Since its publication in 1930, I’ll Take My Stand has never been out of print, and each succeeding generation produces new disciples, though sometimes with a slightly different take on the original document. In recent years, some have seen in the Agrarian critique of industrial America a precursor of Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and the Unabomber’s tracts. The resemblance is, at most, superficial. The current “green movement” is either an ideology or a partisan political strategy. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell the difference. The Agrarians were not abstract thinkers, utopians, or devious partisans.
They and most of their followers came from small towns and farming communities. What they defended was not the Old South “aristocracy”—which they said never really existed—but the small family farm, a number of which they drove past whenever they had a good reason to go to town. It was the New South advocates who were the utopians; and the utopia they fantasized—a region coughing smoke and churning out jobs and dollars—turned out to be the worst nightmare of their philosophical heirs, the Goreites.
Al Gore grew up in a posh hotel in the nation’s capital, where he sat in a corner and listened while left-wing Democrats talked about the egalitarian society they planned to establish, just as soon as they got rich themselves. He went to an exclusive Washington prep school and then to Harvard, where everyone was required to take Ideology 101. Gore’s apocalyptic vision of a planet ruined by the greed of rich America came straight out of these hothouses of unproved ideas. I suspect that virtually all of Al Gore’s myrmidons also came from the cities, where the battle had been lost more than a century earlier, when enlightened “developers” such as John Jacob Astor began to pave the sidewalks so that New Yorkers could trip the Light Fantastic with Mamie O’Rourke. (Michael Moore, who once edited Mother Jones, grew up in Flint, Michigan, whose chief pride is the auto industry.)
I knew five of the original twelve contributors to I’ll Take My Stand, and I have known a number of their followers—second- and third-generation Agrarians. Their love of the land had little to do with the abstractions and enormities of Al Gore’s Chicken Little scenario. Though the Agrarians and their disciples were, from the beginning, deeply disturbed about what industrialism was doing to the land, the water, and the sky, they were essentially concerned with more important matters. As for the Goreites, you have the idea that if they knew the polar bears would be cold enough and Kansas City would not end up 20,000 leagues under the sea, they would be happy enough to see America degenerate into a Third World country. Not so, the Agrarians and their followers.
By way of contrast to Al Gore, Michael Moore, and half of Hollywood, let me offer an exemplum of the kind of person who was influenced by I’ll Take My Stand and, at Vanderbilt, by a teacher such as Donald Davidson. The quintessential second-generation Agrarian, his name was Edwin “Buddy” Godsey.
Buddy was the natural Agrarian, who understood what the contributors of the symposium were saying before he ever read or heard the words. I was bewildered by the instinctive quality of this wisdom; and I remain in awe of his rapport with Mr. Davidson, who was like an Old Testament God to me—remote, nameless, and terrifying.
Buddy had grown up on a medium-sized farm in Bristol. Half of the town was in Tennessee, half in Virginia. He was a mountain boy and spoke with a mountain accent—the hard r’s, the drawn-out diphthongs, the twang. He pronounced Tennessee with a strong emphasis on the first syllable. His father was way up in his 70’s and believed in beating the devil out of his two sons. He routinely inflicted severe pain on Buddy—so much so that, once when they were working out in the field, Wiley, the hired man, told Mr. Godsey, “Will, if you hit that boy one more time, I’ll kill you.”
Instead of breaking him, the harsh discipline made him tough—mentally and emotionally as well as physically. He contracted diabetes as a small child and was plagued by the disease for the rest of his life. But when he and I roomed together at Vanderbilt, the only evidence I ever saw that he was a diabetic was a syringe in the refrigerator. I never saw him use it, and he never complained. So he was no spoiled kid; no sentimentalist, long on sympathy and short on good sense; no easy prey for the left, its croker sack stuffed with ad misericordiam arguments.
Also, his respect for nature and its gifts sprang from no abstract sense of brotherhood with possums and poison ivy. He spent much of his youth hunting and fishing in the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee and appreciated more than most what civilization had left for him—in that part of the state, vaulting hills, mountains, streams, and at least one good river. The developers came later.
No one had to alarm Buddy with the wild speculation that Nashville would be under water in a few generations if America did not abolish the internal-combustion engine. He saw the problems that industrialization brought. He had read Rachel Carson, and he contributed regularly to the Sierra Club, when most people had never heard of the organization and when it was still a group without a radical political agenda.
In his small way, he merely wanted to preserve the world of particulars that existed for him and for everyone else in that part of the earth—doves, quail, and deer, brought down with buckshot, and trout taken from a mountain stream so cold it froze your toes inside socks and boots. Those spoils of the earth—and the oaks, maples, pines, and brush that sustained them—were worth the dollars he contributed and the brilliant poems he wrote on the subject.
He came to teach at Converse College, where I had been on the faculty for several years; and when my wife and I bought a house in the country with 22 acres of farmland attached, Buddy suggested that we plant a large garden, one that covered a couple of acres. He knew what he was doing. Had done it before. So he was the plantation owner, and I was the sharecropper. He told me what to plant and how to hoe; and I did what he said—the two of us working side-by-side in the afternoons, after we had taught our classes and met our office hours. We planted rows and rows of corn (three different varieties), field peas and black-eyed peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, watermelons, cantaloupes, grapevines, and okra.
The corn sprouts were the first to appear, along with some weeds; and I couldn’t tell the difference; so Buddy had to drive 40 miles round-trip to show me which ones to execute and which ones to spare. By the middle of summer, we were looking at some heartening successes and some frustrating failures. The squash bloomed, then died—and no squash to eat. (We figured we had planted all females or all males.) By the time the watermelons ripened, they had rotted on their undersides. Some ears of corn had turned a malignant green inside; and the grapevines didn’t produce a single grape, much less enough to make a bottle of wine.
