THERE IS A sense in which at least literary and artistic discussion may benefit from the advent of the atom bomb. A great many trivial issues can now, with a blush, retire from guerrilla duty and literary partisans can well afford to cultivate an urbane candor where previously none had been considered possible. Perhaps Malcolm Cowley's recent appraisal of William Faulkner may be viewed as a minor portent of even happier events to come. La trahison des clercs may come to an end since the atom bomb has laid forever the illusion that writers and artists were somehow constitutive and directive of the holy zeitgeist. In colossal skyletters the bomb has spelt out for the childlike revolutionary mind the fact of the abdication of all personal and individual character from the political and economic spheres. In fact, only the drab and deluded among men will now seek to parade their futility and insignificance in public places. This is more than the very vigorous and very human egotism of artists and writers is prepared to swallow. It was one thing to indulge in the lyrical megalomania of being a "revolutionary" writer when mere political affiliation absolved one from a too strenuous artistic discipline and assured reputation and audience. How easy it was then to concoct or to applaud a plastic or poetic bomb designed to perturb the unyielding bovines, and, at the same time, to feel that the metaphysics of human welfare were being energetically pursued.
It is quite another thing to look around today. The destructive energy postulated by the revolutionaries is here, and it is vastly in excess of any available human wisdom or political ingenuity to accommodate it. Of course, Marx had always pointed to the revolutionary process as technological rather than political or literary. His austere concept of "man" and the universe was rigorously monistic and technological a perfect expression of the cynical sentimentality of an era. Like the affirmations of Calvin and Rousseau those of Marx are rooted in the negation of the human person. But technology hath now produced its masterpiece. The Brick Bradford brains of modern laboratory technicians, the zanies of big business, fed on the adventures of Tarzan and detective thrillers, have finally given adequate physical form to the romantic nihilism of nineteenth-century art and revolution. Every human cause has now the romantic charm of a "lost cause," and the irrelevance of proposed human ends is only equaled by the likelihood of the annihilation of human begins. Even the "lost" cause of the South begins to assume intelligible and attractive features for a great many who formerly assumed that it was more fun to be on the side of the big battalions. In fact, the "Southern cause" is no more lost than that of the present-day left-wingers, whose literary production, for that matter, has been dependent on the creative efforts of men like Hopkins, Eliot, and Yeats, whose own allegiance was in turn given to the seemingly most forlorn of causes.
Perhaps the point of this can best be illustrated by the case of Henry James, whose current vogue is by no means related to a commensurate improvement in the general level of literary discrimination. A primary postulate of James' world is that it enjoys an enormous material ascendancy with its consequent euphoria. Correlative with the elaborate and tenuous sensibility of his created world there is the even more elaborate structure of abstract finance, and the ethereal technology which that finance called into being. Wherever this abstract structure exists and triumphs James can manipulate his puppets, for both are completely inter-animated. It is no accident, of course, that in this area feminine life should be dominant and luxuriant, and masculine beings timid and meager. It is a big, safe nursery world on its material side. There are no financial worries. (Almost everybody in his novels is a tourist, forever engaged in a pilgrimage not from this world to the next but from one part of the Old World to the next.) But the moment James steps beyond the confines of this abstract materialism, as he did once, he is helpless. The eye of the "restless analyst" grows dull and evasive. It sees nothing. gone are all familiar and, to him, indispensable groups of human motives and energies. It does James no harm to smile at his chapters on the South in The American Scene. They force him to show his hand, a very strong hand, though not so strong as he thought it.
Henry James belonged to a society suffering from the last stages of elephantiasis of the will. In fact, he could bear to contemplate only its peripheral products dominant women and effete men. The pivotal figures of the Jamesian ethos are never obtruded in his work the morbid tycoons whose empty and aimless wills served a power-appetite as lovely as a tapeworm's. This is not for a moment to suggest that James is complacent about these remote figures. His composure in the presence of the diabolical, his "quiet desperation," produces the maximum tension in his work its coordinates are clearly theological, delicacy of nervous constitution being both the means and sign of grace. (The eighteenth century had earlier substituted lachrymose sensitivity for sectarian religious enthusiasm.) And yet, that society was riddled with negation and timidity. A philosophy of action is always bankrupt of thought and passion, and "nothing is more timid than a million dollars." Against the lurid background of such an ethos there is bathos rather than pathos emergent in Lambert Strether's exhortation in The Ambassadors ". . . it doesn't much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had? . . . . Live, live!" A society held together by a tense will and evasive bustle can never produce a life-style with all that implies of passion. It can and does produce abundant tourists, museums, and houses like museums. And with these James is completely at home.
For, after all, a "business civilization" (a contradiction in terms), with its elaborate subterfuges and legal fictions, produces equally intricate and subtly aimless characters. Such a society requires endless action and hence motivation of its members. And character is strictly constituted by motive. Passion constitutes character only negatively. The "lover the madman and the poet" only become characters in the degree to which the ruling passion conflicts with another passion, or with some rational end. Likewise, passion makes for the tragic in art and life just as character tends toward satire, comedy, and the play of manners. The sharp division between these two worlds is, for example, the heart of Wuthering Heights the Earnshaw-Linton clash being an analogue of the modern world's intolerance of passion, thus forcing passion into the monstrous outlaw forms which occur in Faulkner, as well as in the Brontës. As Lockwood symbolically says to Mrs. Dean, who is the narrator of Wuthering Heights, when she tries to put him into the story: "I'm of the busy world and to its arms I must return. Go on. Was Catherine obedient to her father's commands?"
