- Jun 11, 2012
Edited by George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr.
Published by Liberty Press (1987) 268 pages $12.00
It has been well over 50 years since the passing of Richard M. Weaver. Since that time, his contributions have largely gone overlooked or forgotten, yet his influence remains with us today. Largely remembered as a political philosopher and traditional conservative, much of Weaver’s work canvassed the Southern mindset, or the meaning of Southernness, and it is through these meditations that his works also issued critical examinations of Western Civilization.
Weaver’s solutions – that there were some things discernable in the Old South that could help reverse the ills of modernity – were unique and not a mere rehashing of the Nashville Agrarians. It is not that hard today – all these years later –to discern that the same ills identified by Richard Weaver still persist. Not long ago I was perusing an academic journal and came across familiar themes dressed up in different garb: “Liberalism is failing because liberalism succeeded,” etc., etc. (Patrick J. Deneen, “The Tragedy of Liberalism,” The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2017, pg. 41.) The only difference, of course, is that a remedy to “civilization’s” ills is no longer explicitly associated with ideas imbedded in the Old South. The mere thought of that today is akin to insanity . . . or worse.
Nevertheless, the complaints, fears and observations found in such journals, and others like it, eventually slapped me with memories of Weaver and my college days. What was it that Weaver had said that so raised the ire of my professors? It had been so long ago that I could not quite recall. The notion that sparked my memory began to pique my curiosity. I put down the latest oh-so-relevant journal, went straight for my disorganized library, and began shuffling through the chaos of irrelevant knowledge. The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver was the first book by Weaver that I pulled off my dusty bookshelf, and it did not take long for me to mumble under breath, “Oh, now I recall.” Yet it transported me back in time when there were no laptops or Google, where I was berated by wild-haired professors, each seemingly hunched over and pale-skinned from lack of sun, but infused with the old time religious fervor of New Dealisms and Reagan haters!
Indeed. That Weaver viewed Western Civilization through the lens of the Old South bothered my professors. Yet, those same professors introduced me to Weaver – none of whom, as I alluded to, agreed with Weaver’s ideas. They were left-wing progressives, likely philosophical materialists to boot, and not, by any measure, academic lightweights. Yet, if it were not for them, I am not sure I would have ever heard of Weaver.
A US president not so long ago made fun of a liberal arts education. It is a strange thing, that. It made me wonder, do professors and universities still operate along the same lines as they did in my youth? If not, I can report that there was once a great art in making students an accomplice in their learning – a powerful, perhaps devious, method. Institutions aside, if those professors of mine had been mere intellectuals – bringing to the table nothing but preexisting, and craftily formed, prejudices – I don’t think they would have been capable of introducing Weaver to us in such a manner as they did, and to get the results they expected. It was a liberal education at its finest. Weaver and others of his ilk were part of that education, along with W.E.B. Du Bois, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a lot of others.
Those hunched over professors made abstract ideas turn flesh and blood, no matter from where or whom they originated. Perhaps fear does not govern scholars as it might intellectuals. Scholarly confidence evidently enabled them to teach Weaver in particular. Weaver was an opponent to their honed ideas, yet they taught him with such a passion that you were not sure what to believe, except for one thing: College was a place where ideas burst forth like exploding stars, and there were simply no safe places – other than going back home to momma or daddy - from which to escape it.
Weaver, after all, was a deft opponent. When Weaver defended the Old South and attacked modernism, he did so by framing his attacks – for the most part – around arguments from definition. This is a powerful approach (one need only examine the Lincoln and Douglass Debates to see the Illinois rail-splitter wield it with precision) and my professors knew it, and took up Weaver’s challenge with utmost seriousness, demanding the same from us - without our prejudiced experiences but as intelligent and sovereign individuals. Weaver was a scholar par excellence and my professors met him, in turn, as scholars in kind. Students invited to the dueling-ground of ideas were often required to pick up a weapon and fire it - in whichever direction. In that manner, none of us left innocent.
Richard M. Weaver was born in North Carolina in 1910. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1932 and a M.A. degree from Vanderbilt in 1934. Awarded a doctorate in English from Louisiana State University in 1943, Weaver then went on to teach at the University of Chicago until his untimely death in 1963. Of his several books published, his most important are Ideas Have Consequences and The Ethics of Rhetoric.
The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver is a collection of his writings taken from various academic journals and books, and is edited by George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr. Organized in three parts, “Work with the Word”: Southern Literature and Thought, “The Contemplation of These Images”: The South in American History, and “Discipline in Tragedy”: The Southern Tradition for an American Future, each contains numerous chapters. The more popular of the essays, “Lee the Philosopher,” and “Two Types of American Individualism” will be discussed in subsequent portions of this review.
