"Unto All Generations of the Faithful Heart": Donald Davidson, the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and Appalachian Poetry

By Clark, Jim | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

"Unto All Generations of the Faithful Heart": Donald Davidson, the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and Appalachian Poetry


Clark, Jim, The Mississippi Quarterly


BY THE EARLY 1930S THE VANDERBILT FUGITIVES, THOUGH NO LONGER A viable group, had acquired an international reputation along with considerable influence in the world of letters, and some of them, along with new allies, were moving on to engage politics, economics, and social issues in the "symposium" that would produce the Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand Vanderbilt English professor Donald Davidson was rapidly becoming both the anchor and the engine of the Agrarians; this study will explore his influence on several young Appalachian students and budding poets who made their way to Vanderbilt in the early 1930s and who would soon become part of a remarkable "first flowering" of modern Appalachian literature: Jesse Stuart of Kentucky, James Still of Alabama, and Don West of Georgia. They had all graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 1929; while Stuart and Still were studying in the graduate program in English at Vanderbilt, West entered the School of Religion. Add to their number Mildred Haun, a young short story writer from East Tennessee, and the slightly older Robert Penn Warren, back in Nashville after taking his degree at Oxford, and it begins to look like quite an extraordinary group. Donald Davidson's influence on Jesse Stuart can be traced most clearly and directly; that relationship will serve as an illustrative paradigm.

Davidson was typically "the odd man out" among his Fugitive brethren, and his reputation as a critic and a poet has always languished in the shadow of the critically sanctioned triumvirate of Ransom, Tate, and Warren. Mark Royden Winchell, in his biography of Davidson, Where No Flag Flies: Donald Davidson and the Southern Resistance, states, "Davidson may well be the most unjustifiably neglected figure in twentieth-century southern literature" (ix). Acknowledging the difficulties of dealing with Davidson and his legacy, including his well-known intransigence on matters involving race, Winchell observes, "Donald Davidson was a complex and imperfect man but one whose achievements demand more attention than they have received from the community of scholars" (ix).

Of the four major Vanderbilt Fugitives, Davidson was certainly the one with the deepest sympathy for a "folk" conception of poetry, and also the one least sympathetic to the modernist/New Critical program. This may help to explain his distance, both in terms of philosophy and reputation, from Ransom, Tate, and Warren. It may also help to explain his influence on the Appalachian writers who were his students at Vanderbilt. When one looks at the broad themes and tendencies of Appalachian poetry, generally speaking, and those of the aforementioned poets in particular, Davidson seems a likely mentor for Appalachian poets, despite the fact that he was born and reared just a hair west of the region as officially delineated by the Appalachian Regional

Commission. In summing up the latter days of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, Winchell observes, in his introduction to The Vanderbilt Tradition: Essays in Honor of Thomas Daniel Young,

   Thus, Agrarianism survived less as a political program than as a
   secular religion. And like most religions, it offered an attitude
   for living in a world that could not be changed. Not surprisingly,
   Ransom, Tate, and Warren each drifted away in time to other
   interests (and in Tate's case to another creed). Only Donald
   Davidson remained a true believer, steeped in southern history and
   southern myth. However, Davidson's stand was not finally against
   Yankee values or Yankee industry or even Yankee race relations so
   much as against historical discontinuity itself. (5)

I believe this is the heart of the matter, as a great deal of Appalachian poetry can be seen, in one way or another, as a "stand ... against historical discontinuity."

Before getting in too far, I should point out that most of the writers I have mentioned who attended Vanderbilt have expressed some ambivalence about their time there, though to some degree this seems to be more a generalized distrust of "the academy" as a hospitable place for a creative writer than a judgment upon Vanderbilt in particular. …

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