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The Fugitive/Agrarian Movement in Poetry

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

John Crowe Ransom

John Crowe Ransom

Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren

Laura Riding Jackson

Laura Riding Jackson

H. L. Mencken’s Attack on Southern Culture

In 1917, journalist H. L. Mencken, whose acerbic fulminations in cultural criticism tweaked the culture during the early- to mid-20th century, published his essay, "Sahara of the Bozart," filled with the contemporaneous stereotypes circling against the American South. No doubt his trashing of the Southern intellectual literary culture took its toll on the hearts and minds of the poets who would become known as the Fugitives.

Mencken’s essay begins with the quotation by J. Gordon Coogler, "Alas, for the South! Her books have grown fewer- / She never was much given to literature." And then Mencken flings himself into his philippic, stating that the poetaster Coogler is "the last bard of Dixie." He contends that "[d]own there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-point etcher or a metaphysician. It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity." In a reissuing of that essay in the late 1970s, the following quotation from Mencken appears:

. . . there is reason to believe that my attack had something to do with that revival of Southern letters which followed in the middle 1920’s.

Mencken was likely referring to the group of Fugitive poets, whose works ultimately changed that perception of the Southern mental capacity for literature.

The Fugitives Begin Meeting

In 1922, in Nashville, Tennessee, a major literary movement began with the appearance of the magazine, The Fugitive. John Crowe Ransom and Walter Clyde Curry served as professors of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1914, Ransom and Curry began holding meetings to discuss poetry and related issues with undergraduates students at the home of Sidney M. Hirsch.

The meetings were suspended while several group members served in WWI, but they resumed in 1920. The original group members, Ransom, Curry, and Hirsch, were joined by Donald Davidson, William Yandell Elliott, Stanley Johnson, and Alec B. Stevenson. Later Merrill Moore, Allen Tate, Jesse Wills, Alfred Starr, and Robert Penn Warren joined the group. After winning the Nashville Poetry Prize in 1924, Laura Riding was invited to join the group.

Criticism and Creativity

At the meetings the poets handed out copies of their poems, read their poems aloud, and then the others would respond, offering thorough critical analyses. Strong poems would motivate lively discussions, while weak poems would simply be passed over with little or no response.

Donald Davidson found the thorough critiques helpful: "this severe discipline made us self-conscious craftsmen, abhorring looseness of expression, perfectly aware that a somewhat cold-blooded process of revision, after the first ardor of creation had subsided, would do no harm to art."

The Fugitive Magazine

After the group had accumulated a large collection of poems, Sidney Hirsch proposed the idea of starting a magazine. They decided to use a secret ballot to vote for the poems to include. They did not appoint an editor, but Donald Davidson took the tally of the poems' votes. Alec B. Stevenson suggested the title for magazine, The Fugitive, about which Allen Tate says, "a Fugitive was quite simply a Poet: the Wanderer, or even the Wander Jew, the Outcast, the man who carries the secret wisdom around the world."

The first issue of The Fugitive appeared in April 1922, and the last was printed in December 1925. Supported by the Associated Retailers of Nashville, the magazine was always successful and never lacked funds. Eschewing romantic sentimentalism while emulating traditional forms, these poets were considered experimental because they were unpublished novices, except for John Crowe Ransom, who had published a volume of poetry titled Poems about God in 1919.

The Cousinship of Poetry

The Fugitives shared strong bonds of beliefs about what poetry should be; according to scholar, Jay Clayton, they believed that "poetry is the highest calling of the human mind." They held similar notions about nature and society and about God and mankind. From 1914, with its first meeting until approximately 1930, when the Agrarian Movement replaced it, the Fugitive Movement forged a pattern and path for poetry that has made its mark on American Poetry.

Donald Davidson has described the Fugitive philosophy: "the pursuit of poetry as an art was the conclusion of the whole matter of living, learning, and being. It subsumed everything, but it was also as natural and reasonable an act as conversation on the front porch."

