The impression is being given out that the old South- seat of an antiquated culture whose persistence has been such an anomaly in these longitudes-is being industrialized, and brought into line with our forward-looking and hundred-per-cent Americanism. But it is my judgment that this transformation will not prove so easy as the observers anticipate; it is certainly my hope. The benefit which the South can now render to the nation will consist in showing how an American community can really master the spirit of modern industrialism instead of capitulating to it; that is to say, it will consist in remaining Southern in the pure, traditional, even sectional sense. But if this programme is to escape the charge of treason, the Southern tradition needs examining once more.
In order to objectify the South the more clearly, I will propose a thesis having a somewhat sweeping and simplified form. This is the thesis:-That the South in its history to date has exhibited what nowhere else on a large scale has been exhibited on this continent north of Mexico, a culture based on European principles which has lasted as long as a century; and that the European principles must look to the South if they are to be perpetuated in this country.
England differs from America doubtless in several respects, but most notably in the fact that England did her pioneering an indefinite number of centuries ago, did it well enough, and has been living pretty tranquilly on her establishment ever since, with infrequent upheavals and replacements. Everything that the lay observer notes about England bespeaks a country of wonderfully stable customs and institutions. There is no doubt that the English tradition expresses itself in laws and in literature, but even more important is the consideration that it expresses itself in a specific material establishment. The chief concern of England's half-mythical pioneers was with making a living, but fortunately the methods they worked out proved transmissible, proved in fact the main reliance of the succeeding generations. The pioneers explored the soil, determined what concessions it might reasonably be expected to make them, apportioned the natural wealth, housed the population, and arrived by painful experiment at a thousand satisfactory recipes by which they might secure the necessities of life. Their descendants in each generation have simply appropriated this whole establishment. Living their comparatively easy and routine lives after the tradition, they have enjoyed a leisure, a security, and an intellectual freedom which were never the portion of pioneers.
The pioneering life is not the normal life, whatever some Americans may suppose; it is not, if we look for the meaning of European history. The lesson of each of the major European cultures now extant is in this, that European opinion does not make too much of the intense practical enterprises, but is at pains to define rather narrowly the minimum of practical effort which is prerequisite to the reflective and aesthetic life. It is the European intention to live materially along the inherited line of least resistance in order to put the surplus of energy into the free life of the mind. And thus is engendered European conservatism, which appears stupid only to men given over to materialistic enterprises, men in a state of arrested adolescence; for instance, to some very large if indefinite fraction of the population of these United States.
It is hard for Americans to see that it is normal for the mind in its maturity to renounce the materialistic dreams of its youth. The stuff these dreams were made on was the illusion of preeminent personal success over a material opposition. Their tone was belligerence, and the euphemism under which it masqueraded was ambition. But men are not lovely, and men are not happy, for being too ambitious. Let us distinguish two forms under which ambition drives men on their materialistic projects; a masculine and a feminine.
Ambitious men fight, first of all, against nature; they propose to put nature under their heel; this is the dream of scientists burrowing in their cells, and then of the industrial men who beg of their secret knowledge and go out to trouble the earth. But after a certain point this struggle is vain, and we only use ourselves up if we prolong it. Nature wears out man before man can wear out nature; only a cityman, a laboratory-man, a man cloistered from the normal contacts with the soil, will deny that. It seems wiser to be moderate in our expectations of nature, and respectful; and out of so simple a thing as respect for the physical earth and its teeming life comes a primary joy, which is an inexhaustible source of arts and religions and philosophies.
Ambitious men are belligerent also in the way they look narrowly and enviously upon each other; and I do not refer to such obvious disasters as wars and the rumors of wars. Ambition of the first form was primary and masculine, but there is a secondary form which is typically feminine, though the distribution between the sexes may not be without the usual exceptions. If it is Adam's curse to will perpetually to work his mastery upon nature, it is Eve's curse to prompt Adam every morning to keep up with the best people in the neighborhood in taking the measure of his success. There can never be stability and establishment in a community whose every lady member is sworn to see that her mate is not eclipsed in the competition for material advantages; that community will fume and ferment, and every constituent part will be in perpetual physical motion. The good life depends on leisure, but leisure depends on an establishment, and the establishment depends on a prevailing magnanimity which scorns personal advancement at the expense of the free activity of the mind.
