“There are a large number, possibly a majority, of people who call themselves
conservative.  But the more they are examined, the less conservative they will appear.”

Chesterton, an English Catholic version of a Southern Agrarian, once remarked that Yankee tycoons (John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan) all had the same face—a face, he added, that any decent man would relish rearranging with a fist.  Similarly, of American “liberal” academics, it can be said that they all have the same mind, to the extent that it is possible to predict what they will say before they say it.  I have been testing this observation for 40 years and have a 100-percent success rate in proving it.

Thus, an academic becomes celebrated and distinguished when he can say the same thing in a different way, present the familiar tune in a new arrangement.  This latest investigation into the Southern Agrarians who produced I’ll Take My Stand, and their legacy and disciples, fits the bill.  The author of the present doctoral dissertation has dug into the careers of such familiar second-generation Agrarians as Richard M. Weaver and M.E. Bradford, and also of the third generation, which includes the esteemed editor of this journal and other writers quite familiar to Chronicles readers.  It is flattering, I suppose, that “the Chronicles group”  should be taken seriously and regarded as moderately significant historical figures, except that Professor Murphy thinks of us more as laboratory specimens of deviancy than as serious thinkers.  After all, you cannot easily predict what we will say before we say it.

When academics deal with the South, the pattern is even simpler and more predictable: For them, everything Southern is, by definition, evil and wrong.  I know one historian who achieved celebrity with a biography showing a Civil War-era Southern spokesman to have been a rake and a misanthrope—hardly a real discovery, since his character has long been well known.  QED: yet another fresh proof of the evilness of the South.  The purveyors of this equation are never asked the simple question: “Evil as compared to what?”  That a Southerner can be proved to be flawed damns the entire society.  (It would be bad manners for me to bring up, say, the questionable character of such Northerners as General Hooker and Henry Ward Beecher, or to point to the quite extraordinary number of personally admirable characters who flourished in the South at the same time.)  Ken Burns’ notorious Civil War “documentary” is an extended exercise in this kind of thinking.

Obviously, something more is going on here than historical analysis.  I am reminded of the brilliant intellectual who blamed Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber on the “atmosphere of violence” created by the “Southern gun culture,” though neither man had anything to do with either the South or guns.  I am also reminded of the recent movie in which a Southern character (he has a battle-flag plate on his truck) beats his wife, other women, and children, is a fundamentalist but hates Jews, and practices voodoo but hates blacks.  These are rituals of exorcism.  The bottom line is that anything “American” is always good and wise and righteous, and no proof is needed.  Anything bad that shows up in the 50 states must be “Southern.”

I’ll Take My Stand has always presented a problem for this type of “scholarship,” partly on account of the literary eminence of some of the contributors, and also because the book has been attractive to considerable numbers of people over several generations.  One response is to dismiss the volume as harmless metaphor, a literary exercise rather than the radical critique of American society that it is.  Another is to bury it as hopelessly reactionary, nostalgic, and irrelevant.  Now, Professor Murphy has invented a new tune for the old song.  Yes, he agrees, I’ll Take My Stand really was an expression of radical conservatism.  The trouble, he has discovered, is that the second and third generations of followers—and even some of the original Agrarians themselves—have abandoned or distorted the true Agrarian principles!  Some of us have betrayed the radical critique of capitalism by becoming just regular “conservatives.”  Others have betrayed the universality of the teaching by becoming involved in what could be called “Southern identity politics.”

Southerners cannot do anything right, it seems.  If we seek allies, we are abandoning our best principles.  If we remain purists, we are isolated and futile.  If we try to adapt to radically altered circumstances, we are abandoning principle.  (You see the game.)  If we accommodate ourselves to the world that exists, we have again betrayed our principles, but if we make a practice of not shopping at chain stores, then we are simply figures of fun.  

There are a number of things wrong with this approach.  I do not know of any serious Agrarian who has converted to Buckleyite conservatism.  True, some of us once thought we had allies among the National Review crowd, but these have long since learned that they were badly mistaken.  If we had really sold out to the conservatives, your esteemed editor would be ensconced inside the Beltway, drawing a fat salary, and writing punditry for the Wall Street Journal and National Review Online.  Besides, there is nothing in Agrarianism fundamentally incompatible with free markets and private property.  What the Agrarians criticized was the gigantism, concentration, and abstraction of wealth.  If we are not “radical conservatives,” then what can we be?

