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Why the Southern Renaissance?

ISSUE:  Spring 1975

Why the Southern Renaissance ever occurred is still something of a mystery. All that is attempted here is an analysis of some explanations that have been offered by others and a few additional speculations. Before turning to the critical why, however, it is necessary to determine just what it is we are talking about. In the first place, we are stuck with a misnomer in the very word “renaissance.” For neither in its literal sense nor in its classic historical usage is this French word really applicable to what happened in the South. As for the literal meaning when applied to that phenomenon, Allen Tate has observed that “it was more precisely a birth, not a rebirth.” Certainly nothing comparable had happened before in the South that could conceivably be said to have been reborn in the twentieth century. The second and more common historical usage of “renaissance” is the one to describe the evocation of the ghost of a dead civilization, as the ghost of Hellenic culture was evoked in thirteenth to fifteenth-century Italy. And surely nothing of that sort took place in the South. Nevertheless, we are stuck with this misnomer and will continue to use it. It has been applied with comparable looseness to New England in the early nineteenth century and by F. O. Matthiessen to Northern letters in the 1850’s.

In continuing to apply the word “renaissance” to the twentieth-century Southern phenomenon it is well to remember that the movement was pretty strictly limited to the literary arts—poetry, fiction, and drama. It did not spill over to any significant degree to the visual or performing arts. There was no Southern Renaissance in music, painting, sculpture, or architecture, so far as I am aware. To turn H. L. Mencken’s famous quip in “The Sahara of the Bozart” upside down, one could say that an oboe player or a drypoint etcher was much rarer than a poet down there at a time when poets—to use another Menckenism-—had become as common as evangelists or snake-oil salesmen.

Assuming agreement, therefore, that our subject is confined to an explosion of literary productivity, the next question is what literary products we are talking about. There is no doubt whatever that Southern writers were remarkably active in this period, that the presses roared with their products, and that hucksters sold some of them by the millions. With their special regard for numbers, the sociologists have come forward with a sort of quantification of the Renaissance. Howard Odum estimated that in the first half of the twentieth century Southern writers turned out no fewer than five thousand titles of what he described as “full-sized-book literature.” Classifying half of these as “literature in the traditional sense,” he broke these down into 1,000 volumes of fiction, 500 of biography, 400 of poetry, 125 of drama, and threw in 800 volumes on history and 800 on Negro life for good measure. Not content with purely quantitative standards, he ventured into what he called “the qualitative measure” by pointing out that “Pulitzer awards have been made to Southern authors in more than half of the years since the first awards in 1917” and that “of the eleven best sellers that have exceeded or approximated a million copies, ten were by Southern authors.”

We immediately run into difficulties with the quantitative standard, however, when we discover that “the most widely read American writer of the twentieth century” was Erskine Caldwell, that one of his works sold more than 6,500,000 copies and six others more than 2,000,000 copies each. And this at a time when all of William Faulkner’s novels save “Sanctuary” had gone out of print. Clearly there is something misleading about market figures in this field. The case for them is not very much improved by a literary critic who has compiled a list of some 700 so-called “Renaissance authors” of “book-length volumes which have been issued by reputable publishers of more than local prestige.” He even apologizes for inadvertent omissions. One trouble is that in scanning the columns of this list state by state compiled ten years ago one so rarely runs across a recognizable name. If we are not talking in terms of millions of books or hundreds of authors, then in just what terms are we talking? Briefly, the answer is, in much smaller terms.

When Allen Tate was pressed to “invoke certain names” a decade ago he said that “if the Elizabethan Age would still be the glory of English literature without Shakespeare, the new literature of the Southern states would still be formidable without Faulkner.” He then suggested in support of that view the names of twenty additional writers. How that list will stand up after another fifty or a hundred or three hundred and fifty years one cannot know. About some of the names there is already dispute among critics. But if as many as ten remained undisputed by the end of the century and as many as three after another century, that would still constitute a formidable record indeed—a phenomenon worthy of comparison with distinguished periods in Western literary history.

