by Konrad von Taiser
The Agrarian Critique of American culture was a defense of the Old South and traditional agrarian values against the encroaching tide of Northern industrialism in the early twentieth century. In 1930, a small group of academic writers and essayists known as the “Twelve Southerners” published a book entitled I’ll Take My Stand, the introduction to which outlined the core principles of the Southern Agrarian position. Their work was, in part at least, a response to the degrading and distasteful attack on the South by H.L. Menken. In his essay, The Sahara of the Bozart, Menken described the American South as a miserable region of “worn-out farms, shoddy cities, and paralyzed cerebrums,” a cultural desert “little removed from savagery” and populated exclusively by “poor white trash.” Donald Davidson wrote of the group’s motivation years later:
“We were more inclined to this course because of a natural loyalty to the South…We were and are devoted to the South in spite of its defects, because it is our country, as our mother is our mother.”
To the proud Southern Agrarian, the rural farmer is a venerated figure; the last noble profession in an increasingly modernized world. At best, he views the Industrialist as a well-intentioned fool, oblivious to the destructive effect his way of life has on the soul of the laborer. At worst, the Industrialist is a purposeful and calculated menace that seeks to rob the farmer of his dignity and livelihood. The Southern Agrarians viewed industrialism as a pioneering effort of the North, a twisted pursuit which trades comfort for consumption, nature for mechanization, culture for commercialism, and the fullness of agrarian life for the vacuity of menial servitude under a system capable of producing an infinite amount of consumer goods, yet incapable of producing basic happiness for the society foolish enough to adopt it.
Agrarians contend that by removing man from nature and replacing “the tiller of the soil” with the automaton of the assembly-line, industrialism disrupts an ancient order that is not only Southern, but natural and necessary for personal fulfillment. The agrarians predicted that an embracement of industrialism by the South would result in the diminishment of culture, art, conversation, religion, and education; aspects of society they viewed as dependent on man’s relationship with the natural world. They argued that any system in which man is no longer connected to the land is destructive to the human spirit and thus, destructive to the products of that spirit.
Although the Southern Agrarians called for the “moral, social, and economic autonomy” of the southern states, they did not openly advocate an “independent political destiny” for the South. Critics of the 12 Southerners saw an expression of treasonous sentiment in their stern rejection of the “American way” and denouncement of industrialism as a scheme employed by neo-carpetbaggers to “Americanize” the South. Despite the agrarian’s distaste for all things North, the radicalness of their statements reflects only a nostalgic longing for the old South and the leisure it afforded the Aristocratic Southern gentlemen. Any disloyalty expressed by the Twelve Southerners was not an outgrowth of fire-eating revolutionary politics or delusions of a neo-Confederate revival. If they were guilty of anything, it was naïve wistfulness, not conspiratorial sedition. There were no plotters or bomb-throwers hoping to overthrow the state among the 12 Southerners; just scholars romanticizing the loss of the Old South.
The Southern Agrarian criticism of industrial society and American culture possessed many flaws, most notably, its tendency to focus too heavily on the perceived evils of industrialism while saying very little of the benefits supposedly offered by agrarianism. Nevertheless, if one examines conditions in the present-day South, one will undoubtedly find an element of truthfulness to the agrarian’s grim predictions regarding industrialization. Survey the sprawling communities of the penurious American South firsthand, glimpse the generational poverty of the Black Belt, the crumbling schools of the Mississippi Delta, the water-logged neighborhoods of New Orleans, or the violent slums of Richmond, Virginia and the merits of Agrarianism will emerge unaided. The quiet ghosts of industry which haunt the once thriving city of Birmingham, Alabama will attest to the tragic fulfillment of the Agrarian prophecy more effectively than any conceivable arrangement of scholarly words.
Crunden, Robert M., ed. The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945. Wilmington, De: ISI Books, 1999.