But our successes were spectacular, at least to me. My wife and Buddy had grown up on farms. I had never eaten corn or tomatoes or cucumbers right out of the field. They are entirely different vegetables from the ones by the same name that you bought and still buy at Piggly Wiggly, shipped in from Mexico or Guatemala, with stickers that say “vine ripened.” (No one who buys groceries exclusively at a chain store has the right to believe in the idea of progress.)
We had an Indian summer that year, and, though the corn stalks, stripped of their ears, turned brown and bowed their heads toward the coming winter, the tomatoes and okra continued to flower and bear. I remember standing in late November on the front porch, shivering, watching a cold autumn wind whip the yellow-green okra flowers, looking a little like forlorn tulips. A few days later, they were all gone.
Next year, we didn’t plant a garden. Buddy and I and two others—in protest against what we regarded as the mistreatment of a colleague—resigned our positions at Converse. I was able to keep the house for another year by teaching at nearby Furman University. Buddy took a job at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
He and his wife, Julia, bought 90 acres of land in the country, which included a small lake. He intended to raise his daughter and two sons in an unpaved plot of earth where the seasons were still distinguishable and where you didn’t hear the screech of tires at 3 AM or smell the poisonous air of the city in dead winter. Greater Charlotte had just proclaimed itself an area of over a million people. Buddy wanted to get his family away from all that, and he seemed to have found the ideal spot—not Walden (a hiding place for a weird little mama’s boy), but a way of holding urban America at arm’s length. Since they lived only an hour and a half away from our place in South Carolina, we visited them several times during the summer and watched their two boys doing cannonballs off the dock into the lake.
In February, I came home from Furman in the late afternoon, the sky already dark, the roads iced over. My wife gave me the grim news: Joe—the younger of the two boys and my godson—had fallen through the ice that covered the lake. Buddy had broken his way through in an effort to save Joe. Both had drowned. By the time we arrived, with Julia and the two surviving children huddled glassy-eyed by a fire, police and divers were already down by the lake, flashlights and lanterns casting shadows across the cold, snow-bound earth. In an hour or so, Julia’s brother Frank arrived from Tennessee; and by then, Mary Beth and Julia had packed what needed to be taken. Just before Frank, Julia, and the family left, a policeman came up to the house to say that both bodies had been recovered.
As we drove back to South Carolina, I recalled a conversation I’d had with Buddy a few years earlier. We had talked about dying, and agreed that wasting away with cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease would be the worst. As for quick deaths, I said I most feared falling from a great height. He said for him it would be drowning.
Though I had always thought Buddy and I had come from different backgrounds, looking back over his life and my own, I see the similarities. I grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where, until after World War II, the county (population, around 8,000 in 1940) maintained a fine balance between agriculture and tourism. The farmers—who lived out in the very rural county—raised cattle, tomatoes, and celery for cash crops, ate their homegrown vegetables, and butchered their own hogs and an occasional cow. They would come to town on Saturdays to do the week’s shopping and to visit with one another along Main Street, while their kids ran up and down the sidewalk, shooting at each other with ten-cent cap guns.
We lived in town, where my father was a dentist and where the cash crop was Yankees, so I paid little attention to what the farmers did. Indeed, the fact that Florida was then the second-largest cattle-producing state seemed more an embarrassment than a virtue. At 12, I read Time and the New Yorker and wondered why a just and merciful God had allowed me to grow up in such a backward region. After two years at a New England prep school, God suddenly seemed more benevolent than I had previously suspected. When I graduated from Vanderbilt, I was a second-generation Agrarian, not because of I’ll Take My Stand, but because of Mr. Davidson and Buddy Godsey.
I could mention other second-generation Agrarians—particularly, the late M.E. Bradford, who came to the Vanderbilt graduate program a thoroughgoing Hegelian and left as perhaps Mr. Davidson’s most finished product. His books of political philosophy have caused a scandal in the liberal academic community and have helped to create a third generation of neo-Agrarians. He is known and unreasonably hated for his analyses of Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric, despite the fact that he only published four essays on our 16th President. Mel’s father raised Charolais cattle on a small ranch in Oklahoma, and Mel was a lover and chronicler of what was left of the Old West and its losing battle with big cities. Together, while colleagues, we battled out-of-control development in Irving, Texas; managed some 15 city-council campaigns; and became known by the developers as “those liberal University of Dallas professors.” At that time, it never occurred to any of us that the left would swoop down and turn love of nature and the land into a monstrous apocalyptic ideology that would demand the voluntary surrender of America’s freedom and give nightmares to small school children. So we today have two enemies. It’s Hobson’s choice: Al Gore or Donald Trump.
Right now, it looks as if the ideological environmentalists are winning the public-relations war. Hordes of scientists—who can be just as partisan as precinct captains—have received their orders and are marching in lockstep toward a computer-model apocalypse. The polar bears will die of heat stroke. The oceans will wash across Detroit, Topeka, and Boulder. The Rockies will crumble. Gibraltar will tumble.
As for the remaining Agrarians, there are few of the second-generation members left, our numbers rapidly diminishing, most of us old and gray and full of sleep. Like Andrew Lytle, we have acknowledged our ultimate defeat but have not given up the fight. It affords us too much pleasure. Besides, the next generation is promising—young, formidable, their minds honed to the sharpness of an executioner’s ax. All we require of them is a few severed heads before we move along, beyond the sounds of battle.