Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Donald Davidson (1893-1968)

Donald Davidson was born in 1893, in Campbellsville, Tennessee. The most profound influence in his early life was his father, who provided his young son instruction in the classical languages and read a great deal to his children in the evenings. These readings fostered Davidson’s interest in literature. Another source of influence in Davidson’s life at home was his father’s vast library filled with many classical authors. Various Tennessean narratives about Indian and pioneer times caught the young boy’s interest, as well as plays of Shakespeare or poems by Poe.

In 1909, Davidson started his freshman year at Vanderbilt University. Here Davidson began to satiate his need for literature and intellectual growth and he started reading Kipling, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Maupassant. After his first year of college he was forced to quit school to go to work because of his financial dire straits. He was seventeen at the time and he chose teaching as a profession to which he dedicated most of the rest of his life. He managed to return in 1914 and during his busy second stay at Vanderbilt University he contributed a few essays and poems to the student magazine The Vanderbilt Observer.

Shortly after his return to Vanderbilt the United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917. When war became imminent, Davidson applied for admission to Officers’ Training School, was accepted and started the training camp at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, in 1917. The training in military science proved immediately beneficial and through special provision, his work to substitute for the single course in physics needed for the bachelor’s degree, which was obtained in “absencia” in 1917. In August of that year, he also received his commission as a second lieutenant and helped organize Company E, 324th Infantry of the 81st Division forming at Camp Jackson, South Carolina. But before being sent overseas he married Theresa Sherrer in Greenville, South Carolina, who he met in 1916. In November, his company fought a severe battle where many lives were lost. All these war events had a tremendous impact on the mind and soul of young Lieutenant Davidson. While stationed in France he made new friends who were quite different from his academic acquaintances.

After the war was over Davidson returned from France and started writing poems about his experiences. While at a “Fugitive” meeting he ventured to read some of them, but they were coldly received. Later, the only poem that seemed fit to publish was The Roman Road at Dye which was published in a revised form in The Long Street. Later on, he uses his experiences in The Tall Man in a section called The Faring, one of the few attempts of American poets to write about World War I in verse, which proved to be a most powerful verse narrative about combat during any period of time.

In 1922 Davidson finally received his Masters degree from Vanderbilt and that same year the first issue of The Fugitive was released and over the three and a half years the publication showcased 48 poems, a critical essay and three book reviews of Davidson’s. Twenty four of those poems were from Davidson’s book, An Outland Piper. Over the next nine years Davidson became a successful writer, and joins the faculty of the Breadloaf School of English of Middlebury College for the summers of 1931 – 1967, Ripton, Vermont.

In 1946 Davidson was awarded an Honorary degree from the Cumberland University and in 1948 one from Washington and Lee University. From 1955-1959 he was a Chairman of the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government. In 1964 Davidson retired from a long and rewarding career at Vanderbilt after 44 years of teaching at the University. On April 25, 1968 Donald Davidson died in his home at the age of 74 his body was laid to rest in Nashville.

Mark Royden Winchell said “Donald Davidson may well be the most unjustifiably neglected figure in twentieth-century southern literature. One of the most important poets of the Fugitive movement as a social and political activist, Davidson had significant impact on conservative thought in this century, influencing important scholars from Cleanth Brooks to M. E. Bradford. “The Southerner does not have to labor to learn some things. We already know from the start who we are, where we are, where we belong, what we live by, what we live for.”

Selected Bibliography

Selected Bibliography
An Outland Piper (1924)
The Tall Men (1927)
Lee in the Mountains and Other Poems (1938)
The Long Street (1961)
Collected Poems: 1922-1961 (1966)

Selected Links

Donald Davidson in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture:
Donald Davidson at UTC’s Tennessee Writers’ page:
Donald Davidson Chronology from Vanderbilt Library:
List of Donald Davidson’s poems from Vanderbilt Library:
“Lee in the Mountains” with introduction by Daniel Mallock at…
“Donald Davidson and the South’s Conservatism,” from The Politics of Prudence by Russell Kirk in The University Bookman:…