If this suggests the scope of the phenomenon, it remains to agree roughly on the time of its appearance and its duration. It is sometimes said to have taken place between the two world wars. There would probably be less difficulty agreeing about its beginnings than its endings. Some of the major figures are still alive and still productive, while some of the younger writers may not yet have reached their full stature. It is generally agreed that the Renaissance began in the 1920’s, though there is some dispute about just how early in that decade.

I like to think of the year 1929 and those immediately following as specially significant. In 1929 appeared Faulkner’s “Sartoris” and “The Sound and the Fury” and within three years “As I Lay Dying,” “Sanctuary,” and “Light in August”—all with blinding suddenness and little comprehension from critics or public. In 1929 came Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel” and first books by Robert Penn Warren and Merrill Moore. Katherine Anne Porter’s first book “Flowering Judas” came in 1930 and on its heels followed the first books of Caroline Gordon, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and Lillian Hellman. Tate, Ransom, and Davidson had already published. A second generation of authors was already in the wings and a third one was to come. Together they dominated the literary scene in America for three, perhaps four, decades. Their influence fluctuated over that period, as did individual productivity, and full recognition of the stature of some was slow in coming. But the dramatic suddenness of the coming was unmatched by any previous burst of creative literature in American history.

A few critics caught a glimmering of the Southern movement’s significance quite early, but only a glimmering. In 1927 Herschel Brickell believed that it was no “exaggeration to speak of a Renaissance of literature in the South,” and in 1930 Howard Mumford Jones agreed, though he predicted that it would “remain merely charming and interesting.” As late as 1942 Alfred Kazin, while acknowledging Faulkner’s experimental boldness, could pronounce him “curiously dull, furiously commonplace, and often meaningless, suggesting some exasperated sullenness of mind, some distant atrophy or indifference.” The French were quicker to acclaim the eminence of Southern achievement, and by 1954 the London Times Literary Supplement could say without challenge that “the literature [of the South] . . . has solidly established itself as the most important, the most talented, interesting, and valuable in the United States.”

Turning to the question of why one should remember first how crude and inappropriate for the task at hand are the instruments of the historian. Typically history deals with groups rather than individuals—with nations, classes, political parties, governments, industries, interests. True, writers may be described as a group, but their significant acts, motives, purposes, values, habits, and achievements at the level we are talking about are highly individual. I have rarely met one who could give me a coherent account of what made him tick—much less a convincing account of his peers. His is a lonely trade. The only important thing he does in his whole life, so far as we are concerned, he does alone in a room by himself, quite unobserved. The task of explaining and understanding him is better suited to the skills of the biographer or the psychologist than to those of a historian.

Those historical forces the historian deals with in writing of wars, revolution, religious and ideological conflicts, and movements like industrialization and urbanization are ill adapted to fathoming the mysteries of human mind in its rare moments of high creativity. It is important to remember that we are dealing here not with thousands of people or hundreds, but with a mere handful—fewer than one in a million. And remember too that they are scattered over a vast area, in villages, towns, cities, or remote country places. Their formative years are behind them before they meet each other. They may congregate briefly in Nashville, Charleston, Richmond, or New Orleans in small numbers, but what they do in common is of less significance than what they do alone. And the important shaping influence on the writer’s art may not be his daily drinking companion in Nashville or New Orleans but a man he has never met in Dublin or Rome or for that matter in sixteenth-century London or thirteenth-century Florence.

Some skepticism is advisable toward historians who are willing to tell you just why it was that Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides appeared in fifth-century Athens, or a handful of poets suddenly got active in second-century Rome, or a Dante and a Petrarch turned up in Italy when they did. To take a more recent instance, one contemporary with, though greater than, the Southerners under scrutiny here, there is the mystery of the creative explosion of artistic, literary, scientific, and philosophical talent that occurred in Austria-Hungary at the time when that atrophied, ramshackle, and rather ludicrous Empire staggered to its dissolution in 1918 and before it swooned into the arms of Adolf Hitler in 1938. That was the heyday of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, the great period of Sigmund Freud and his movement in psychoanalysis, of Schoenberg and Mahler in music, of Kafka and Rilke in literature, or Ernst Mach, Popper, Carnap, and Wittgenstein in philosophy—major shaping forces of Western intellectual and artistic life in the twentieth century. In due time some historian will undertake to explain just why the whole thing happened. As a matter of fact, there is one already at work on the subject, a very learned one at Princeton. Learned or not, I still advise skepticism about his learned explanations—his reasons why.

