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Therefore Let Us Assemble

ISSUE:  Summer 1979

The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. By Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana. $24.95, hardback, $7.95 paper.

In the introduction to his anthology of Fugitive poetry, William Pratt wrote that “The Fugitives and the Agrarians were two separate schools, one of which was exclusively literary, the other just as exclusively social and political. The Agrarians were not organized until after the Fugitives had disbanded, and then they included only four members—albeit major ones—of the previous group: Ransom, Davidson, Tate, and Warren.” In separating the Fugitive strain from the Agrarian strain in these Southern poets, Pratt used a strategy that has often been applied to explain, or to keep from having to explain, their participation in the reactionary “social and political” movement which they defined most clearly in an Agrarian “manifesto,” III Take My Stand, in 1930. To identify the Fugitives with the Agrarians, as Pratt said, “would only lead to confusion.”

Yet being “led into confusion” is often an important first step to knowledge, and the case of the Fugitives in their guise as Agrarians is a case in point. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. ‘s new study, The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South, makes the Fugitives’ involvement with agrarianism a central experience in their careers as Southern poets. In asking the question, “What was the relationship between their work as poets, novelists, and critics, and as Agrarian social critics?” Rubin is exploring the more crucial problem of “the links between imaginative literature and the time and place from which it springs.” The structure of The Wary Fugitives, in a fascinating way, becomes itself an image of the book’s confrontation with this problem. Its design is a method of enacting the question that directs the book’s perceptions: “What is the relationship between modern Southern literature and Southern life?”

The three Fugitives who had the most to do with molding a few Nashville companions and scholars into a coherent group of writers are examined closely in the first three chapters in terms of their careers as students, teachers, poets, and friends, up to 1930: first John Crowe Ransom, who had already published a volume of poetry, Poems About God, in 1919, and who gave the Fugitives their steadiest hand; then Allen Tate, who introduced the group to literary modernism and provided their intellectual fire from something of an outsider’s position; lastly Donald Davidson, who with his loyalty and whole-souled enthusiasm made their endeavors cohere in terms of an all-important feeling of artistic kinship. Robert Penn Warren, who was only 16 when he entered Vanderbilt in 1921, is left for later, since his relationship to the Fugitives in the 1920’s was essentially one of apprenticeship. Still he is mentioned frequently in the early chapters, since the four belonged importantly together at almost every stage during this decade.

The four poets are apprehended not just through biographical material but through their own literary works, which reveal the progress of their sense of themselves both in relation to their region and in their identities as artists. We witness the way their energies were gradually channeled into a common direction, a growing concern for the world they inhabited, not just as writers or as Southerners, but as modern men who could not escape the discomforts of that condition yet who would never be content to equate it with meaninglessness or alienation. Robert Penn Warren might sketch murals depicting scenes from The Waste Land on the walls of the dormitory room he shared with Allen Tate; Ransom might speak of tracking “the Wary Fugitive” as “an alien, miserably at feud / With those of my generation”; Tate could leave the enclave for the uncertainties of New York City, where he would write of subways and “whores become delinquents.” Yet they were all Southerners as well, and while their name for themselves and their magazine might connote “wanderer,” or even “outcast,” it meant, most importantly, “poet,” and as poets they had the South as common ground.

In the first three chapters Rubin achieves a sense of a story unfolding, with character in the process of development. He also achieves a sense of place, the place that provided the Fugitives’ particular “gathering spot” for identity. The place, of course, was Nashville in the state of Tennessee, a paradigm of the New South becoming a newer South, with its Parthenon in the park, its humming chamber of commerce, and its many revitalized colleges and universities, one of which had become distinguished beyond the boundaries of Tennessee. Vanderbilt University could boast an unusually fine faculty, and by 1914, when Ransom began teaching there, a young Southerner could receive there “an abrupt and dazzling introduction to some of the chief intellectual currents and impulses of the twentieth century.”

Yet to be in Tennessee, to be in the South, in the 1920’s was to be in a place that was likely to engender confusion and divided loyalties, and this would be especially true for the Fugitives. As Rubin explains, “They were both of the period and apart from it. . . . They had brought to their modernism and to the urban culture of the 1920’s the memories and the attitudes of a different kind of society, which their parents had known and which was still present all about them in many ways while they were growing up.” So, when John T. Scopes was brought to trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 for teaching evolution in a public school, the Fugitive reaction was not what one might have expected from modern poets whose magazine had announced that they fled “from nothing faster than the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South.” While certainly not “primitive fundamentalists,” they had, as Rubin shows by tracing them to their stand in the late twenties, “arrived at a position wherein they were impelled to undertake a strong critique of the direction which they saw American society taking, and each perceived, in the life of the region into which they had been born and grown up, certain strong correctives to that situation.”

The result, still compelling almost 50 years later for reasons that have little to do with agriculture or teaching evolution in Tennessee, was III Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by twelve Southerners. Rubin’s central fourth chapter studies the making and the impact of the book. He has written definitively on III Take My Stand before, notably in his introduction to the 1962 Harper Torchbooks edition of the book and in a new introduction for the 1977 Louisiana State University Press edition. Still, in The Wary Fugitives there are many fresh perceptions arising from the fact that the book is treated here as part of a larger Southern experience of a group of poets. One new assessment involves the specifically agrarian delineation of I’ll Take My Stand, which Rubin calls “a strategic error of considerable magnitude.” The label of “Agrarian vs. Industrial” for the conflict was a formulation for which Ransom was undoubtedly responsible; in God Without Thunder, published the same year as I’ll Take My Stand, Ransom had developed his theory that “in espousing industrialism Western man in general, and man in the United States in particular, had placed himself in a false, predatory relationship to nature.”

