Paul V. Murphy. The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xii + 351 pp. $65.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-2630-0; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4960-6.
Reviewed by Steve Wall (Department of English, University of South Florida)
Published on H-South (December, 2002)
The Continuing Importance of Allen Tate and the Southern Agrarians
The Continuing Importance of Allen Tate and the Southern Agrarians
Some recent commentators on Southern intellectual history and literature have attempted to reduce the importance of writers like William Faulkner and the Southern Agrarians by claiming that their perceived role and influence has been exaggerated. These two very different books are indications that this effort has been unsuccessful.
Thomas Underwood is introduced as being an independent scholar from Texas, while Paul Murphy's book is a revision of his dissertation from Indiana University. Murphy and Underwood cover much similar ground, but have different focuses. Murphy looks at the goals and positions held by the Agrarians and the reasons for the writing of the Southern Agrarian tome, I'll Take My Stand, as well as the subsequent and uneven influence the Agrarian movement has exerted on American conservative thought. Underwood by contrast examines Allen Tate's life up to the year 1938, with the attendant promise that the rest of Tate's life will be presented soon. Both books are thoroughly researched, and Underwood boasts of having unimpeded and unprecedented access to Tate's personal letters.
Underwood takes the position that Tate considered himself an orphan due to his mother's dishonesty about his forebears and birthplace, and was primarily motivated during these early years to locate a family, a home, and an identity. Underwood tries very hard to drive home this interpretation: he makes abundant use of familial words like orphan, home, family, mother, father, and brethren in the book's title and in chapter headings. I think Underwood makes too much of this supposed overriding motivation because if Tate was uniquely concerned to locate a family and a home, what can be said regarding the other Modernists and Agrarians? The desire to find a myth that compensates for the fractures produced by modernity goes back to the nineteenth century at least. In his work, Murphy also uses headings that suggest loss: for example, exile, Americanized Nowhere, and identity.
Underwood also suggests that as part of his desire to find a place to belong, Tate in effect became a Southerner, and that once Tate was at peace with himself, particularly after the publication of his novel The Fathers in 1938, his devotion to the Southern cause began to diminish. Tate was able to work in Minnesota, the implication being that working in Minnesota was not possible for someone completely devoted to the South.
I disagree with Underwood's presentation of the notion that Tate assumed a Southern identity merely to ward off his sense of not really belonging anywhere, and that he easily cast it off once it was no longer needed. As Underwood phrases it: "[Tate] gained both an identity and a family by answering the question that had vexed him since childhood: How could he be a genuine son of the South when he felt like an orphan?" (p. 5) I think Underwood's own words belie his effort to so interpret Tate's motivations. For example, regarding the justness of the South's war for independence, Tate said to fellow Fugitive and Agrarian Donald Davidson: "'We should be a separate nation'" (p. 130). Underwood also writes, "Tate's vindication of General Jackson gave him an opportunity to vent his hostility toward Northerners who wrote Southern history" (p. 131). Tate's Southern sentiments seem to be rather strong--indeed, much too strong to have been recently formed. Underwood continues, "As Tate began forming stronger loyalties to the South, he reconsidered the modernism in his poetry" (p. 135), but he appears to qualify that assertion by stating, "The Tates found that London did not satisfy their Southern tastes" (p. 140). The latter comment suggests that Tate already possesses the strong Southern identity that Underwood claims he was now developing.
The point I am trying to make can be crystallized by examining the following lines: (1) Underwood claims that Tate has "new Southern allegiances" (p. 140), (2) but also that "Tate's Southernness made him feel equally self-conscious among the prominent writers living in Britain" (p. 141), and (3) that Tate experienced a Southern "reversion" (p. 143). The terms that Underwood uses do not mean the same things. Line 1 means that a new allegiance exists where one previously did not; line 2 means that Tate's Southern identity is so ingrained that he feels uncomfortable around non-Southerners; and line 3 seems to purport that Tate originally held Southern views, lost them, and is now returning to them. I think Underwood's difficulty in having these inconsistent descriptions comport with each other lies in his attempt to have Tate's life comport with his orphan thesis; instead, Tate's allegiance to the South was earlier and stronger than Underwood allows.