From Vienna and Budapest to the Mississippi boondocks, the Tennessee hills, the Carolina lowlands is a far cry, but the problem is much the same—the reasons why, reasons in a field of endeavor where the non-rational so often holds sway.

First, to dispose of a few explanatory hypotheses that will not take much time. They are predominantly sociological in character and seek to correlate the Renaissance with various social changes in the South. Among the social variables that have been suggested are increasing prosperity, the industrial revolution, the rise of cities, the “leaven of liberalism,” changing attitudes toward the Negro, and a transfusion of “new blood” from the North. Were I an impatient man—and such hypotheses certainly provoke impatience—I would simply say “nonsense” and pass on. But I am an academician indoctrinated with the creed that sociologists (and historians who imbibe their theories) like other disciplines must be treated with due respect and their arguments patiently answered.

In the first place the Renaissance was a depression phenomenon and if correlated with any social condition it was certainly not prosperity. Secondly, both industries and cities had been growing at a desultory rate for several decades without producing any literary phenomenon of this sort, and when cities and industries really did start booming in the forties and fifties they produced no discernible effect on literary output. Thirdly, if the major literary figures can be tagged with any ideological identification (and I am reluctant to do so), it was not liberalism. If there were any appreciable change in attitudes toward the Negro in the twenties and thirties, the two major Negro figures in the Southern Renaissance, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, failed to note such change. And, incidentally, in the period since such changes in racial attitudes have occurred, no black author in the South has attained the stature of Wright or Ellison. And finally, whatever “new blood” came South, it is distinctly old blood that we are dealing with here.

Donald Davidson, among others, has taken particular delight in making paradoxes out of the sociological determinants. Pointing out that “By every cultural standard that the sociologist knows how to devise, Mississippi rates low in the national scale during William Faulkner’s formative period,” Davidson challenges the sociologists to explain why Faulkner “or some novelist of comparable stature, did not appear, during this period, somewhere north of the Ohio— say in Massachusetts or Wisconsin.” He goes on to say that in view of the “extremely forbidding” and backward condition of Mississippi in that period he “can hardly see how Mr. Faulkner survived, much less wrote novels,” and that in view of reliable sociological evidence “a William Faulkner in Mississippi would be a theoretical impossibility” and “would have to originate in, say, Massachusetts, where the cultural factors were favorable to literary interests.” Allen Tate has taken the argument a step further by expressing his “paradoxical conviction . . .that the very backwardness of Mississippi, and of the South as a whole, might partially explain the rise of the new literature. . . .”

We shall return later to the half-serious, perhaps quarter-serious, part of Tate’s explanatory paradox—for I think there is at least a grain of truth in it, enough to be refined and preserved. For the present, however, we shall be content to use it along with the other evidence to lay to rest forever the cruder sociological explanations of the Southern Renaissance. Needless to say, there are subtler and more sophisticated sociological variables and subtler sociologists that deserve consideration.

It is now time to turn to theories of more substance. One of these is the theory that the basic impulse behind the sudden release of Southern literary creativity, the “cause” if you prefer that tricky word, was profoundly defensive—an urge to defend the native region from unjust attack and repel the invasion of alien values. This theory had perhaps its most explicit formulation from W. J. Cash, who called it “the decisive factor.” As he put it, “the outburst proceeded fundamentally from, and represented basically the patriotic response of men of talent to, the absorbing need of the South to defend itself, to shore up its pride at home, and to justify itself before the world.” Since this theory, or some variation on it, has also received support from some of the major Southern men of letters, it cannot be dismissed out of hand and must be weighed with care.

