by Mark Malvasi
Confident that industrial prosperity would create the material foundations for a vigorous, democratic civilization in the South, southern liberals since the 1880s had repudiated much of their heritage and embraced science and industry as the salvation of mankind. Liberal educators, journalists, and social scientists of the immediate postwar era, such as Edwin A. Alderman, Henry Grady, and Walter Hines Page, along with their counterparts Stringfellow Barr, George Fort Milton, and Virginius Dabney during the 1920s and 1930s, had become enchanted with northern culture and society. To these men, Donald Davidson lamented, the South suddenly appeared cheap, dilapidated, and inferior. Davidson believed it was principally the duplicitous southern liberal elite that had conditioned ordinary Southerners to accept northern definitions of liberty, democracy, justice, and progress and had convinced the young men of the postbellum South to turn their backs on the past and build the future according to the lax precepts of fashion, expedience, and profit.1
Young Southerners who had been reared under the new system of public education remained virtually uninstructed in the Southern past. What knowledge they did possess came from northern textbooks or from authors who adopted the northern point of view. Their liberal mentors had taught them that wealth equaled success, and that success resulted from the expansion of industry and commerce. They believed in progress and thought it depended wholly upon objective scientific investigation. Politics, therefore, was unimportant.
Southerners’ political struggles to maintain their traditions, so Davidson characterized the liberal argument, actually prevented the South from enjoying the advantages of modernity. As long as southerners persisted in their aberrant behavior, the South would remain stagnant, idle, and, languid. The liberals and their protégés applauded the growth of southern cities, the emergence of a native industrialism, and the gradual accommodation to the machine. They emphasized “sophistication” over “wisdom,” “experimentation” over “tradition,” and “liberation” over “morality.” Stressing the poverty of the old-fashioned southern farmer, they confirmed their contempt for agrarianism.2
Southern liberals consciously discredited the old agrarian tradition. From Davidson’s perspective, they complained that southern life consisted of little more than lynchings, chain gangs, the Ku Klux Klan, hookworm, pellagra, poor whites, and a few aging patricians who did everything in their power to make the blacks miserable. There were too many one-horse farms worked by illiterate tenants, too many Baptist preachers, and too many old colonels. There were too few schools, colleges, paved roads, symphony orchestras, public libraries, skyscrapers, cotton mills, steel factories, and labor unions. If southerners would forget the ways of their fathers and grandfathers and put their faith in science, industry, and public education instead, liberals vowed to make of the South a New Jerusalem. But, Davidson wondered, at what cost to southerners’ autonomy, self- respect, and humanity?3
Captivated by ideas of “reform,” “improvement,” and “progress,” the liberals, according to Davidson, loved the South in a manner philanthropic rather than filial. Careless and foolhardy, they surrendered their identity as southerners and thereby sanctioned northerners’ spiritual conquest of the South. They substituted for agrarianism a way of life at once vulgar and sterile.4 The charming, graceful neighborhoods of Charleston and Savannah, Davidson feared, would soon come to resemble the ghastly slums of Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. The spacious, picturesque farms that seemed to grow out of the land around Marshallville, Georgia, or Guntersville, Alabama, might soon be surrounded or replaced by the ugly factories of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Youngstown, Ohio.
As the stewards of the modern scientific-industrial order, liberals counseled that the factory was the emblem of the future, the farm a relic of the past. Young men should flee the country and the farm for the city and the factory where they could earn more money than they had ever seen. Liberals seemed unconcerned that, along the way, these young men would trade their independence for the conformity of the labor union and the strictures of the shop floor. Progress, too, had its price, and the liberals reassured everyone that things would turn out all right in the end.
