Reimagining American Community

takemystandNote: The following (supposedly) anonymous book review of the agrarian anthology I’ll Take My Stand, published in 1930, was read aloud at a conference of Southern agrarians at LSU in 1992 by author William Blissett as part of a talk on G.K. Chesterton. The audio file for Blissett’s talk can be heard on ISI’s website here. The lecturer felt the review from G.K.’s Weekly, though unsigned, clearly appeared to be by Chesterton himself, given the mention of What I Saw in America as the reviewer’s own book.

The twelve Southerners who take a stand on the agrarian tradition do not hail, as we might suppose, from William Cobbett’s Hampshire or Hilaire Belloc’s Sussex. They are from the American South, the former Confederacy, and their tradition is defined by region and by a painful and glorious history.

Their title is taken from the sprightly song “Dixie”: “In Dixie land I’ll take my stand…”, although unfortunately they do not explain—no American Southerners ever do explain—who in the song is enjoining whom to look away, from what to what.

The twelve are twelve writers, bold men of letters. As an old hand at journalism, I can espy a good writer who is not a good journalist. These men have, most of them, a gift of phrase, and how their writing must please one another. But a true journalist always knows what will delight, what will interest, what will irk the ordinary reader, whereas these might be surprised at all three responses.

The American South as a literary region has produced little as yet to rival New England. We think immediately of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Remus and then stop. But some of these writers are so gifted that I cannot help wondering if they and people like them may not give us a Southern renaissance.

I’m thinking of the character of cousin Lucius, as described and evoked by Mr. John Donald Wade, or the day in the life of an independent farmer in the pages of Mr. Andrew Nelson Lytle—a day I could not live myself but I am glad to know that many others can and do.

The great achievement of Sir Walter Scott was his understanding of the dignity of just this sort of obscure person.  Mark Twain used to attack Scott for highfalutin’ and flapdoodle, and thought his chivalric ideas the bane of the South. But I can’t help wondering  if he ever read the best of Scott, the Scottish novels from the Covenanter’s time to his own youth. I think Scott and Mark Twain would delight, as I do, in the unpretentious solidity of the life described here.

Yes, it’s a literary book and Mr. Crowe Ransom, in his curiously named essay (“Reconstructed but Unregenerate”), can appeal to Carlyle and Ruskin with ease and assurance. Curiously named, for what virtue could there be for a Southerner in being reconstructed but unregenerate?

What particularly delights an inveterate Dickensian is that Mr. Allen Tate makes his argument hinge on a distinction between a Northern type of mind, for which a horse is either an abstract idea or a contributor to a statistic, and the Southern kind of mind—which is surely the human mind—for which it is an animal and eats grass. He is a very modern writer and has appeared in the pages of Mr. T.S. Eliot’s Criterion but here he aligns himself very properly with Cissy Jupe in Hard Times, who knows how to care for a horse. And against that little ogre Bitzer in Mr. Gradgrind’s school who can only define it: “Quadruped. Graminiverous. Forty teeth. Namely twenty-four grinders, four eyeteeth, twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring. In marshy country sheds hooves too. Hooves hard but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus and much more from Bitzer. “’Now girl number twenty’, said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘you know what a horse is.’”

We distributists are agrarians and try to see the terms on which our American friends are agrarians too. Back in the 1870s, the supporters of Mr. Austin Chamberlain, that energetic Manchester liberal, brought out a radical program, never fully adopted but never disowned by the Liberal Party. One phrase in it is still alive and kicking: “three acres and a cow.” I find it a good, rousing slogan, though again I personally would be at a loss if given three acres, let alone a cow. But it touches the deep human desire for what is called a stake in the country, however minimal. No one will ever get rich on three acres and a cow , and most will want either more acreage or more livestock or something else to do to learn a living by.

But it is a beginning. And it has such appeal that another politician said ruefully, we badly need an urban cow. To which we would answer—an answer which seems not to cross the mind of the American agrarians—why not a small shop? Why not a craft? Why not a guild? Why not a cooperative?

Reading Mr. Penn Warren’s essay, I came across a casual reference to forty acres and a mule as what was needed to establish a former slave as a free man. This is a tight little island and Americans do think big. I suppose the difference between three and forty acres is the difference between a mixed farm of fruit and vegetables, fruit and livestock, and a cotton farm. Western farms in the United States are very large indeed. From the beginning, the Homestead Act of 1862 provided 160 acres of public land to any citizen after five years of continuous residence. That seems to have been the smallest parcel.