Of the intensity of the attack and the incentives for patriotic defense there can be no doubt. The bleak and shabby cultural landscape of the Old Confederacy was the favorite butt of wits, caricaturists, and debunkers in the twenties. H. L. Mencken set the pace and led the pack with enormous gusto and glee. Dixie, he declared, was a land of “paralyzed cerebrums.” It was “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. There are single acres in Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac. . . .” As for “critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like . . . there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf. . . . In all these fields the South is an awe-inspiring blank—a brother to Portugal, Serbia and Albania.” The intellectual vacuity begged comparison with interstellar space. It reminded him of “Asia Minor, resigned to Armenians, Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles.” Granting the glories of the old régime, “One could no more imagine a Lee or a Washington in the Virginia of today than one could imagine a Huxley in Nicaragua.” As for Georgia, which was “little removed from savagery,” here was “a state with more than half the area of Italy and more population than either Denmark or Norway, and yet in thirty years it has not produced a single idea.” The whole region was “a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.” Realizing that he had struck a funny bone of his public, Mencken continued his attack in the Smart Set and later in his American Mercury and was joined by scores of imitators.

Two things about this assault of South-baiters complicate the problem. One is simply the substantial amount of truth in it. That is precisely what constitutes the main mystery of the sudden flowering of literature in such a desert. In the second place, one difficulty about explaining that phenomenon as a defensive reaction to the assault is the initial response of many of the alleged defenders. The fact is that many of them joined the assault. As Cash himself remarks, “baiting the South in [the American Mercury’s] pages was one of the favorite sports of young Southerners of literary and intellectual pretensions.” It was the surest way of establishing one’s credentials, of shaking off the abhorred stigma of provincialism. Sufficient stridency about the boobs and yokels below the Potomac might even overcome the handicap of a young Southerner’s tell-tale accent during visits to New York.

The most curious manifestation of this foible was its outcropping among those who later became the most militant defenders of the South. In fact, Mencken is said to have “long been an ideal of the literary young men at Vanderbilt” and that “even Tate went around with Mencken under his arm,” In 1925 young Tate, a temporary exile in New York, published in the Nation an essay he called “Last Days of the Charming Lady,” in which he declared that the Southerner “does not inherit . . .a native culture compounded of the strength and subtlety of his New England contemporary” and that an “essential” Southern literature was made impossible by the inability of Southerners to repudiate “out-moded general notions which have lost their roots in an existing reality” and consequently had “no tradition of ideas, no consciousness of moral and spiritual values.” About the same time his friend Donald Davidson despaired of finding “a single Southern writer of merit who in his thinking and manner of expression is as clearly of the South as Robert Frost is of New England.” Southerners felt that “the gallantries of the Lost Cause, the legends of a gracious aristocracy, the stalwart traditions of Southern history” had been “mouthed over and cheapened.” They felt homeless between the abhorred slogans of “New South” and “the treacly lamentation of the old school.” John Crowe Ransom declared that “If there is a significance in the title of the magazine [The Fugitive], it lies perhaps in the sentiment of the editors (on this point I am sure we all agree) to flee from the extremes of conventionalism, whether old or new.” And in the preface to the first number of that journal he wrote, “The Fugitive flees from nothing faster than the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South.”

The turning point for these three and for others of the Nashville group came in 1925 with the trial of Scopes at Dayton, Tennessee, for the violation of the state law against teaching evolution. This brought the whole tribe of South-baiters, boob-jeerers, and yokel-tormentors led by Mencken himself to Nashville’s doorstep. From there they broadcast their mockery of the moronic idiocy of the Southern boobs. It was too much for the Nashvillians and then and there they “took their stand.” Tate declared, “I’ve attacked the South for the last time” except in so far as it has produced the “New South.” Davidson replied that he was “delighted at your own annunciation of the True Southern Spirit,” and Ransom rallied to the colors. Dayton “broke in upon our literary concerns like a midnight alarm,” wrote Davidson. To him it seemed that a “”cold Civil War” began from about that moment . . . a long sustained bombardment. . . . We were religious bigots. We were Ku Kluxers. We were lynchers. We had hookworm, we had pellagra, we had share-croppers, we had poll taxes, we had poor whites, we had fundamentalists. We did not have enough schools . . .paved roads . . .skyscrapers . . .modern plumbing. . . . Our women were too hoity-toity about ancestors. Our men all chawed tobacco or drank mint juleps and sometimes did both.” It seemed to him incredible “that nobody in the South knew how to reply to a vulgar rhetorician like H. L. Mencken,” and that “no real defense was being made,” that “a kind of wholesale surrender was in progress,” and that “the Trojan Horse of liberalism had disgorged a horde of social scientists” within the walls.

