The Old Agrarian-ness of a New Ethos

In “I’ll Take My Stand: The Relevance of the Agrarian Vision,” originally published in 1980 in Virginia Quarterly Review and re-published online in 2003, the critic Lucinda H. Mackethan writes about “a group of Southern Americans profoundly disturbed by the lack of humane values operating in their world.” She was referring to the contributing authors in the Southern classic I’ll Take My Stand, a small group of perhaps overly nostalgic academics, poets, and critics who looked on a Northern-dominated, heavily industrial country with disdain. But in that phrase, she could have been writing about a lot of modern Southerners, from gun-loving ultra-conservative neophobes to the Gen-Xers who’ve started organic CSAs, letterpress shops, and microbreweries.

Though I had known about I’ll Take My Stand as one of the classics of Southern studies, I hadn’t taken the time to read it until recent years. A weathered copy of a 1977 edition with a preface by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. fell into my hands, and I admittedly let it sit a while before I took it on. This collection of Southern “agrarian” essays has been regarded by some readers as the quaint visions of some hopeless romantics and by other readers as a group of diatribes that are basically racist and elitist in their Depression-era conservatism. By picking and choosing passages, a critical reader could justify either those perspectives.

In Part Two of her fairly lengthy essay, Mackethan writes:

It is thus demonstrable that the “historical sense” evoked in I’ll Take My Stand represents not attitudes toward an actual world that existed in the past but attitudes toward a world that reflects a people’s sense of who they are according to what they believe to have been the truths their ancestors lived by.

That old Southern Mythology— “the truths [our] ancestors lived by.” Mackethan’s idea is riffing on what WJ Cash propounded forty years before, in the early and middle chapters of The Mind of the South: this erratically developed sense “of the line which divided what was Southern from what was not” (104). Mackethan’s assessment jives quite nicely with, for instance, Richard Shelby’s 2015 “hometown boy made good” primary campaign ads, which portrayed Washington DC as a bad place, with President Obama as the powerful malefactor at the center, a place to be contrasted with Alabama, a good place, with Shelby as our righteous protector, a man who ventures to this distant hell to fight the demon in his own lair. These mythic Southern truths matter more than the far less glamorous “actual world,” where a man named Barack Obama simply disagrees with a man named Richard Shelby. It’s got to be about more than that, if you’re a Southerner. It’s got to be about good and evil, right and wrong.

However, to write off pro-Southern, anti-industrial ideals as nothing more than paranoid, backward-looking, overly poetic myth-making is to miss the basis of some important ideas that are buried within all of those heavily dated pronouncements. Case and point, Lyle H. Lanier’s “A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress.” Though other authors in the collection draw more attention – John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren – for me, this essay warrants attention.

Lyle Hicks Lanier was born in 1903 in Tennessee, the son of a general store owner. He attended Vanderbilt University, and was later on the faculty there in the 1930s, before moving to Vassar College in the 1940s. The lamentable side of Lanier’s work shows in examples like the 1929 educational monograph, “Studies in the comparative abilities of whites and negroes.” Using  the fields of education and psychology, he intended to prove, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that whites were fundamentally superior to blacks. Yet, to take that err-in-judgment and write off Lanier completely would be to miss something worthy of consideration.

Lanier’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand changed the way that I think about the idea of being progressive. I still adore the word liberal for its actual meanings, though its historical connections to the accommodationist white Southern liberals of twentieth century, as well as the current moniker of liberal-as-epithet, have caused its use to be tinged by unwarranted addenda. I’ve preferred instead to refer to myself as a progressive. While I appreciate the positive meanings of the word liberal’s many cousins – liberated, library, liberty – the term progressive seems equally difficult to argue against. However, Lanier does argue against it, and quite effectively.

Progress was – and largely still is – thought-of as setting a social or personal trajectory toward something better. In the twentieth-century South, that meant moving away from the agrarian life and toward something industrialized, technological, urbane, and Lanier objects:

Men henceforth would be concerned not so much with saving his soul as with making himself comfortable, and with improvement of the world through cooperative social effort.

For Lanier, the term progress was too directionless and amorphous to appreciate, moreover because, for him, it also implied a life less individualistic. The idea of progress has had the consequence of aiming Man’s eyes at the future, which subsequently has us looking less at the past. While hope of a better life in times-ahead is understandable, a reliance on the wisdom and knowledge of times-gone-by is also necessary. For Southerners, that past rooted them in the land, in farming, in family, and in longstanding relationships with the other families who lived nearby.

After laying down his reasons that Francis Bacon is the philosopher at the root of our current thinking, Lanier proceeds to rip into the pragmatist John Dewey. Lanier takes exception with Dewey’s ideas about a communal kind of social evolution, in which people just sort of work together because they know they should. No, Lanier propounds, Man’s destiny is not to gather in large urban groups, to work in corporate environs, and to delight in a constant flurry of surface-level interactions with the masses also gathered there. And here’s why:

Man’s motivation to action will no doubt forever be “unmitigatingly private,” in a basic sense, and any plan for social readjustment will do well to proceed on this basis. (143)

Lanier slams Dewey’s notion that people would ever value cooperation over self-interest. We want what we want for ourselves first . . . always first.