For Davidson, industrialism caused more problems than it solved and inflicted more suffering than it alleviated. In the South especially, industrialism rendered endemic social diseases that might otherwise have been quite temporary.’ The industrial revolution, he thought, was a sinister instrument of northern imperialism. The diffusion of industrialism reduced the South to colonial dependency and imposed an unvarying uniformity in place of the traditional diversity of southern, and American, life. Liberals, northern and southern, hailed science and industry as the sovereign principles of organization in the modern world. Southerners, Davidson interpreted liberals to argue, ought thus to forfeit their preferred way of life to secure the blessings of technological efficiency and economic prosperity.5
Liberals told Southerners to build dams to generate the electricity that would illuminate their farmhouses. Never mind that acres of farmland would be flooded and countless farms, even entire towns, would now be under water. Everything would turn out for the best. Liberals instructed southerners to prompt their state legislatures and chambers of commerce to plow under green fields, level rolling hills, and pave dirt roads to engineer efficient superhighways that would ease the travel of gawking Yankee tourists. They would make money in the long run. Never mind that they sacrificed their culture and traditions and became the mortgaged serfs of northern capitalists. Liberals urged southerners to alert physicians and social scientists to the unsanitary conditions of southern life and assist them in getting rid of outdoor privies and installing indoor plumbing. They would be better people for it.
The farmer and his family might have all the modern conveniences that industrialism could provide: a toilet, a bathtub, electric lights, and paved roads. The farmer’s pockets might bulge with money. Did these transformations enhance the standard of living? Perhaps. Had they enriched the quality of Southern life? Davidson unambiguously answered no.
Neither the farmer, nor his wife, nor his sons and daughters any longer heard grandpa’s stories, strummed guitars, picked banjos, or sang the old folk ballads. Instead, they listened as the crackling voice on the radio told them what to think, what to believe, and what to do. To the liberals6 delight, they learned what soap to use, what magazines to read, what clothes to wear, what cigarettes to smoke. They learned new standards of right and wrong and new definitions good and evil calculated to bring them up to date. In the process, however, they endangered, and perhaps squandered, their inheritance.
Davidson did not think that expenditure, acquisitiveness, and display were in themselves the agents of the modern crisis. Consumerism of the kind modern liberals promoted was merely a symptom of a more serious malady. He did not worry that indoor plumbing would corrupt the hardy yeoman stock of the South, though he never tired of telling liberal reformers that flush toilets would not improve a man’s character. Davidson did not begrudge southern farmers the necessities of life, or even a few of the amenities. He knew how hard they had worked for them. He worried, however, that the propagandists for industrialism would induce men to make a necessity of every luxury.
Spokesmen for industrialism posited an image of life composed of an endless series of material satisfactions and private indulgences. They believed there was nothing that could not be bought or sold, exhorting men always to spend more than they had and to want more than they needed. Davidson tried to dissuade Southerners from exchanging their values, their traditions, and their souls for the artificial comforts that ingenious industrialists and advertisers had devised.7
He did not—perhaps could not—believe that southern farmers had willfully exhausted their land by planting only staple crops. They did not intentionally cut down forests to make a profit from selling the lumber. They preferred instead to nurture the land that had so long provided sustenance for them and their families. But in the vast capitalist world, the preferences of a handful of southern farmers no longer mattered. They were constrained to exploit the land they loved because they needed to survive, and to survive they needed money.
The farmer had to put shoes on his children’s feet and clothes on their backs. Perhaps his wife, too, needed a new hat or a warm coat. The roof on the barn needed repairing. The old wagon could use a fresh coat of paint. Some new tools would certainly be useful. Nor could the farmer forget that he owed the bank a mortgage payment and the government a share of his meager earnings. The ravaged lands of the South, Davidson proclaimed, were not a symbol of southern avarice or malignity, but mute testimony against the tyranny of the money economy and the Leviathan state. The farmer, ensnared by forces beyond his control and understanding, had to get money to
…placate the sucking tentacle-tip of the money octopus flung far to seize him…. money for more taxes for still more public improvements-new roads, new courthouses (with steel filing cabinets), and new bureaus upon bureaus; money for interest on the national debt, covered by bonds gilt-edged, good as gold, offering Hamiltonian conveniences to banks and security-venders; money for the new Northeastern idea of insurance, to hedge him against the liabilities and calamities forced upon him by the system and to bury him when, lifeless, moneyless, and propertyless, he delivers his soul to his Maker and his body to a mortician who is one of the highly valued members of the Chamber of Commerce.8