Avoiding the discredited strategy of the late Confederates, the Nashvillians decided promptly that the best defensive was an offensive and assumed the aggressive posture from the start. Taking their native South as “the best available existing model of the traditional society,” they professed to set it in contrast “with the giant industrialism, anti-traditional in all its features, that had possessed the North” and was making inroads into their own region. “In championing this South,” wrote Davidson, “we were abandoning the defensive attitude of the nineteenth-century South” of Henry Grady “and the servile collaborationism of the modern Southern liberals. For the first time since Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863 we were taking the South into an offensive movement. We were attacking not retreating. But this time it was an intellectual offensive, executed at the highest level and in the broadest terms we could command.”

No Gettysburgs, no Bloody Angles ensued, and the invaded could scarcely have been less aware of the invasion. But the invaders vicariously derived the thrills of conquest and vengeance from their crusade. In the words of Davidson, the most ardent crusader, theirs was “the cause of civilized [i. e. , traditional] society, as we have known it in the Western World, against the new barbarism of science and technology controlled and directed by the modern power state.” It was, in fact, a kind of counter-culture movement, and partook inwardly—though with none of the outward trappings—of some of the élan and some of the perversity of its more recent counterpart.

There were really very few active participants, and of the Twelve Southerners who took part in their major manifesto, “I’ll Take My Stand,” in 1930, only five, Ransom, Tate, Davidson, Warren, and Andrew Nelson Lytle could be said to have figured in an important way in the literary Renaissance. Other prominent Southern writers of no connection with the Nashville group were no doubt influenced and excited by some of their ideas. The very posture of cultural defiance and independence, coming as it did on the heels of the Panic of 1929 and accompanying the deflation of industrial pretensions, suffused among many Southerners a new mood of release and autonomy from dominant national values. As Davidson wrote Tate in late October, 1929, “The terrific industrial “crises” now occurring almost daily . . . give present point to all the line of thinking and argument we propose to do. . . . It all means more ammunition to us.” There is some truth in the observation of Edward Weeks in the Atlantic that “it is the Depression which really marks the fountainhead of Southern genius. . . . No area of North or West could match that quality of competition.”

I personally recall a visit to Vanderbilt in the early 1930’s in the company of a small delegation of Chapel Hillians who had the temerity to accept a challenge to debate the Agrarians on their own turf. The visitors were clearly suspected of having emerged from the Trojan Horse. The verve, confidence, and spirited conviction of the Agrarians gave them an enormous advantage and an overpowering sense of purpose. It is quite probable that the values they invoked often found their way into work of serious literary character.

It is one thing to grant the excitement of a defensive movement voiced by a few eloquent and passionate men, some of whom were then or later became distinguished writers. It is quite another thing to say, as W. J. Cash did, that the defensive purpose was “the decisive factor” behind the Southern Renaissance, or that its literary treasures “represented basically the patriotic response . . .of the South to defend itself.” What sort of Southern defense is “The Sound and the Fury” or “The Violent Bear It Away” or “Flowering Judas” or “Brother to Dragons?” What mad propagandist would perpetrate such works to defend any cause, just or unjust? For the language of defense or attack is the language of propaganda, however high a cause it serves. It finds no place in literature of the level that commands worldwide acclaim.

