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The Sacrament of Remembrance: Southern Agrarian Poet Donald Davidson and His Past Paul V. Murphy For us, the long remembering Ofall our hearts have better known. —Donald Davidson, in his 1934 poem, "Southward Returning" Donald Davidson, a southern poet and leader of the Southern Agrarians, a group of antimodernists who opposed industrial capitalism, conceived of social memory as a "folk-chain," which binds a people together. The folk-chain transmits tradition , which, Davidson declared, tells southerners "who we are, where we are, where we belong, what we live by, what we live for."1 Moreover, one person teaching another extends the folk-chain: "What passes from memory to memory, without benefit of the historian's record, is as old in time as the memories that it expresses, and if it is accepted it endures as long as the land and people that accept it."2 In a sense, Southern Agrarianism is fundamentally about social memory. Certainly, the power of the 1930 book, I'll Take My Stand, to which Davidson contributed and which remains a ringing indictment of industrial capitalism and a defense of southern tradition, rests in its manipulation of social memory. As Robert Penn Warren, a young graduate student at Oxford at the time recalled later, the Agrarian movement had a sentimental appeal, especially for a young man who had been away from home for several years.3 For Warren, the Agrarian impulse was an attempt "to recapture, to reassess." By invoking a heroic past ("not a golden age, but the past imaginatively conceived and historically conceived in the strictest readings of the researchers," as Warren wrote), the Agrarians offered a rebuke to the present: "The past is always a rebuke to the present . . . It's a better rebuke than any dream of the future. It's a better rebuke because you can see what some of the costs were, what frail virtues were achieved in the past by frail men."4 Agrarianism, in Warren's view, stood as an effort to preserve an inherited way of living that was at once humane and good. Although phrased in different ways and with different nuances of meaning , one primary concern moved the Agrarians: How can southerners retain what they have? Yet, Agrarianism meant fundamentally different things to different 84Southern Cultures Agrarians. The movement was not an ideology, but an organized set of assumptions , criticisms, and prejudices. Donald Davidson's Agrarian social criticism increasingly revolved around the South's social memory. The limits of community and the possibilities for social change were dictated by the past, as Davidson interpreted that past. In a personal way, the cultivation of memory and tradition became the source of what post-World War social scientists would come to call identity, the social role that mediates between a person's personality and the larger culture.5 For Davidson, the process of remembering was a means of personal sanctification and purification. The sacrifice of ancestors, moreover, was the agency of redemption. Davidson translated this historically based understanding of society into a politics of identity that effectively precluded any impulse toward social empathy. Davidson's attempt to make history into a sacrament—the transforming of it into what fellow Agrarian Allen Tate called "mystical secularism"— allowed for no revision of the past nor reform in the present.6 To be a southerner was to be of its white tradition. This fact is key to understanding Davidson's Agrarianism, as well as his regionalism, and it led to his strident defense of segregation in the South. Davidson's folk-chain of memory left him with no way to understand African-American interpretations of a shared southern history and no way to broaden his own circle of southern identity. Forming the Agrarian Vision: Davidson, Ransom, and Tate The planning for I'll Take My Stand began in earnest in the summer and fall of 1929. The project brought together John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson, both professors on Vanderbilt University's English faculty and Allen Tate, their former student who was attempting to earn his living as a free-lance writer. These authors had not yet settled on agrarianism as an identity, or, even, as an issue. They only...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 83-102
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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