Allowing for different conditions, distributists and agrarians have the same ideal of widespread distribution of real property and a good measure of self-sufficiency. I wonder by the way if Cobbett’s Rural Economy is known in America?

We in England have to resist the temptation to regard agriculture as a business, with a few thriving great landlords, a dwindling yeomanry and a large class of dispossessed laborers. They in America have to be reminded that the tobacco or cotton plantation was essentially a factory and tended to push the family farm to the margin.

One of the documents of the American colonies at the time of the Revolution spoke of the rights to life, liberty and property. That must sound very flat to us, who have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness sounding in our ears. Jane Austen might have included these in her contrast between sense and sensibility. But it would be to miss the point of distributism and, I believe, of Southern agrarianism, to play one phrase off against the other, as if they were in collision and not in line. But the possession, not of a fortune, but of a modest independence is normally essential to the happiness of the creature called man.

And our political task is to point the way and to join in the pursuit—not an easy task but no more difficult than disarmament which nobody seems to think impossible. The case for distributism is the case against the servile state. Out and out slavery never gained a foothold in this realm of England and was abolished in all our colonies in 1833. Whereas, almost a century later, there are still living in the United States persons born into slavery. No one in the book defends the institution, though one of the writers speaks of the bulk of the slaves as “only a generation removed from cannibalism, many having tasted human flesh,” a heavy charge that needs substantiation.  It is as if one were to accuse a race or a nation of condoning infanticide or abortion or the destruction of helpless invalids or old people.

Few of the other writers mention the Negro problem at all, with the notable exception of Mr. Penn Warren’s temperate and humane piece. A few years ago, in a rather miscellaneous book, What I Saw in America, I astonished my readers, who thought I had an opinion, informed or uninformed, serious or playful, on all matters in heaven and earth, by saying that I did not know enough to write anything about the race question in the United States, my information and my experience being too thin—if I may apply the latter word to myself.

I hold to that but I wish that many more of these writers had said more on the subject. Mr. Crowe Ransom’s remark that slavery was a feature monstrous enough in theory but more often than not humane in practice strikes me as startlingly inadequate, a vain attempt to close a discussion that has barely opened.

Perhaps that is why the book, for all its courage and pugnacity, lacks buoyancy and confidence. Here, we show up our enemies as servile, and that puts free ground under our feet. We have for ancestor William Cobbett who incidentally admired Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson. Crotchety and inconsistent in many things, but a confident champion of the liberty and property of the poor, they let their enemies pose as progressives and so are trapped in a reactionary position, though I do hope they will not have the folly to accept that label.

The poet W.B. Yeats was told by his father that a gentleman was a man not wholly occupied with getting ahead in the world. These writers are all gentlemen, in that good sense. However, Mr. Crowe Ransom, in his praise of the squirarchy, and Mr. Stark Young, in his adulation of the cultivated and leisurely great landowner, come perilously close to regarding gentlemanliness as the one thing needful. We in England know the Tory squire and the Whig magnate too well, for with all their virtues, to make them the custodian of our liberty and enclosor of our common property.

One last contrast the English reader will need to keep calling to mind. This country is, before all else, a united kingdom. The author of The Napoleon of Notting Hill admits this, though still believing in effective local government and free boroughs. I’d even like what the Shropshire lad calls the colored counties to be different colors. But we are simply not a federation.

The American South, in sharp contrast, is a region within a federal union, with a war on that very issue, a continuous and brooding presence. While there is no extended treatment in the book of any one state, the writers would all prefer, I think, to say these United States rather than the United States and might, in a Pickwickian sense, pretend to believe them sovereign.

I cannot help wishing that the twelve Southerners were a little less morose, had a little more of the pep and go of the song from which they took their title. There are obvious pitfalls in too headlong a pursuit of happiness. But there is such a thing as the pursuit of unhappiness. And the Southern agrarians and English distributists  too should be careful not to make a habit or a career of defeat.

If I could carry a tune, I’d sing “Dixie” with the best of them. Yes, in England’s green and pleasant land, I’ll take my stand with these young men for a halt to the servile state and the achievement of that other condition which they will not want me to call liberal and I am reluctant to call anything else.


About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.