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Tennessee Agrarians

From the Archives

This article was originally published in The New Republic on July 29, 1931. 

Cousin Charles lives with his daughter in a high compact old white brick house, against which iron stars and curlicues show black. People are received in one of the high rectangular rooms of equal size on either side of a central hallway. A bright fire of big coal is burning in a wire-screened grate. Cousin Charles's daughter serves rich fruit-cake and clear thin agreeable wine. 

Cousin Charles is a tobacco-planter and has fifty niggers on his place. He is lean, bald, distinguished and sallow, with the combined pride of the Southern landowner, the man cleverer than his fellows and the scholar. When he laughs or makes a point, he creases slanting eyes.

Cousin Charles's feeling about the depression is that it serves the "industrialists" right. He pointed out in a magazine article seven years ago that the present trouble with the country was that the cities were getting overgrown-Megalopolis, as Spengler calls it. Strange that it should have been left for a German to diagnose our American disease. But the effect of the depression should be salutary, because it ought to make the government get rid of high tariff and send people back to the land. There's always a living on a farm—and he himself has been a dirt farmer, not a white-collar farmer. 

Cousin Charles has a passion for the classics—disputes over Origen and Josephus with a clergyman brother, has had a schoolhouse built on his estate so that he can instruct the neighbors' children in the humanities, for the sheer love of Greek, Latin and Grench, and he once invited a poor scholar from Nashville to come and stay at his house all winter "to help him with his syntax."

He talks about Woodrow Wilson's father, the dignitary of the Presbyterian Church, whom he had known when the latter was at Nashville. Dr. Wilson had been very much of a clergyman—but he remembered his telling an amusing story about one of the women in his congregation who had expostulated with him, saying: "You can take away the doctrine of the Redemption and you can take away Absolution—but you must leave me Total Depravity!" So that one knew that he was human, although professionally a theologian—like the Roman augurs in Cicero, who couldn't look at each other without smiling.—Woodrow Wilson was a good deal like Cicero—most eloquent as far as his words went, but ineffective when it came to action. He had been a very strange man—"I expect you would have to look for his complexes."—"Yet his state papers were written in a more classical style than those of any other President." (As one listens to Cousin Charles one wonders whether it may not be true, as has been suggested, that Wilson's antagonism to big business was the result of his upbringing in the agrarian South:this would account partly for his vagueness about the industrial world, his apparent belief in the possibility of preaching its evils away. The truth was, perhaps, that it was never quite real to him—as it never seems quite real to the old-fashioned Southerners who have stuck to their land: in this connection, they are all a little vague.) Cousin Charles believes that Mr. Smith would have made a better President than Mr. Hoover—he had at least common sense.

Cousin Charles raises black tobacco, which, unlike the milder kind, has to be cured in a barn. Inside, just in front of the doorway, a nigger wench 's sitting on the floor: dressed in up-to-date clothes, she stares into the glowing red core of a writhen cypress log, not precisely sullen, but paying no attention to people who enter. Overhead, the big barn, dense with fragrance, loses itself among rich shadows of crossrafter, from which brown wrinkled tobacco-bunches hang. Niggers are breaking off the stalks of the leaves and binding the stems of each bunch with a leaf.  The leaves look like unexpanded moth's-wings, still shriveled inside the cocoon. A boy shows you how resilient they are: if you bend one up, it bends back again—the livest plant there is.

Black tobacco is terribly strong and finds its market mostly in Italy. This market has lately suffered from the high tariff—the Italians have undertaken reprisals. Not only this, but the tobacco-planters get swindled by the outside buyers to whom, according to immemorial custom, they auction their tobacco off. If they could only get together, they could fix prices; but the planters have always been individualistic. It was their inability to work together, the younger generation will tell you, which kept them from winning the Civil War. 

Cousin Charles takes politics seriously, as Jefferson and Wilson did. He writes long and well reasoned letters to the papers—still a citizen of the landowners' democracy, where every citizen has his responsibility and where, in spite of the Civil War, one may expect to be represented by the government.

As the visitors are going, he apologizes for having let himself run on at such length. "You know the saying, Indulge pueris," he says in parting, as he closes the Buick door on the guests. "Perhaps we may make it, Indulge senibus."

