The transition from Victorian to modernist culture was, of course, not peculiar to the South, but it did take on some striking peculiarities in that region. Elsewhere in most of Western society the battle was fought and won before it was fairly begun down South. There it did not really get started until after the First World War and was all but finished, at least among intellectuals, by the time of the Second. It was therefore both delayed and foreshortened, more intense and more poignant, and it incidentally coincided with a literary renaissance of some note.
The explanation of the delay offered by David Joseph Singal in The War Within is the solid merging of Victorianism with what he calls “the Cavalier myth.” This ideological fusion was formidable and durable enough to block the arrival of what he loosely terms modernism for so long that in order to catch up, southerners had to recapitulate in two decades the half-century experience of their Northern brothers. It was more than a recapitulation, for nowhere else was race so explosive an issue, and the Victorian dichotomy between “civilization” and “savagery” was a basic defense of white supremacy. Not only was “the clash of cultures fiercest in the South,” according to Singal, but it was largely self-contained, enacted on a smaller stage with fewer characters, and stood out in “sharper relief,” thus “rendering the struggle for Modernism still more dramatic and conspicuous.”
The inner war is presented in a series of biographical studies grouped in rough chronological order, with an emphasis on writers in the fields of history, literature, and sociology. A few choices seem a bit arbitrary and some juxtapositions a bit odd, and the author admits that “other figures could easily have been substituted for those I chose.” The more outstanding ones, however, do get into the picture. A living southerner of an age that might be generously characterized as “ripe maturity” could have met and known to some extent nearly all this cast of characters. As one who in fact did, I am able to testify that their portraits are generally recognizable and often quite lifelike.
First among the portraits and first in rank as historian of the South is Ulrich B. Phillips, a Georgian by birth and college education and eventually a professor at Yale. Described here as a “post-Victorian,” Phillips indeed turned the Cavalier myth upside down in his American Negro Slavery (1918) by picturing the planter as capitalist forerunner and perfect model for the New South captain of industry. But between the old and the new order he saw no break—only perfect continuity of the Victorian ideal. In fact the New South could best realize its goals by imitating the antebellum plantation, especially its efficiency and its paternalism, thereby perpetuating “the graciousness and charm of the antebellum civilization.” While he thought slavery outmoded, “a clog on material progress,” he became in his later years something of a southern chauvinist and a defender of white supremacy and segregation. If he ever started on the path to modernism, he eventually turned back in the other direction.
If a conservative could not lead the way out of the past, perhaps a radical, a Marxist and militant socialist, could. That was the way another southern scholar of the time, Broadus Mitchell of Johns Hopkins, pictured himself. Yet in his loyalty to the myth of identity between Old and New South the socialist was as firm a supporter of continuity as the conservative Phillips. He pictured the industrialization and modernization of the South as the work of gentlemen capitalists largely recruited from the planter class. They were “far-seeing, public-minded, generous-natured leaders,” who carried paternalism and noblesse oblige from the plantation right into the mill villages for the benefit of poor-white Anglo-Saxon brothers, “the best blood in America.” If mill masters after 1900 were “class-conscious and money-wise” it was because, unlike their New South predecessors, they were “not aristocrats but bourgeois.”
A third “post-Victorian” was the novelist Ellen Glasgow of Tidewater, Virginia. Determined to break out of her Victorian upbringing, she resolutely took one step forward and one step back. Her best-known novels, Virginia (1913) and Barren Ground (1925), illustrate her dilemma, both her advances against gentility and her hesitations and retreats. Glasgow wanted it both ways: to embrace modernism and to cling to the old moral values of her background and class. Her solution, as the filth and disfigurement of the new order grew and the attack on the old aristocracy mounted from other writers, was to come more and more into the open in defense of Tidewater values.
This brings us to the “Modernists by the Skin of Their Teeth,” and to some curious juxtapositions. It was the generation that faced the Klan at its crest, the fundamentalists at flood tide, the Scopes trial, the bloodiest labor oppressions, the Scottsboro case, the Herndon case—undeniable evidence that things had gone wrong. (As a time for a southerner to come of age, it was an unrivaled eye-opener.) The skin-of-the-teeth modernists responded with “a thoroughgoing ambivalence,” torn between intense love and intense alienation from the homeland.
