On John Crowe Ransom’s Newly Discovered Agrarian Classic

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In 1930, “Twelve Southerners” published a thick volume of essays entitled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. Led by the already venerable poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, the contributors responded, at once, to the increasing industrialization of the southern states over the previous few decades, the sudden trials of the Great Depression, and the rising threat communism posed to free societies, in a manner consonant with that of many other American and European social critics active during the tumultuous interwar period.

While the revolutionary ideologies of fascism and communism live on in infamy, I’ll Take My Stand belongs to the less well-remembered conservative revolt against the social costs of modern capitalism. Like such figures as the “distributists” G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in England, the Catholic Rural Life movement in the Midwest, and many other small institutions of the time, these southerners proffered a renewed “agrarianism” as an antidote to the dislocations of the free market and its tendency to concentrate property in the hands of a few. They feared the malignancies of an unbridled capitalism would lead, for lack of an alternative, to a centralized socialism, which was, as Ransom would later write, just another name for “state capitalism.”

Agrarianism was one of several “third ways” between capitalism and socialism proposed during the depression era; it was one that particularly tried to reimagine an “agrarian” society, by which they meant not one in which everyone farmed, but simply one in which more people did than at present, so that the practices of farm life would judiciously inform the whole of the culture. They advocated a reverent, deferential, and organic relationship between man and nature; modes of labor that were humanizing rather than brutalizing, as factory work was seen to be; and recognition that progress and growth were not absolute but relative aims to be subordinated to genuine leisure and the cultivation of the life of the mind. With the communists, whom they otherwise opposed, they recognized a deep dependency of higher cultural forms, from manners and the arts to religion, upon what Ransom called “the economic base.” With the advocates of capital and industry, they concluded that technological advances could ease the human estate and increase the chances of human flourishing, but they warned that these goods would be attained only if such economic and technological disruptions were examined critically and, in some cases, rejected.

At the time of its publication, I’ll Take My Stand garnered much interest, but was often dismissed as nostalgic and impractical. The United States had just completed a great period of economic expansion, and the Depression had only just begun. Ours is a very different time. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, some desperate young people did seek a return to the land, or, at least, they read the essays and novels of Wendell Berry and chatted about doing so. Now, the affluent seek out the local, handcrafted, and organic, not only from a refined palette but moral conviction. Many fear the exhaustion of natural resources, the heating of the earth, and the erosion of topsoil, through human improvidence. And, most striking of all, we have seen ballot-box rejections of the centralization of political and cultural power into the hands of irresponsible elites. In such an age, the agrarians’ arguments should strike us, to say the least, as worth a hearing.

 

I’ll Take My Stand immediately became a classic of southern letters and most of the individual essays stand out as distinguished for their literary quality and the depth of their social criticism. Among the contributors, we find some of the most distinguished figures of modern American literature, including the poets Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren. Taken together, they offer, as later critics would note, a Christian humanist summons to envision what a well ordered society must look like, where work, economic, and social life are subordinated to the goods of liberty, virtue, and piety.

What these twelve southerners prized about their native region was those elements that are to be found in any traditional agricultural society, where work, leisure, and community are disciplined and enriched by close connection with the land. They advocated the virtues of the small farm—not of the large cotton plantations, whose antebellum masters defended slavery as a necessary instrument of modern economic efficiency—and in this respect their disposition bore closer resemblance to the advocates of Midwestern regionalism at the time (or that of the later Michigan writer, Russell Kirk) than it did to the defenders of the antebellum south.

As the leader of this informal batch of southern agrarians, Ransom sought specifically to defend the South’s agrarian ways as an inheritance from the old world, from England in particular. A former Rhodes Scholar and lifelong anglophile, he saw that country’s settled ways and traditional order as a needed corrective to the mania for industrial progress that nearly everyone agreed was undermining America’s development into a properly civilized and stable culture. His critique of American uprootedness and anxiety, which are consequences of the “creative destruction” of a free market, will hit home with many readers. But, as I say, such critiques were initially cast aside as sentimental romanticism by even friendly critics.

Ransom felt the point of such an attack. Was his political vision really just poetic fancy? To rebut the charge, he set about composing a more economically informed, practical agrarian manifesto, to be called Land! 

The exercise evidently did not go well. He had expected to finish it before beginning a 1931-32 Guggenheim fellowship in England, but wound up toiling away on the manuscript through much of that year abroad. Rejected by three publishers, and frustrated by the difficulty of shopping the book by international mail, Ransom finally wrote to Tate that he was going to stick with “aesthetics” and consign his amateurish economics manuscript to “the incinerator.”

So he was assumed to have done, and it would not have been out of character. He had burned an earlier philosophical manuscript called The Third Moment, about which we have knowledge only from another letter he wrote to Tate.