Passionate life does not produce subtle characters. Heathcliff is less complex than Edgar Linton. And the nature of simply agrarian society, for example, is such as to produce men who are primarily passionate in the strict sense. They understand the severe limits of mere human motives and habitually feel the fatality of the larger forces of the life that is in them as well as outside them. A sense of the ineluctable dominates the memories and loyalties of such a people. Character in passionate societies is consequently simple, monolithic, and, when occasion requires, heroic. There is unconscious irony, therefore, in James' stricture: "I caught the wide-eyed smile of the South, that expression of temperamental felicity in which shades of character, questions of real feature, others marks and meanings, tend always to lose themselves." This hardly exhausts the passions of the South, but it provides a comment on James' own characters. Had they chosen to live passionately, the restless analyst would not have been interested in them. When James' world did try, with its head, to go passionate and dithyrambic, D. H. Lawrence took over. But not even Lawrence could make a Heathcliff of Edgar Linton. Passion obliterates differences rather than makes them, as the Civil War illustrates. Witness the removal of deep economic and class divisions, both sectional and political, as a result of that conflict. And the primarily non-introspective and passionate character of Southern life speaks from every product of Southern writers. At the same time that this passion defines the Southern writer it baffles the Northern critic, who is of purpose all compact. But this is to arrive too quickly at the problem.
To the merely rationalist and revolutionary mind of the social "planner" or engineer there is never any way of grasping the nature of politics or of art. Rilke makes the same point as Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Add to this that neither can I in any respect imagine the artist, obedient, patient, fitted for slow development as he is, among the insurrectionists." However, the true traditionalist will always agree with the revolutionary on the facts. But only the traditionalist can be radical. He isn't content merely to cut the shrubbery into new shapes. The essential impatience and rebellion of the New England mind disqualifies it for political and artistic functions, so that the defection of Henry James and T. S. Eliot was a trauma necessary to the preservation of their talents. It was not primarily the meager texture of the American scene which attached them to the English aristocracy and the Anglican Church. On the other hand, it is worthy of prime consideration that the Southern man of letters, while always feeling a considerable affinity for English and European tradition, has never felt any need to expatriate himself either in the nineteenth or twentieth century. Whereas the Northern writer in the twenties was engaged, as Malcolm Cowley says, in discovering that "people in Dijon and Leipzig and Edenburgh were not very different from people in Zenith and Gopher Prairie"; and while he was spending his main energies in defying the old lady from Dubuque, the Southern writer on the other hand was not tortured by this need for revolt. One reason for this striking divergence of attitude may be indicated by an observation of W. B. Yeats. The quality which he isolates and contemplates in his own experience is variously present in all Southern writing of the present day, just as clearly as it is absent in the world of Henry Adams and Henry James:
Considering that Mary Battle received our thoughts in sleep, though coarsened or turned to caricature, do not the thoughts of the scholar or hermit, though they speak no word, or something of their shape and impulse, pass into the general mind? Does not the emotion of some woman of fashion, pass down, although she speak no word, to Joan with her Pot, Jill with her Pail and, it may be, with one knows not what nightmare melancholy to Tom the Fool? . . . Was not a nation, as distinguished from a crowd of chance comers, bound together by this interchange among streams or shadows; that Unity of Image, which I sought in national literature, being but an originating symbol? From the moment when these speculations grew vivid, I had created for myself an intellectual solitude, most arguments that could influence action had lost something of their meaning. How could I judge any scheme of education, or of social reform, when I could not measure what the different classes and occupations contributed to that invisible commerce of reverie and of sleep, and what is luxury and what necessity when a fragment of old braid or a flower in the wall paper may be an originating impulse to revolution or to philosophy?
It would be easy to show an identical awareness with this of Yeats in The Fathers, So Red the Rose, Night Rider, or a dozen more novels. It is the theme of Donald Davidson's Attack on Leviathan, and it is the product of a profound political and social passion—a common attitude to a common experience. Behind this passionate vision there is, of course, a major human tradition which did not originate in the South, any more than the totally non-political and "theological" solitude of the characters of Henry James is rooted in a tradition that originated in New England.
To grasp the implications of this passage from Yeats, as of the preceding one from Rilke, is to see the specific disease of modern "politics." Whereas Yeats passionately and humbly sets himself to watch and listen for the hints and promptings of a corporate wisdom far richer than his merely individual perception can invent, the social planner arrogantly identifies his own impulses and perceptions with social good. Contrast with Yeats' awareness of the nature of culture the ad hoc note of Van Wyck Brooks when he says that we need "a race of artists profound and sincere" who will bring us "face to face with our own experience and set working in that experience the leaven of the highest culture." That Kaltenborn tone would be recognized anywhere as that of a pedagogic engineer. Moral fervor is made a substitute for patient thought and perception, and good intentions become the excuse for enslaving men for their own good. Perfectly analogous with Brooks' engineer-culture is Sinclair Lewis' proclamation in his Nobel Prize speech: The aim of the American writer should be "to give to the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost far cabins, a literature worthy of her vastness." The pulps have taken care of that order.
