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John Crowe Ransom in VQR

PUBLISHED: November 6, 2009

ransom-john-crowePoet, editor, teacher, and philosopher, John Crowe Ransom was also one of the most influential literary critics of the twentieth century, and the five essays he published in VQR in the 1930s reveal the evolution of his thoughts and ideas about the contemporary South and its literature.

Ransom was a founding member of a group of writers who organized at Vanderbilt University in 1920 and were associated with the short-lived literary magazine, The Fugitive. The Fugitives—Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Laura Riding, and others—defended traditional and formal techniques of poetry against what they saw as the elitism and obscurantism of literary modernism.

With the publication in 1930 of I’ll Take My Stand, Ransom and the other contributors—who became known as the Southern Agrarians—moved beyond the consideration of literature to argue that the South with its continuing pastoral and agrarian traditions offered a noble and vigorous alternative to what they saw as an increasingly mechanized and dehumanized society. Ransom stressed that only an agricultural society kept humanity in touch with the rhythms and realities of life and that the Jeffersonian traditions of the South were incompatible with a modern culture skeptical of these traditions.

Writing to VQR 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. But it wasn’t until almost a decade later, around the time that Robert Penn Warren published his 1935 essay “John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony,” that Ransom published his own piece of criticism in VQR’s tenth anniversary edition, Spring 1935. 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.” Yet he had come to believe that a kind of modernism had established itself in Southern letters, and he found it ironic that Southern fiction was showing such richness at a time when its traditions were being questioned.

The Southern artists in going modern offer us their impression of general decay, and that is not a pleasant thing to think about … If the old illusions are spent, they do not rush to commit themselves to new ones, and prefer, on the whole, to go down under standards which, if tattered and disreputable may still be technically said to fly. It is a stubborn attitude, and trying to readers of a certain cast. It is in this sense, I think that the Southern writers have gone modern. They reflect decay; their convictions have gone, while their tastes and habits still linger. And here is a strange thing, that the South in its strength never bloomed into art so luxuriantly as now, when the tree is old and dry.

Writing in February 1935, managing editor Lambert Davis praised Ransom’s Southern Agrarian response to Modernism and asked 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 essays for VQR (“What Does the South Want?”) was a call to arms for a “right economy” for the South. Arguing that the trend toward big business and mass production was undermining Southern values, Ransom asks “What becomes of the original small owners, those responsible and therefore ideal citizens, in the age of big business?” He details a system, based mostly on small-scale businesses and farms, that he believes would allow the South to thrive and maintain its traditions. Eventually this essay became part of a well-received Agrarian symposium published by Houghton Mifflin in 1936, titled Who Owns America?

After the publication of “What Does the South Want?” in April 1936, Ransom, in writing to 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 emerging from 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 introduces a revolutionary approach to criticism that encourages close readings of texts to the exclusion of outside source materials, such as biographies, which he saw as superfluous and indirectly tied to the text itself. Expanding this essay, Ransom published The New Criticism in 1941, and the book’s title became the name of the dominant theory of American literary analysis for many decades

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.

Ransom’s publications in VQR:

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