- The New Criticism and the Nashville Sound:William Faulkner’s The Town and Rock and Roll
We’ll build in sonnets pretty roomes;As well a well wrought urne becomesThe greatest ashes, as half-acre tombes,And by these hymnes, all shall approveUs Canoniz’d for love.John Donne, “The Canonization” (1633)
Although it’s always crowded,you still can find some room.Where broken hearted loversdo cry away their gloom.Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton, “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956)
Aspeculation: John Donne’s “pretty roomes” give way to the “room” in the 1956 RCA hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” In the infamous 1930 Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, Andrew Nelson Lytle articulated an opposition between culture and media that New Critics would bring into the postwar moment: Southern farmers should “[t]hrow [End Page 32] out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall” (244). In the decades following World War II, the rock and roll song helped erase Donne sonnets and other literary forms from public consciousness. Or so it must have seemed to the New Critics. Trained by the Fugitives at Vanderbilt a generation earlier, New Critics absorbed their Agrarian mentors’ notions, incorporating an antitechnological point of view into their conception of good literature. In his introduction to the 1962 edition of I’ll Take My Stand, Louis D. Rubin complained that “the suburbs of Nashville, Richmond, Charleston, and Mobile are scarcely distinguishable from those of Buffalo, Trenton, Indianapolis, and Hartford,” adding, “Andrew Lytle’s suggestion . . . has not been followed; instead the radio has been replaced by a television set” (Rubin x). Rubin could not have been unaware that in the intervening years, Elvis Presley had made his way east from Memphis to record “Heartbreak Hotel” at RCA’s Studio B, just blocks away from Vanderbilt.
Catherine Jurca has charted the emergence of the suburban whiner in the postwar American novel, but Rubin’s comments suggest that the suburbanization of Nashville warranted a particular sort of lament—one specifically associated with Nashville’s radio presence, a phenomenon that during these years earned it the name “Music City, U.S.A.”1 As rock and roll began to gain in popularity, what came to be known as “The Nashville Sound” developed in response. Created at Studio B by the likes of Chet Atkins and Jim Reeves, “The Nashville Sound” rendered Nashville’s traditional country music slicker, more pop—commensurate, that is, with rock, as music historians Jocelyn R. Neal, Joli Jensen, and Michael Kosser have shown. These changes to country music emerged in the heyday of the New Criticism, and indeed, as Fugitive notions were being translated into formal dicta, the Agrarians’ Nashville was turning into a broadcast town—Music City, a proto-virtual Southern city embracing, not resisting, suburban development.
Lytle embellished his call to “throw out the radio,” moreover, with a racial epithet—“That is the nigger in the woodpile . . . keep the machines turning!” (205)—clarifying that the aversion to emerging [End Page 33] media involved more than a concern about what technology would do to the South’s natural beauty. Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked Nashville’s turn to Music City, and in the postwar decades, integration there was well under way. Sit-ins on West End Avenue, protests over the expulsion of James M. Lawson Jr. from Vanderbilt’s divinity school—things in Nashville had changed since the Agrarians took their stand there.2 Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn (1947) was intended to undo the process of cultural erasure that Brooks imagined was taking place in the postwar world, to restore to a technological era what he called the “miracle of which the poet speaks” (xi). In the wide-ranging, national program of reeducation that Brooks created with Robert Penn Warren, Americans would, they hoped, experience the miraculous again by learning to make “the closest possible examination of what the poem says as a poem” (xi).3 It was this hope as well that lay behind Lytle’s directive two decades earlier to “throw out the radio,” and his racial investments belie the apparent neutrality of...