As Guizot put it: "Even the best revolutionaries have a vain confidence in themselves, and in all they think and all they desire, which urges them to rush head foremost along the path they once have chosen. . . . Modesty is a great light; it keeps the mind open and the heart ready to listen to the teachings of truth." And it is precisely this kind of intellectual modesty which is to be found disseminated throughout the social comments of Southern men of letters, a freedom from that note of political rectitude and absolutist contempt for the person which is inherent in the "progressive," for whom things and persons are just so much energy to be harnessed for virtuous purposes.
Just how much of the latent insurrectionist and moral aggression of the social planner lurked in the make-up of Henry James emerges amusingly in his contact with the South. In his tour he has never once to make his perpetual Northern complaint about "the air of hard prosperity, the ruthlessly pushed-up and promoted look worn by men, women and children alike." On the contrary: "I was to find myself liking, in the South and in the most monstrous fashion, it appeared, those aspects in which the consequences of the great folly were, for extent and gravity, still traceable." In other words James senses some dangerous depravity in his own admiration for the cultural vestiges of an alien and defeated nation—the "great folly" being the presumption of a people in having established a mode of life distinct from the North. It is as though a too successful missionary were for a moment to see a commercialized China through the eyes of a Coomaraswamy. But complacency soon returns. James had a basic respect for success which could never forgive failure. The Southern cause was in his eyes predestined to fail. Therefore it was damned.
Something must be said at this point to place the divergent traditions of North and South in a wider historical frame, if only to relax some of the factional tensions which develop whenever representatives of these dissenting parties begin discussion. Something of the scope of the human issue is finely caught in Tate's poem "Aeneas at Washington." The Civil War and the Trojan War merge:
Stuck in the wet mire
Four thousand leagues from the ninth buried city
I thought of Troy, what we had built her for.
It is no mere attempt to glamorize the defeated South by hinting that Negro slavery was like the rape of Helen, a wrong avenged by an army backed by superior force and calculating guile. It is rather Tate's very Southern feeling for the mysterious unity of history and art alike, which blends these events. Homer's Greeks are actually endowed with the prosaic virtues and vices of the active life. The Trojans are given all the sympathetic qualities of dignity, pathos, and romance. The wrath of Achilles is a passion which is first turned against the Greeks and then against the Trojans This passion which is the decisive force and the dramatic pivot of the poem, when omitted alike by the medieval versions and by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, provides a remarkable analogue of Civil War itself.
But what is important, for the moment, is Tate's sense of the historical dimensions of the Southern attitude. (It occurs equally in John Peale Bishop's "The Burning Wheel.") A merely commercial society (like Carthage) has no historical sense and leaves few traces of itself. (In his research into the origins of American technology Sigfried Giedion was astonished to encounter an almost total absence of records or models of early activity in major industries. Ford, for example, while spending millions on his museum, had no records of the initial production process of his firm.) Jefferson, on the other hand, shows, like Aristotle, a strong historical sense concerning the material and intellectual factors which govern the development of societies. William Gilmore Simms, well in advance of the Civil War, displays an historical perspective and even nostalgia for the early South Carolina, that South which frankly and often too boastfully claimed for itself the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. A perfectly justified insistence, however, on direct connection with the taproot of classical humanism and Ciceronian humanitas and eloquence occurs in every kind of Southern writing from the time of William Byrd of Westover to the present.
Now these claims were never made in the North. Moreover, the reason why New England never laid claim to Ciceronian and Erasmian humanism is abundantly clear from the evidence gathered by Perry Miller in The New England Mind. The author of Jurgen feels historical affinities of life-style which enable him to move easily and unchallenged among classical myths and medieval legends with a sense of continuity and contemporaneity which is marred only by a self-protective whimsy. But Henry Adams' groping around Chartres, "stirring the cold breasts of antiquity" with worshipful awe, provide merely the spectacle of artificial respiration. However, this is a sight entirely acceptable to the academic mind when it would simulate a passionate perception which it cannot feel. In a word, Perry Miller's research presents us with a dialectical mind in seventeenth-century New England, just as John Dewey represents the same mind today. Two things most important for an understanding of the quarrel between North and South are not shown by Miller: first, the violent European opposition of the humanist to the dialectical mind in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and, second, the age-old quarrel between these minds in fifth-century Athens, twelfth-century France, and fourteenth-century Italy. This is not the place to provide such an historical picture. But were the New England mind as capable of perceiving its own roots in the dialectics of Abelard and Ockham (striving to settle the problems of metaphysics, theology, and politics as though they were problems in logic) as the South has been able to feel and to focus its own forensic tradition of Ciceronian humanism, then some qualifying modesty might have got into the dispute a great deal earlier.