On more personal matters, Tate's experience in Paris with the writers of the Lost Generation was mixed. Underwood finds that Ernest Hemingway respected Tate as a critic if not a poet, that Tate and F. Scott Fitzgerald mutually disliked each other, and that Tate found Gertrude Stein egomaniacal. When she informed him that "No Southerner can afford to know any history," he surmised that she was an "ignorant old bitch" (p. 147). Underwood also relates his relationships with other members of the literati; his relationships with wife, fellow writer and Agrarian fellow-traveler Caroline Gordon and daughter Nancy; and his conversion to Catholicism. Given his access to Tate's documents, Underwood's book is quite useful on these more personal matters. The reader encounters an Allen Tate who could be quite headstrong. Where I think Underwood fails is in his effort to minimize Tate's early and strong attachment to the South.
As for the Southern Agrarian movement itself, both Underwood and Murphy discuss its background and history. Murphy reviews the events surrounding the formation of the Agrarian group; he identifies their despair about the North's imposition of industrialism and standardization on the South, and the lack of room for an aesthetic and religious life. Although many Northern and New South critics dismissed them as reactionary and nostalgic, their message resonated (and continues to resonate) with later thinkers. Murphy's title, The Rebuke of History, is taken from Robert Penn Warren's observation at the Fugitives' reunion in 1956 that "The past is always a rebuke to the present" (p. 1). Murphy shows that while the Fugitive-Agrarians were a political failure, they achieved great success in the academic and cultural realms.
Murphy details how the ideas advanced by this group continue to be influential. There are literally hundreds of dissertations, articles, and books addressed to their ideas. Among the many thinkers who have incorporated some of their notions or who have associated with the Agrarians are Richard M. Weaver, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, Louis Rubin, Thomas Fleming, Walter Berry, and Eugene Genovese. As Murphy shows, frequently many of the original Agrarian principles were diluted or even altered by later followers.
These controversial ideas are bound to be upsetting to someone, and one example that conveys the continuing importance of the Southern Agrarian ideals involves M. E. Bradford. Bradford was influenced by the philosophers Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Eric Voegelin in addition to the Agrarians. This eclectic political mix contributed to Bradford's embrace of a Southern traditionalism that included subjecting Abraham Lincoln to a critical evaluation that was unconventional. Not content to accept the conventional mythology about Lincoln's magnanimity and political greatness, Bradford asserted instead that Lincoln was dictatorial, hypocritical, racist, and used explosive rhetoric for the sole purpose of elevating his region's interests and ambitions (p. 233). Murphy reviews the trouble that Bradford's anti-Lincolnian sentiments brought him during the period he was being considered to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the early 1980s. Ultimately, Bradford's name was withdrawn from consideration. (In an ironic touch, recent studies of Lincoln have arrived at assessments remarkably similar to Bradford's.)
Another thinker that Murphy discusses who has incurred the wrath of conventional academics for his championing of Southern conservatism as a bulwark against the market economy is Eugene Genovese. What makes Genovese's interpretations so compelling is that he is a Northerner and a (former) Marxist. Murphy's treatment of Genovese's experience is intriguing and elucidating.
These two studies of the figures involved in the Southern Agrarian movement are worthy additions to the mountains of research already undertaken. Both Underwood and Murphy contribute to an understanding of the continuing importance of this group of poets, critics, novelists, philosophers, and teachers whose merit, despite the changes society has undergone, persists.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-south.
Steve Wall. Review of Murphy, Paul V., The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought and
Underwood, Thomas A., Allen Tate: Orphan of the South.
H-South, H-Net Reviews.
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