Industrialism and the money economy were more devastating to the South than Sherman’s march to the sea. Add science to the already volatile mix of money and machine and, Davidson predicted, the compound would produce catastrophe. Since the early seventeenth century, men came more and more to accept science as the arbiter of truth. But the skepticism that science engendered offered a wretched foundation upon which to establish a stable social, political, and moral order. Science bred doubt rather than conviction, suspicion rather than faith. It presented no guide to moral conduct and no definition of the good life. Indeed, science, in Davidson’s view, denied the very possibility of the good life. There was, according to the scientists, only biological life. Value judgments were meaningless.9
The scientific method, operating on man’s fundamental conceptions of life, produced a world without contingency or mystery. Man, nature, and God were no longer worthy of reverence, or even simple respect. Man was a mere collection of coordinated biological and chemical functions, with perhaps a few of Freud’s repressed sexual impulses and neurotic complexes thrown in. Nature existed for man’s pleasure and profit, to be conquered and exploited at will. God was a concept to console the faint-hearted or to pacify the hard- headed, narrow-minded fundamentalist?10
The order that emerged from the purview of modern science was, in essence, a permanent disorder that rendered all previous social, political, and moral arrangements obsolete. Science thrust society into such furious uncertainty and instability that it became imperative to institute the rule of force to maintain even the semblance of order. Under the dispensation of the scientific- industrial regime, Davidson asserted, men were incapable of exercising the freedom to which rational consideration entitled them. The modern world was a barbarous place, at once pitiless and remorseless, devoid of love and laughter. In such a world, violence became the only expression of power and authority.11
Fanatical devotion to science and industry threatened to destroy the continuity of human history and to extinguish human life itself. How, Davidson wondered, could modern men retain “spiritual values against the fiery gnawing of industrialism”?12 The present dominance of industrialism, though, did not confirm its goodness, demonstrate its permanence, or ratify its superiority. Even as industrialism became more entrenched and as Americans became more dependent upon industrial technology, Davidson remained adamant that nothing about industrialism justified the belief that it would last forever.
Industrialism had not fulfilled, nor could it fulfill, the extravagant promises made in its name. Industrialism could not guarantee individualism or equality. It was not the source of happiness or the agent of enlightenment. The industrial regime did not bring uninterrupted prosperity. On the contrary, Davidson affirmed, industrialism was the focus of evil in the modern world. In “The Agrarians Today,” a symposium published in Shenandoah in 1952, Davidson reassessed his original interpretation of industrialism and found that, twenty-two years after the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, it required no amendment:
Industrialism…has provided more and better automobiles, airplanes, refrigerators, and weapons of war-including the atomic bomb. And it has also become a party to the infliction of war, death, and destruction on an unprecedented scale. It has wasted our resources to the point of danger. It has degraded society, perverted education, and undermined religion. It has invaded, abridged, and all but destroyed our constitutional liberties, and now threatens to convert our government into a totalitarian regime. It has spread confusion and suspicion; it has begotten corruption and treason; it has reduced millions to a state of groveling servility and fear.13
By the 1920s, Davidson conceded, industrialism already dominated the North. To those northern politicians and southern liberals, and to businessmen of both sections who advocated massive industrialization, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the South would also succumb to its sway in time. Davidson resisted, but recognized that industrialization and commercialization spread like a cancer throughout the South. Respected members of the Chamber of Commerce slithered on their bellies to entice some petty manufacturer of pants, socks, or shoes to take up a tax-exempt residence in their midst. Assuredly, there were serpents in Eden.
Worse, those southerners who wanted to bring industrialism to proceeded without considering the ways in which it would disrupt the traditional, rural communities that had escaped the harshest aspects of modernity and had sustained the southern way of life. What was to become of these “agrarians,” the heroic descendants of the yeoman farmers who had settled the South more than a two centuries earlier? They were inarticulate, at least in the modern idiom of the liberals, social scientists, reformers, and capitalists. But they were neither irresponsible nor stupid.
Apprehensive, discontented, and perplexed, these traditional southerners, Davidson was certain, would welcome a candid assertion of southern principles and a forthright defense of southern values. He believed that the salvation of the South had to come from within. The “plain folk” had to find a way to calm their fears, to assail their enemies, and to remind themselves of who they were and where they came from. Davidson resolved to give them that way.
The responsibility to articulate and detail the enduring virtues of the southern way of life fell chiefly on southern men of letters. To recommend that southern writers self-consciously advocate the southern tradition carried grave risks for southern literature. Davidson admitted the danger that literature might degenerate into propaganda, but argued that such concerns were overshadowed by an even more serious threat.