In short, the trouble with the New England mind has always been its ignorance of its own history. It has always assumed that it was Mind per se rather than the fractious splinter of scholastic tradition that it is. Once Ramus had welded Ockham's theories into a tool of applied theological controversy, he and his followers laid about them heartily. Ramus was strictly interested in the fray, not the weapon. However, that dubious weapon was the main intellectual equipment that the Cambridge divines brought to Harvard during the time when James I and Charles I had made life intolerable for them by favoring the patristic or humanist party at Cambridge.
The tool of Ramistic scriptural exegesis proved very destructive of Scripture, naturally; for it was rationalistic and nominalistic. That is, it made all problems logical problems and at the same time destroyed ontology and any possibility of metaphysics, a fact which accounts for the notorious anemia, the paralyzing skepticism of New England speculation. Already in the seventeenth century Harvard had designated technologia as the true successor of metaphysics—an absurdity, with all the practical consequences, which is piously perpetuated at this hour by Dewey and his disciples. For this mind there is nothing which cannot be settled by method. It is the mind which weaves the intricacies of efficient production, "scientific" scholarship, and business administration. It doesn't permit itself an inkling of what constitutes a social or political problem (in the Burke or Yeats sense) simply because there is no method for tackling such problems. That is also why the very considerable creative political thought of America has come only from the South—from Jefferson to Wilson.
For the Ciceronian program of education, as outlined in the De Oratore of Cicero (and no less in the Courtier of Castiglione), looks primarily to man in his social and political aspect. In fifth-century Greece this had been the aim of the Sophists, whose work we know through the hostile medium of Plato. Cicero received it via the great Stoic tradition, and having consolidated and exemplified it, provided the Church Fathers with their charter of Christian education which held the field undisputedly until the time of Anselm and Abelard in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (It is only recently that Gilson has shown that until the twelfth century the tradition of classical humanism is unbroken, unabridged, and unchallenged in the Church.) Scholastic theology was the anomalous innovation, not the characteristic mode of Christian theology.
Against this background, the humanistic reaction of a John of Salisbury or a Petrarch against what they called the barbaric dialectics (the Goths and Huns of the Sorbonne) is, like the similar reaction of Erasmus, Colet, More, the reassertion of the central classical and Christian humanism against an upstart party of vermiculate disputationists. Unfortunately for simplicity of subsequent retrospect, the two intellectual parties in theology (the humanists or patrists and the schoolmen) were not split in accordance with the Protestant-Catholic divisions. Both Protestant and Catholic camps were in turn divided. Each had its partisans of patristic and scholastic theology. (The ratio studiorum of the Jesuits attempted to combine both modes.)
The great dispute within the Anglican Church under Elizabeth was over this question. And it was of the greatest possible significance for the cultural and political future of North America that the patristic party finally won out in the Church of England—a victory celebrated by the sudden flourishing under royal patronage of patristic eloquence in Andrewes, Donne, Crashaw, Taylor, and King. This victory finally settled English Public School education in the Classical grooves of linguistics, history, and manners, and just at the time when the Episcopal Church early gained social and political predominance among the planters. The Ciceronian program of education, because of its social prestige and utility, was readily accepted by all—even by the Presbyterians who in the North pursued very different modes.
Wherever this classical and forensic education spread, it carried with it the full gentlemanly code of honor, dignity, and courtesy, since that was inseparable from the reconstituted program as it was propagated by Castiglione, Sidney, and Spenser. It was no mere archeological revival. It had the full vitality of medieval chivalry and courtly love in every part of it. However, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England saw such a powerful upsurge of the trading spirit that its gentlemanly code was swiftly modified. Dueling, obviously, is not compatible with commercial equipoise, nor middle-class comfort. In the South there was very little of the trader's self-abnegation about personal honor, and no curtailment of the full Renaissance flavor of the gentlemanly code. In fact, with the strong Celtic complexion of Southern immigration (Scotch-Irish) there was, if anything, an intensification of the cult of personal honor and loyalty to family and patriarch.
In such a society, uniformly agrarian, possessing homogeneity of education and population, the aristocratic idea was democratic. It is obvious, for example, that Jefferson's concept of democracy would have every man an aristocrat. The prevalence in all classes and places of the aristocratic idea was, of course, out of all proportion to the number of planters who could incarnate it with any degree of effectiveness. It certainly got into Whitman. But there need be no mystery about how a small yeoman farmer could overnight, almost, blossom out as an aristocratic planter. It was altogether less superficial and comic than the way in which Thomas Arnold of Rugby plausibly transmogrified the sons of grocers, mechanics, and patent medicine quacks into haughty young bloods. The vigor of the aristocratic idea in the nineteenth-century South probably explains how Poe, alone of his age, forecast the effect of the machine on the forms of human life, on the very notion of the person.
