Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012 April 10: Once more on Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Agrarians

R. Blakeslee Gilpin in his book John Brown Still Lives! America's Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change (2011) includes an essay on the Southern Agrarians, "The Fugitive Imagination: A John Brown for the Old South". He focuses on Robert Penn Warren's biography, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929) and his essay "The Briar Patch" (1930), to talk about the impact the Southern Agrarians had on propagating and elaborating the segregationist neo-Confederate/Lost Cause view of the Civil War and American history.

I devoted all of the 2011 posts in the Confederate "Heritage" Month series to the Southern Agrarians, a group of reactionary Southern writers whose most prominent member was Robert Penn Warren. I devoted a post to "The Briar Patch" (see link below). In the 2006 series, I posted a lot about John Brown and cited Warren's biography. In several posts.

The Southern Agrarian group was founded on a group of poets who identified themselves as "Fugitives". Gilpin calls them the Fugitives throughout his essay. But they are more commonly identified as the Southern Agrarians or Nashville Agrarians.

In my post of April 21, 2006, I wrote:

For Robert Penn Warren in his 1929 biography of Brown, the antislavery fighter was a scamster and insane to boot. His antislavery activities in Kansas were simply a cover for horse and cattle theft. And his religion was nothing but a way to wrap a phony mantle of self-righteousness around his misdeeds. Warren emphasized what he found to be "one of the most significant keys to John Brown's career and character; his elaborate psychological mechanism for justification which appeared regularly in terms of the thing which friends called Puritanism and enemies called fanaticism." (Warren; 446)
The mini-civil war in Kansas Territory involved active guerrilla warfare, in which horse theft was common on both sides, a practice with obvious military significance in those days before the motorized cavalry.

Gilpin also notes Warren's polemic fixation on Brown's alleged personality issues, with reference to one of the most controversial incidents in Brown's career, the execution of several proslavery partisan fighters in "Bleeding Kansas":

After describing Brown's bloody killings at Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856, Warren highlighted only one fact: Brown stole his victims' horses and traded them on the profitable black market of territorial Kansas.

The exploitation of this trope was one of Warren's shrewdest thematic strategies. What better way to vilify Brown than to make him not just spiritually misled but also a common criminal? Warren's biography shows an almost obsessive attention to the debated incidents in Brown's life, specifically the continual1ies about his presence at the Pottawatomie massacre: "The truth was out at last, and the world had prepared a motive-a motive which would fit the martyr .... The world had justified the murderer .... It is a little more difficult to justify a horse thief." Warren was most incensed that Brown's defenders justified his actions while stolen property was on its "way north to be sold." Here Warren was able to condemn Brown, his mythmakers, and the North all in one stroke. [my emphasis]
Gilpin reviews numerous ways in which Warren's propagandist John Brown biography was hack history. He writes that "the main agenda of the biography was blaming the North for the Civil War and excusing the South for slavery." (Yes, blaming black people for awful things whites do to them started long before George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin and conservative whites rushed to defend the killer.)

Gilpin describes how the Southern Agrarians/Fugitives promoted a Lost Cause pseudohistory in the service of defending segregation and white racism as it was practiced in the American South in the 1920s and 1930s. His judgment on the Agrarians' manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, is sound:

I'll Take My Stand, and Warren's essay ["The Briar Patch"] particularly, patently ignored the actual racial realities of the interwar South. Warren's ideological gymnastics perfected the polemic he had been crafting with his fellow Fugitive-Agrarians throughout the previous decade. With the same historical background, arguments, and deftly crafted prose he had used in John Brown, "The Briar Patch" represented an attempt to convince and mobilize. Both book and essay sought believers in the ways of the Old South, particularly those sympathetic to the cultural values, social system, and racial hierarchies of this imagined world.
I do think he assigns the Agrarians more than their fair share of influence in promoting the neo-Confederate viewpoint at the time:

The Fugitive-Agrarian publications reveal the successful appropriation of history in the campaign to wrest control of the South's present and the future. Warren's John Brown and his contribution to I'll Take My Stand were part of an organized effort to convince the nation that their imagined South (past and present) was real. This impressive intellectual uprising effectivelycreated a history of the Old South that could be used as a model for the New South. In the hands of these talented men, historical writing gave legitimacy to what otherwise would have been dismissed as the rantings of hillbillies straight out ofMenoken's Scopes columns. Instead, Warren and his compatriots transformed the South, an amalgamation of historical reality, imagined past, and hopes for the future, into the torchbearer of the American republic.
Not that I want to let the Agrarians off the hook for their defense of segregation and the rank racism they employed in making it. It's rather than they were taking as their material a Lost Cause ideology that was well-established in white Southern culture and politics. And there were, unfortunately, no shortage of historians that were not particular associated with the Agrarian trend who promoted a Lost Cause outlook.

The Agrarians' cranky defense of rural poverty, ignorance and deprivation, their superficial criticism of Yankee industrialism, and their generally stuffy prose all served to limit their influence. And, as I discussed in last year's Confederate "Heritage" Month series, their association in the 1930s with The American Review, a reactionary journal whose editorial policy was openly admiring of Mussolini's brand of Fascism, pretty much wrecked the Agrarians as any kind of a coherent movement, even among intellectuals.

But despite what I see as some overestimation on his part of their actual distinct influence, Gilpin describes their viewpoint perceptively. He understands that their were about promoting segregation and white racism through their neo-Confederate/Lost Cause writing:

While this uniquely Southern project would continue to reverberate through literature, art, and history for much of the twentieth century, its roots were in an impassioned plea for regional redemption. The Fugitive-Agrarian project was designed to transform the present and direct the future. But the "Dixie" invoked in these texts, that land of happy, kinkyheaded slaves, beholden to kindly, benevolent masters, had never existed. The antebellum South, in reality, depended on subjecting blacks to all manner of degradation: of body, of mind, and of spirit. ...

Within a decade, the Fugitives' arguments had found overwhelming national sympathy. The group's romanticization of an imagined "land of cotton" was not just eerily effective, it spoke to the long shadows that the CivilWar continued to cast over American culture and society.That great national trauma allowed this intellectual tradition not just to embed itself powerfully in a regional culture and identity but to reforge the zeitgeist of our national past. The American impulse to imagine Southern plantations at the far end of a tree-shaded drive rather than at the slave quarters speaks to this understanding. Our insistence that the CivilWar was a valorous tragedy without blame owesmuch toWarren and his compatriots. This is the legacy of the Fugitive imagination.
Others of my posts on Robert Penn Warren and the Lost Cause/neo-Confederacy:

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2011, April 10: Southern Agrarian Robert Penn Warren, which deals with "The Briar Patch" essay

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2011, April 30: Evaluating the Southern Agrarians

Robert Penn Warren on William Faulkner, 1934 03/29/2011

Tags: , , , , , ,

No comments: