The third section, “The Sacramental South,” comes from Tate, saying “that what was best in the South pointed beyond itself toward a civilization with a philosophically and theologically grounded doctrine.”
Tate’s “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe” reveres Edgar Allan Poe for his influence on the Southern gothic movement. This is followed by another Tate essay, “The Symbolic Imagination,” which explores Dante’s contribution and exploration of the relationship between the physical and invisible worlds.
It should be noted that Mr. Arbery features many of the same writers multiple times. This is not a weakness. Rather, it shows diversity in the breadth of minds and the persuasive natures of the individual pieces. The last two essays are by women. Caroline Gordon, twice-wife of Tate, writes on “Some Readings and Misreadings” of literature and draws on classic as well as modern texts. She says, “It is the fiction writer’s arduous task to imitate, on however lowly a scale, the patience that stooped low enough to lift up a fallen universe.”
The last word goes to the incomparable Flannery O’Connor and her essay, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.” Southerners, she says, are soaked in Scripture and have a common history. “It is what writer, character, and reader share that makes it possible to write fiction at all.”
Furthermore, she writes, “in a secular world, [the Catholic] is in a particular position to appreciate and cherish the Protestant South, to remind us of what we have and what we must keep.”
Mr. Arbery includes a complete list of works cited and a thorough index. The anthology shows that disagreements between individuals do not diminish the importance and attraction to the South, as well as bringing awareness to the dangers and consequences of its loss. There is an agile discussion of Homer and epic poetry, as well as homage for their colleague Faulkner. The Southerners’ prose is testimony enough for their cause as they successfully appeal to tradition’s multifaceted importance and place in the modern age.
This anthology is lemon-balm tea to today’s black coffee, and it’s worth reading in any area of the country.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Times and appears here with the author’s permission.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.