Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Agrarians

During the 1920’s, several prominent southern men of letters such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson wrote essays against the “New South.” These protests were published in well-known literary magazines, notably the Nation, Saturday Review of Literature, New Republic, and Sewanee Review. These men opposed the industrial movement and advocated agrarianism; they lamented the loss of southern values and culture to industrialization. The growing number of factories, mass production, and advanced technology were encroaching on the slow, quiet, southern way of life and threatening to eliminate subsistence farming and local small businesses.

Through the publication of their articles and other communications, these men realized they shared a common sentiment on the rapidly growing industrialization of America—particularly as it pertained to the South. They formed a group called the Agrarians. The twelve original members were all Southern writers with an academic background—many of them having ties to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. They were: John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Lyle H. Lanier, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Gould Fletcher, Herman Clarence Nixon, Henry Blue Kline, John Donald Wade, and Stark Young.

In 1930, the group published a symposium titled I’ll Take My Stand. Each member contributed an essay on an agrarian topic of their choice. Thomas J. Pressly notes that this book “provided organization and body to what had been heretofore a sprinkling of scattered, individual, and unrelated protests.” David B. Danbom describes the collection as “a celebration of rural life for its strong community and kinship ties, its traditional values, and its deeply held religious faith, and a condemnation of an urban society the Nashville Agrarians took to be overly industrial, scientific, materialistic, and collectivist.” He further notes that they “damned the city for its corrosive effect on the family and praised the countryside for its traditional family structure.”

The introduction to the book points out several Agrarian arguments: the negative effects of industrialization on leisure, religion, the arts, and the “amenities of life” which they describe as “manners, conversation, hospitality, sympathy, family life, romantic love.” It also states that the “theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.” One major aspect of the Agrarian movement was the expression of the need for land ownership and subsistence farming before cash crops. Marion D. Irish writes that “The agrarian philosophy is plainly posited upon the small subsistence farm which becomes the regional basis for the economic system, the political structure, the cultural pattern.”

The Agrarians believed that pride of land ownership fostered a sense of community. Edward S. Shapiro notes that “by 1930, sixty percent of all farm real estate was owned by banks, insurance companies, and mortgage companies, while only forty percent was owned by the farmers themselves.” He further states that the Agrarians regarded this inequity as problematic because “the southern tenant farmer had no permanent ties to the land, no affection for the soil, and little economic independence.” He points out that “the ownership of property, by contrast, fostered independence, individual responsibility and diligence. People were more responsible if they have a personal material stake in society.”

Although they promoted land ownership and the small farm community, the Agrarians did not oppose industry if it was minimal and localized. They were aware of the benefits as well as the disadvantages of advancement. Jess Gilbert and Steve Brown write that “while conceding that science and technology had a proper labor-saving role to play, they argued that a reliance on industrialization led to alienation, overproduction, unemployment, the maldistribution of wealth, an irrational consumer society, and the threat of global war.”

The Agrarians strongly opposed absentee-ownership and large corporations. Shapiro states that “under modern industrialism the means of production and distribution were being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands,” and the Agrarians feared that “the domination of the economy by a few large corporations would…inevitably culminate in the government controlling everything.” America would essentially become a communist country.

The primary goal of I’ll Take My Stand was to inform readers of the dangers of industrialization and to unite them in the fight to regain and preserve the ideals of early American culture. With this book, the Agrarians intended to educate the world on the destructive impact of large-scale industrialization. The introduction describes this goal:
If a community, or a section, or a race, or an age, is groaning
under industrialism, and well aware that it is an evil
dispensation, it must find the way to throw it off. To think
that this cannot be done is pusillanimous. And if the whole
community, section, race, or age thinks it cannot be done,
then it has simply lost its political genius and doomed itself to
impotence.

The objective to gain recognition for their theories was undoubtedly accomplished. Thomas J. Pressly states that the book “secured a discussion of the ideas of the agrarians. In newspapers, in most of the leading magazines of the nation, and in public debate, their proposals were examined.” In the decade following the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, the issue of agrarianism versus industrialism remained a popular issue of debate. The Agrarians continued to express their views in public appearances and in magazine articles. A major venue for their writing was the American Review published in New York City. Editor Seward Collins was supportive of the Agrarians and allowed them ample space to expand on their original theories. This enabled them to converse with others who shared their opinions.

After the American Review ceased publication in 1937, their main portal of expression became the Southern Review—a quarterly magazine published at Louisiana State University. This periodical was neutral and published articles by both the Agrarians and their critics. Another quarterly, the Review of Politics, published by the University of Notre Dame, also welcomed articles by the Agrarians.

Several members of the Nashville group participated in the Southern Policy Conferences of 1935 and 1936. Although their ideas were rejected, they continued to stand up for their beliefs. In 1936, several of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand joined with a group of American Distributists to publish another symposium which they titled Who Owns America. The focus of this book was to restore America’s economic independence and security. The writers called for the establishment of locally owned and operated small businesses to compete with the giant corporations.

The Agrarians continued to communicate their views to the public. A new member of the group, Troy J. Cauley, published Agrarianism: A Program for Farmers in 1935. In 1938, Donald Davidson published a collection of his agrarian essays titled The Attack on Leviathan. Pressly notes that “the decade ended, as it had begun, with the Agrarians as separated individuals writing scattered protests against the dominant trends of Southern life.”

These great literary men continue their fight as their views are still read and studied. Their concerns are still relative today and their efforts are continued by a group called the New Agrarians. The introduction to The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, states that the New Agrarians have “pruned key elements from older agrarian ways while nourishing other shoots and stimulating new ones.” Like their predecessors, the contributors to this symposium are literary talents, such as Memphis native Scott Russell Sanders, who share “yearnings to regain society’s rootage in the land; yearnings to stimulate sounder loyalties, affections, and convictions; yearnings, in the end, to craft a scale of values.” Just as the previous generation of Agrarians believed, this group asserts that “agrarian practices can stimulate hope for more joyful living, healthier families, and more contented, centered lives.”


Selected Bibliography

I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (nonfiction), 1930


Selected Links

Agrarians and Fugitives pages at the Jane and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University:
http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/speccol/digcoll/fa.shtml