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Leaders in the Desert

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929


But has the South lost all leadership? The answers to that question—there have been answers a-plenty —are of three kinds. First, the patronizing voice characteristic of a certain very young but very “intelligent minority” wholly concedes the point. Concedes, did I say? Rather boasts it as the tinsel armor is pulled off the mock knights with more hubbub and clatter than one could expect. There are no leaders in the South, therefore whatever one finds in the South cannot be leadership. The reasoning is good, if—

The second sort of answer is of old breed, and it is still the most popular. Who says the South has lost its leadership? Put him out! Wasn’t Woodrow Wilson from the South? Was not Newton D. Baker educated at Washington and Lee University? Oscar Underwood and John Sharp Williams were recently in the Senate. Who can point to Carter Glass but with pride? The political leaders of the South compare favorably with those of any other section of the country or with any other country of the globe. If that sounds like burlesque to you, consult recent issues of leading newspapers in some of the capital cities of the South.

The third position is typical of a growing attitude of dispassionate candor. It evades the temptation to furnish what the boys call “an alibi,” by explaining why the South cannot be expected to play the part it played when its states were the most populous and in many ways the important states; with proper explanation of the results of the Civil War and the effects of the one-party system, and that not the winning party, on leadership. With painful honesty the admission slips out that though there have been the vivid and vigorous Williams, the bravely independent Bruce, the powerful and polished Underwood, the brilliant Glass, yet there have also been Tilman, and Blease, Jeff Davis—whose name was never Jefferson—and the histrionic Senator Heflin. Considering everything, the case could be worse; the question raises itself chiefly because of a brilliant historical record. It is not a day of political genius and the general picture in the South is about a normal one. Even in the fires of the heated arguments of 1928, prohibition and the klan were never fused. Pretty cheap methods were used, as is often true of such campaigns, but none of the atrocities were committed that would have been inevitable if ignorant bigotry, had waved a ruthless bloody shirt over the contest. The South has in the recent past produced some of the most ignorant and narrow and at the same time some of the noblest and ablest leaders in national life; but it has not supplied any of the Daughertys, Vares, or Falls, nor even one jewel like Mrs. Mabel Willebrandt. So the moderate as always takes a safe middle ground.


It is hardly reasonable, it seems to me, to expect today the South to be furnishing leaders in national politics, and the nature of state politics at the moment scarcely invites or gives opportunity to greatness. Were a Washington, a Jefferson, a Madison, Monroe, Marshall, or Mason living today he would not probably be in position to occupy a place of national importance. The reasons are sufficiently obvious. These same reasons would perhaps have caused a development in interest and activity so different from what they knew that they would look to us less like the men we have met in the history books than their faces and figures would without the proper wigs and small clothes.

The South knew two generations of compromise and reconstruction. When a man is rebuilding his house, recently, pulled down over his family’s heads, lie doesn’t go out to lead his neighbor, however much he may feel fitted to improve that neighbor’s ways of living—or voting. Carlyle insisted that “heroes” are born, not made by the occasion. He had known times to call loudly for great men and no great men answered. Maybe. But then certainly there have been great men who would never have been known for anything if the times hadn’t called and called in the particular voice they knew how to answer. Neither Grant nor Lee, least of all “Stonewall” Jackson, would have been important figures without a war to give their peculiar sort of genius scope. How gracefully Washington might have closed his days as a country squire, or how shrewdly Hamilton might have built up a fortune as a city lawyer, if King George and his ministers had known how to sidestep issues.