Southern writers needed to mount a deliberate counter-offensive, for their enemies had launched a deliberate attack. There would be no southern writers and no southern literature, except in the purely formal and technical sense, unless the southern tradition again became a vital component of American life. Writers could no longer isolate their defense of poetry from their defense of the South.14
Southern men of letters, Davidson suggested, had a unique opportunity to contribute to the general rebellion against modern life and the growing dissatisfaction with metropolitan culture. Their struggle for literary and cultural self-determination might come to represent an exciting and important moment in the general renewal and reformation of American letters within the citadels of agrarianism, provincialism, sectionalism, and reaction.
The revival of the southern tradition, Davidson added, had to accompany the revival of southern society. No longer could southern writers feel ashamed of their heritage. No longer could they accept northern descriptions of the South as a disgraceful example of bigotry, fanaticism, and poverty. No longer could they acquiesce in the progressive formula of industrialism, liberalism, and public education. They had to disavow the so-called progressive ideal as the betrayal of everything they cherished. There was no reason to contort themselves into awkward conformity with a worldview they found repugnant.
The historic conservatism, repose, affability, generosity, humor, and piety that distinguished southern society had an abiding relevance and worth. Southern writers had to reassert their attachment to the southern tradition and their reverence for the southern way of life. “We come back to our life, finally,” Davidson wrote, “because it matters most of all, and literary issues are minor by comparison.” The way to establish a southern tradition in literature was to reestablish it in life. Realizing that ambition was, for Davidson, at the core of the Agrarian movement:
Our total purpose was to seek the image of the South which we could cherish with high conviction and to give it, wherever we could, the finality of art in those forms, fictional, poetical, or dramatic, that have the character of myth and, therefore, resting on belief, secure belief in others, and, unlike arguments, are unanswerable, are in themselves fulfilled and complete. Such was the total purpose, of which the so-called ” Agrarian” movement was but a declaratory preface…. [It was] the South against Leviathan, or in more positive terms, the South for the Southern tradition and our heritage of Western civilization. In the modern world there is no other way for the Southern writer to enjoy and use his rightful heritage and still be in any true sense a Southern writer.15
To begin the quest for a mythic and heroic image of the South in which men could put their faith, the southern man of letters had to repudiate the supremacy of industrialism and depose science as the god of modernity. This was no doubt a desperate act, but the times demanded it.16 Southern writers could not expect ordinary southerners to appreciate the beauty and importance of southern literature, or the relevance of the southern tradition, as long as they were dazzled by the discoveries of science or the products of industry. Any novel, any poem, any drama, any essay was meaningless unless it addressed the essential problem facing mankind in the modern world, which, as Davidson stated it, was “the remaking of life itself.”17
If not only southerners but all Americans were to recover their virtuous way of life, Davidson declared, they had to abandon industrialism and return to the land. The traditional, agrarian society kept the family intact, secured hearth and home, and provided stability, leisure, and peace for its inhabitants. The South offered a continuous illustration, through more than three hundred years of history, of such an agrarian community. Rooted in “family, blood- kinship, clanship, folk-ways, custom, community” Southern society was “stable, religious, more rural than urban, and politically conservative.”18 The agrarian tradition existed as an organic and spiritual bond between southerners.
Davidson considered the experience of being southern immanent, ineffable, and virtually unmediated by concepts or words. But it was not incomprehensible. The southern poet could discover and describe the genius of his people. He alone could reveal what they truly were, for poetry—the word spoken or, preferably, the word sung—conveyed the irreducible continuity of human existence, the “myth that is truest memory.
Discovery and description, however, remained separate from experience. No poet could tell all he knew about being southern. He could relate certain values, sentiments, and beliefs that southerners held in common. He could depict their customs and rituals. He could capture their idiom and the cadence of their speech. But to define what it meant to be southern was beyond his talents and capacities. The southern tradition, Davidson concluded, was an organic whole composed of indivisible parts and was not subject to analysis. Davidson’s vision of the southern past was more normative than analytical, more rhetorical than dialectical. To be a good southerner one had to feel, to believe, and to act like a good southerner.
Davidson’s assertion, although tautological, was not meaningless. He labored to find a language that enabled him to speak about permanence. He sought to limit or eliminate transience, inconstancy, and change from the southern tradition. In place of history, process, and change, he offered a vision that confirmed an unchanging southern identity. Davidson at last eschewed historical truth and embraced epic, mythical, and poetic truth. The essential, elemental South was not in process, was not changing, was not becoming, but was the immutable source of identity, order, meaning, and being.
