The Southern Classics Series is a new venture of J.S. Sanders and Company. John Stoll Sanders and his series editor M.E. Bradford are systematically resurrecting worthy titles that have disappeared from the pages of Books In Print. In so doing, they are making a valuable statement about the Southern tradition in American literature.
I purposely use the word “tradition” rather than “canon”—that cant phrase of the cultural left. To speak of a literary canon is to suggest an analogy with the fixed body of sacred texts that embody Christian revelation. In contrast, the literary tradition is, as T.S. Eliot envisioned it, an expanding patrimony that connects us in various ways with those who have gone before. We honor that inheritance not by “preserving” it, but, like the prudent servant in the parable of the talents, by enhancing it. Just as the tradition nurtures us, we enrich it and, in so doing, alter the past by altering our relationship to it.
Not surprisingly, the Southern tradition defined by Sanders and Bradford seems to have reached its full flower with the Fugitive and Agrarian movements. Of the 20th-century “classics” they have published or promised, all but two are products of the Vanderbilt Renascence. (I am including works by Caroline Gordon, who, as Mrs. Allen Tate, was part of the Fugitive-Agrarian circle, if not an official member of either group.) Not only are these books themselves artifacts of the past, but several deal with an even earlier time.
Allen Tate’s biography of Stonewall Jackson and Andrew Lytle’s of Bedford Forrest were the work of young men (the first published books of each author) trying to come to terms with their Southern heritage. Although Donald Davidson had entered middle age before writing his two-volume history of the Tennessee River, he had wrestled for years with what it meant to be an artist and a Southerner. Even a book of old age, such as Andrew Lytle’s A Wake for the Living, is concerned with recreating a usable past.
Among the classic works of fiction reprinted by Sanders are Robert Penn Warren’s first novel Night Rider (set in the Kentucky of his youth), Stark Young’s Civil War romance So Red the Rose, and three volumes by Caroline Gordon—None Shall Look Back, Penhally, and Green Centuries. From outside the Fugitive-Agrarian orbit, we have the Kentucky regionalism of Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s The Great Meadow, as well as Owen Wister’s rendering of life in post-Civil War Charleston, Lady Baltimore. The 19th-century South is represented by the prose elegies of Thomas Nelson Page’s In Die Virginia (1887) and by the tall tales of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes (1835).
The best news for teachers of Southern literature is the publication of a revised edition of William Pratt’s historic anthology The Fugitive Poets. When the original edition of this book went out of print some years ago, we were left with no single volume of Fugitive verse. Had Sanders and Company done nothing more than revive that edition, with Pratt’s brilliant critical introduction, it would have been cause for rejoicing. Instead, Pratt used this opportunity to produce an even better book. The new edition includes expanded selections from the poets featured in the original volume, along with work by the previously unrepresented—Sidney Mttron Hirsch, Andrew Lytle, Hart Crane, John Gould Fletcher, Robert Graves, and Laura Riding. A comparison of Pratt’s original edition, published in 1965, with the current volume illustrates the adaptations made within a living tradition.
No doubt, Matthew Arnold was correct in arguing that there are both creative and critical eras in the life of a literary culture. It is generally agreed that the creative ferment known as the Southern Renascence ended shortly after World War II. (Whether we are now in the midst of a second flowering is a subject for another essay.) With the end of the Renascence, however, came an increased critical and scholarly awareness of Southern writing as a literature worthy of study.
If the writers featured in this series are among the creative geniuses of the Southern muse, the critics and scholars who have written prefaces for the volumes are bearers of the tradition, what John Crowe Ransom in “Antique Harvesters” called “keepers of a rite.” In addition to Bradford and Pratt, this list includes Madison Smartt Bell, George Core, Thomas Fleming, George Garrett, Eileen Gregory, James E. Kibler, Jr., Russell Kirk, Thomas H. Landess, Walter Sullivan, Clyde N. Wilson, and Thomas Daniel Young. The Sanders edition of A Wake for the Living joins an author, Andrew Lytle, and a prefacer, Madison Bell, born 54 years apart. Both happen to be novelists and critics of the first order. Together they represent the continuing vitality of Southern literature.
Although all true art is in a sense immortal, the material conditions of its existence help to determine its place in the cultural tradition. Books that are out of print cannot be adopted as classroom texts or even enjoy much of a cult popularity outside academia. Existing editions are liable to gather dust on library shelves. (A few years ago, the student employee stamping some books I was checking out of the Clemson library noticed that one of my volumes had last been checked out before she was born.) John Sanders and Mel Bradford have taken some neglected treasures off the shelf and blown the dust away.