Is not the more interesting question where is the South showing leadership, if anywhere? We have grown so used to thinking of the South in history that we forget to consider it contemporaneously. The conditions that made the South political minded have changed and the character of its people has been modified. It appears fair to expect the South in politics and business to be just about what it is: average and local in its leadership. With plenty of vigor, sound sense, and honesty, it manages its own affairs about as well as the rest of the country, without brilliancy or novelty of idea and without notably affecting the policies of the nation. Neither in the field of education nor journalism has its part been messianic. Its colleges conceivably might have produced thinkers, intellectual leaders. But all the conditions have been against such a fruition. The presidents of the colleges have been chosen, like judges, as safe rather than original men. Their function has been conceived of as the gathering of funds, the making of soothing speeches, the presiding over big boards of protestant preachers, the administering of the business side of educational plants. Scarcely the web of a net to catch thinkers? Nor would men so chosen be ambitious to find intelligent leaders for their faculties, even if salary scales made the ambition more reasonable, so much as competent instructors who are in “good standing with their colleagues.” “Colleagues” usually, have a highly developed taste for innocuous conformity. Ideas have a yeasty reputation; they are very unsettling to most academic communities. The wonder is that there have been men like Poteat, Alderman, Kirkland, and Chase chosen to head Southern institutions when mere administrative or oratorical ability has been in the minds of most trustees so much the test. Southern universities have maintained fine traditions of freedom of thought and able instruction. They have more than most colleges furnished the practical leadership for the local life of the .people. They have not supplied in any marked degree dominant figures for a new era.

The newspaper man of half a century or more ago was a powerful factor in Southern leadership. The influence of men like John M. Daniel, Thomas Ritchie, John R. Thompson, the Pollards, and others was actually greater than their surviving reputations suggest. There are trenchant writers today. Gerald Johnson has recently called the roll of “personal journalists” in the South like Robert Lathan and Julian Harris who have dared be independent progressives. But these men have as yet no great following as the old editor had: he had a party behind him and the party held fast. The editorial had as much to do as the political speech with forming political programmes, but each of the factions stood together at last because they, must; if the editor couldn’t carry his following the whole way, he waited and fell into line again. The contemporary Southern progressive or even independent editorial writer needs more courage, for he is often the lone swallow of a spring that has not yet come to his community. These men are offering leadership of the bravest sort, but as yet, I fear, they have not been very widely accepted as leaders. The real measure of the importance of this work is the future.

The Southern woods are full of free-lance journalists whose voices have sometimes pierced to great distances without covering much surface at home. Articles on the South have been as thick as snow-balls at recess-time. Gerald Johnson, J. G. deRoulhac Hamilton, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Edwin Mims, Sara Haardt, Broadus Mitchell, Emily Clark, Virginius Dabney, Nell Battle Lewis, Louis Graves, H. L. Mencken; the list is not half exhausted of names associated with this battling brigade. They have all had a vital influence in—I was about to use the Socratic figure of the gadfly and the drowsing ox. A swarm of mosquitoes and a sensitive man in a hammock are nearer the fact. But the free-lancers have been wholesome correctives rather than great forces in leadership. And certainly the country has not turned its face to the Southern sun to find great industrial or religious leaders. High honors were done Bishop James Cannon recently for activities that certainly demonstrated a power of practical leadership of no mean order. Perhaps at the moment his name has more news value throughout the United States than that of any other Southerner. Many points might be illustrated from that, but they would vary according to who held the compass. And there is only one Bishop of Africa. The Church or the Senate will have to show more than one outstanding personage before we find our Moseses and Aarons there.


I was sitting one day on a Vermont porch talking to a man from Pennsylvania. There were two things that puzzled him: Why the South had become puritanized, as was evident, he said, even before prohibition days, and why the South no longer produced “great leaders.” The answer to the first doesn’t concern us here. For the second, after I had exhausted the usual apologies, the draining by the war with consequences of poverty and ignorance, the loss of its most gifted men to richer sections—oh, the excuses are plentiful—I asked him to name six outstanding figures of Virginian stock at the end of the eighteenth century.

“Washington, Jefferson, Marshall, Clay, Madison, Monroe—”

I stopped him: “All statesmen. Now as many of, say, about 1861.” “Lee, Jackson, the Johnstons, Thomas, Stuart—” I stopped him again just as a humorous spark in his eyes warned me he might be about to spoil my point by adding “Lincoln.”