Davidson invested the South with a powerful destiny. He relied on the southern past not only to validate the southern tradition, to revitalize southern culture, and to vilify modernity, but also to explain the meaning and purpose of life on earth. To violate the organic unity and continuity that characterized the southern tradition, therefore, meant in Davidson’s analysis to violate the very essence of nature. Davidson dissolved the distinctions between the order of southern society and the order of nature. Nature and society, for him, were joined in the organic social order of the South. Such was the real significance of Southern Agrarianism.
Davidson saw the present and the future almost wholly in terms of this heroic Southern past. Immersion in the past, in the myths, legends, chronicles, folk songs, folk tales, and poetry of the South, was a precondition for life in the present. But Davidson’s vision of the southern past was no mere fabrication. It contained more than an element of truth. Davidson was, however, concerned with far more than what: had actually happened. The truth that captivated him was not a factual but an existential and a moral truth. He wanted less to know than to believe, to experience a pervasive act of faith. He aspired not only to understand the southern past, but somehow to sanctify it.19
Davidson’s friend and fellow Agrarian Allen Tate empathized with Davidson but pointed out the essential futility of his quest. Davidson, Tate charged, had forgotten that all men, southerners included, were bound and circumscribed by their historical circumstances. When Davidson sang the glories of the heroic southern past remembered in the blood, he presupposed the existence of a unified sensibility that was inconceivable in any age but especially so in the modern. Tate detected in Davidson’s thought a willful and desperate attempt to manipulate and control history. Davidson exhibited what Tate called the “mythic consciousness,” not the “historical consciousness.” Davidson had lost the sense, Tate wrote, that the South “was the home of a spirit that may also have lived elsewhere and that this mansion, in short, was incidentally made with hands.”20 The South was, Tate declared, a living community of human beings subject to the ordinary conditions and limitations of history: progress, change, and decay. Southern civilization was not the unerring source of identity, order, meaning, and being. To attach such significance to it, Tate admonished Davidson, was to impose a burden on the South that it could not possibly sustain.
Davidson posited an image of the South as an almost tribal culture, isolated from history and modernity. The southern social order was grounded in a militant southern fundamentalism, which defied all rational attempts to define or dismiss it. In such a world, men did not understand themselves by what they might become at some unspecified moment in the future. They understood themselves, rather, by what they were from long experience.
Davidson longed to reconcile the characteristically modern separation of the individual and the community, the self and society. He wished to negate the artificiality of manufactured experience and to restore the original animating spirit of the humane life. Men could partake of their full humanity, he believed, only by participating in society. In the modern scientific-industrial order, however, men existed in seclusion from one another and divided against themselves. Participation in society, and therefore the full realization of humanity, was impossible under modern conditions. Davidson attempted to eradicate the problems of modernity by re-establishing the ancient unity and continuity of human life that bound men together in a community of the living, the dead, and the unborn.
The reconstitution of traditional, agrarian society in the South and the revitalization of the heroic southern past would end the antagonism between self and society. For Davidson, the inter-psychic conflict between individuals and the intra-psychic conflict of the self were not inherent, ineradicable parts of the human condition. Under the right circumstances, men could resolve the psychic and social tensions that haunted them.
Davidson was explicitly reactionary, not nostalgic, sentimental, or even conservative. He did not wistfully pine for the “good old days,” but yearned to recreate or approximate the South of the past in some concrete, palpable form that would enable men to reconstitute more humane social relations than modernity allowed. He affirmed that if men lived under the gentle auspices of the humane tradition and fostered a stable, organic, agrarian social order, they could alter the conditions of human existence. A regenerate agrarian society in the South would thus surely cultivate “free” and “whole” men as readily as it produced corn, cotton, and wheat.
Instinctively, Davidson comprehended that science, industrialism, and rationalism jeopardized his vision. Scientific-industrial society did not need the past as did the traditional, agrarian society it had replaced. The cultural, intellectual, and emotional orientation of the modern scientific-industrial world was toward change, progress, and the future. Science and industry, Davidson insisted, were by their very nature revolutionary and destructive of the organic continuity of human life.