Howard W. Odum, the Chapel Hill sociologist, is in many ways an odd choice to sit for the portrait of “one of the first southerners to become a Modernist intellectual”—even “by the skin of his teeth.” Professor Singal undoubtedly knows a lot about the man, and he is right in saying that “Odum departed from the New South line by portraying the southern social order as fundamentally defective.” He is just as right in pointing out that the sociologist was given to hiding his conclusions under convoluted prose and stupefying statistics, and that he was forever seesawing from “on the one hand” to “then on the other.”
What Singal unaccountably missed is the fundamental paradox of Odum spelled out by Daniel T. Rodgers of Princeton in a recent book.1 Here was the South’s foremost modernist scholar, its preeminent spokesman for progress, who (apparently under the belated influence of Spengler), in the last phase of his career came forth with the harshest and angriest indictment of modernity—technology, urbanism, science, the works. All this was in the name of his “folk sociology” and in defense of the South’s “folk-soul.” Rodgers finds Odum in this phase reminiscent of the South’s first sociologist, George Fitzhugh, a century earlier, who also tried “to build not merely a defense but a sociology in itself out of the South’s very backwardness.”
I doubt that Faulkner ever read Odum, but Odum read Faulkner and felt that he had come “close enough to Faulkner’s quicksands to sense something of its terrors.” While the sociologist himself stopped short of the treacherous sands, however, the novelist plunged on through to the ultimate terrors. Any comparison of such disparate figures is of limited usefulness, but as symbols of transition they do have a few similarities. One was the “studied ambivalence” of both. Like Odum, “Faulkner felt compelled to pay homage to the Old South even as he was assaulting it.” But while the former drew back from the assault, the enormously gifted novelist never did and, as Singal has it, advanced “just over the threshold of Modernism.” He continued further than that in his bringing to consciousness a barbaric past of irrational forces lurking beneath the calm surface. In Absalom, Absalom! he located the source of those enduring irrationalities deep in the past, in memory, in society’s history. There lay the secret of his region’s old enigmas and present terrors. More on the “barbaric” aspects later.
The Nashville Agrarians sought to erase the ambivalence between modernism and their regional heritage, the cultural conflict within them, by fiat. As poets, critics, and scholars they were modernist, some even “advanced,” but as southerners they yearned for the moral values and certitudes of their lost religion and their discredited heritage. In I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), they tried to reconcile their conflicting beliefs by an act of will, an oath of fealty to native values described in shorthand as “agrarian.” As John Crowe Ransom put it, they were “Reconstructed but Unregenerate.” The declaration is better described as a metaphor than as a program, though the twelve apostles varied in their interpretation of its tenets and in the firmness of their adherence. In Singal’s view, Ransom was “neither very agrarian nor very southern,” and soon drifted away. Donald Davidson on the other hand, took his stand in battle array and all but wore the gray. Andrew Nelson Lytle carried his agrarianism all the way back to the soil. To Allen Tate, the most complicated of them all, is attributed an “illimitable ambivalence.” Trapped between cultural conservatism and modernist training, stuck on the balance point of ambivalence, he failed in his striving for cultural rootedness in southern myth and eventually sought peace for the war within him by conversion to Catholicism.
When southerners at last arrived on the scene who could, to Mr. Singal’s satisfaction, “be identified beyond doubt as Modernists,” they were set apart from their predecessors by a distinctive sensibility and style of thought. No longer torn between cultures or plagued by inner doubt, they located their dilemmas outside rather than inside themselves, dilemmas that could be solved in “objective fashion.” Assuming the universe to be basically irrational and morality an outgrowth of history, they were “usually full-fledged relativists” and had abandoned the search for certitude. “Avidly empiricist,” they explored the pathological underside of their region for the sources of its problems. The problems they found challenging were of a social, economic, or political character, rather limited problems. They sought temporary solutions rather than universal truths, and while their vision was rather appealing for its modesty it was limited in scope.