One main condition of aristocratic life was present in the South and not in the North—personal responsibility to other human beings for education and material welfare. (A Carnegie or a Ford, like a bureaucracy, molds the lives of millions without taking any responsibility.) Perhaps even more decisive, at any time or place, in the creation of the aristocrat is absence of private life. To live always in the presence of family and family servants subtly changes the most average of beings. Formality becomes a condition of survival. Moreover, to represent one's family first and oneself second in all social intercourse confers a special impersonal character on human manners and actions. A social code will always emerge very swiftly under such conditions. And where there is a code, all classes will share and interpret it for themselves in the way in which Yeats has shown in the passage quoted earlier. Striking evidence of this occurs in Faulkner's Light in August. Joe Christmas the octoroon lives and dies by a code which is never mentioned but which is perfectly defined by his tenue as well as by his relations with the other characters in the novel. Clearly an "outlaw" only because he lives among lawless folk that is, among men and women of endless conniving, average confusion, ordinary egotism, and avocation he acquires by his detachment and suffering a weird dignity in his full acceptance of fatality. No shadow of mediocrity, vulgarity, or self-pity ever falls on him. He judges nobody, but all the rest are judged by his proximity.
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene.
In a world of private lives, skeptical ambitions , and cynical egotisms, the aristocrat or the man of passion is helpless. In a world of merely material appetites his role is to suffer. That is why the world portrayed in the novels of the South is one of violence, passion, and death. Joe Christmas is a genuine symbol in the proper sense of being occasioned by an actual and particular spiritual condition not just a Southern but a universal human condition today. And this power of symbol-making is not possible for those who conceive of the inner life as being in a perpetual state of flux. For they are incapable of separating spiritual from physical objects. By a rigorous contemplation of his own local experience, Faulkner has moved steadily towards universals statements.
Probably no more discriminating evocation of all the facts of such a society has ever appeared than The Fathers of Allen Tate. In that novel the dominant character of George Posey (peripheral Southerner of unstable poise), who had "the heightened vitality possessed by a man who knew no bounds," explains more than a library of sociological investigations:
I should say that the Poseys were more refined than the Buchans, but less civilized. I never saw a letter written by George Posey; he must have written letters, but I cannot imagine them. In the sense of today nobody wrote personal letters in our time: Letters conveyed the sensibility in society, the ordered life of families and neighborhoods. George Posey was a man without people or place; he had strong relationships, and he was capable of passionate feeling, but it was all personal and disordered, and it was curious to see them together: the big powerful man of action remained the mother's boy. What else could he have been? What life was there for him in the caverns of the Posey house? What life was there for him outside it? That was what, as I see it, he was trying to find out.
The Ciceronian ideal reaches it flower in the scholar-statesman of encyclopedic knowledge, profound practical experience, and voluble social and public eloquence. That this ideal was perfectly adapted to agrarian estate-life with its multiple legal problems and its need for direct (republican) political representation is obvious to anybody who has considered the South. Moreover, within such a society, literary ability is quite naturally drained off into legal and political channels, to say nothing of highly developed social conversation. So that in assessing the intellectual quality of such a life one is obliged to turn to semi-public documents and the correspondence of people like Washington and Jefferson.
But since the defeat of the South it may be asked whether the Ciceronian program has any further relevance. That question is usually put in a hostile manner by people who regard Ciceronian humanism as inseparable from feudalism or slavery. One abrupt way to answer it would be to say that whereas the Ciceronian humanism of the South represented the main current of European and Western culture, the technology of the North (with its epiphenomenal art and belles lettres) was built on the most destructive aberration of the Western mind autonomous dialectics and ontological nominalism. The fact of the matter is that one phase of the Civil War is being fought over again in the North today. President Hutchins is merely the most vociferous member of a large party which is embattled against the dialectics and educational technology of John Dewey and Sidney Hook. All the old features of the quarrel have re-emerged. Hutchins wants education for citizenship in a limited society, whereas Dewey wants education for a functional absolutist society absolutist because the society rather than the person is constitutive of value. Hutchins wants encyclopedic training; Dewey wants training in methods and techniques know what vs. know how. That the "cause of the South" is quite independent of geography needs no urging.
An answer to the question about the value of traditional Southern life and education could, however, to some extent be based on a scrutiny of present-day letters in the South. If some quality or characteristic excellence has emerged in current Southern letters not to be duplicated elsewhere, some testimony or exploration of human experience not attempted by others, then some sort of "answer" to the hostile critic will have been given. For the historian's questionwhat the South was is included in the question: what is Southern literature today?
Meanwhile, it is worth pondering the plight of many Southern writers whose works are hooted, or admired for the wrong reasons, in Northern journals. In this respect the position of the Southern writer is not unlike that of an Irish writer forty years ago. When a Galway country editor saw in a London paper that an Irishman had just produced a book about the people of Galway in which at last even the Irish might see the irremediable if picturesque depravity of their stubborn race, with its impractical and morbid brooding over the wrongs done by Cromwell, then the Galway editor would denounce the Irish traitor to his readers. All Irish writers were soon hated in Ireland as wretches who had sold the misery and poverty of people for a price in the Sassenach market. It was partly this which made Joyce so bitter about the old sow that eats her own farrow. But in the present condition of the centralized publishing and marketing of books in New York and London there is no escape from this stultifying situation. What is more natural than that provincial newspaper editors should be more concerned about what a Northern critic says than what he himself thinks about a Southern book? The Northern critic holds in abeyance his habitual moral aggression just as long as he feels sure a Wolfe, a Caldwell, or a Faulkner is ripping up the South in manner which squares with Northern convictions.