Ransom came to feel . that the traditional South represented a community in which labor could know dignity, and in which an ideal religious life could be imaged by the agrarian social life, and his III Take My Stand contributions reflect this. Yet his assertion that a return to an agrarian society would restore a proper religious order was not shared by all of the contributors. Tate, in particular, saw the relationship in almost diametrically opposite terms, stressing that the “economic conviction is the secular image of religion.” The ordering of cause and effect is crucial to the book’s design and utility, for as Rubin points out, “To change the economic mode without first changing the moral and religious values, one must have another economic program to propose in its stead; if the proposed program by its very nature goes against certain other strongly felt social and economic needs and values, then one is in trouble.”

Thus, while the agrarian image and rationale worked efficiently for Ransom, it was a “formidable handicap” to Tate and some of the others. The specifically agrarian emphasis proved a great limitation to the coherent expression of the group’s deepest concern, which Donald Davidson later articulated as “our feeling of intense disgust with the spiritual disorder of modern life.” In retrospect, Rubin says, “one can say that they would have been well advised to hold their program to that, and not to have proceeded by logic to the specific agricultural economic image.” Still, the book’s ultimate worth is not essentially diminished by this error in formulation. Rubin’s comparison of I’ll Take My Stand to Walden, his discussion of both books as exemplifying a tradition of “metaphoric pastorale,” works well to establish the point that the Agrarians’ work is no more concerned with a literal program for reorganizing society along primitivistic guidelines than was Thoreau’s book. The value of I’ll Take My Stand, like that of Walden, has to do “not with its supposed “alternative” to an industrial society, but with its assertion of permanent, ongoing humane values, as a protest against the dehumanizing possibilities of that society.”

Rubin’s reading allows Tate’s evaluation of what the group’s agrarian symposium had been about to stand as the best measure of its success; to Donald Davidson more than ten years later he wrote that “I think it was and is a very great success; but then I never expected it to have any political influence. It is a reaffirmation of the humane tradition and to reaffirm that is an end in itself.” What Tate saw in the agrarian venture he used to define his own commitment to the South and to his art in the 1930’s. Tate “turned the Agrarian concerns inward” as his fellow Agrarians did not. In the chapter, “The Descent from the Mountain,” Rubin’s order of discussion brings Donald Davidson down first and hardest. Davidson hoped for some actual reformation of Southern opinion in favor of a return to an agrarian order. He was from the 1920’s on “a Southerner who wrote poetry,” while Tate and Ransom were “men of letters who were deeply interested in the South,” and the difference tended increasingly to work against his poetry and even his friendships. In 1937 he would write, “I am beginning to see myself as Ransom’s Captain Carpenter. . . .”

Ransom himself had come to his Agrarian stand only after working out his feelings in poems like “Antique Harvesters,” “Armageddon,” and “Conrad in Twilight.” In the 1930’s he turned to an intensive study of economics in order to prove that agrarian policy could work in unity with the religious and poetic values he had decided upon. What he found was that it did not work, at least not as a “literal economic prescription.” Rubin explains what happened to his vocation as poet after this discovery: “The fusion of ritual and religion, art and religion that he had set forth in the poem “Antique Harvesters” was only, after all, the image for a poem. The poetry was not the South; in that case he would go with the poetry. Thus the Kenyan Review, and the New Criticism.”

Allen Tate’s future as a poet was to differ greatly from the others. Rubin distinguishes the agrarianism of Tate from that of Davidson: “for Tate it was never a way of life; it was a way of interpreting life.” Tate returned to Tennessee and turned to agrarianism in the 1930’s in search for himself, feeling that he would have to take hold of his tradition “by violence” to find his identity. His novel of the period, The Fathers, records his recognition that the tradition would not work the way he had hoped. In 1951 Tate joined the Roman Catholic church, a move that, for Rubin, simply reflects an enlarging of both his Southern attachments and his identification of agrarianism with religious humanism. He remained an Agrarian, perhaps the most successful one, in the sense that “what he did was to broaden and extend its meaning and shift the terms of reference from the Old South to Western society in general, with its tradition of classical humanism and Christian faith.”

Rubin’s last chapter focuses on Robert Penn Warren, studying the poems written under the influence of the Fugitive concerns, the I’M Take My Stand essay on black participation in a separate but equal agrarian South, and the fiction that was his dominant mode of discourse from the late 1930’s to the 1950’s. For the most part, Rubin says, Warren’s is another story. “Had Warren never been invited to contribute to I’ll Take My Stand at all, it is doubtful whether his subsequent writings would have been greatly different from what they are.” Nonetheless, Rubin is able to make some significant comparisons between Warren and the others.

One of the most valuable aspects of Rubin’s study is his frequent comparisons, which bring the four poets together on matters ranging from their method to their modernism. Such studies of relationship provide a particularly rich perspective for balancing and measuring individual accomplishment; we see them through each other, always with their poetry in mind as the essential vehicle of their thought. One poem that Rubin finds particularly useful in relating Fugitive and Agrarian thought is Ransom’s “Antique Harvesters.” The poem gives “the prescription” for III Take My Stand but also offers a concrete metaphor for the Fugitive poets themselves. In the poem the “antique harvesters” gather as Southern agrarians, assessing their vocation as “servitors” of a Proud Lady, an image of the Southern land as well as of art and religion. “Declension looks from our land,” they admit; “it is old.” Yet this is what makes it a field for poetry, and their response indicates a unity of commitment that is a source of power. “Therefore let us assemble,” they say, and together they assert their position as harvesters, poets, “keepers of a rite.” Louis Rubin has assembled the fruits of their long association with each other and the South, recording an achievement that is a rare exhibit of a creative regional identity and a remarkable collection of work that remains one of American literature’s best harvests. It is a harvest which is perceptively gathered and interpreted in The Wary Fugitives.


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