Interview with Glenn C. Arbery, editor of
The Southern Critics
Wasn’t the Obama election evidence that the South as a region no longer matters in American life? Why revive the Southern critics now?
One reason is that the one hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War is almost upon us. These critics begin their literary careers by reflecting on that momentous conflict and what it meant, not only for their region but for the country and the world. They saw in the victory of the North, not just the end of slavery—who wouldn’t applaud that?—but the gradual defeat of the agrarian life that used to characterize most of the country and define American liberty. They saw the South as representative of a kind of economic and cultural independence under threat by the leveling and standardizing powers of industrialism. If Obama’s election helps us get beyond the race question, maybe what they’re really saying about the good life can be heard.
But isn’t the race question inseparable from the South? Wouldn’t Maureen Dowd say that reviving the Southern critics is just racism in a literary guise?
Of course she would. But most of these critics were also writers of poetry and fiction, and they were among the first, along with Faulkner, to explore the real complexities of relations between the races in the South. Unless those truths, of love as well as power, are honestly acknowledged, then ideology trumps humanity. They made mistakes that mortified them later, and most of them got out of politics and economics as fast as they could. Their real concern was to counter the abstractions that substitute for a fully integrated, fully human life, and they came to see poetry in the broad sense, or call it literature, as the best way to counter such abstractions. What abstractions look like when they’re lived makes a vital difference in understanding, and racism is one such abstraction.
During the 1930s, the Agrarians were accused of being sympathizers with fascism, and this accusation resurfaced after World War II when Ezra Pound, despite propagandizing for Mussolini during the war, was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry by a committee headed by Allen Tate. Was there a fascist sympathy?
Robert Brinkmeyer has a recent book, The Fourth Ghost, which thoroughly explores the accusations of fascism made against the Southerners. In the years immediately after the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, the Southern Agrarians tried to exert political and economic influence, in part by trying to use the American Review edited by Seward Collins. Collins was increasingly open about his support for Hitler and Mussolini, which led to major embarrassments for the Agrarians. It’s no doubt one reason that Ransom abandoned the Agrarian cause and went north. Richard Weaver has a good early essay from the 1940s defending the South against associations with the fascists. The Southerners never allied their cause with the blood and soil of National Socialism, but they were not prudent about their associations. In the meantime, some of their contemporaries such as Edmund Wilson overtly supported Stalin without serious repercussions.
Weren’t the Southern Critics against reading poetry in its historical context?
One of the contributions of this book, I hope, will be to distinguish the Southern Critics from the New Critics, as Louise Cowan first did in the early 1970s. The New Criticism got a bad name for being a method of reading that paid no attention to anything outside the text itself. But the Southerners were nothing if not historical, and what they wrote about poetry reflected their broader concerns. To me, Ransom’s reading of Milton’s “Lycidas” in his essay “Forms and Citizens” is emblematic in showing that the poem as a form opens onto much larger questions. They did think that nothing about the author or the period can tell you as much about the poem as the poem itself can tell you, but they never treated literary works as isolated specimens.
Why did the Southern Critics lose their influence?
Literary fashion changed in the late 1950s, when Northrop Frye shifted the emphasis away from individual works to large patterns of myths and archetypes. Then came the 1960s, the huge social changes going on, and an influx of continental thought—structuralism, phenomenology, deconstruction. The basic way of reading individual texts closely did not change radically, I would say, but the kinds of theoretical approaches being brought to bear certainly did. Literary study became the study of theories instead of literature—an old complaint by now. The essays of the Southern critics have an advantage, though, over most of the things being written now: their readability, their good sense, the impression they convey of being written by real people who care about literature because it’s important to a good life.
Are the Southern Critics important now, or is the interest in them primarily historical?
What’s extraordinary about reading these men and women now is the prescience they seemed to possess about what would happen to art, to leisure, to time itself, when everything fell under the sway of the industrial model. It is valuable to have some glimpses of an American life outside of and other than the acquisitive, “pioneering” spirit of endless innovation and ongoing conquest of nature that people across the globe now associate with America. Their warning in I’ll Take My Stand was mocked at the time, but it’s much harder to mock now. Just as important, though, might be their insistence on literature as the most humane way of knowing. Everyone recognizes the value of understanding through stories, but these critics also pay attention to the learned, inherited, cultivated forms that give our lives their full scope and meaning. They do not equate poetry with endless innovation.
Which of these critics was the most influential?
That’s difficult to say. John Crowe Ransom amazed Allen Tate when he left Vanderbilt and the South in 1937, moved to Gambier, Ohio, and founded the Kenyon Review. Tate had not thought his old teacher, with his very definite views on poetry, could adjust to the living current of literature, but Ransom made the Kenyon Review one of the premier journals in the country both for criticism and for new writing. These critics as a group are unimaginable without Ransom, who taught Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, and Cleanth Brooks as well. But Tate also stands out as a man of letters, Warren as a novelist and poet, and Brooks as a New Critics and seminal Faulkner scholar.
Why do you emphasize Catholicism in the last section of the book?
It’s true that, of the original Fugitives, only Allen Tate became Catholic, but Tate saw the Southern way of life as continuous—unknowingly so—with the kind of life worked out over many centuries in Europe. As early as his essay in I’ll Take My Stand , he faulted the South for not having a theology adequate to it, a point with led to charges that he wanted a return to the Middle Ages. He did want an integrated life that modernity denied him, and he saw in the South an approximate, flawed image of that life. His great essays on Poe and Dante give a glimpse of the larger vision and its opposite. In many ways, Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon—her direct mentor—gave Flannery O’Connor the basis she needed for her work, which was the last great literature of the Southern renascence. Gordon also mentored Walker Percy and thought highly of his work. Gordon, who had been working the whole time as a novelist, was present to the inmost workings of the Southern Critics, and her additions to the criticism on fiction—along with O’Connor’s wonderful meditations on being Catholic in the Protestant South—help round out the picture.