It is true, of course, that numerous works of Southern writers, particularly those in the best-seller lists, are clearly recognizable as pro-Southern or anti-Southern and are in some degree tracts of celebration or exposure. The latter typically choose as their subject matter the more degraded elements in the population. “Tobacco Road” and “God’s Little Acre” come to mind as examples. It is not the subject matter that is significant, however. The same class of people is the subject of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The fact that Cash could equate Faulkner with Erskine Caldwell is a clue to his qualification as critic. The “pro-Southern” or celebratory novel often takes as its subject the tragedy of the Civil War and the fall of the planter régime. But one has only to think of “Gone With the Wind” in connection with “Absalom, Absalom!” to evaluate the “defense” thesis. Those who bring forward Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” in support of the thesis had best give that poem another reading—a more careful one this time. Racial injustice in the South is the theme of numerous novels, and here, with apologies, I invite a comparison between a forgotten but one-time best-seller, “Strange Fruit,” on the one hand and “Light in August” on the other. I shall leave the defenders of “defense” to make what they can for their casual hypothesis out of such works as “Night Rider” or “World Enough and Time,” out of “Losing Battles” or “The Petrified Man,” out of “The Artificial Nigger” or “The Bear,” out of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” or “A Rose for Emily.”

Here I quote from an essay I first published in 1956. “The best of the Southern novelists have never set out to defend the values or the prejudices or the errors of any particular age or section. It is true that their books are often filled with tales of horror and lust and betrayal and degradation. But they have not paused to reckon their popularity in attacking the values of their own age or any other. They have not set up as defenders of a cause, either one lost or one still sought. They have proved themselves able to confront the chaos and irony of history with the admission that they can fit them into no neat pattern and explain them by no pat theory.” I have found no reason to change these views after nineteen years. None of these writers was a purveyor of what Warren once labeled “The Great Alibi”—and incidentally Warren never implied that they were.

Abandoning the defense thesis as hopeless, I turn next to one of wider currency and more acclaim. This is Allen Tate’s “backward-glance” theory. “With the war of 1914—1918,” he writes, “the South re-entered the world—but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border: that backward glance gave us the Southern renaissance, a literature conscious of the past in the present.” In an earlier essay he had said: “The Southern novelist has left his mark upon the age; but it is of the age. From the peculiar historical consciousness of the Southern writer has come good work of a special order; but the force of this consciousness is quite temporary. It has made possible the curious burst of intelligence that we get at a crossing of the ways, not unlike, on an infinitesimal scale, the outburst of poetic genius at the end of the sixteenth century when commercial England had already begun to crush feudal England. The Histories and Tragedies of Shakespeare record the death of the old régime, and Doctor Faustus gives up feudal order for world power.”

Robert Penn Warren offers a similar theory by suggesting “a parallel between New England before the Civil War and the South after World War I to the present. The old notion of shock, a cultural shock, to a more or less closed and static society—you know, what happened on a bigger scale in the Italian Renaissance or Elizabethan England. After 1918 the modern industrial world, with its good and bad, hit the South; all sorts of ferments began. . . . There isn’t much vital imagination, it seems to me, that doesn’t come from this sort of shock, imbalance, need to “relive,” redefine life.”

There is a generous amplitude and an imaginative insight about these theories that inspires credibility. Of “the peculiar historical consciousness of the Southern writer” there can be no question. It is the hallmark of the regional genre. And scores of instances spring to mind that substantiate the characterization of “the Southern renaissance [as] a literature conscious of the past in the present.” It is in the present or the recent past rather than in the Old Régime that the major Southern fiction writers have most often sought their subject matter. No matter how contemporary or recent the period they treat, however, the past is always a part of the present, shaping, haunting, duplicating, or reflecting it. The past is indeed an essential dimension of the present. As one of Faulkner’s characters says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Examples from the work of Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, Thomas Wolfe, and Tennessee Williams provide ample illustration.

It is, indeed, difficult to imagine this body of literature without resort in some measure to the “backward-glance” or “crossroads” hypothesis. It was almost a necessary condition of the phenomenon. Without it there is no satisfactory accounting for powerful inner conflicts of these writers, the unrelenting tensions between what Warren once called “the Southerner’s loyalties and pieties—real values, mind you” and “his religious and moral sense, equally real values.” The “pieties”—blood kin, regional pride, manners, history— clashed with moral values of the present. It was the conflict between a traditional society and a modern one. The conflict necessitated a coming to terms with the past. The “cross-roads” and the “backward-glance” are necessary conditions to what happened.