Part One: “Work With the Word”: Southern Literature and Thought, is made up of four essays, the first three of which overlap in subject matter. Accordingly, I will discuss those three collectively and not individually. As for the entire review, I will identify the page numbers at the end of various quoted parts from the book as reference points for those who also have the book and wish to follow. The first three essays, “The Tennessee Agrarians,” published in 1952, “The Southern Phoenix,” published in 1963, and “Agrarianism in Exile,” published in 1950 deal largely with the Nashville Agrarians [hereinafter referred to as the Agrarians]. It should be noted that it is largely an historical sketch of the movement, but serves as a good starting point to understanding Weaver’s Southern conservatism that are more generally outlined in parts 2 and 3.
The Agrarians: A Brief Sketch
In setting the stage for discussing the Agrarians, Weaver contrasts them from those writers of the South known as the Southern apologists. Weaver points out that the Southern apologists – who published in the decades after the Civil War - “wrote well rather than wisely,” and that such writing “was not so much history as special pleading.” (p. 6). Weaver includes among the apologists, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, Robert Lewis Dabney, Thomas Nelson Page, Woodrow Wilson and others. These apologists, according to Weaver, “spent themselves in parrying, denying, and defending, and their victories were defensive victories.” (p.7). The arrival of the 20th Century brought about many economic and social changes to the United States. This changing backdrop set the stage for new interpretations of the South, especially one that places the Old South as a region set against industrialism and progress, and one squarely within the main tradition of Western European civilization. The apologists became old hat overnight.
The 1920s ushered in a group of Southern scholars and writers, centered largely at Vanderbilt, who arrived fresh upon the scene and wielded a different sort of pen than that of their Southern predecessors. Weaver asserts that this group gave to the South “what it had so long needed – a doctrine resting upon independent assumptions. (p.6). The Agrarians were not the old-line eulogists of ante-bellum culture but a new breed practicing “an untraditional defense of their tradition.” (p. 30). Most important - at least in Weaver’s estimation - is that many of these new writers and thinkers were also poets. This meant “. . . that their judgments were to be in part ethical and aesthetic. They were thus concerned immediately with the quality of the South; and this orientation put the case upon an independent footing.” (p.7). According to Weaver, the Agrarians were well aware of “the kind of effusion which appears on many Southern battle monuments.” However, they knew that such effusion was not the proper “instrumentality” for attack. “If they took a poor view of the United Daughters of the Confederacy,” Weaver states emphatically, “it was not that they repudiated the Confederacy, but that they thought the Daughters failed to present its vital meaning.” (p. 30). This new movement, as opposed to the movement by the apologists, “tended to bring together traditional ideas and modern potencies.” (p. 30). The result was that the Agrarians “drew up a now classic indictment of the industrial society and its metaphysic ‘Progress.’” (p. 6).
The Agrarians were not only traditional Southerners, but also men of academic and literary prowess. Their professions, by nature, led them to contemplate “regional differences” because many of them were educated abroad. Weaver explains that this had profound ramifications, causing these men to view their native South in a new light:
[A]considerable number of them had enjoyed the opportunity of European education or residence, which the older Southern spokesmen generally had not. That experience had led them to look at the South in the broad picture of Western European civilization. What they saw – what they had to see – was that the South, with its inherited institutions and its systems of values, was a continuation of Western European culture and that the North was the deviation. That discovery takes on significance as soon as one reflects that by rule the deviation, and not the continuation, requires the defense. Thus there appeared a logical ground for putting the South in the position of plaintiff and the North in that of defendant, a reversal of the roles which had played for a hundred years. (p. 6-7).
Weaver explains that these Southerners discovered a European environment not unlike their native land: “they saw a deep-rooted organic society, held together by non-empirical bonds . . . .” Such discovery sparked a suspicion “that the society they had grown up with in the South was in the main tradition of Western European civilization.” (p.31). In short, they began to see the North as an aberration, and it is this sort of shared experience that provided the means of shifting away from purely defensive postures of examining the Old South and, through her, the post-war South.. Seizing upon this discovery, the Agrarians shifted to the attack. Weaver asserts that the Agrarians had, metaphorically, “caught up with Lee and Jackson,” something the apologists were unable to do. Lee and Jackson “had known in 1862 that the one chance for the South was to carry the fight to the enemy.” (p. 7). The attack initiated by the Agrarians came in the form of a manifesto called I’ll Take My Stand, published in 1930, and it represented the Agrarians’ first “general offensive against the enemy positions. . . .” (p. 8). The seminal work contained “startling sentiments,” and because of this, according to Weaver, a demoralized nation welcomed it:
That is because the nation as a whole wishes the South to speak, and wishes it to speak in character. The last phrase is essential. Despite our excitement over differences, our pain over invidious comparisons, and our resentment of suspected superiorities, we desire, as long as we are in possession of our rational faculty, to hear an expression of the other point of view. That is a guarantee of our freedom and a necessity for our development. And the other point of view, to carry any conviction, must not be expressed apologetically. When you are impressed with the positive value of anything, whether it be a way of life or a creed or an art form, you do not fall back upon defensive postures, for that is to accept defeat in advance. You go forth in the evangelical spirit and seek out the opponent. That is why I’ll Take My Stand was read in quarters where the vapid professions of Southern liberals aroused no sign of interest. (p.10).
