Magazine article The American Conservative

Southern Cross: The Meaning of the Mel Bradford Moment

Magazine article The American Conservative

Southern Cross: The Meaning of the Mel Bradford Moment

Article excerpt

"YOU JUST CAN'T attack Lincoln and get away with it--you just can't." Hearing these words, spoken in front of a portrait of Lincoln at the Rockford Institute in 1989, is my first memory of Mel Bradford. That remark, delivered in an accent characteristic of the Texas-Oklahoma border that was his home country, reflected the wounds of an incident that brought him to national attention.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan intended to nominate Bradford as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The appointment seemed entirely appropriate: Bradford, a professor of English at the University of Dallas who wrote his doctoral dissertation under the Southern Agrarian and Fugitive Poet Donald Davidson, was a distinguished literary scholar. But Reagan's wish to elevate him to the prestigious post did not stem solely from Bradford's academic credentials. The president and he were acquaintances, and he had worked hard in Reagan's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Influential conservatives such as Russell Kirk and Sen. Jesse Helms also knew and admired Bradford.

But a Southerner who stressed localism was not what neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and the Kristols, pere et fils, had in mind. They preferred William Bennett and, in typical fashion, did not confine themselves to magnifying the paltry virtues of their favorite, but launched smears against the president's choice, dredging up Bradford's 1972 support for George Wallace and--the issue that they stressed interminably--his criticism of Abraham Lincoln. Their efforts to portray Bradford as some latter-day Theodore Bilbo, however unwarranted, proved effective. Bennett received the nod.

The campaign hurt Bradford greatly. But if he knew in advance that attacking Lincoln was so dangerous, why did he do it? Because far from being some crank spoiling the schoolchild consensus, Mel Bradford had principled reasons for his critique--and he deserves to be remembered as far more than a footnote to neocon machinations.

No one who met Bradford could easily forget him. He was strikingly tall and weighed about 350 pounds. He wore a white Stetson and would often look at people sideways, holding his head at an angle. On one occasion, he stopped a punch about an inch from someone's face without looking at him. (In his youth, he had been an amateur boxer.) "That's how I keep my graduate students in line!" he laughed.

Bradford began his career as a literary scholar, not a political theorist, and was perhaps best known for his work on William Faulkner. He had no truck with critical efforts to portray Faulkner as alienated from the South. To the contrary, he saw the novelist as thoroughly embedded within his native region. The trouble with other academic interpreters was that they failed to recognize their own prejudices of place: "Most of these mandarins teach in the universities of our Northeastern Megalopolis," Bradford wrote. "Concerning the rest of the Republic, they have only conventional responses proceeding not from reflection but from fear, ignorance, and animosity. That this other America, in all of its antique multiplicity, should foster or possess serious literature is for them a contradiction in terms."

The relation of a writer to his local community and culture was a leitmotif of Bradford's literary scholarship. Indeed, his stress on the importance of place in literature informed his political views. For Bradford, true politics grew out of local tradition. As he put it in his presidential address to the John Randolph Club in 1990, "The American regime ... is and forever shall be the result of a practice, a network of common experience and well-established institutions united in a common way."

Bradford rejected Lincoln because he saw him as a revolutionary, intent on replacing the American Republic established by the Constitution with a centralized and leveling despotism. He thought that James McPherson, perhaps the most eminent pro-Union authority on the Civil War, was perfectly right to say in Drawn With the Sword,

   Negative liberty was the dominant
   theme in early American history--
   freedom from constraints on individual
   rights imposed by a powerful
   state. … 
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