The masculine form is hallowed by Americans, if I am not mistaken, under the name of Progress. The concept of Progress is the concept of man's increasing command, and eventually perfect command, over the forces of nature; a concept which enhances too readily our conceit, intoxicates us, and brutalizes our life. I believe it is demonstrable that there is possible no deep sense of beauty, no heroism of conduct, and no sublimity of religion, which is not informed by the humble sense of man's precarious position in the universe. The feminine form is likewise hallowed among us, it seems, under the name of Service. The term has many meanings, but we come eventually to the one which is critical for the moderns: service means the function of Eve, it means the seducing of laggard men into fresh struggle with nature. It has special application to the apparently stagnant sections of mankind, it busies itself with the heathen Chinee, with the Roman Catholic Mexican, with the "lower" classes even of American society. Its motive is missionary, its watchwords are such as Protestantism, Individualism, Democracy, and the point of its appeal is a discontent, generally labelled "divine".
Progress and Service are not European slogans, they are Americanisms. We alone have devoted our lives to ideals which are admirable within their proper limits, but which expose us to slavery when pursued without critical intelligence. Some Europeans are taken in by these ideals, but hardly the European communities on the whole. Herr Spengler, with a gesture of defeat, glorifies the modern American captain of industry when he compares his glowing achievements with the futilities of modern poets and artists. Whereupon we may well wish to save Europe from even so formidable a European as a Spengler, hoping that he may not convert Europe to his view. And it is hardly likely; Europe is founded on a principle of conservatism, and is deeply scornful of the American and pioneer doctrine of the strenuous life. In 1918 there was danger that Europe might ask to be Americanized, and American missionaries were quite prepared to answer the call; but since that time there has been a revulsion in European opinion, and this particular missionary enterprise confronts now an almost solid barrier of hostility. Europe is not going to be Americanized through falling suddenly in love with strenuousness. It only remains to be seen whether Europe may not be Americanized after all through envy, and through being reminded ceaselessly of our superior prosperity. That is an event to be determined by the force of European magnanimity; Europe's problem, not ours.
The Southern states were populated of course by miscellaneous strains. But evidently the one which determined the peculiar Southern tradition was the one which came out of Europe most convinced of the philosophy of establishment; contrasting with those strains which seem for the most part to have dominated other sections of the country, and which came out of Europe feeling rebellious towards establishments. There are sins to lay at the door of the old South, but not among them is the sin of being intemperately addicted to work and to gross material prosperity. The South never conceded that the whole duty of man was to increase material production, or that the index to the degree of his culture was the volume of his material production. His business seemed to be, rather, to envelope his work and his play with a leisure which permitted the maximum activity of intelligence. Life was a complex and not a simple function. On this assumption the South pioneered her way to an establishment, had the courage to consider that an establishment was something established, and proceeded to enjoy the fruits thereof. The arts of the section were not immensely passionate, creative, and romantic; they were the eighteenth century social arts of dress, conversation, manners, the table, the hunt, politics, oratory, the pulpit. These were arts of living and not arts of escape; they were also community arts, in which every class of society could participate. The South took life easy, which is itself a tolerably comprehensive art.
But so did other communities in 1850, I believe, very frequently, I know not how many. And doubtless some others do so still; in New England, for instance. If there are such communities, this is their token, that they are settled; their citizens generally are at peace with nature and partake gracefully of her usual bounty; they are tolerably innocent of envying their neighbors and worrying over their own portions under the establishment. Prior to the Civil War there must have been many such communities this side of the frontier. The difference between North and South was that such communities constituted the South and made it a solid South; they did not completely constitute any other section. Then the North and the South fought, and both sides suffered a disaster. The damage done the South was material, the damage done the North was spiritual. The Southern states, accepting the cordial invitation of the reconstructionists at Washington, withdrew into themselves and held the minimum of commerce with the enemy. The Northern temper was one of jubilation and expansiveness, and now it was no longer balanced by the counterweight of a conservative Southern tradition. Industrialism, the latest form of pioneering and the worst, presently overtook the North. Nothing overtook the South, except possibly a heightened distaste for pioneering projects and a certain nostalgia as Southerners looked back on better times.
