Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919 – 1945

Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919 – 1945

By Fred Hobson

Vol. 7, No. 2, 1985, pp. 21-22

The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919 – 1945. By Daniel Joseph Singal. University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

In the quarter-century between the close of the First World War and the close of the Second, the thought and writing of the American South underwent a change that has been explained in various ways by various commentators. Allen Tate attributed the change in thought-in particular, the coming of a Southern literary renascence-to a “crossing of the ways,” an historical moment when agrarian past met industrialized future with particular intensity, causing a “double focus, a looking two ways” among Southern writers and intellectuals. Gerald W. Johnson and others attributed the change to the shock produced in Dixie when outsiders such as H.L. Mencken exposed the South as a cultural and literary desert and laid bare all its cherished institutions and myths. Daniel Singal’s approach is somewhat different. He explains what happened in Southern intellectual circles between 1919 and 1945 in terms of a progression from Victorian to Modernist thought. Thus certain Southern writers–historian Ulrich B. Phillips, economist Broadus Mitchell and novelist Ellen Glasgow–are “Southern Post-Victorians.” Others–William Faulkner, poets John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson and Tate, and sociologist Howard Odum–are “Modernists by the skin of their teeth.” Still others–publisher William Terry Couch, sociologists Rupert Vance, Guy B. Johnson and Arthur Raper, and, finally, Robert Penn Warren–are full-fledged “Modernists.”

Singal’s attempt–and in most respects, his accomplishment–is a noble one. For he attempts to impose order on a body of twentieth century Southern writing which, to some extent, resists the kind of order he imposes. Modernism, by its nature, is a many-faceted thing. As Singal notes, the Modernist tends to unlock the whole being (by employing Darwin, Marx, Freud, Jung and other thinkers); does not repress human vitality or deny kinship with other animals (as the Victorians did); plumbs the human psyche, believes the universe is unpredictable, and possesses “an ability to live without certainty.” True enough. But because of the protean quality of Modernism, one might-by focusing on some particular aspect of it at the expense of other aspects–take Singal’s thirteen Southerners and group them in many different ways. I would contend, for example, that Davidson and perhaps Odum were not Modernists at all, even by the skin of their teeth–and that Faulkner and Tate were closer than Couch to being the real thing.

But to focus on such distinctions is to miss the immense value of Singal’s book. In fact, The War Within is an enormously suggestive and important work, thoroughly researched and very well written. Singal’s first chapter, on the South and Victorian culture, is highly instructive: Victorianism is not so hard to pin down as Modernism. His treatment of Phillips and Mitchell is particularly good, and his discussions of Faulkner and of the Southern Agrarians, particularly Warren, are sound.

But it is Singal’s discussion of the Chapel Hill group–the “crusading” North Carolinians, as Donald Davidson called them–that is perhaps most valuable. Five of his thirteen subjects were associated with the University of North Carolina, and four of those five–Couch, Vance, Johnson and Raper–have not previously received their full due. Howard Odum, of course, is the most significant figure in the Chapel Hill renascence of the 1920s and 1930s. But what has not been previously explored-although it has been frequently acknowledged-is the contribution to Southern intellectual life of Couch and the University of North Carolina Press and the contributions of the second

Page 22

generation of Chapel Hill sociologists-Vance, Johnson and Raper-all of whom studied under Odum but who differed from him (and from each other) in their approach to Southern life and in their degree of militancy. Vance was more hard-boiled than Odum. Johnson was more the true social scientist. Raper was more militant. Couch quarreled with Odum. The “Chapel Hill group,” that is to say, was no more unified than the Vanderbilt group.”

As valuable as Singal’s discussions of Chapel Hill sociologists and Vanderbilt Agrarians are, he omits or dismisses several other Southerners of the period 1919-1945 whose inclusion would have made his study even richer. Although center stage for the intellectual debate within the South in the 1920s and 1930s was marked “whites only,” Southern blacks were hardly silent. Equally indefensible is the dismissal of a white Southern woman such as Lillian Smith who edited the most outspoken Southern journal of its time, South Today, between 1936 and 1945–particularly since, in many ways, Smith seems to have been a more representative Modernist than many of the author’s choices. More than any other Southerner of her time, Smith acknowledged all aspects of being human, truly plumbed the Southern psyche, relied heavily on Freud, and, in the 1930s and 40s, openly condemned racial segregation in any form it might take.

Singal does refer to Smith in passing on two occasions and acknowledges, in the book’s conclusion, that “with her the assault against the Victorian ethos reached maturity” and that she, “more than anyone else, brought the issue of race and segregation into the open.” He quotes her description of the white Southern mind–“Not only Negroes but everything dark, dangerous, evil must be pushed to the rim of one’s life”–and cites her belief that genteel Southerners had certain wishes and desires which “we learned early to send to the Dark-town of our unconscious.”

Yet Singal dismisses such pronouncements as “today [having] about them the ring of the commonplace.” “Her description of southerners as repressed, violent, and perverted strikes readers of the 1980s as extravagant and overdramatic. . .” And now “Smith’s insights have become stale.”

I do not think so. And, indeed, even if some of her logic should today appear “commonplace,” her message–in its time and place, when it mattered most–was both original and courageous. That she was heard is suggested by the attention she received, not always favorably, from Southern liberals. “A modern, feminine counterpart of the ancient Hebrew prophets,” Ralph McGill called her; the William Lloyd Garrison of the South, Virginius Dabney said.

Singal’s study, then, omits significant points of view within Southern society–blacks, women (except for Glasgow), outspoken prophets such as Smith, and others who spoke with radically different voices. The study is principally–with the notable exception of Faulkner and the Agrarians–a discussion of certain aspects of twentieth century white male Southern liberalism. To capture the full flavor of Southern intellectual life between 1919 and 1945 the author might have included some less established, less genteel Southern voices. But what Singal does he does well indeed: he understands well most of the mainstream intellectual and literary currents of his period, and he has written a book filled with energy and originality.

Fred Hobson teaches in the English Department of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. His most recent book is Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (L.S.U. Press, 1983).