Thursday, April 12, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 12: Southern Agrarian Andrew Nelson Lytle

I did a post last year about Southern Agrarian Andrew Nelson Lytle and his essay that was the eighth of the 12 essays in the 1930 book, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, was by Andrew Nelson Lytle, "The Hind Tit." The book consisted of essays by 12 different Southern writers arguing in various ways for the virtues of Southern agricultural societies. Or at least nominally. The book is mainly a defense of the attitdues, assumptions and institutions of segregation and white racism.

This is a somewhat different take on the same essay.

Andrew Nelson Lytle (1902-1995)

Andrew Lytle was a writer and later a professor of history at the University of the South, which is now Sewanee University of the South. The brief text on Lytle at Vanderbilt University's Fugitives and Agrarians: Brief Biographical Sketches says that he "was the only member of the Agrarian literary group to actually support himself by farming while he wrote his novels."

Lytle's essay "The Hind Tit" is the kind of Blut und Boden idealization of the hearty life of the poor but virtuous farm family that normally has a great deal more appeal to those who grew up in the city than to those acquainted with the real life of family farms. The first part of his essay presents a fairly garbled history and class analysis of Southern agriculture from antebellum times to the present of 1930. He manages to take a couple of swipes at Andrew Jackson along the way for somehow having something to do with dividing the small white farmers from the planter class. One of the more coherent passages of this section gives a criticism of postwar economic conditions providing a glimpse of what he thought the desirable condition would have been. Not unlike present-day Republicans who blame the mortgage debt calamity on too many low-income people buying houses, somehow he figures that small farmers aspiring to better there conditions brought about a situation where many formerly independent white farmers became tenant farmers:

Such conditions broke many, and for the first time in the Cotton Kingdom, white tenantry developed. This was a definite social loss. With an entirely different race to serve the rich men as in slavery, the small white man could feel no very strong social inequality, and those who lived in isolation none at all. Now, economic dependence brought about social lines drawn, not upon a comparative use and enjoyment of nature, but upon a possession of cash. [my emphasis]
Lytle's idyllic society of virtuous white farm families presupposed a substantial supply of African-American tenant farmers, whose well-being was irrelevant to his view of the ideal agrarian paradise, at least so far as the reader can tell from this essay.

The dosage of bad history is followed by a deadly-dull description of the life of the virtuous white antebellum farm family. The dullness of the account is a (presumably unintentional) indictment of his own silly vision; it suggests the stagnation and boredom that was the experience of many members of those poor small white farmers in the real world.

He includes a marginally more interesting section on folk songs that he thinks sheds life of the happy existence of his idealized small farmers. Then he sums up his explicitly reactionary call for small farmers to reject progress and any attempts at increased prosperity and productivity. Earlier in the essay, he had written:

One common answer [for farmers in the struggle against Yankee Industrialism] is heard on every hand: Industrialize the farm; be progressive; drop old-fashioned ways and adopt scientific methods. These slogans are powerfully persuasive and should be, but are not, regarded with the most deliberate circumspection, for under the guise of strengthening the farmer in his way of life they are advising him to abandon it and become absorbed. Such admonition coming from the quarters of the enemy is encouraging to the landowner in one sense only: it assures him he has something left to steal. Through its philosophy of Progress it is committing a mortal sin to persuade farmers that they can grow wealthy by adopting its methods. A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn. [my emphasis]
The reality was in 1930 that even large farms weren't looking like places to grow wealthy, and small farming wasn't even looking like a way to survive. In the latter part of his essay, he expands on this vision of rejecting Yankee progress for this imaginary agrarian ideal:

The Agrarian South, therefore, whose culture was impoverished but not destroyed by the war and its aftermath, should dread industrialism like a pizen [poisonous] snake. For the South long since finished its pioneering. It can only do violence to its provincial life when it allows itself to be forced into the aggressive state of mind of an earlier period. To such an end does bookkeeping lead. It is the numbering of a farm's resources - its stacks of fodder, bushels of corn, bales of cotton, its stock and implements, and the hundreds of things which make up its economy. And as the only reason to number them is to turn them into cash—that is, into weapons for warfare - the agrarian South is bound to go when the first page is turned and the first mark crosses the ledger.

The good-road programs drive like a flying wedge and split the heart of this provincialism - which prefers religion to science, handcrafts to technology, the inertia of the fields to the acceleration of industry, and leisure to nervous prostration. Like most demagoguery, it has been advertised as a great benefit to the farmer. Let us see just what the roads have done and who they benefit? They certainly can be of no use to the farmer who cannot afford to buy a truck. He finds them a decided drawback. The heavy automobile traffic makes it hazardous for him even to appear on the main highways. But if he has the temerity to try them, they prove most unsatisfactory. Besides being a shock to his mules' feet, it is difficult for the team to stand up on the road's hard, slick surface.

The large farmers and planting corporations who can afford to buy trucks are able to carry their produce to market with less wear and tear than if they drove over rougher dirt pikes. But this is a dubious benefit, for the question is not between trucks on good or bad roads, but between teams [of animals drawing wagons] on passable roads and trucks on arterial highways. [my emphasis]
It's amazing to see him argue even against good roads. And against farmers trying to keep track of their own financial accounts. But that's where this kind of Blut und Boden argument takes him. He quotes with approval a comment from one of his virtuous farmers, supposedly from the days of the Martin Van Buren administration, "as soon as a farmer begins to keep books, he'll go broke shore as hell." Even worse, from reactionaries' point of view, he might even begin questioning the crooked dealing of his tenant-farming landlord or the store owners who are cheating him on measures and prices.

His dystopian vision for the rural South is well expressed, again probably unintentionally, by his praise just quoted for the "provincialism" that "prefers religion to science, handcrafts to technology, the inertia of the fields to the acceleration of industry, and leisure to nervous prostration," the latter presumed to be the consequences of more efficient farming.

If this essay in 1930 could have served as anything more than a cynical ideological excuse for non-farmers to look with indifference on the farm crisis that actually began before the Great Depression itself set it, it's hard for me to imagine what those other purposes might be. In this nightmare vision of unending stagnation, the assumption that it was founded on unending white supremacy was so basic that it scarcely needed to be mentioned, though he did let it slip through in his frivolous description of the development of white tenant farming.

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