Fugitives Agrarians and Others

It is a grim irony that people who argued for the independence of literary art from instrumental political ends should now be impeached or dismissed for their own politics; it makes an even harsher irony that people who insisted on fine distinctions now get lumped together as reactionaries. Nevertheless, some American New Critics' Southern affiliations and anti-liberal predispositions entered their literary thought and (more directly) their own poems. At Vanderbilt, Ransom, Tate, Warren and poet Donald Davidson founded a literary group called the Fugitives, and published a journal, The Fugitive (1922—5). The same group, expanded, turned to political and cultural writing, reconstituted itself as the Agrarians, and published I'll Take My Stand (1930). That volume's 'Twelve Southerners' argued that the South should retain a traditional farm-based society, rather than accept industrial capitalism. Infused by regional loyalties and by a more or less Eliotic conservatism, the poets' agrarianism, Louis Rubin writes, 'was also ... a campaign for poetry and religion' (in Young, 1976b).

The volume prompted well-publicized debates. After a few years of research in economics, Ransom returned in the mid-1930s to his literary interests, reluctantly supporting the New Deal. Tate retained the rhetoric of what he called his 'Reactionary Essays', co-editing another political volume, Who Owns America? (1936). After 1940 only Davidson remained active in Agrarian polemic, eventually defending racial segregation. An older, liberal Warren repudiated his Agrarian writings. Fiercely Marxist in his youth, Jarrell wanted nothing to do with the politics of the teachers he nonetheless admired. Blackmur, a New Englander, never joined the Agrarian clique, nor did the English, and socialist, Empson.

New Critical ideas could be forced into contradiction, and different critics followed different threads. One such contradiction set moral judgement against aesthetic disinterest; a second posed ambiguity and complexity (one value) against formal authority and control (another). These contradictions and their psychosexual freight emerged (as Langdon Hammer has shown) in New Critics' vexed readings of Hart

Crane, whom both Tate and Winters had known well. Crane's allusive and densely figurative language appealed to their tastes and ideals, while his celebratory temperament, his ambitious optimism, and his homosexuality did not. (Winters, Tate and Blackmur wrote ambivalent appreciations of Crane; Jarrell later abandoned an unfinished book on him.)

Recent analysts often maintain that the New Critics sought to establish for literary thinkers a professional authority, one analogous to the religious or traditional authorities which Eliot, Ransom, Tate and Brooks respected. Demands for rigour and complexity helped the New Critics distinguish their modernism from the more populist free verse espoused by Carl Sandburg and others on the left. During the 1930s, New Critical literary models clashed with those of the Popular Front, an argument played out in poems by Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, and in the New York journal Partisan Review. The New Criticism's political overtones, and its effects on subsequent academic work, have been frequently described; the story of the New Critics and their successors as poets deserves renewed attention.

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