One Door Closes, Another One Opens

After Donald Davidson's Fugitives: An Anthology of Verse appeared in 1928, the movement gave way to its successor the Agrarians. The Fugitive Movement focused on form in poetry, and then a slightly new focus brought an emphasis on content: the Fugitives became concerned that the South was evolving away from its agrarian/country roots and taking on too many characteristics of an industrial/urban society. The main emphasis was always on attitude more than economic specifics.

From the focus on Southern Agrarianism came the book of twelve essays, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by the following writers: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Gould Fletcher, Lyle H. Lanier, Allen Tate, Herman Clarence Nixon, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, John Donald Wade, Henry Blue Kline, and Stark Young.

The Fugitives were responsible for creating an influential literary movement that motivated poets to examine their craft and their motives as they composed. And as the movement morphed into the Agrarian Movement, it provided an additional impetus for poets to consider their very paths through life and the best ways to follow them.

The Goal of the Fugitives and Agrarians

Contemporary emphasis on identity politics and political correctness has taken the spotlight off the works and once again placed too much emphasis on the writer’s identity. A return to new critical thinking and its emphasis on the text instead of on the identity of the writer will result in a literary world, where readers will not confuse the output of HipHop/Rap artists with genuine poetry.

The main objective of the Fugitive movement poets followed by the Agrarians was not to bring on a nostalgic return to an old-fashioned, farm/plantation lifestyle; instead, it was on placing the attention of humanity on spirituality instead of on what appeared to be a burgeoning emphasis on the material level of being. As poets and people of a literary bent, these poets and writers hoped to influence humanity to remain human, loving, and caring about values and ideas, keeping the striving for wealth and material goods in its proper place.

John Crowe Ranson's "The New Criticism"

John Crowe Ranson's "The New Criticism"

John Crowe Ransom and the New Criticism

Of all the Fugitives, John Crowe Ransom stands out as the father of New Criticism, a theory that has strongly influenced literary criticism since it inception, and as the founder of the Kenyon Review, an influential literary magazine.

With the publication of this book, The New Criticism, in 1941, John Crowe Ransom left his mark on the literary world. His revolutionary way of talking about literary works, especially poetry, became an important feature in literary criticism, remaining the major theory during the decades leading up to the 1970s. And although after the 1970s that new critical way of discussing literature gave way to poststructuralism, reader-response theory, and deconstruction theory, many of Ransom’s main ideas have remained part of all ways of looking at literature, especially the new critical emphasis on "close-reading."

The central issue that new critical thought brought to literary studies is the emphasis on the text itself, rather the biography of the writer or the historical and societal circumstances in which the writer composed. While these issues may be considered overall, the first consideration must be text itself. New criticism sought to make literary studies more objective and scientific, instead of the heretofore subjectivity that often yielded little more than opinion and personal reaction. The idea that a poem can mean anything one wishes it to mean arose out this pre-New Criticism romantic misunderstanding of the function of literary works.

Sources

  • H. L. Mencken’s "Sahara of the Bozart." The American Scene: A Reader. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1977.
  • Jay Clayton. "The Fugitives." NPT. YouTube. Sep 30, 2009.
  • Mark G. Malvasi. "The Fugitives." The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Updated: March 1, 2018.
  • Thomas H. Landess. "Fugitive Agrarians." The American Conservative. May 17, 2011.
  • Twelve Southerners. I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. Louisiana State University Press. January 1, 1978.
  • John Crowe Ransom. "Criticism, Inc." VQR: National Journal of Literature and Discussion. Autumn 1937.

The Fugitives | NPT

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 17, 2016:

Thank you for your response, Gilbert. The topic of Southern taste and modern development would make a useful dissertation--or perhaps, just an interesting Hub. Have a blessed day!

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on April 16, 2016:

It was interesting to learn that early poets in America compiled a magazine anthology and how Southern taste adapted to modern development.

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