There was a peculiar aspect of the manifesto that drew special attention. The Southern document “was both anti-socialist and ant-capitalist” at a time, Weaver points out, “when socialism in the guise of the New Deal was about to challenge American capitalism . . . .” (p.15). I’ll Take My Stand offered, instead, “a third alternative in the form of a conservative agrarian order.” (p.16). The Agrarians maintained the position that “socialism is by definition anti-conservative, and capitalism cannot be conservative as long as its reliance is upon industrialism, whose very nature is to unsettle any establishment and initiate the endless innovation of technological ‘progress.’” (p. 17).
The Agrarians believed that industrialism and its god Progress, “is organized strictly for war and can never consent to peace.” (p. 19). Although those things can organize and distribute, they destroy “the one thing most needful for artistic creation: the attitude of leisure.” (Emphasis in original). The Agrarians encouraged the South to abandon the thought of industrializing or accepting the false philosophy of progress and to return to the land. It called for the South to return its educational system back to the ante-bellum model. Whereas public schools in the North prepare every child to become things like a “behaviorists” or “an experimental scientist in sex,” or “a militant atheists,” the Old South’s system “had been the academy, which had given to selected students a basic training in the classical tradition.” (p.21).
Simply put – and in truncated form – Weaver states that the Agrarians stood for an agrarian economy, “for a way of life that exalts leisure and contemplation over money-making and success; for a culture of manners and distinction.” These things represent everything “that materialism and philistinism appeared to have routed” by the works of industrialism and progress. (p. 18).
Unfortunately, for the Agrarians at least, the South did not care at all for the manifesto, or that it had been filed on its behalf. Nor did she seem to care for the cause for which the Agrarians were fighting. It is somewhat surprising to learn – or to be reminded by Weaver - that the most formidable opponent to the Agrarians came not from the North but from the South itself. Weaver referred to these opponents as “Southern collaborationists.” (p. 11). According to Weaver, these were men who accepted “completely the doctrine of progress, and who have their entire investment of substance, position, and prestige in it. They are the ones who want more factories, more of everything which would make the South a replica of [the North] with a consequent swelling of bank deposits and payrolls.” (p. 11). Weaver would eventually concede that these collaborationists bested the Agrarians, leaving the Agrarians “with only a rhetorical victory.” (p-12).
The snubbing by the South of the Agrarians obviously stung, and it would lead many of the Agrarians ostracized in their own land. Now entered irony, for most of the Agrarians moved north into exile. As Weaver explains it, the South had changed to a point where there was no place for the Agrarian philosopher. Writing from the University of Chicago, well above the Mason-Dixon Line, Weaver could have been speaking for himself. Nevertheless, he makes the following observation: “After man has attained a certain stage of intellectual awareness, this power of reflection cannot be given up. The Agrarian intellectualized himself enough to make a case for agrarian living. In doing so, he was ceasing to be native.” According to Weaver, the Agrarians “had not many people at home to talk to. His philosophical doctrines were as the empyrean; and though he could argue, he could hardly talk with the New South men of factories and counting houses, for this was the opposition.” (p-41). Weaver canvasses the tragedy and seeks solace in imagination. He certainly must be talking about himself when he turns to Faulkner’s mythology to explain the vital difference between the defeated Agrarians and these, so called, New South men. Not surprisingly, he likened these new Southerners of Progress and the Agrarians to the gulf that existed between the Snopes and the Sartorises.
The Agrarians are Sartorises, not necessarily through family or inheritance, but necessarily through sympathy with a socio-ethical pattern. One has to recognize them as traditional Southerners, publically confessing belief in the ethically responsible will. But this traditional Southerner dwells in an increasingly Snopes-ordered world; he is faced with an opponent of terrifying vitality, pushing up from below, seizing the substance of the land even as he shatters the old forms and amenities. He represents the reign of animalism which is bound to hold sway when old gods have gone and no new gods have arrived. Snopes is immeasurably aided by the fact that he carries no baggage of sentiment (in his world business is always business and sentiment is always ‘false sentiment’). The modern dissolution of values has so prepared the way for him that the contest is ridiculously unequal. (p-43).