Science and industry continually accelerated the processes of change. Like wild fire burning out of control, science and industry disfigured or consumed all they touched. Modern men were, therefore, in danger of forgetting the past, or worse, of making it a curiosity that no longer commanded fidelity and belief. Davidson feared the consequences of the dissolution of the past. He regarded the southern past as an enduring source of identity, order, meaning, and being, and he recognized the continuing need for such a source in the modern world.
There was no other humane basis upon which to reconstruct a social order short of returning to “some kind of simple pastoral life.” But the agrarian life moved neither backward nor forward. Its pattern was not linear. Agrarianism wanted nothing to do with the illusion of progress or the illusion of decadence. Davidson’s version of agrarianism encompassed the past, present, and future in an intricate narrative that uncovered the deeper continuities of human existence:
Life is a timeless cycle, not a line, and the agrarian life establishes man within that natural cycle, where he belongs. Those who have argued the contrary are now seeing what it costs to support an industrial order, when it becomes the order of life; when indeed it gives orders, as it must, not only in the factory and office, but everywhere.21
Davidson’s view of the southern tradition at last assumed not only a heroic but a mystical aspect.22 He envisioned the spiritual secession of the South from modernity and the spiritual unification of southerners in that “great vital continuum of human experience to which we apply the inadequate term `tradition.’23 Since Appomattox, Davidson proclaimed, the cause of the South has been
…the cause of civilized society as we have known it in the Western world, against the new barbarism of science and technology controlled and directed by the modern power state. In this sense, the cause of the South was and is the cause of Western civilization itself.24
Despite his defense of segregation, which has indelibly sullied his personal and professional reputation, Donald Davidson proved a serious and insightful critic of modernity, an aspect of his thought frequently obscured as we grow more unwilling to forgive previous generations for the sin of not sharing our preferences and sensibilities. He identified one of the central dilemmas of twentieth-century life when he argued that “science,” “technology,” and the “power state,” the very forces supposed to liberate men from toil, drudgery, and tyranny, were paradoxically the authors of much human bondage, exploitation, and suffering.
As the power and influence of rationalism, science, and technology grew, Davidson averred, violence, chaos, and absurdity would result. In such a world, beyond human comprehension, proportion, and control, men could no longer live without sacrificing the essence of their humanity. For Davidson, who lived in a world that he had no part in making and did not want, the crisis was at hand. He dramatized it in “Fire on Belmont Street,” the epilogue to his most ambitious and controversial poem, The Tall Men:
Citizens, awake! Fire is upon you, fire
That will not rest, invisible fire that feeds
On your quick brains, your beds, your homes, your steeples,
Fire in your sons’ veins and in your daughters’,
Fire like a dream of Hell in all your world.
Rush out into the night, take nothing with you,
Only your naked selves, your naked hearts.
Fly from the wrath of fire to the hills
Where water is and the slow peace of time.25
Davidson’s language in “Fire on Belmont Street” linked the image of a house fire raging out of control to the biblical injunction that fire would be the agent of earthly destruction, and, finally, to the image of the eternal fires of Hell that burn but do not consume. The forces of modernity, Davidson resolved, had produced a nightmare world that sent men and women fleeing from their homes in search of a sanctuary to harbor them.
Davidson counseled spiritual and, wherever possible, literal, secession from modernity. For him, only two options remained: submission or war. Davidson opted for the latter course, and became something of a guerrilla fighter against modernity in an effort to preserve the ideals and traditions of the South that he cherished. In “Sanctuary,” Davidson again took the stand from which he had never retreated:
This is the secret refuge of our race
Told only from a father to his son,
A trust laid on your lips, as though a vow
To generations past and yet to come.
There, from the bluffs above, you may at last
Look back to all you left, and trace
His dust and flame, and plan your harrying
If you would gnaw his ravaging flank, or smite
Him in his glut among the smouldering ricks.
The issue for Davidson was victory or death. There could be no compromise. Defeat meant annihilation. Victory meant the freedom to lie
On sweet grass by a mountain stream, to watch
The last wild eagle soar or the last raven
Cherish his brood within their rocky nest,
Or see, when the mountain shadows first grow long
The last enchanted white deer come to drink.26
The men who would preserve the world that their fathers made had to return to the place where the beech trees drooped their boughs and the dark cedars grew with stubborn roots caressed by warm, primeval rains. They had flee the modern world and get back to the great, good earth, to “a land still fought-for.” But there is a lingering melancholy, even a fatalism, in Davidson’s imagery. It is “the last wild eagle” that soars, the “last raven” perched in its “rocky nest,” “the last white deer come to drink.” These are doubtless the last free men. Whether they will survive, and whether there will be others like them, Davidson did not say.
