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The Southern Renascence

When H. L. Mencken’s “The Sahara of the Bozart” argued that “the south has simply been drained of all its best blood,” the young writers of the Vanderbilt-based Fugitive movement set out to prove otherwise. The Fugitives had been meeting in Nashville since 1920 and two of their founding members were Pulaski, TN, native and accomplished poet, John Crowe Ransom, and Campellsville, TN, native, Donald Davidson. They were later joined by Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. The Fugitive magazine ended in 1925, the same year Tate married novelist Caroline Gordon who spent much of her childhood in Clarksville. Together Gordon and Tate returned to Clarksville in the 1930s when many of the former Fugitives became the Agrarians. This group included another prominent Tennessee writer, Andrew Lytle.

By Steven Ryan, Austin Peay State University

Tennessee played a vital role in the Southern Renascence. Possibly the best way to understand the Southern Renascence ( a reawakening of the southern literature and culture) is as a reaction to H.L. Mencken's "The Sahara of the Bozart," an article which first appeared in 1917 and later in Mencken's collection entitled Prejudices, Second Series in 1920. Mencken was enormously popular, particularly with a new generation the rejected America's traditional puritanical values. In his article, Mencken singled out the South as the "drying-up of a civilization"(70). He argues that "Once you have counted James Branch will not find a single prose writer who can actually write"(71). Southern literature from 1920 to 1940 responded vigorously to Mencken in a variety of ways, and Tennessee was at the forefront of these responses.

Evelyn Scott, a native to Clarksville, TN, and T.S. Stribling, a native of Clifton,TN, followed the early modernist rebellion encouraged by Mencken. In particular, Teeftallow, Stribling's 1926 novel depicting small-town southern bigotry, won Mencken's approval. Similarly, Evelyn Scott's first novel, The Narrow House (1921), used modern expermentation with a Freudian perspective to obliterate the traditional southern regard for the hallowed family. Both Stribling and Scott would continue to attack the expectations of southern propriety.

A sharply contrasting response occured in Nashville with first the Fugitive and then the Agrarian movements. Although Allen Tate sent the first issue of the Fugitive little magazine (April 1922) to Mencken's Smart Set for his approval and did in fact receive encouragement from Mencken, Tate along with others in the Fugitive group came to detest Mencken's critical view of the south and his hold on American modernism. The Fugitives were Vanderbilt-based poets longing to lift the south into the epicenter of modernism. The Fugitives had been meeting in Nashville since 1920, and two of their founding members were Pulaski, TN, native and accomplished poet, John Crowe Ransom, and Campbellsville, TN ,native, Donald Davidson. Ransom was on the Vanderbilt faculty and Davidson was a graduate student. They were joined by undergraduates, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. Warren was only eighteen at the time (1923) and was from Guthrie, KY, though he completed high school in neighboring Clarksville, TN. As college roommates, Tate and Warren decorated their walls with drawings from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." Their aspirations were directed toward Eliot's high modernism as they adapted the southern landscape to the despair over the loss of true southern heritage (akin to Eliot's wistful longing for the Renaissance). The Fugitive magazine ended in 1925, the same year Tate married Caroline Gordon, as aspiring writer and journalist who had written positively about The Fugitive. Gordon was born on her Grandmother's farm along the Kentucky/Tennessee border ten miles from Clarksville and spent much of her childhood on the family farm and in Clarksville where her parents conducted a prepatory school. Together Gordon and Tate returned to Clarksville in the 1930's when many former Fugitives became the Agrarians.

While the Fugitive movement was an aesthetic response to cultural decline, the Agrarian movement was political response the proposed a return to southern rural life in opposition to both New South progressivism and Marxism. Although Gordon was not a contributor to the Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand (1930), she was the most authentically agrarian. Her views are apparent in her acclaimed short stories and novels, beginning with Penhally (1931).

As important as the Tennessee-based Agrarian movement was Richard Wright's coming of age in Memphis, TN. Wright was the first African American writer to gain widespread acceptance from both international critics and the general public. He was born in rural Mississippi in 1908 but moved to Memphis at age four. During his childhood, he moved back to Mississippi and to Arkansas but returned to Memphis as a young man. He then moved to Chicago in 1927 and to New York in 1937. The early impact of Memphis is apparent in Wright's brilliant autobiography, Black Boy (1945). His general southern heritage and the early influence of Marxism are prominent in his early short story collection, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), and his complex movement from Marxism to a more existential position underlies the success of Native Son (1940), a revolutionary novel that concluded the Southern Renascence by exposing the racial divide that had shaped the history of the south and the nation.