Recently, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute hosted a panel discussion on the “great books of conservatism,” among which was Richard Weaver’s 1948 work Ideas Have Consequences.  The title, as one panelist noted, has become something of a catchphrase on the right, even as the memory of Weaver and his own influences, the Southern Agrarians, fades into the past.  Indeed, the world of the Agrarians and the form of traditionalist conservatism they championed has almost completely disappeared from the “movement,” along with other conservative influences such as Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers.

With Superfluous Southerners, John Langdale III has written a penetrating study of the Agrarians and their intellectual heirs.  He aims to “reconsider the place of southern conservative intellectuals in the broader context of western and American antimodernism.”  Langdale, an assistant professor of history at Andrew College, focuses on six figures—Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Richard Weaver, M.E. Bradford, and Cleanth Brooks—and touches on others, such as Walker Percy and Eugene Genovese, who in various ways continued Southern conservative themes.  In his Preface, he places the kind of conservatism he identifies with the Agrarians in conversation with other conservative critiques of modernity and the tradition of American pragmatism.  The Southern Agrarians, Langdale argues, represent a more valuable response to modernity than, say, New Humanists such as Irving Babbitt.  The New Humanism, for Langdale, “remained irretrievably New England in spirit and, consequently, its conservative indictment of the modern world remained inescapably captive to the myth of American exceptionalism.”  Southern conservatism, with its hard-won knowledge of suffering and loss, rejected the utopian pretensions of American pragmatism, at least as represented by some of its proponents.

The Agrarians commanded attention at three critical points.  Taken together, these points highlight the difficulties a uniquely Southern conservatism has experienced in achieving influence (as opposed to notoriety) since 1865.  The first was the 1920’s, when the Agrarians (among them the “Fugitives”), engaged the New Humanism of Babbitt and Paul Elmer More.  Lang dale described the problems the Southerners had with them, using as an intermediary T.S. Eliot.  Eliot’s disagreement with his teacher Babbitt is well known; the St. Louis poet found Babbitt’s New Humanism, for all its critical rigor, ultimately hollow, incapable of transforming modern culture.  And Ransom found Babbitt’s amalgam of Eastern and Western religion unacceptable, though, as Lang dale notes, Ransom was more of a respectful skeptic of religion than a Christian.  Tate adopted the New Humanists’ disdain for romanticism (including the romanticism of the Old South) but rejected Eliot’s modernist stand (though not his modernist poetics) as being insufficiently regional to provide a conservative counter to modernity.

The second point occurred in 1930 with the publication of I’ll Take My Stand by the “Twelve Southerners,” which was the real birth of Southern Agrarianism.  The manifesto was contradictory: As Lang dale describes it, the tensions among the essays are reflected in the book’s title.  Tate favored “Tracts Against Communism,” and implored his collaborators to challenge Davidson’s choice, drawn from “Dixie.”  Tate was perhaps prescient.  His title at least would have implied that the Southern essayists were defending the West, broadly understood, against the great economic and social evil of communism.  Davidson’s title perhaps too strongly suggested a sentimental appeal to the Old South, an inference Tate and others strongly contested; certainly that is how the cultural mandarins in the North reviewed the book.  They saw in the anthology a logical argument, and hoped for its success rather as a rational refutation of modern ills.

After this debut, the Agrarians, seeking outlets for their work, found a sympathetic ear in Seward Collins, the wealthy patron of The American Review.  Unfortunately for them, Collins proved to be unstable.  Though the review published brilliant work from both the Southerners and sympathetic British critics such as Hilaire Belloc, Collins’ flirtations with fascism doomed the project.  Langdale, however, cleverly uses the American Review interlude to explain what he calls “the divided minds of Agrarianism.”  By the early 1930’s, Davidson, Tate, and Ransom had begun to go their separate ways.  Davidson devoted himself to a study of sectionalism (which would influence later writers, among them Russell Kirk), while Ransom, after a short stint writing about economics, turned increasingly to literary criticism and despaired at times of the Agrarian project’s ability to produce practical results.  Tate, meanwhile, careened from one project to another and began a religious journey that led him to the Catholic Church.  All the while these three, and the other Agrarians as well, argued over whether their project had merit or whether they should, as Ransom thought, simply tend “to the books and articles that we write.”

The final turning point in the chronicle of the Southern Agrarians’ influence was the failed nomination of Mel Bradford (a student of Davidson’s) for the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities during Ronald Reagan’s first term, although “failed” is perhaps the wrong word.  The selection of Bradford was derailed by the neoconservatives, who presented Bradford as a reactionary with insufficient faith in the salvific power of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as interpreted by Abraham Lincoln.  President Reagan ultimately yielded to the pressure and withdrew Bradford’s name from consideration.  This neoconservative campaign tarred traditionalist conservatives, even those within the Reagan administration, for a generation and more.  Its results are with us still, as witness the attacks by the neoconservatives during the Gulf War on conservative stalwarts such as Patrick J. Buchanan and Kirk.

Between the 1930’s and 1980’s, the Agrarian influence, through wax and wane, never recovered the prominence it had enjoyed with the publication of I’ll Take My Stand.  This was because of a number of factors, not the least of which were the massive changes in the demographics and economy of the South itself.  An influx of new inhabitants and the urge to create a “New South” cabined the Agrarians’ cultural influence.  Their literary influence is a more positive story; writers such as Percy assumed the Agrarian mantle, while Tate and others of the group remain important literary figures.  Bradford, in particular, saw a way out of the impasse and worked, in the 1970’s and 80’s, to construct a “normative conservatism” balanced between a dissolving connection to the past and the creation of a usable tradition.

This book goes a long way toward explaining the disagreements among the Agrarians themselves and is thus an important contribution to understanding the tensions within American conservatism, which must always be in some sense “superfluous” in a nation obsessed with the neoteric and the illusion of progress.  The Agrarians understood this, though perhaps only partially.  But it was for the following generation to perceive that, as Weaver and Percy saw, a purely literary or poetical reconstruction was no longer possible in a society that had thrown off tradition and traditional modes of thought.  Rather, they recognized that

any potential restoration would be consummated not through literary appeals to a dissolving past or political designs for an evolving future, but rather via a reinvigoration of the traditionalist religious imagination.

Langdale is perhaps too hard on the tradition of Midwestern critique.  Although it is a fact that these critics, Irving Babbitt among them, came from an intellectual climate more comfortable with the concept of America as a city on a hill and an exceptional nation, their criticism nevertheless has value, as Claes Ryn has shown.  Further, Wilson Carey McWilliams and Christopher Lasch were as hard on the “American way of life” as many a Southerner, and included defenses of the traditionalist religious imagination.  And although Langdale notes that Kirk wrote admiringly of Davidson’s Attack on Leviathan and described himself as a “Northern Agrarian,” both halves of that self-description need to be honored.  Russell Kirk was an Agrarian, perhaps; but he was also a Northerner.  And this fact leads to further consideration of why the Southerners have failed, largely, to maintain their place in the stream of conservative critique.

The peculiar institution saddled the Twelve Southerners with baggage they have not been able to cast aside.  (Genovese and, to a lesser extent, Percy have come the closest.)  While this is unfair, it remains the case that Weaver’s assertion that the South was the last nonmaterialist society is one of those phrases that has ultimately hindered rather than helped the situation.  The South was indeed antithetical to Northern consumerism, but it was also a society sufficiently materialistic to think that human beings could be classified as chattel.  That is the ultimate burden Southern conservatism bears and, one fears, a continued guarantee of its marginalization.


[Superfluous Southerners: Cultural Conservatism and the South, by John J. Langdale III (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 177 pp., $50.00]