It has already been suggested that the Southern writer does not feel impelled to technical experiment as other writers simply because he doesn't think of art as a means to épater les bourgeois. For good or ill he has never been of the ardent Kreymborgs and Millays who
To kiss the naked phrase quite unaware.
The South, on the other hand, may be said to have confronted Philistia in 1861.
Again, letters in the South enjoy a degree of autonomy not envisaged by those who have pitched their wares into the cause of revolt. Literature is not there conceived of as "an inferior kind of social will" as in Axel's Castle. In fact, it may be one weakness of Southern writers as writers that they are so concerned with living their own lives that they resist that absorption and annihilation which is expected of the modern writer. The gentlemanly code in a Byron works also in a Thomas Wolfe to produce a rebellious man but a conventional artist. Moreover, the Southern writer shares most of his experience with the majority of Southerners, who never have heard of him—there is not the split between educated and "uneducated" which occurs in an atomized industrial community. In conversation, the Southerner delights to report, without condescension, the fine remarks and shrewd perceptions of quite illiterate folk. But the main reason for this solidarity is the universal acceptance of a passionate view of life. Not only is there no fatal division between educated and uneducated, but there is not the familiar head-heart split of the North, which became glaring in Europe and England in the eighteenth century. The South escaped that because it had no sizable urban trading class until after the Civil War. So it has been able to preserve to a degree the integrity of thought and feeling much as we find it in Conrad and the Russion novelists of the nineteenth century, with whom recent Southern novelists have a strong affinity.
The passionate and tragic sense of life as opposed to the life of multiple and divergent purposes is already discernible as a basic life-style long before the Civil War, as the work of Poe strongly testifies. The ominous sense of fatality which was already haunting that life comes out in all his work, and nowhere more strangely than in "The Man Who Was Used Up," which may have inspired Ransom's "Captain Carpenter." And today the moral aggression of Uncle Tome's Cabin has been more than canceled by the great popularity of Gone With the Wind in the North. Even so crude a work as Margaret Mitchell's caught something of the style and passion of the South in a way which compelled a wide response. The power of a life-style to mold future imagination and life is incalculable where the spectacle of mere brute power is stupefying. The chivalric South, it has been said, wanted the whole horse, whereas the North wanted only to abstract the horsepower from the horse.
But the huge material achievement of a Boulder Dam evokes another kind of "passion" which it may be well to look at here. There is the passion of a civilized person for whom action is repugnant or unthinkable unless the whole man is involved; and there is the passion or suffering of the little sub-men, Hollow Men, of Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. In all the Civil War novels, whether Young's, Tate's, Stribling's, or Faulkner's, the characters are full-size, social beings, because in 1860 men still counted. Not only war but the causes of war, and the problem of evil, both in individuals and societies, are frankly faced. So the South met physical destruction but never felt spiritual defeat at all. However, spiritual defeat came to the North within a few decades. The characters of Hemingway are men of pathos in the limited sense only—they are pitiable, clownlike dwarfs. Their actions have no context. They go to wars they don't understand. Their love is despair. Their speech is little more than a grunt or a haussement des épaules. There is no problem of evil and tragedy in this world because there is no human dignity nor responsibility.
It is the same in Fitzgerald. We are not given any workaday motives or actions in The Great Gatsby because it is, in its way, a novel of passion. There is no introspective analysis. But the figures are Hansel-and-Gretel-like. Pathetic, irresponsible waifs, subject of the Emperor of Ice Cream, whose little interlude of life is played out on the Great Rock-Candy Mountain. One thinks of Gershwin's "Do, do, do what you done- done- done before, baby" as being at the same level as Fitzgerald's "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover." Ironically, the little sub-men of the great cities best express their own sense of helplessness by means of Negro music. While ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves, they became enslaved, and found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own. They destroyed or rejected the best things in the South and took the worst. Even the characters of Erskine Caldwell are free at least from self-pity. Contrast the pseudo-innocence of the people of Hemingway and Fitzgerald with the frank perception of Faulkner:
She was a waitress . . . she was slight, almost childlike. But the adult look saw that the smallness was not due to any natural slenderness but to some inner corruption of the spirit itself: A slenderness which had never been young. . . .
One of the most persistent naïvetés of Northern criticism of the South has concerned the Southern representation of genuine human evil and tragic violence. It has been supposed again and again that this feature of Southern literature was not a vision of human life but just the natural result of a bad conscience about impenitent Negro-baiting or general political backwardness. That is part of the legacy of Rousseau in the doctrinaire North. As Philip Rahv says of Henry James, he "was always identifying his native land with innocence and 'simple human nature,' an idea which his European critics have not found it easy to swallow." There is never any historic sense any more than there is any innocence, where this illusion of innocence prevails. A passage from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! may help us to see the contrast:
It was a summer of wistaria. The twilight was full of it and of the smell of his father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies blew and drifted in soft random—the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr. Compson's letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin's sitting-room at Harvard, (It was a day of listening) too—the listening, the hearing in 1909 mostly about that which he already knew, since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833 and, on Sundays, heard even one of the original three bells in the steeple where descendants of the same pigeons strutted and crooned or wheeled in short courses resembling soft fluid pain-smears on the soft summer sky.
