The recent passing of Mel Bradford has cast a chastening light upon this latest of his collections. Who had wished to be reminded of the author’s indispensability in this or indeed any other way? Yet reminded we are and must be. This book means much in itself as it stands, and means more as the product of a powerful mind and a courageous man.
As he himself insists in his introduction, these 25 pieces are united by much more than the identity of their author. The essays on Southern literature are informed by the same historical and cultural consciousness that encapsulates the lives of 14 “Fathers”: men of the founding of the Republic, whose service and convictions have been overshadowed, perhaps, by those of the colossi we know better than we know Rawlins Lowndes of South Carolina or James Duane of New York. Such short lives impress themselves upon the memory, delighting us as revelations of character, and instructing us in our national history in all its variety and specificity. The Antifederalism of Patrick Henry, the glory and shame of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, the sketches of Samuel Adams and James Iredell—these and others are incisive attempts to restore American history and the political patrimony to those who have inherited it, but too often do not know it.
Informed by such awareness, Bradford was uniquely the man to write a study of the ratification debates, and a study too of their related and consequential inversion, the Southern valedictories of 1860-1861. His treatment of the arguments for and against ratification of the Constitution clarifies the meaning of that tormented though clear document. His account of the Southern farewells reverses more than a century of received opinion about the tone of the debates preceding the secession. In addition, his essays on Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson extend the logic of his views to those redeemer-figures, whose rhetoric and claims to virtue are linked to their search for power. Bradford has done more than any commentator I know to make the study of American history as “exciting” and “relevant” as any liberal historian could wish.
But of course, when we think about Bradford, we think of Southern literature. Here we have a personal tribute to Andrew Lytic, two useful pieces on Faulkner, a reconsideration of William Gilmore Simms, and a fine piece connecting Donald Davidson’s poem about Simms’ home, “Woodlands, 1956- 1960,” to the “great house” tradition of Horace, Jonson, Marvell, and Yeats. This last piece in particular reminds us of the loss implied by Bradford’s exit, for he was working on a biography of Davidson when he died. And it reminds us too of other essays on Davidson in Bradford’s Generations of the Faithful Heart (1983).
The title essay illustrates the scope of Bradford’s mind, the extent of his engagement. It reminds us that Bradford could never be “politically correct” precisely because he was correct politically (and morally). Against nihilists, neo-Marxists, multiculturalists, and all the rest, he speaks the truth about the perversion of the academy in our time:
For there can be no rational response to the errors of judgment and analysis made by persons who have absolutely no respect for the evidence of reason. Young people who have been taught to distrust all authority as a deception recently exposed—who have experienced too much change to believe in permanence—agree easily that nothing can be taught or learned. They gravitate naturally toward responses to reading and information that search only after relevance—often an anachronistic or far-fetched connection to the tendentious and/or topical concerns of a political subculture. For them reading and interpretation are merely private acts about which almost nothing can be communicated—a communion in rejection of their culture as it has been and of its would-be preservers, a rejection of legitimate authority. The nature, meaning, and purpose of education in the humanities cannot be understood on the basis of these presuppositions.
Bradford’s words about reading and interpretation, his corporate and transgenerational sense of the construction of meaning, are I think best exemplified in this volume by some of his most instructive pages on Faulkner.
Bradford shows us that though Faulkner famously used modernist techniques, he was no modernist. The imperial self in Faulkner is hedged by contrast, qualification, the family, the social order, tradition, and community. Yet Faulkner’s works have been interpreted as symphonies of alienation and despair. When Bradford points to Faulkner’s chivalric themes and to his novels as conduct books, he has indicated something more than a truth about Faulkner, his books, or even a broader cultural value. He has also shown or demonstrated something of his own generosity, his amplitude of vision, his magnanimity. He has not projected upon Faulkner something of himself; rather, he has responded to texts and to values that were woven from elements which he knew profoundly, and which he was born to articulate.
So when M.E. Bradford writes of the man on horseback, the chevalier, the gentleman, the thought of his own demeanor and deportment and being as a Christian gentleman must come to mind. In his many sallies, sometimes as a Chevalier Bayard sans peur et sans reproche and sometimes as a Don Quixote, though never with a rueful countenance, he always fought nobly against various opponents. His good cheer and sustaining humor well became him. The writings he has left us—such as the evidences of mind and spirit collected in Against the Barbarians—remain an education, but also a reminder of a loss of international impact. Yet Bradford himself, always taking the long view, would have been the first to see even that loss as a mystery rather than a conclusion.
[Against the Barbarians and Other Reflections on Familiar Themes, by M.E. Bradford (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 268 pp., $37.50]
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