Southern Literature in the United States
The last essay in Part 1 of The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver is entitled “Contemporary Southern Literature,” published in 1959. In it, Weaver compares and contrasts Southern literary writers from that of the rest of the nation. According to Weaver, Southern dominance in literature was due in no small part to its belief in the duality of man – a notion the rest of the country had largely abandoned. “The South,” Weaver asserts, “did not become prolific in literature by following the advice of its outside critics.” Rather, its success came by the South “retaining its humanism, and by keeping at the heart of its faith a belief in the dual nature of man.” (p. 51) From Weaver’s perspective, the rest of the nation had disregarded such concepts, postulating instead “that man is by nature good, and therefore not responsible for evil.” This is closely related to the concept “that man is merely the creature of circumstance, and again not responsible for evil.” Weaver identifies the denial of evil in the concepts postulated by writers like Emmerson. Such writers advanced a concept that evil does not exist. Consequently, everything else is mere innocent circumstance. Much of this thought is also found in what Weaver terms the school of naturalism, which asserts that “man is ‘nothing but’ that which material circumstances can account for, or, as the literary practitioner has to apply it, that man is but one atom or collection of atoms in a vast system of interlocking causalities.” (p.54) In this view, moral choice disappears. “In such a world neither intellect nor moral will has any efficacy,” Weaver states. “But there cannot be a story about a man who has no moral choice; there can be only a chronicle, and between the two lies a great gulf.” (p.54) Otherwise, Weaver contends, life is merely a blind process.
It is into this world that Southern literature appeared. “What was there to resist it?” Weaver asks. “The world of the romantic optimists was a dream world. The world of the naturalists was a half world, a world in which the material was elevated to sole principle – a view which mankind has always refused to accept for any length of time.” (p. 57). Into this centrifugal world the Southern writer dove, and dove they did, armed with “a literature of true realism.” The Southerner writes about his Southern world: “It is a world of place and time, but it is also a world which includes the mystery of the timeless,” Weaver explains. “It is a place in which the transcendental is apprehended in the actual, and the actual is never without some link to the transcendental. The real and the ideal, the act and the idea, man as he is and man as he ought to be, nature and supernature are presented in their inextricable involvement.” (p.57). Such form and substance is what distinguished the Southern writer, a reality borne out by the fact that the Southerner could draw from “a distinct and rooted culture . . . .” (p.60) Weaver uses the opportunity to explain this by quoting fellow scholar, Robert Hazel: “’While the house in Ohio settles into an earth unhaunted by anything more portentous than the failure of national administration to hold farm price supports, the house in South Carolina holds echoes that incriminate, terrify, and purge.” (p.58) Weaver expands on this by explaining that, “the house in South Carolina communicates from the outset a sense of meaningful tensions. Ideas of order and questions of right and wrong surround it; it becomes at once the center of a story.” (p.58) Like other Southern scholars before him, Weaver had left the South to teach in the North. Inevitably drawn back to his native land to visit, Weaver confesses his own strange feelings upon doing so: “As I cross the Ohio River on my way South, I have a feeling that I am entering a region where things are somehow known mysteriously.” And, according to Weaver, it seemed that the “mystery is deepened by the fact that one can never discover any rational plan behind the disposition of things.” (p.58)
Of the many approaches to understanding Southern literature’s success, Weaver centers on one in particular. Southern literature saw that man is on earth in his passions, and passions, according to Weaver, are mysterious. Yet these passions “must find expressions in the language of propensity and inclination.” (p.67) Southern writers did just that and revealed man in his passions. As a result, Southern literature does “not proceed far without showing him in his sin.” Weaver admits to enjoying Southern writing because of the “frankness with which complexity is faced.” And, according to Weaver, “frankness is an attractive quality.” Such a quality, he continues, “is the attribute of nobility, for its source is truthfulness.”
Much of modern literature is rife with ill-concealed ‘special pleading.’ If the characters are marked by poverty and lack of education, we are reminded that we should feel sorry for them. If degeneracy in low life or high life is presented, we are supposed to read this as the ‘inside story,’ which the anxieties of a false society would like to keep hidden. If a struggle between rich and poor is depicted, it is subtly suggested that we should enlist under the banner of collectivism.
[The Southerners] I have been describing are free from impertinences of this sort. They speak frankly of ‘crackers’ and ‘******s,’ of ‘lintheads’ and ‘hillbillies,’ of ‘rednecks’ and ‘quadroons,’ and they are equally ready to describe cases of murder, theft, incest, and suicide in the ‘best’ families.
This spirit of frankness operates on a far profounder and more important level. Through it the Southern writers deal with something that the modern world seems increasingly prone to deny: the presence of tragedy in life. Here is a fact to be considered, for if you do not recognize a tragic theme in a literary work, your explanation of that work will likely be either sociological balderdash or amateur psychoanalysis.
Due to the length of the work and the limited time available to me, I will continue the review of The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver later. In the meantime, please excuse any grammatical errors and the rather discursive approach – Alan Polk.
Stay tuned . . . .