Mark Malvasi is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and teaches history at Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere Circa 1500-1888. His most recent book is The Finder, a collection of poems, published by Cranberry Tree Press in 2013. This essay is reprinted with the gracious permission of the Political Science Reviewer (2001).
1. Donald Davidson, “The Trend in Literature,” in Culture in the South, ed. William Terry Couch (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935), 183-215. 190 THE POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEWER
2. Donald Davidson, Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1938), 72-75, 280.
3.Donald Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees and Other Essays (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), 254-57.
4. Davidson, Attack on Leviathan, 274-79.
5. “A Symposium: The Agrarians Today,” Shenandoah, III (Summer 1952), 16-22.
6.Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees, 240-42. See also Donald Davidson, “Where Are the Laymen?: A Study in Policy Making,” American Review 9/4(October, 1937), 456-81; “The South and Intellectual Progress” (MS) 7-8, “The Agrarian South: An Interpretation” (MS, 1936) 1-10, both in Donald Davidson Papers, Special Collections, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University.
7. Donald Davidson, The Spyglass: Views and Reviews, 1924- 1930, ed. John Tyree Fain (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1963), 238. See also Attack on Leviathan, 10-11.
8.Davidson, Attack on Leviathan, 114-15. See also “The Agrarian South,” 8-14.
9. Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees, 240-42; Attack on Leviathan, 340-42, 353-54. See also Donald Davidson, “Poetry and Progress” (MS) Donald Davidson Papers, Special Collections, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University, 3-5.
10. Davidson, “Poetry and Progress,” 3-5; Still Rebels, Still Yankees, 259-62.
11. Davidson, “Where Are the Laymen?,” 456-59, 480; Still Rebels, Still Yankees, 3, 124-26, 226-27.
12.Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees, 67; The Spyglass, 237- 38; Donald Davidson to R. N. Linscott, an editor at Houghton- Mifflin Company, April 9, 1922, Donald Davidson Papers, Special Collections, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University.
13. “A Symposium: The Agrarians Today,” 17.
14. See Davidson’s remarks in Fugitives’ Reunion: Conversations at Vanderbilt, May 3-5, 1956, ed. Rob Roy Purdy (Nashville: Donald Davidson and the Defense of the Agrarian South 191 Vanderbilt University Press, 1959), 181.
15. Donald Davidson, Southern Writers in the Modern World (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1958), 60-61. See also “The Trend in Literature,” 199-210; Attack on Leviathan, 93-96.
16.Donald Davidson, “Agrarianism for Commuters,”American Review 1/2 (April 1933), 238-42; The Spyglass, 230-32.
17.Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge, 1977), 51. See also Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees, 3-22, 156-79, 254-66;”The Talking Oaks of the South, Shenandoah 5/1 (Winter, 1953), 3-8; “The Trend in Literature,”183-210; Attack on Leviathan, 65-101, 240-57, 339-46; “Poetry and Progress,” passim.
18. Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees, 172.
19.On the distinction between “history” and the “past” see J. H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1970).
20. I’ll Take My Stand, 155, fn. 1. See also Lewis P. Simpson, “Donald Davidson and the Southern Defense of Poetry,” Introduction to Still Rebels, Still Yankees, v-xvi; The Brazen Face of History: Studies in the Literary Consciousness in America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 167-80.
21.Donald Davidson, “The`Mystery’ of the Agrarians: Facts and Illusions About Some Southern Writers,” Saturday Evening Post, January23, 1943, 7.
22. Randall Stewart, “Donald Davidson,” in South: Modern Literature in its Cultural Setting, eds. Louis D. Rubin Jr. and Robert D. Jacobs (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1961), 248-59, but especially253-54.
23. Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees, xvii.
24. Davidson, Southern Writers in the Modern World, 15.
25.Donald Davidson, Poems, 1922-1961 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966), 181.
26. Ibid., 73.