If this belated offspring of modernism may be assigned a birthplace and time, it would likely be Chapel Hill of the early 1930s, and if one midwife were more active than another in the delivery, it would likely be William Terry Couch, director of the University of North Carolina Press. Singal is possibly justified in calling this press “the single most influential institution in launching Modernist thought in the South.” Unlike intellectuals discussed so far, Couch was not sheltered from the experience of the common people in his youth, but had taken turns at factory work, farm labor, and a power-plant job. Insisting that his authors write candidly of the common life of the region, Couch poured out books on mill villages, poor relief, strikes, unions, wages, child welfare, black workers, sharecroppers, chain gangs, lynching, and mob brutality.
Along with the new press, which set an example not only for the South but for university presses in the North as well, came new professors such as Rupert B. Vance and Guy B. Johnson, sociologists with no allegiance to Old South or New South myths, no waffling on the harsher realities of the present, and a dogged determination to speak out about them. The Jim Crow line was still crossed at one’s peril, but a few breached that. Barriers there still were, but liberation was in the air and any southerner in residence at Chapel Hill in the Thirties inhaled some of it.
The last portrait in Singal’s gallery is one of Robert Penn Warren, and it comes out a bit blurred. It is a trouble he has with fitting literary figures together with other intellectuals under his rubric of modernism. Thus he has Warren sharing an “orientation…in the social sciences.” He is right that unlike Faulkner, Warren is no longer a figure of transition or ambivalence, and I suppose he might be called a “modernist” or even an “existentialist” (though probably without his consent). But both Faulkner and Warren were pursuing universal concerns beyond these limits, indeed beyond the limits of their time and place. While what they have in common is more important than their differences and both turned to history for their materials, they did find significantly different themes. Warren himself has commented on the strange omission of the subject of politics in Faulkner’s vast panorama of his society. With Warren, on the other hand, politics or the social tensions and conflicts that are at the meat of politics are the controlling metaphor of the South he treats. They provide what he calls “the blind ruck of history” in which his characters are tested and in the chaos of which they either surmount their innocence and discover their identity or are swept away in the violence their innocence helps to create.
It is not fair to criticize an author for failing to do what he does not attempt to do. On the one hand Mr. Singal attempts to write an intellectual history of the South between the two great wars. But his “purpose,” he tells us, is “in part” to explain how the modernist temper or spirit emerged out of the premodern South. The question is whether that premodern culture can be fully conceived in terms either of Victorian morality and ideas or of a Cavalier myth and its dreams and values. Was there not something deeper to be overcome by modernists? One component of that premodern culture was deeper and far more archaic than Victorianism or the Cavalier, and that was the antique code, in both its heroic and inglorious aspects, which Bertram Wyatt-Brown writes of in his recent book, Southern Honor.2 In his opinion honor was “the central theme” of Faulkner’s work, a theme he pursued with “a hard-won, anguished detachment.” Perhaps that was the element in which the “barbaric past” was located and in which the archaic monsters of the deep moved. Perhaps some aspiring modernists had more to cope with than they imagined.
The War Within ends in a brief “Coda” that raises more questions than it answers. “For any who still doubted it,” writes the author, “the triumph of southern Modernism was demonstrated in 1941 with the publication of Wilbur J. Cash’s The Mind of the South.” And why? Simply because that book “represented a complete reversal of the vision of the region’s history once offered by New South writers.” A complete reversal? I somehow gained a different impression. The liberal Cash follows faithfully in the footsteps of the conservative Phillips and the radical Mitchell to link Old South and New South in perfect continuity—the straight New South doctrine. In Cash’s words, “the break between the Old South that was and the South of our time has been vastly exaggerated.” Changes wrought by the Civil War and Reconstruction were “essentially superficial,” and the present remained perfectly “continuous with the past.”
The Yankees’ victory was “almost entirely illusory,” and they retired “in what amounted to abject defeat,” leaving behind a world in which the old order was “preserved virtually intact” and the “pride of the old ruling class was not weakened but even distinctly enhanced.” The new ruling class of businessmen who succeeded the planters were themselves “the progeny of the plantation,” their hallmark “identical with that of the masters of the Old South.” Henry Grady’s gospel becomes “a sort of new charge at Gettysburg.” Well, there would seem to be some misunderstandings here, and my guess is some of them arise from that trouble some term “modernism.”
March 3, 1983
See “Regionalism and the Burdens of Progress,” in Region, Race and Reconstruction, edited by J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 3-26. ↩
Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 1982), was reviewed in the November 18, 1982, issue of The New York Review of Books. ↩