Murphy can get away with this game only by carefully defining the Agrarian message to suit himself, while cautiously selecting the figures for his study.  Thus, he claims that Donald Davidson and those who have followed him went astray in emphasizing the Southernness of the Agrarian message.  But this is no deviation, as Murphy would have to admit if he had paid attention to Frank Owsley, Andrew Lytle, John Donald Wade, Stark Young, and John Gould Fletcher, rather than just Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.  If he had acknowledged the full amplitude of I’ll Take My Stand, he would have had to admit that it is rich enough to inspire many different movements.  He might even—were he inclined to be generous—have concluded that identity politics was an unavoidable path for Southerners, the only pariah group of the multicultural American empire, and the only people who are required to disown themselves in order to be “good Americans” (unlike, say, Muslims, Trotskyite communists, and pederasts).

Professor Murphy, to give credit where credit is due, has done a good deal of research and covered things that have not been previously treated.  He has grasped the significance of the early writings of “the Chronicles group” in Why the South Will Survive and The New Right Papers.  However, his attempted intellectual biographies of Thomas Fleming and Samuel Francis, for instance, are journalistic—episodic and superficial.  They do not achieve substantial or accurate accounts of the development of their ideas, much less of the relationship of such development to “American Conservative Thought” (which is never defined).  One would never guess at the originality and power of these two thinkers and the followers and admirers they have found.  Murphy wishes only to exorcise them in pigeonholes he has preselected, whether they fit or not.

In these larger things, The Rebuke of History does not, in my opinion, achieve a useful account of the Agrarian legacy.  It sometimes goes astray on smaller things as well.  The history of the Chapel Hill Conservative Club is garbled.  On the vicious neoconservative attacks on M.E. Bradford and The Rockford Institute, Murphy is but a mouthpiece for the official neocon cover story, when what was most important about these events was their clandestine aspect.  I find myself claiming that “the Southern way of life” transcended history and geography, when I wrote exactly the opposite.

The greatest flaw in Murphy’s understanding of the Agrarian view has many precedents: namely, the way he makes Allen Tate the central intellectual figure of the movement.  All detractors of the South love Tate for the same reason that all bad interpreters of the Constitution love James Madison—he was a lightweight thinker who can be molded into any shape desired.

Tate has been taken repeatedly as the definitive interpreter of Southern history.  In fact, he was ignorant of history and, as far as I can tell, never did any primary research.  He was a speculative theorist, proposing grand ideas that seemed plausible to many.  His biography of Jefferson Davis, written in Paris without any significant sources, was yet presumed to be a profound critique of Confederate military strategy.  The biography was nothing of the sort, nor did Tate know what he was talking about: It is the second-worst book written by any of the Twelve Southerners (the worst being Tate’s silly, misconceived, and badly written novel, The Fathers).

Tate was fond of portraying the Old South as if it were the New, which he did know something about—as an enervated, incomplete regime, doomed to failure.  In fact, the South of the 1850’s, even in the older states, was a dynamic, productive, and optimistic society: How else could it have sustained four years of warfare against a much larger power?  Despite Tate’s theorizing, the Old South never was, never claimed to be, and never wanted to be “a feudal society.”

Tate’s most oft-cited theory is that the South failed because it lacked a coherent theological worldview.  But the South had a unifying theology, if not an established church.  Comparatively, the South has been, and still is, the most solidly Protestant Christian society in the world; that unity has sustained the region under the weight of suffering and preserved its uniqueness.

The Rebuke of History gives us a new, but essentially predictable, narrative of the Agrarian legacy.  The author’s considerable talents as an intellectual historian, nevertheless, do not result in a satisfactory work: Murphy offers no insight concerning the place and influence of Agrarianism in “American Conservative Thought.”  The problem may be, in part, that the intellectual battles in which it is involved are still being fought. 


[The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought, by Paul V. Murphy (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press) 351 pp., $19.95]