The younger generation at Nashvile who share Cousin Charles's tastes are less firmly attached to the land. Subtle philosophers, brilliant poets, who interpenetrate their poetry with philosophy, the many of them of John Crowe Ransom of Vanderbilt Univeristy, whom htey still tend to gravitate around, they ahve gone off to Oxford, to Paris and to New York. But the children of a more organic community than most of the Americans in those cities, the products of a classical education, they come back to marry girls at home, to renovate family mansions, to do some farming with the aid of a share-cropper, to write books about the Civil War. When they went away, they may have been impatient with that eighteenth-century world, forever feeding itself on its past. They ha dbecome aware that the centers of activity had shifted away from the South, and htey had felt themselves by right of inheritance citizens of the world. But after inhabiting dark basements in Greenwich Village, floating with the drift of the Paris cafes, they have ended by finding this life expensive and most uncomfortable and by forming unflattering judgements of the manners and the intellectual standards of the contemporary American intelligensia. They think tenderly of the South again.

Now they blame the ills of industrialized America on the defeat of the Confederacy in the War. If only New Orleans, instead of New York, were the chief port of hte United States! They write biographies of the generals and statesmen of 1961, resuing their memories from the disparagement of calumny of the historians of the Union side, trying to fix the responsibility for their failure. If only General Bragg, for example, hadn't let the Confederates down, the bourgeoisie might never have triumphed! And as lacking in a common ideal or religion as their compatriots of Paris and New York, they try ot make one of ancestor workship. They revive the old myths of the family, sustain themselves with the bravery of their fathres. And htey find at least a ommon cause and purpose in agitation against capitalists, largely Northern, who are bringing the textile and other industries to the South. They publish a symposium, declaring their loyalty to "agrarianism," their repudiation of "industrialism": and they hold a debate, attended by thousands, at Richmond, to discuss whether or not manufacturing should be encouraged in the South.

Alas! they are trying to lock the stable door after the colt has gotten away The fierce battles of a new civil war—Gastonia, Elizabethton, Marion, Danville—are already being fought on their ground. They can no longer hope to exorcise it. 

But in the meantime they can enjoy certain advantages. To the Northerner, the horror of slavery still poisons the idea of that feudal society over which so much sentimentality has been diffused. but the feudal system had its positive merits compared to our capitalist one. Of the monstrous mutilation of human relations upon which the slave-holding society was based, the Southern novelist George W. Cable has written a history which makes "Uncle Tom's Cabin" look like a Sunday-school parable. That denial was impossible and could not continue. But while the situation to which it was necessary lasted, even the master who worked his slaves to death or flogged them to death had perhaps a certain moral advantage over the capitalist manufacturer or speculator. The planter knew at least what he was doing and did not pretend to be doing anythig else. He accepted the implications of his acts—that was all the blacks were good for. And if he were a decent person, living as he did at close quarters with his slaves, he had to learn to get along with them as people. To this day, the relations in the South between the landowning gentry and the Negroes are more intimate and, in a sense, more human than the relations between the mill-owner and the workers in his factory.

It shocks the Northerner to hear the Southerner speak frankly of the Negroes as an inferior race for whom political or social equality is unthinkable. But the position of the Northerner himself depends upon human exploitation. He may, it is true, be entirely unaware of it, not know who makes the clothes he wears, prepares the food he eats, digs the fuel that heats him or pours the steel for the building he lives in—he may not even know where hte money comes from that enables him to buy all these things; but though his consciousness may be more innocent, he is none the better off for that. And the Southerner on his side becomes suspicious of the Northerner's principles and pretensions—smelling hypocrisy in his humane anxieties, mania in his moral idealism, and in his eternal insistence on "service" a compensation for the savageries of a society predatory and egoistic in the extreme. 

This is one of the things that rankles with the Southerner—and who can  blame him! He feels that there is something about which he is right where the kind of life which has made his obsolete is wrong.

The processes which divorce so completely the people who live on dividends from the people whose labor makes dividends possible are only one feature of the vast system of abstraction which dominates the industrial world. This abstraction has its grandeur, its nobility: it represents the triumph of certain of the faculties of mankind. And we must depend upon the exercise of these faculties—the development of mechanical techniques, the rigorous impartial ordering of activities—to save us. Engineers with scientific imagination, statesmen cold with principle, will be able to do what jealous country squires, loyal only to their little localities and competing with each other, could never do. But who will pretend that our technical abstracton has so far produced human being either amiable or appetizing? The deadening of feeling, the social insulation, which impoverishes life in industrial communities has not yet infected the Southern agrarians. They are affected to some degree like all the rest of us by the social shifts and transpositions of the time, but relatively it may be said that among them men and women still meet as men and women; kin, as they say, meet as kin; friends meet as friends; and master and servant are still master and servant. And those who still have gardens there to cultivate are certainly not the least lucky among us if they are content to cultivate them.