Nothing is so heady as sounding off when you're a kid, then coming back a half-century later to say "I told you so."
And this most delicious of all duties has befallen three gentlemen, now well into their 70s, who have utterly enjoyed a three-day backward look at their alarms of a half-century ago and pronounced themselves not merely right but right in spades.
Seated behind a table, their snow-white heads luminous as lightning bugs in a twilit June garden, the three men peered contentedly out at a packed auditorium at Vanderbilt University to see many turned away, so crowded was the hall. Television monitors were installed elsewhere so the overflow crowd could watch the proceedings in another auditorium
The three men, all figures of consequence in American literature of this century, were Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle and Lyle Lanier. As everbody knows, Warren is up to here in Pulitzer Prizes ("All the King's Men" and his collection of verse called "Promises") and he founded the Southern Review, along with Cleanth Brooks, and together they also wrote "Understanding Poetry." That book, to be plain about it, is the best thing of its sort ever written.
But Lytle, not so well-known as Warren, was an editor of the Sewanee Review and is known as a superb spinner of good stories, and his novels are often considered beautifully crafted.
Lanier is executive vice president and provost emeritus of the University of Illinois, but have no fear, he is not a Yankee but was born in Tennessee and like the other two was graduated from Vanderbilt University in the 1920s.
Now when these fellows were young the Scopes Trial took place. A young teacher had been fired for teaching Darwin and such heathen gibberish, and Clarence Darrow defended him, while William Jennings Bryan took the opposing side and maintained sufficient nonsense that the civilized portion of the republic began to laugh mightily at the backwoods state of Tennessee.
If you've never lived in the South, you have no idea how annoying it is for the rest of the country to assume you never had a pair of shoes, can't read the label on the box of grits and can't perform any craft or trade except making moonshine on still nights.
Anyway, these young fellows, virtually all at Vanderbilt, which is an independent school in Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, all smarted together and got rather defensive on behalf of the honor of their homeland.
The more they thought about it, the more they agreed that not only were Tennessee and the South not so bad as the Yankees said, but also it was (or could be) the savior of the nation. The South deserved praise, not shame, for maintaining traditional values. Including religion, by God.
As Southerners tend to do, they attacked. Instead of arguing that there are loons everywhere, as well as in Tennessee, and that the state and region ought not be judged by the anti-Darwin rabble, they took a different tack:
The very poverty of the South, the very nonsense and viciousness of much religion practiced in the South, the very backwardness of Southern agriculture and education and so on, were in fact virtues. Not only were all the shortcomings of the South really virtues in disguise, but if the North didn't return to those values the republic itself would fail. And what's more, if the South ever were seduced by such Babylonish whores as industry, the South would herself collapse and be as frightful as the North, and then there would be no hope, ever, ever, ever, for America to become truly great.
This set of notions naturally struck most of the world as somewhat insane, but at Vanderbilt, of course, and among literate Tennesseans (however few of them there may have been) they found some acceptance.
Now the writer of these notions -- their book, which has scarcely ever been out of print since 1930, is called "I'll Take My Stand" -- were not insane at all, or at least they have never been locked up for it. Instead, they were merely young and more than a little indignant at the laughter the rest of the nation commonly directed to the South. Not only was the South poor (entirely as the result of Yankee turpitude, all Southerners knew) but she was laughed at as well. Sneered at. So it was the task of any red-blooded Southern intellectual (most of whom indeed have red blood and are not without ginger) to come to her defense.
I should say this is not necessarily the orthodox view of how this Agrarian (as it is called, in allusion to the distrust of industry and the celebration of Southern rural life) movement came about. But I feel I should explain the truth of the business.
Since the young writers were not blind to some of the South's actual shortcomings -- never mind the North, but the South did have a few problems if not indeed actual faults -- they had a hard row to hoe to work themselves around to making virtues of what were apparent vices.
The oppressed condition of Southern blacks, for example, could hardly be ignored by Vanderbilt intellectuals. Nor could the appalling ignorance of so many uneducated, and indeed illiterate, Southerners. As far as that goes, it was hard to exalt and celebrate and sing hymns to the general lack of electricity, central heating, good plumbing, good roads, and so on forever.
Fortunately all the Agrarians, including the three who still survive, were literary types and understood poetic paradox well. As when the poet Browning wrote:
"All I could never be, all [that] men despised in me, this was I worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped."
