Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Southern Agrarians and European Agrarianism

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Southern Agrarians and European Agrarianism

Article excerpt

HISTORIANS AND LITERARY CRITICS HAVE USUALLY DEALT WITH the symposium I'll Take My Stand and the later essays of the Nashville Agrarians in a Southern context. Whether they have been considered as representatives of the Southern Renaissance, as shapers of the "idea" of the American South, or as part of the Southern pastoral tradition, the emphasis, for obvious reasons, has been on the "Southernness" of the Southern Agrarians. (1) Most of the members of the Nashville group would probably have found nothing wrong with such an approach; indeed, it is difficult to imagine, say, Donald Davidson or Andrew Lytle in any other than a Southern context. They were belligerent Southerners; their focus was the South, its history, its institutions, and its special way of life.

Yet it is equally obvious that the Southern Agrarians were part of a widespread movement of anti-industrialism which had followers not only in other areas of the United States but which swept through most European countries in the early decades of this century. Regionalism, as Norbert Mecklenburg has shown, was an international movement which often went hand in hand with a distinctly agrarian program. (2) The plea for a return to the old ways, for the dignity of the farmer and his simple way of life, for resistance against the ubiquitous machine and the encroaching urbanization of the countryside, could be heard from Scandinavia to Italy, from France to Poland. In Germany, Heimatschutz, the protection of a local region in all its particularities, in the arts, in architecture, in the customs and manners of the people, had become a popular slogan as early as 1904. (3) Its ideas were taken up in other countries; its appeal, at least in the years before World War I, transcended national borders. "The problem underlying the notion of Heimatschutz is the same in all modern states," argued one of its spokesmen. "It is the struggle against capitalism which is relentlessly destroying everything that has grown and everything that is beautiful." (4) Most of the Southern Agrarians would have agreed.

In what follows I want to point out some of the similarities between the views expressed in I'll Take My Stand and pertinent European, especially German writings, of the 1920s and 1930s. My major point of reference is that movement in Germany which Klaus Bergmann has named "Agrarromantik"--"agrarian romanticism." (5) In addition to German agrarians, I will occasionally consider writers from other European countries, most notably the Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. If it is true that the Nashville Agrarians, as has often been noted, were not a homogeneous group adhering to one common program, European agrarianism, as I will be referring to it, was even more diverse; it comprised a number of different movements and, in its literary and journalistic activities, covered a much longer span of time than do the publications of the Vanderbilt group. By looking at the Southern Agrarians against the background of what we may perhaps call "international agrarianism," I intend to place them within the larger historical context to which they belong. However loosely we may define the term "agrarian" (the Nashville group didn't think that "it stood in particular need of a definition" (6)), and despite the diversity of views advanced under its banner, I think the project is a reasonable one, if only because it reminds us once again that intellectual movements have had a way of linking rather than separating our two continents.

To include the Nashville Agrarians in such trans-Atlantic cross-currents may invite controversy. Many of the European agrarians, especially those in Germany, had close ties with the National Socialists, a fact which, ever since the end of World War II, has compromised the idea of agrarianism in Germany in such a way that until quite recently the very concept of "native soil" was more or less taboo among self-respecting German intellectuals. …

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