The South never succeeded in repairing the damage done to her establishment, and to that extent declined-a beautiful case to cite when we would show how the good life depends on an adequate pioneering, and how the pioneering energy must be kept ready for call when the establishment needs overhauling. The Southern tradition became pitiful in its persistence after the twentieth century had arrived, for the establishment was depreciated. Unregenerate Southerners were trying to live the good life on a shabby equipment and they were grotesque in their effort to make an art out of living when they were not decently making the living. In the country districts they are still to be seen in patched blue-jeans, sitting on ancestral fences, shotgun across their laps and hound dog at their feet, surveying their unkept acres while they comment shrewdly on the ways of God. The sociologists have as yet made no adequate survey to determine the numbers of these broken-down but traditional Southerners, but they are formidable. It is their defect that they have driven a too-easy, an unmanly, bargain with nature, and that their aestheticism is based on insufficient labor. Yet they are heroic extremists, they have an exemplary value as sworn to a philosophy which is generally disesteemed.
The tradition is operative still, though subjected within the last ten or fifteen years to a powerful attack. The old South feels now the full impact of modern industrialism, it threatens to become a new South which will be but another instance of the ordinary industrial American community. The generous capitalists and charming missionary publicists from the other sections, and many of the Southern leaders themselves, seem indifferent to the tradition while they are trying to bring the South up to the rest of the country in material wealth. Progress and Service are "ramping high" in the South to-day. The urban South has about capitulated to these novelties. It is the village South and the rural South which supply the resistance and it is fortunate from my point of view that these represent a vast quantity of inertia.
Industrialism, of course, is the contemporary form of pioneering; from this point of view it is nothing but a programme under which men, using the new scientific paraphernalia, sacrifice everything to win pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic importance. Ruskin and Carlyle feared it nearly a hundred years ago, and now it may be said that their fears have been realized partly in Europe, and with almost fatal completeness in America Industrialism is an insidious spirit, full of false promises and fatal to establishments since it persuades them to be torn quite down when they might have contracted for a certain degree of renovation as the limit. Industrialism is rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence; it needs to be strongly governed or it will destroy, the economy of the household; only a European society with a tough conservative philosophy, only an exceptional American community, can master it.
Many phenomena might serve as symbols for the vicious circle of industrial "progress"; I mention two. Industrialism ancient or modern, is symbolized in the familiar career of money-getting. The victim forgets that money is properly the means to leisure and conceives it as an objective which is good in itself, and of which the more the better; he accepts slavery under the strange impression that he is celebrating his freedom. But vehicular transportation is a peculiarly modern symbol. Rapid transit between points is properly the means of saving time to spend at the points. But the moderns have devoted such ingenuity to the problem as greatly to multiply the points accessible, and now are transporting themselves about within this multiple system with less time to spend at any one point than ever before.
The evils of industrialism are perfectly trite,-to everybody but industrialists. Fundamentally we employ industrialism because it proposes to reduce work and promote leisure. But as a matter of fact industrialism no sooner reduces the period of a given labor than it more than makes it up by inventing a number of new objectives to work at, and we are further off from freedom and leisure than we were at the beginning. Industrialism has greatly accelerated the speed at which work is done. The tension of our working hours is so tightened that now it is with difficulty we can work aesthetically,-which is to work comfortably and reflectively, as the mediaeval guildsmen worked, as an unharried spirit might work at the ancient rites of agriculture in any period, as the old priests and teachers and statesmen worked. And not only is aesthetic quality lost to our labors, but the fever born of this mechanical compulsion of speed is communicated clear over to our hours of leisure (if we permit ourselves such an indulgence) and our play is tense and brutal too, Item? the indoor and outdoor sports of our highly indictable younger generation, alarming indeed, but inevitable, since it is decreed that if the fathers have eaten sour grapes the teeth of the succeeding generations must be set on edge.
Perhaps the wheel of Ixion is the best symbol for our industrial engine, signifying that perpetual revolution which so painfully denies us any stationary leisure and is so ill adapted to the human physiology
And perhaps the critical question for American leaders to-day is this one:-How can the Southern communities, the chief instance of the stationary European principle of culture in America, be reinforced in their ancient integrity as centers of resistance to an all-but-devouring industrialism? How can the South develop its resources without being persuaded to make development of its resources the end-in-itself ?
Surely this much can be said at any rate: deprived of its traditional South, this nation will lose a certain ideal, a light for the orientation of its life; even if this is but one light among many, life must become the blinder and the less intelligent for its loss.
JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Posted and edited by J Molinaro 10. 2. 97