To this as exegesis one may append Tate's remark: "The Southerner can almost wish for his ease the Northern contempt for his kind of history; he would like to believe that history is not a vast body of concrete fact to which he must be loyal, but only a source of mechanical formulas." For the pragmatist there can be no question of a passionate and loyal contemplation of history. For him it is explicitly an armory from which he draws the weapons to advance whatever conviction he may, at the moment, entertain.
Why has it never occurred to anybody to consider the reason why every Southern novelist is a teller of tales? This is true not only of Poe, Simms, and of even Mark Twain, but of Katherine Anne Porter, Mildred Haun, Andrew Lytle, Ellen Glasgow, John Peale Bishop, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, T. S. Stribling, Stark Young, and James Branch Cabell. The tale is the form most natural to a people with a passionate historical sense of life. For in the tale, events march on, passing sometimes over and sometimes around human lives. Individual character is interwoven with the events but is subordinate. That is why the Southern novel is, at first glance, so very deficient in the portrayal of human character. As Lacy Buchan, the narrator of The Fathers, says: "I have a story to tell but I cannot explain the story. I cannot say: if Susan had not married George Posey then Susan would not have known Jane Posey and influenced her." This sense of the fatality and impersonality of events would be upset at once by elaborate character analysis. Instead of sharply defined motives, therefore, and clear-cut frames around people, their individual potential, the charge of spiritual energy that is in them, is indicated from time to time as the narrative proceeds. "He was a hatchet-faced, impassive young man, quite honest—said my father—of the small-farming class for generations: if he never entered our front door, we never entered his simply because we were not wanted." The impersonal social code which permits a formal expression of inward emotion makes it quite pointless for people to interpret one another constantly, as they do in most "realistic" novels. There is thus in the Southern novel a vacuum where we might expect introspection. (It is quite pronounced even in Huckleberry Finn.) The stress falls entirely on slight human gestures, external events which are obliquely slanted to flash light or shade on character. Thus John Erskine notes that a sharp difference between the scouts of Cooper and Simms is that Cooper insists that the success of his scouts is dependent on skill and character whereas Simms makes the success of his a matter of happy circumstances, irresistible as Cuchullain's luck. There is a world of difference in life-style here which holds for all Southern writers. The work of Thomas Wolfe, for example, partakes fully of this character, except that in his experience the impersonal attitude born of formalized social symbols, which finally left each person entirely locked up in his own passionate solitude, was intolerable:
He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know anyone, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in the insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us. Never, never, never, never, never.
Wolfe has all the passion without any of the formal means of constraint and communication which make it tolerable. He was a Southerner by attitude but not by tradition. Thus he stretches himself dramatically over that abyss of personalism which is the negation of every civilized agreement and effort. The same can be said of the frantic puppyism of the early Byron. But Byron had the energy and luck to achieve a quite impersonal poise, finally; and Wolfe might very well have done the same, in time. By contrast, in Stark Young, emotional intensity focuses sharply in the shape of a house, a room, or the movement of hands. "They were long hands, white and shining . . . . As a child I used to watch her hands and used to think she lit the candles my merely touching them." There is nothing here for the analytical mind to seize on. Here is rather "skill of the interior mind to fashion dignity with shapes of air." Once the social symbol of an interior order of intense personal life has been evoked for contemplation, the writer passes on without comment. Mr. Young's deep sympathy with Italian society (one recalls his fine appreciation of Duse) is as natural as Bishop's for France or Andrew Lytle's for Spain. It is clear that De Soto, the Conquistador in At the Moon's Inn, is no mere historical figure but the symbol of some personal and contemporary pressure: "We went for days and weeks at a time lacking any society, and what we had was of men of our own calling, silent and contemplative men given at moments to passionate action."
The teller of tales like these may provide a great deal of conventional description, as a Lytle or a Faulkner does. Description of physical environment is after all of prime importance to the author of passionate narrative whether Scott or Poe, Wordsworth in "Michael," or Twain in Huckleberry Finn. It is a major means of controlling emotion response, as the first page of A Farewell to Arms illustrates. In Southern writing external nature is usually a major actor or player in the narrative, as for example the heath in Hardy, the sea In Conrad, or the river itself in Huckleberry Finn. But for all that, the Southern story-teller takes a great deal for granted in his readers. He assumes a large stock of common experience and a set of basic attitudes which make the surface simplicity of Southern fiction rather deceptive. The surface complexity of Henry James is less difficult in a way, because James is forever explaining everything. One has merely to be patient. That is because his people are elaborately motivated characters, not men of passion. There is really no paradox in the fact that intensely self-analytical and introspective people are the ones for whom endless action is the only catharsis, passionate natures are not at all self-analytical yet seem to be broodingly contemplative and lazy. In The Beast in the Jungle James has finally this to say of the life-long esthetic calculations of John Marcher: "No passion had ever touched him . . . . He had seen outside of his life, not learned it within, the way a woman was mourned when she had been loved for herself; . . . he had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened."