Reading the latter portions of “A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress,” as stodgy as they can be, means encountering a startlingly accurate prediction about what will happen when consumption and technology become not help-mates in a good life, but an end in themselves. Read this passage, and keep in mind that Lanier was writing in the 1930s:

As a matter of fact, the corporate form of our economic system makes possible a scale of exploitation unheard of in history [ . . . ] theoretically, it might appear to be the mechanism by which the ideal collective existence could be consummated; actually it is a form of legerdemain through which a stupendous concentration of wealth and power is achieved, along with a corresponding degree of exploitation of human effort.

That wasn’t written by a Bernie Sanders campaign operative, it was written by an education professor during the Great Depression. Now, get ready for the really spooky part, the sentence that follows that:

Centralization of political power and governmental regulation of industrial processes — far from being tendencies toward any real socialism – even offer greater possibilities for economic domination, because of the comparative ease with which control of government agencies is secured by industrial elements.

There’s that good old Southern conservative hatred of a central government! It had to be in there somewhere.

After a clear, though very wordy renunciation of what we should reject, Lanier’s essay ends with what we ought to accept anew: farming, family, and interpersonal relationships. Stay close to home, to loved ones, and to neighbors, and build a life based on those meaningful things. “The only reality which is ultimately worth considering is that of human beings which associate together,” he writes.

Lanier also acknowledges that a return to an agrarian society could remedy unemployment and decentralize institutional power. He tells us many progressive-minded people left farming because it was not a profitable business to be in, but “the answer is that agriculture is more than a process of ‘production.'” For him, agriculture is a way of life that offers two undeniable benefits: self-reliance and a connection to land. It was never meant to be a corporate endeavor where profits would be used to purchase material goods.

Although it’s difficult to get behind a guy who spent part of his career trying to scientifically justify white supremacy, “A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress” has distinct connections to modern times. Lanier’s value system is anti-materialistic and counter-revolutionary, sometimes smacking of the Occupy movement and at other times causing me to think of “tiny houses” and urban agriculture. The essay also decries the exploitation of workers and the dehumanizing effects of mass unemployment, something we have been experiencing since the Great Recession. Though Lanier’s racial ideals have been left behind in the dust, our modern culture is steeping toward his agrarian ideal, saying quietly but plainly “less is more.”

One of the more interesting things about late twentieth and early twenty-first century multiculturalism is the newfound acknowledgment that America’s ascendance was fueled not by Godly righteousness but actually by corporate greed and violence. From “Heaven’s Gate” to Howard Zinn, we have seen a new historical narrative slowly emerging, a more honest one, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll Take My Stand serves in some ways as a forerunner to that harsh honesty. For all of the inherent evils of the agrarian system that these essays ignore – the enslavement of African-Americans, a sinister debt-driven form of sharecropping, class-based political corruption – they do get one thing right: Southerners didn’t want an industrialized economic system, and that system still doesn’t work very well for the region today.

Near the end of her VQR essay, Mackethan writes:

What the Agrarians condemned, as the creed of Cousin Lucius demonstrates, was not the technological system of American society per se, but the general weakening of faith in human dignity and worth that seemed to accompany a society’s increasing attachment to the products of a technological system.

Here we are now, in the twenty-first century, and what we see as progressive today actually seems regressive historically, yielding unknowingly to prescriptions offered by Southern agrarian writers like Lanier. What is the concept of “buy local” but a decidedly progressive stance that hearkens back to homegrown, handcrafted goods? What is “DIY” but a return to the craftsmanship exhibited by long-ago homesteaders? What are “slow food” and “farm to table” but a conscious decision to eat like our grandparents did?

I’ve heard older generations quip that their parents were “green” before “green” was a thing. They had to turn off lights, conserve water, and walk instead of car-riding. Before “green” was cool, it was just the way people lived. And there was dignity in it. There may be prestige in having a big house with a security system and a privacy fence, and it may be stylish to have our eyes constantly transfixed on a little screen, but neither one will do much to, as Lyle Lanier put it, save your soul.

Southerners are well-known for our stolid refusal to follow the national trends, preferring to draw “the line which divided what [is] Southern from what [is] not.” Though that the stubbornly self-righteous side of that character trait can often backfire, i.e. Chief Justice Roy Moore in Alabama or Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina, the fervent agrarian individualism of it can produce some really beautiful results, i.e. Alabama’s Frank Stitt or North Carolina’s Bill Smith. If only we could find a way to preserve the latter . . . while eliminating the former. That might be progress that even Lyle Lanier could agree to.

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