In all my life I have never yet met a true Southerner who did not cherish and totally comprehend the notion that the first shall be last, and the last first. Everything that the world calls despicable, everything the world sneers at, still has within it the possiblity of glory.
Shakespeare himself spoke of the toad, ugly and venomous, but with a precious jewel in his head. As much, surely, could be said for the Southern Baptists?
When everyone remarks on the pervasiveness of religion in the South, nobody means that charity, compassion or any such thing is detectable there, but only that some aspects of Christian teaching are ingrained. Especially such nuggets as, "He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he hath exalted the humble and meek, and the rich he had sent empty away."
And if there is one sacred text in the South it is bound to be this:
"The stone that the builders rejected, the same is become the chief cornerstone."
So these young writers, backed by Shakespear, Browning and the Magnificat, gazed with all their might at their poor beloved South and not surprisingly found the jewel amidst the uglitude.
With industry comes more money, yes. But (as one of them rhetorically asked) what is the point of more money if you lose all the good things of life in acquiring it? How shall it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his own soul?
The argument is specious. The argument is little short of insane. But it was their argument and they have stuck to it all these years.
"The only thing I've gotten from this seminar," said a youth who had stolen out to the hallway to smoke a cigarette with other sinners while the litany rolled on in the auditorium, "I read on a ----house wall today. It said [unprintable]."
I quote him, at least partially, to show there is some resistance to a movement that celebrates the small farm and the supposed virtues of rural life, such as the network of extended family, the solidity of unquestioned moral rules, the independence of the man not a slave to money, the nobility of pursuing Adam's profession to secure the good fruits of the earth in due season, the bond between man and horse or mule, between man and dog and dog and fox and fox and coon, etc., etc.
"I grew up in a small town in Tennessee where my father was a preacher. I used to think he was a [name of denomination] son-of-a-bitch. Now I just think he is a goddam bastard. They won't have him in heaven, when his time comes, and they won't have him in hell, either. But hell will probably give him some extra brimstone to go somewhere and start up his own hell."
"You're a very young man," he was told somewhat sternly.
It does seem to me we have enough trouble in the country without young whippersnappers speaking disrespectfully of their fathers. Even if the whippersnapper is basically right.
"Things may not go so badly with your father as you think."
"You know what this Southern religion is?" he said, blasting forth a cloud of tobacco smoke. "It's nothing but fear. You live on a cruddy little farm and you can't control the weather or the sale price of cotton or anything else, land you pray like hell you'll survive."
'Yes," he was told. "And if there's an ounce of grace in you you're grateful if you do survive."
"There's one more thing," he said, eyes narrowing and burning somewhat, "this religion is about a guy that got crucified, which gives you the right to go out and crucify everybody else, or at least everybody else that gets in your way or doesn't agree with you."
"Well," he was asked, "you probably won't go back to live in your small town again, from what you say." "----, no," he averred.
All the network scattered, all the circle broken. What about the old mule, the contentment of arising at 5 to enter the field and chop through the long sweet day, the egrets white in their dusky cypress trees, the water snakes dozing (they often wander up from the bayou and for a time sleep in the tangled growth at the end of the field). What about the redbone hound, the cries like bells on November nights, the faint sounds of birds as they are flying?
S--- no, s--- no.
Unfortunately, if you write a manifesto (as the Agrarians did on behalf of "traditional" Southern values), you either mean something or you don't.
You can say, as they did, that of course they want to see oppression of blacks stopped, want to see blacks educated and equal before the law. You can say, as they did, that of course there is a place for industry (the Vanderbilt intellectuals were aware they used electric lights and books printed industrially). You can hedge and hum and haw, as they all did. But in a manifesto you sooner or later come down on one side or the other, else you don't have much of a manifesto.
And they did come down, unanimously, against the corrosive acids of modernity, against industry and a society based on the money that works industry.
The South, for her part, always seemed ungrateful to her intellectual Agrarians. The South is like some lovers, she's faithless. The instant the Agrarians turned their backs, the South was fetching new lovers in the doors, down the chimneys, up through the floor boards.
No industry has gone uncourted by the South. No modesty has restrained her in her shameless pursuit of industry and dollars and technology.