But Land! survived. For decades, it sat, forgotten, in the archives of Vanderbilt University. And, now, more than eighty years after, the practical “economic sequel” to I’ll Take My Stand has been published, and both economic and literary history are enriched by the event.

Although Ransom began writing after the stock market crash and hoped the tumult of the Depression would win his argument sympathy, his abiding concern was the continuous flux of expansion and contraction proper to the business cycle, and his desire, to minimize the portion of society subject to it. The United States had been once an agrarian society, where its citizens relied upon their own land and labor for their subsistence and sold, in the “money economy,” only the surplus. But over the nineteenth century, the countryside grew increasingly vacant as the cities grew overcrowded. The little market towns dotting the land withered away, while those farms that remained entered wholly if unsuccessfully into the economy as commercial producers.

Soon, farm and industry alike were absorbed within the domain of capital. By this, Ransom specifically meant an economy where all exchange is through money and where profit is continuously freed for the sake of new investment. Restless investment leads, eventually, to overcapitalization and increasing technological efficiency, which in turn lead to overproduction. In chasing investment gain, firms expand until they produce more than the market can consume, at which point they contract, shedding employees in the process.

In the wake of the Depression, Ransom believed his readers would not only be sympathetic to efforts to minimize the unemployment and contraction caused by overcapitalization and overproduction—they would be actively looking for alternatives to capitalism. The only question—and what a question to our ears!—was how to slow economic growth or otherwise prevent overproduction. He lists the possibilities—developing new industries, expanding foreign trade, unionization—before suggesting that all such roads will fail and eventually lead to socialism. Only a command economy could forbid overcapitalization and overproduction by fiat.

Socialism, however, was repugnant to the national character, and so, agrarianism was the last, and only, authentically American, alternative. Farmers always make out either poorly or badly on the market, Ransom notes, and yet farms rarely just fail. This is because farmers are “amphibious.” When the market is good, they can farm cash crops and sell on the market; when the market is bad, they can simply do for themselves. They can grow their own food, of course, but unlike the specialized worker in the factory, they may serve by turns as their own carpenters and tailors, to maintain the homestead and keep themselves clothed.

If you read Ransom’s published letters from this time, it is clear that, at least early on, he wanted to eliminate industry and capitalism altogether. He felt his own concessions to prudence like a betrayal. And yet, the argument he worked out through his study of economics is much more modest: to ensure that a maximum number of persons own arable land and can shift for themselves, independent of the state of the market. Even the vegetable garden in the banker’s backyard may constitute a small victory for the rugged individualism Ransom admired as our strength and, perhaps paradoxically, the foundation of a well ordered society.

Those who admire the agrarian essays of Wendell Berry will find his main economic arguments in favor of the localized agricultural community that is at once thrifty, self-sufficient, and free already well formed in Ransom’s treatise. However unnatural the labor must have been for him, Ransom made a fine “amateur economist.” Land! sets forth a strong case, if not necessarily for the large scale agrarian reform for which it explicitly argues, then at least for all of us to recover a certain degree of independence. We should learn to feed ourselves, to make things for ourselves, to suffice for ourselves; mere specialization and dependency are vices. The book certainly deserves to be treated as a minor classic from the same period that would give us Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and other powerful economic and social theories perceptive of modern challenges and yet resistant to the totalitarian socialism soon to envelop much of the eastern world.

Publication of this book also fills in a significant lacuna in Ransom’s story as man of letters and social critic. In the years just after he abandoned the volume, he continued to defend the spirit of agrarianism, but from a poet’s cultural and aesthetic perspective. Interestingly, however, beginning with his fellowship year in England, Ransom increasingly found himself defending not southern tradition against northern industrialism, but the American spirit in general. By the end of World War II, he had had enough. The German exile and Marxist social critic, Theodor W. Adorno, published a withering attack on American culture in the pages of Ransom’s magazine, The Kenyon Review, and this irritated the poet-critic sufficiently that he publicly renounced his agrarian commitments. The farmer may enjoy a certain liberty, Ransom conceded, but the prosperity and specialization of a capitalist economy also made certain kinds of freedom possible—the freedom to be a poet and write essays in little magazines, for instance.

The older Ransom had something right, to be sure. But to read the economic thought of the younger, more rebellious agrarian is to see that we do not have to choose between them. What these pages teach is something we would all do well to learn. The blessings of a free market only increase when there are some goods that are expressly not for sale. The prudent man, in taking an economic risk, will also provide for his and his family’s security and independence. And, finally, an independent spirit and self-sufficient know-how are not antisocial vices, but virtues proper to the good citizen of a republic.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Cradling Wheat” painted by Thomas Hart Benton in 1938.

James Matthew Wilson

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). His latest book is titled The Fortunes of Poetry in An Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015). Readers can learn more about his writing at jamesmatthewwilson.com

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