But “necessary conditions” are not historical explanations. The logicians properly insist on a distinction here. The conditions can exist without the historical event to which they are necessary occurring. After all, feudalism was overwhelmed by commercialism in many other countries without producing the Elizabethan literary phenomenon. And when we rely on the “crossroads” theory to explain the Southern Renaissance we have to admit that our “crossroads” are not as fixed in time or place as firmly as would be convenient to accounting for the suddenness and apparent co-ordination of this cultural happening. Or for that matter its continuation. Southerners had been encountering historic crossroads for quite a while before the 1920’s. It is true that the major figures of the first generation of Renaissance writers were all born within a few years around the turn of the century. But that leaves a second and perhaps a third generation of writers missing the crossroads or facing different ones. Yet they manifested many of the characteristics and inner conflicts of the first generation. I am thinking here particularly of the generation of Flannery O’Connor and William Styron.

Perhaps the historian had best concentrate on “necessary conditions” and leave causation and explanation to non-historians, who are less hobbled by logic. Cleanth Brooks presents a promising list of what he calls “the elements in the life of the South which have an important bearing on its literature.” Without his permission, I shall call them “necessary conditions.” They are as follows: “(1) the concreteness of human relationships, including the concreteness of moral problems; (2) the conflict and tension which everywhere confront one in the Southern scene and which, because they are conflict and tension, make for drama; (3) the pervading sense of community; ( 4 ) the sense of religious wholeness—I dare say that the South is the last part of the country which still believes instinctively in the supernatural; (5) the belief that human nature is mysterious and relatively intractable, and that it is not a kind of social putty which can be shaped as the politician or the social scientist may be tempted to shape it; and (6) a sense of the tragic dimension of life.” He adds that “If the South still believes in the “American dream,” it is at least chastened in its belief, not naïve and uncritical.” In his opinion these “elements” brought the South “closer to the older European tradition” than were any other parts of America.

Brooks admits that his six “elements” are only a few of many that might have been named, only a few of what I choose to call “necessary conditions.” He would be the first to concede that his elements had been there a long time—waiting for a Renaissance to happen. They can, therefore, hardly qualify as “causes”—only conditions. It is one of the most important contributions the critic and literary historian can make to define, explore, and understand such necessary conditions. The task is endless, for there is no end to the conceivable number of them. But assuming the impossible and imagining that we did succeed in putting together a complete and accurate compilation of them, what then? I am afraid our task of finding the cause of it all would still be a failure, and like some modern Sisyphus we would be condemned to start all over again.

I suppose I am forced in the end to agree with Donald Davidson when, in seeking the explanation for just one aspect of the Renaissance, he wrote: “I do not think the literary historian can ever explain, by piecing together bits of fact and theorizing from cause to effect, just how this particular group of young men happened to become a group of poets in Nashville, Tennessee.” He then promptly and rashly and inconsistently proceeds to “venture an hypothesis” —another hypothesis, which takes the form of a question: “Suppose that Ransom had been a Californian, Tate a native of Iowa, Warren of Kansas, Davidson of Maine,” etcetera, etcetera. Of course, the obvious answer to Davidson’s question is that thousands of young men of equally authentic Southern heritage gathered in those same years at scores of other Southern colleges—and nothing much happened.

Besides, we are left with an endless number of other questions, many of them yet unasked, which might be equally important. For example, why was it that of the major writers all over the South, as Warren has observed, “almost all of them of that period had some important experience outside the South, then returned there—some strange mixture of continuity and discontinuity in their experience—a jagged quality.” And if we venture beyond the South, as we most certainly should in any thorough search for the causes of things, the mysteries thicken and multiply. What about that strange young man of Dublin, Paris, and Trieste and how his influence happened to penetrate to Oxford, Mississippi, at a particular moment? And there are similar questions about the influence of an American exile from St. Louis who settled in London and of another American exile from Idaho who wound up in Rapallo.


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