“All military leaders. You should have thought of Maury by the way.” I playfully taunted him. “Now name as many really famous Virginians of today.”

He looked puzzled, as if no name suggested itself: then his features struck fire and he began eagerly: “James Branch Cabell, Ellen Glasgow, Commander Byrd, Mary Johnston—” He hesitated and before he could go on I supplied two names for him, “Willa Cather, Julien Green.”

“How? How?” he sputtered.

“Surely,” I said, “Miss Cather was seven or more when she left Virginia, and Julien Green, though born in Paris, is a son of a Virginian. I will make no claim for his months at the University of Virginia. They both come within the term ‘Virginian stock.’”

“I see,” he said, somewhat incredulously. “You are making the point that blood, that is Virginia blood, will tell: that—”

“No,” I insisted, “no such point at all—except that the facts are as you have stated them. I don’t care how you explain them.”

And I still do and I don’t. That is, I insist that the people in the South who mean most to the world today are neither our practical politicians nor our practical warriors, but our imaginative thinkers. I suppose “Dick” Byrd is as much a romancer as James Branch Cabell. And I do not insist upon one explanation for the change, though I have my pet theories.

Isolation, reaction, and a fair chance, a real show to realize one’s best that was not open in other fields: were not all these conditions true as much in Paris or Nebraska as in Richmond or the Warm Springs? There will be few in Virginia to grant that James Branch Cabell or Ellen Glasgow is perhaps Virginia’s most distinguished citizen, but in London or Paris—: Perspective gains by distance, “I recall but two names of real literary importance produced by the South’s oldest college in a history of over two and a quarter centuries, Thomas Jefferson and James Branch Cabell;—but the same roll will show such a list of statesmen as no other college of its size can muster.” I wrote that nearly ten years ago and prophesied then that if the South would lead where its best opportunities are it would show some interest and offer some help to the development of an activity in literature. There has not been a great change in the attitude of the South in its awareness in literature or the recognition of its own writers since then. But how the names of new writers have been popping out into popular attention since then! DuBose Heyward, Julia Peterkin, Paul Green, Francis Newman, Emily, Clark, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Stark Young, Conrad Aiken, Donald Davidson: the list is too long for a leaky memory. There are dozens more. No doubt all the names conspicuous at the moment do not go to form a Southern cross; there will be shooting stars among them. But their number and the frequency with which they appear constitute a phenomenon, no less. And more significant to our purpose, no critical taste not stuffily old-fashioned could attempt to name half a dozen or a dozen representative American writers of our time without including, as my Pennsylvanian did, several authors of Southern blood. Whether they were born in France or live in New York or Nebraska, there is something indicated as to where the South may hope to find her future leadership. The law of supply and demand for men is the rising of ability to meet opportunity.

I think that explains what has happened to Southern leadership. We just had a rotation of crops. The market and the growing conditions in the South have been rather poor for statesmen and not much better for soldiers. But there were extreme forcing conditions and truck market demands for the writer. To escape the requirement of a very ungiving social environment, that expression had to be first indirect if it were to be free and honest; that is why irony, and satire or historical romance were the forms it took first. One reason why Ellen Glasgow has been a real influence on her generation is that her Southern readers read her as they would have read sweet romances, and her subtle satire got imperceptibly to them and changed the fibre of their ideas without the recognition of the presence of the medicinal poison for what it was. These earlier writers owed their success to outside consumption and outside fame. If the South catches up with its writers—most of whom go North now—who are alert to every influence and every new idea, another generation will see the whole intellectual life of the region quickened: it is the home market that sustains best any crop. Mr. Mencken was pretty blind to the signs of spring when he mistook the snows of a season for the sands of a desert. But perhaps he prefers to consider that even a Sahara of the Bozart, at the voice of a prophet, can rejoice and blossom as the rose.


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