In contrast, Caroline Gordon's Aleck Maury, Sportsman says at the end of his life:
"I sat there until nearly midnight and during those four or five hours I engaged, I imagine, in more introspection than in all the rest of my life put together. I knew suddenly what it was I had lived by . . . . I had known from the first that it was all luck; I had gone about seeking it, with, as it were, the averted eyes of a savage praying to his god …. Delight . . . I had lived by it for sixty years. I knew now what it was I had always feared: that this elation, this delight by which I lived might go from me …. Well, it had gone and it might never come again …. When I awoke in the morning—and I believe this is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me—I had a plan …. I would set myself definite problems …."
Passion at an end, Aleck, as it were, becomes a "Yankee" overnight. Tate refers to this sort of planned, lost life:
Think of tomorrow.
Make a firm postulate
Of simplicity in desire and act
Founded on the best hypotheses;
Desire to eat secretly, alone, lest
Ritual corrupt our charity.
The whole history of this Northern confusion is in a line or so of Anderson's "The Egg": "She was a tall silent woman with a long nose and troubled grey eyes. For herself she wanted nothing. For Father and myself she was incurably ambitious." A more viciously disintegrating formula is unimaginable.
What has been said so far may serve as a means to get a reader into some intelligible relation to Southern literature. However, it cannot properly be said to be an introduction to the numerous writers themselves. The reason for stressing what all Southern writers have in common, rather than the individual notes an idioms, has been to draw attention to the nature of that civilized tradition in which they all share. That is why it may not be amiss to conclude these observations by pointing out some further interests shared by Southern writers as result of their passionate attitude to life. In none of them is there any discernible effort to evade the very unpleasant limits and conditions of human life—never any burking of the fact of evil. Perhaps Wolfe is, in this respect, least satisfactory al all:
Health was to be found in the steady stare of the cats and dogs, or in the smooth vacant chops of the peasant. But he looked on the faces of the lords of the earth—and he saw them wasted and devoured by the beautiful disease of thought and passion . . . . The creatures of romantic fiction, the vicious doll faces of the movie women, the brutal idiot regularity of the faces in the advertisements, and faces of the young college men and women, were stamped in a mould of enamelled vacancy, and became unclean to him.
The sense of belonging to a great chain of person and events, passive yet responsible, is everywhere in Faulkner: "I seem to have been born into this world with so few fathers that I have too many brothers to outrage and shame while alive and hence too many descendants to bequeath my little portion of lust and harm to at death . . . ." Likewise in John Peale Bishop:
This is my blood, my blood that beats
In blithe boys' bodies
And shall yet run (O death!)
Upon a bright inhabited star.
Equally in T. S. Stribling: "Through what obscure channels his blood had flowed since that distant hour in his father's barn…. It was like strangling a python at night … the chain of wrongs and violences out of which his life had been molded …."
"Blood" is, of course, a symbol as well as a fact in Southern writing. It is intensely related to the loyalty to historical fact, tradition, family, name. As Cabell says: ". . . one trait at least the children of Lichfield share in common. We are loyal. We give but once; and when we give, we give all that we have." Symbolically associated with this passionate blood loyalty in all Southern fiction goes its disease—the shadow of incest, the avarice of the affections, as St. Thomas calls it. While it may suggest great Ph.D. possibilities, it is actually very complex and, artistically, symbolical. In no instance is it sentimentally exploited, as in Ford, the dramatist. Rather, in Tate, Stribling, and Faulkner, it is incidental to the tragic fatality of the larger theme.
Inseparable from the profound acceptance of the destiny of one's blood and kin goes a contemplation of death which pervades all Southern writing. It goes always with the passionate contemplation of transient beauty, as in the light poise of Ransom's "Blue Girls":
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—and yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
The conqueror worm haunts Cabell's Jurgen:
Nessus tapped with a forefinger upon the back of Jurgen's hand. "Worm's-meat! this is the destined food, do what you will, of small white worms. This by and by will be a struggling pale corruption, like seething milk. That too is a hard saying, Jurgen. But is a true saying."
Finally, there is basic in any tradition of intellectual and social passion a cult of feminine beauty and elegance. A feeling for the formal, civilizing power of the passionate apprehension of a stylized feminine elegance, so obvious in Southern life and letters, stems from Plato, blossoms in the troubadours, Dante, and the Renaissance Platonists, and is inseparable from the courtly concept of life. There is a strong secular vein in this tradition, despite its affinity with some forms of Christian mystical expression, which was excluded entirely from that branch of scholastic speculation which flourished in New England. Perhaps no further explanation of the bearings of this matter need be given than to say that in this, as in so many things, Southern writers are at one with Yeats in his vision of things:
The cloud-pale unicorns, the eyes of aquamarine,
The quivering half-closed eyelids, the rags of cloud or of lace,
Or eyes that rage has brightened, arms it has made lean,
Give place to an indifferent multitude, give place
To brazen hawks. Nor self-delighting reverie,
Nor hate of what's to come, nor pity for what's gone,
Nothing but the grip of claw, and the eye's complacency,
The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon.
- Marshall McLuhan, The Sewanee Review, Summer, 1947