The "Nature" of American Literature: Race, Place, and Textuality in John Crowe Ransom and Elizabeth Madox Roberts.

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Author: Sharon Kunde
Date: Sept. 2021
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 67, Issue 3)
Publisher: Hofstra University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,321 words
Lexile Measure: 1610L

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If John Crowe Ransom is best known to contemporary literary critics as the father of the New Criticism and the founding editor of the Kenyon Review, his next claim to fame is his membership in a group known as the Southern Agrarians. This coterie, which included Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Andrew Lytle, coalesced around the essay collection I'll Take My Stand (1930). Ransom and Davidson solicited essays for this volume to defend southern culture against the sort of condescension that H. L. Mencken memorably voiced when, in the New York Evening Mail in 1917, he called the US south a "Sahara of the Bozart." In "Reconstructed but Unregenerate," Ransom's contribution to the collection, Ransom made a case for Southern Agrarianism as a wellspring of American regional culture--a culture that was for him implicitly stratified by race and class. Contemporary scholarship has roundly critiqued Ransom's defense of white supremacy and class hierarchy. However, Ransom's account of valuable southern culture also advances a theory of reading which, I will argue, persists in contemporary literary practice in underacknowledged ways. (1) About halfway through the essay, Ransom zeroes in on the southern farmer, whom he imagines as a foot soldier arrayed against the degradations of modernization and industrialization. In language that anticipates the interventions of his discipline-defining "Criticism, Inc." (1937), Ransom depicts a farmer's agrarian labor as a kind of reading practice that involves the production, extraction, and consumption of "meaning": the farmer "identifies himself with a spot of ground, and this ground carries a good deal of meaning; it defines itself for him as nature. He would till it not too hurriedly and not too mechanically to observe in it the contingency and the infinitude of nature; and so his life acquires its philosophical and even its cosmic consciousness" (RU 19-20; italics mine). The farmer's contact with the ground, that is, involves receptive observation as much as it does the application of tools and muscle. Working "not too hurriedly and not too mechanically," he comes to understand himself in relation to the land, as he "identifies himself with" the ground, which "carries ... meaning" and "defines itself for him as nature." The ideal farmer thus elicits meaning and definitions from the dirt he works much as he might from a written text. Read attentively, the earth further functions as a text that discloses "the contingency and infinitude of nature." These two qualities figure the farmer's experience as something like the Kantian sublime: in its vastness "nature" outstrips the feeble, finite human, and through its stubborn materiality it resists subsumption in abstractions; but through the careful application of attention (which I am construing as a kind of reading) the farmer imbibes some of nature's infinitude, "acquir[ing]" a "philosophical and cosmic consciousness." In Ransom's vigilant farmer we can begin to see a set of representational practices we might call natural reading and natural writing: Ransom positions a personally enriching reading practice as the product of a physically direct and attentive relationship...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A678425545