While the west end of Nashville (Vanderbilt) was thundering forth the ancient call to hold fast to the yeoman virtues of the farm, the mule, the small school where the benches were hard and you learned Virgil, the center of Nashville was singing quite another song:
The very alleys were bursting with nightclubs, girls dancing naked and God only knows what all, with spiritous liquors abounding.
Instead of Juvenal and Horace, the poetry is that of Grand Old Opry, and for the image of the Southern matron (who is supposed to be reading the Good Book and drying sassafras roots when not bent on errands of mercy and medicine for the happy-go-lucky blacks that would die of diphtheria except for her ministrations) -- for the image of that matron you have comic female stars whose clothes are like a scarecrow's and whose voice is like a strangulated pig. Minnie Pearl, for example. (Herself a matron of Nashville, and a woman of refinement. But the product she sells, the voice she sells, is the image that sticks).
At the very moment of the three-day seminar of lectures on the Agrarians, the state of Tennessee and her governor were all but incoherent with all but climactic joy that a Japanese auto manufacturer is going to move into the little town of Smyrna, out from Nashville. Three hundred million dollars invested, and 2,200 jobs, with an average pay of $20,000 per worker.
The governor (not the former governor who has been indicted for being a crook) speaks with ecstasy of what this influx of money will mean.
It is the very temptation the Agrarians have been warning against for 50 years.
Everywhere in Tennessee people say the new plant is the beginning of a "new Detroit" right down there in Dixie.
Only a few voices are saying, "Have you been in Detroit lately?" Only a few voices are asking what the new car factory will mean in the formerly recession-proof boundaries of Rutherford County, or whether the $10 million tax concessions (for the company will spend millions of its own money on facilities) are all that wise. Or what new schools may cost, or what may happen to the cost of living, or what will happen to the small farms as young men leave. What will happen, for that matter, to the redbone hounds and the cries of November nights.
The terrible thing, in a way, is that the South is "better" than it was. There is more learning. Blowhards spouting venom from pulpits are rarer now than they were. Individual freedom is greater, far greater, than it was in 1930. There are more choices -- it's easier now to call your father a son-of-a-bitch than it was -- and there is more art, more food, more reading, more social intercourse. Instead of ruining Tennessee, it's clear, at least to me and the millions like me, that Tennessee is the better for the coming of the modern world.
Men like the Agrarians, highly educated by current standards, would naturally deplore the idiocy of television, the depressing ugliness of parking lots and shopping centers where once there was rich farmland, and when all is said, theirs is an elitist position that runs directly counter to the American choice for more industry, more Detroits, more bankrupt New Yorks, more people utterly dependent on the state or a corporation for their very lives.
For the time being, at least in Tennessee, in Southern cities like Memphis or Atlanta or Nashville, you see the burgeoning of wealth, of arts centers, and it all looks like a vast improvement over 1930.
How much farm land do you donate for asinine suburbs and centers before it really makes a difference? How many girls with dulcimers go down the drain in favor of jukeboxes (though my own view is that much of American art is to be found on jukeboxes) before some quality of life changes for the worse?
The traditional value that the Agrarians pleaded for -- not altogether rationally, not altogether accurately -- is easy to make fun of, and the temptation is irresistible when they take themselves so solemnly.
But what they also, and chiefly, stood for is something a bit more profound than adoration of the mule.
A society that thinks chiefly of quantity, not quality, and of creature comforts rather than intellectual and spiritual values, is not going to last.
Furthermore, a society that regards a man as a unit of labor, who can be moved about or dropped or left to starve if that unit is not needed for the moment, is not going to last.
And besides, it is wrong to ignore the effect on a man's integrity and independence of a system in which he is totally at the mercy of an employer or the generosity of a government. A few generations of this, and how readily will you find men able and competent to speak their mind boldly, how easily will you draw volunteers to defend the state when necessary?
When everything yields to the needs of industry -- hell, give them tax breaks, give them land, use every resource of government to make their way easy -- and when all the old patterns of family loyalty, families that are friends generation after generation, are at last broken, what are you going to be left with, except maybe the freedom to drink yourself dead at a singles bar?
There is a level at which the Agrarians are not so stupid as first appears.
There is a level at which Shakespeare was right about the toad, ugly and venomous, with the precious jewel, all the same.
As any Southerner darkly suspects, the stone the builders pitched out is maybe the crown and glory of the arch, after all.