Tracts Against Capitalism:
The Southern Agrarians and Economic Critique
A Special Session at the MLA 2005 Annual Convention in Washington D.C.
|In 1930 twelve
self-proclaimed southerners published the symposium I’ll Take My Stand:
The South and the Agrarian Tradition. That collection has since become
a consistently controversial yet crucial text in American intellectual
history. The contributors intended for the book to be a defense of the
agrarian economic system endemic to the US South against the paradigm
shift toward industrialism in the
region. Making an anti-capitalist argument, the contributors contend that
industrialism spoils the natural relationship of the individual to the
community and of the community to the land. They predict that
industrialism in the South will lead to numerous bad consequences,
including the dehumanization and exploitation of workers, the erosion of
traditional social and religious
and the eruption of communism. In fact, some of the more
ideologically-confrontational contributors to the collection suggested
that the title “Tracts against Communism” would be more appropriate.
Because some of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand later became major figures in both southern modernism and the New Criticism—including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—the collection has been a touchstone for literary scholars, many of whom see it as a reactionary conservative apology for traditional values in a progressive era. While this case is not necessarily invalid, it overlooks the facts that the Southern Agrarians were quite radical for their time and that they predicate their argument on a critique of capitalism, even as they reject communism. Yet, while economic critique and public policy clearly play a role in the Agrarian project, none of the contributors to the collection were trained social scientists, with the exception of one psychologist. Instead, the Agrarians were writers and critics who, contrary to the tenets of formalism, apparently believed that economic practices and cultural production were directly related.
Coinciding with the seventy-fifth anniversary of I’ll Take My Stand, this panel, chaired by Susan V. Donaldson of the College of William and Mary, will interrogate the contentious, often contradictory, relationship between the Agrarians’ economic critique and their artistic production. Many of the scholars who have addressed this issue associate the Agrarians’ defense of a traditional agriculture-based economy with later developments in American conservative thought. Indeed, as Paul V. Murphy explains in The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought, during the Cold War many of the pivotal contributors to I’ll Take My Stand aligned themselves with ideologically-conservative intellectuals, such as William Seward and Russell Kirk. But before the Cold War, the Agrarians occupied an ideologically indeterminate space: both anti-capitalist and anti-communist, both progressive and conservative, both elitist and proletarian, and both modernist and anti-modernist. Since the Agrarians were primarily writers, one would reasonably expect their literary works to reflect their critique of economic systems. The papers on this panel will interrogate the nexus between the Agrarians’ economic critique and their intellectual and artistic representations of agrarian communities.
"Taking the Economic Turn: John Crowe Ransom's Curious Approach to God,"
Paul V. Murphy, Grand Valley State Univ.
"The Interpellation of Percy Munn," David A.
Davis, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
"Liquid Capital: The
Unspeakable Economies of Agrarian Ideology," John T. Matthews, Boston Univ.