The Dominion of the Fugitives and Agrarians

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Author: George Core
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,604 words

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[(essay date 1980) In the following essay, Core provides an introduction to the Fugitives and the Agrarians. He emphasizes the Fugitive devotion to the idea of the “man of letters,” or literature as a vocation rather than a profession, and describes the members of the Agrarian movement as the “first literate and vocal ecologists in the United States.”]

The incidence of genius is mysterious and inexplicable, but the occurrence of an extraordinary range of talent in groups as diverse and numerous as the Nashville Fugitives and Agrarians of the 1920s and thereafter is rarer and more unaccountable. As Donald Davidson pointed out in his argument with the sociologist Howard W. Odum, no social scientist can explain the presence of a writer so great as William Faulkner in a state so poor and benighted as Mississippi. Davidson could have said the same thing about Eudora Welty; and, to a lesser extent, his argument would have held true for many other twentieth-century southern writers in and out of Mississippi, himself included. Faulkner is the greatest southern writer—and also the greatest American writer—of his time; but the upper South—Kentucky and Tennessee—produced during the same period at least four writers who were more intelligent in a literary sense and who were far better educated: Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, the leading members of both the Fugitives and the Agrarians and the only ones who were members of both groups. Among the other members of the Nashville Fugitives were a psychiatrist (Merrill Moore), a Harvard political scientist (William Yandell Elliott), several prominent businessmen (Ridley Wills, Jesse Wills, and Alfred Starr), and a medieval and renaissance scholar (Walter Clyde Curry). All of these men achieved success well beyond the average for their professions, and the same is true of many of the Agrarians who were not poets and men of letters. Lyle Lanier is a distinguished psychologist; Frank L. Owsley was a leading American historian; and John Donald Wade was a fine biographer and critic.

The focus of the Fugitives was poetry, with a secondary emphasis on criticism; in contrast the Agrarians, who in 1930 published the symposium I’ll Take My Stand, were interested chiefly in the political impact of social and economic ideas, of their proposals for an ideal society. The most profound effect that Agrarianism had was in the realm of ideas—not in the realm of action. The contributions of both groups were literary and philosophical, not political, economic, sociological; their continuing significance rests on a plane that is of a literary and theoretical order, not a practical one, with the exception of the influence that the New Criticism has made in the classroom—but I am getting ahead of the story.

The Fugitives were chiefly students and teachers at Vanderbilt University, which in their day in the 1910s and 1920s was endowed with an extraordinarily gifted faculty that performed brilliantly despite an obtuse and autocratic administration. The younger faculty included recent graduates of Vanderbilt—first Ransom and then Davidson...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420116672