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John Crowe Ransom in VQR

ISSUE:  Summer 2009

John Crowe Ransom was foundational in Depression-era writing for his ability to localize the South in a distinctly modern context. As a founding member of the Fugitive writers, who organized at Vanderbilt University in 1920, Ransom and other Southern Agrarian theorists contemplated the place of individualism and agrarianism in an increasingly mechanized, and seemingly dehumanized, society. Writing verse, essays, and social and political theories during a period of rapid scientific and technological advancement, Ransom addressed a modern paradox—questioning how to maintain the traditions of a particular ideal within an intellectual culture often skeptical of them. Ransom’s particular brand of Southern literary fervor, exhibited in his five essays published in VQR between 1935 and 1937, precipitated a rebirth of Southern literature, one which considered the various complexities Agrarian writers faced in a literary era inundated with modernist influences.

Writing to editor James Southall Wilson in November 1926, Ransom described his desire to “find expression in a Southern journal,” as his “position [was] one peculiarly for the Conservative South” in terms of local and literary identity. Almost a decade later, around the time that Robert Penn Warren published his 1935 essay “John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony,” Ransom published his own first piece of criticism in the VQR’s tenth anniversary Spring 1935 edition. In “Modern with the Southern Accent,” Ransom analyzes a wide swath of Southern writers, from Cather to Faulkner, describing the distinctness of “the Southern style, as of a species, with a particular connotation all its own.” Teasing out the seemingly incompatible state of Southern and modernist ideologies—one rooted in the traditions of an agrarian ideal, the other evocative of a disillusioned separation from such traditions—Ransom writes:

The South has always been slow to question the authority of habit, and to initiate basic changes, even if they have gone under the pretty name of Progress. You will find in the South some motions which look more or less to conservation, or restoration, or reform, but it is not here that you will find your revolutions. The Southern artists in going modern offer us their impression of general decay, and that is not a pleasant thing to think about.

The idea of a modern literary trajectory of decay, skepticism, and mechanization countered what Ransom and other Agrarian writers felt to be the nobleness of individual, self-gratifying work on the land. Writing in February 1935, Lambert Davis praised Ransom’s Southern Agrarian response to Modernism, asking him to “go more often into the field of literary criticism” when writing for VQR. Preferring VQR to other publications as a result of its dedication to a solidly Southern base, Ransom did not fall short of meeting Davis’s request, continually submitting essays for publication until the late 1930s.

One of Ransom’s next published essays, entitled “What Does the South Want?,” eventually became part of a well-received Agrarian symposium published by Houghton Mifflin in 1936 titled Who Owns America? In his article, Ransom writes that “the South cannot view human labor in the classical economic sense, as a commodity, or a cost . . . the indignities of modern mechanized labor are marks of slavishness, not freedom.” Again, Ransom identifies the South as a unique society, attuned to an agrarian ideology of freedom and happiness, not to one of mechanized, urban “slavishness.”

After the publication of “What Does the South Want?” in April 1936, Ransom, in writing to managing editor Davis, describes his new purposeful decision to “stick to [his] trade” and publish pieces of literary criticism rather than articles about political or economic theories. One of the essays that came out of this renewed dedication to literary criticism was Ransom’s last piece published in the VQR, titled “Criticism, Inc.” In attempting to “define and enjoy the aesthetic or characteristic values of literature,” Ransom, in his essay, outlined a revolutionary approach to criticism, eventually labeled New Criticism, which encourages close readings of texts to the exclusion of outside source materials, such as biographies, which Ransom saw as superfluous and indirectly tied to the text itself.

Soon after the publication of this foundational piece of criticism, Ransom accepted a professorship at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he founded the Kenyon Review in the fall of 1938 and served as its editor for twenty years. Around this time, Lambert Davis accepted a publishing position in New York. The two men, who had maintained constant and friendly correspondence for four full years—writing about everything from the publication of new articles to the birth of their children—were saddened by the impending break in their professional relationship. Writing in June 1938, Ransom stated, “I shan’t feel as if the Quarterly Review will be the same without your editorship,” with Davis writing back, enthusiastically asking to become one of the first subscribers to the Kenyon Review.

The relationship between the two was one undoubtedly built on mutual respect for the other’s literary contributions and talents. At a farewell dinner held at Vanderbilt University in Ransom’s honor, Davis, who could not attend, requested that a letter of his be read before the assembled audience. The contents of the letter read:

I gladly join in paying homage to a teacher who has stimulated so vitally those who have been associated with him, an essayist of subtlety and power, and a poet of distinctive and distinguished achievement. John Crowe Ransom, in my judgment, is one of the few living poets whose work will form a part of the enduring literature of the South and of America.

Original manuscripts:

Ransom’s publications in VQR:

Further reading:


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