By John McWilliams
Ransom’s gentlemanly modesty has not served him well in recent decades. Ransom was the leading figure behind the so-called New Criticism of literary scholarship, which remained dominant for about thirty years after 1940, until it was condescended to, and then relegated to the professorial dustbin. Ransom was a skilled, discriminating editor of the Kenyon Review, perhaps the leading literary journal of his time. He taught many an important American poet, long after the regionalist “Fugitive” movement in Southern letters had subsided. Above all, Ransom wrote perhaps ten near-perfect lyric poems—“Janet Waking,” “Dead Boy” and “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” among them—that confront human mortality with a delicate fusion of humor and melancholy. He was a master of lively, controlled meter, ingenious rhyme, and enchanting archaisms. A craftsman who wrote occasional verse of the very highest quality.
In 1931, a few months after Ransom and eleven other writers associated with Vanderbilt University had collaborated on I’ll Take My Stand, Ransom began work on a book length manuscript he titled Land! Unlike the regionalism of Ransom’s “Reconstructed But Unregenerated,” the powerful essay that opened I’ll Take my Stand, Land! was to be a statement on the present state of the national economy, written by an amateur for the general educated reader. The completed manuscript, turned down four times by major publishing houses in 1932, has long been thought to have been destroyed. Recently rediscovered, the manuscript of Land! has now finally seen publication, informatively introduced, ably edited and handsomely published by Notre Dame Press.
Ransom’s Preface refers to Land! as an “economic sequel to the group-book.” In the absence of a more definitive statement of intent, it seems that Ransom wished to refute the charge of parochialism already being leveled at the authors of I’ll Take My Stand. He sought to provide a national economic analysis to bolster his colleagues’ shared pleas for the benefits—spiritual, cultural and aesthetic—of the pastoral life of the free-holding farmer. Land! was truly to be a ‘sequel,’ a work to be read in tandem; it would provide the evidence that I’ll Take My Stand had in fact achieved far more than merely indulging the nostalgic dreams of the South’s “typewriter agrarians.” At issue was the promise and threat that America’s ever-accelerating capitalistic system posed for both its industrial and agricultural components.
The deepening of the Depression led Ransom to assume that the failings of industrial capitalism would prove to be systemic, not occasional. The motivation of the capitalist is “the acquisition of more capital, the projection of his ego into larger channels of wealth, influence, and power.” Because capital, unlike land, is mobile and increases like compound interest, its profitability must result in overexpansion, and overproduction. Vertical and horizontal integration will promote monopoly. Vaunted increases in productivity, accelerated by Ford-ism and Taylor-ism, will therefore lead, in due sequence, to excess capacity, chain-stores with heaps of unsold products, installment buying, consumer debt, failing mortgages, failing banks, economic contraction of the money system, rising unemployment, and rising poverty. “Such an economic system is too much like the internal combustion engine itself; its progress is by means of a series of explosions.” Meanwhile the disparity between the rich and the poor only increases; greater physical mobility encourages class separation through the rapid growth of America’s new suburbs. There seems to be no end to the process because the capitalist by definition has no finite goal; capitalism must remain a determinative process without any end point.
The self-sufficient free-holding farmer, in whom Ransom is thought to have had such faith, has in fact become caught up, even complicit, in capitalism’s promises. New farming technologies, encouraged by State Agricultural schools’ emphasis on crop productivity, have led to overproduction and to un-saleable crops. Farmers have turned away from multi-task subsistence farming toward the greater efficiencies of raising a single money crop for distant, unreliable, often oversold markets. Food has become cheap in two senses of the word; farming is therefore dying of its own capitalist success. The increasing number of failing farms forces farmers into the cities, where they join the ranks of the industrial unemployed. In 1931, Ransom could not yet have known the term “agribusiness,” but he already understood its future workings.
The decades since 1931 have witnessed recurring instances of most of Ransom’s economic predictions, but has not resulted in the collapse of late oligarchic capitalism as an economic system. The question posed to Ransom’s reader is, what can be offered as solutions? New industries cannot absorb unemployment because over-capitalization increases far faster than the development of new products. Exports to foreign markets, Ransom believes, will not occur in sufficient volume to absorb overproduction. Although Ransom approves of the graduated income tax, as well as some future form of social security, the federal government will remain far too small ever to fully address the extremity of the nation’s problems. Although Ransom refers to Karl Marx and Beatrice and Sidney Webb approvingly, he suspects Socialism and detests Bolshevism. He believes that the abiding American faith in individualism, freedom, and the sanctity of private property (values that he believes to be “constitutional”) will dissolve the threat of both political alternatives.
So what solution remains? Ransom’s concluding proposal for curing the nation’s economy suggests the reason why Land!, despite its insights, proved to be un-publishable in Ransom’s time. Ransom’s last chapter, unfortunately titled “The Amphibian Farmer,” urges that the basis of American economic recovery lies in the return of the small, free-holding family farm. Such farms are to be “amphibian” because half of their produce will feed the self-sufficient family, and the other half will be gathered for money sale in a known local market.
Such a proposal may still be workable and spiritually fulfilling for the small minority of back-to-the-landers, but as a basis for the national economy it was no more viable in 1931 than it is today. Ransom would remind his reader that “sometimes, even in recent years, there have come to this country patriarchal colonies of German, Swiss, or Eastern European farmers, untutored in the great capitalistic economy, who have settled down on some tract of mediocre land, worked out their titles to it by heroic labors, and finally converted a wilderness into a garden where they live with an air of thrifty prosperity that refreshes the eye of the discouraged traveler.” Word for word, this statement could be taken from Crevecoeur’s buoyantly optimistic, Letters from an American Farmer (1782), especially its most famous chapter “What is an American?” The drawbacks of the kind of agrarianism Crevecoeur and Thomas Jefferson advocated for the nation had been long since exposed by Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures (1791).
By 1931, geo-economic conditions had been transformed: technology, transportation, communication, mediums of exchange, labor for hire, and the forced fertility of available land. He who would still be a self-sufficient, free-holding farmer, Ransom declares, must serve as “his own carpenter, painter, roadmaker, forester, meatpacker, woodcutter, gardener, landscape gardener, nursery-man, dairyman, poulterer, and handyman.” Aside from absolutist advocates of the strenuous life, how many American citizens would choose to try to fulfill so many arduous tasks amid an economy of readily available consumer goods and urban diversions?
In sum, Ransom’s critique is often prophetic and always thoughtful, but his solution borders on the absurd. At some level, Ransom must have recognized its absurdity, because the prospect he holds forth for “amphibian” farmers is repeatedly undermined by his own insights into the powers of industrial capitalism. As Ransom left Tennessee for Gambier, Ohio, in 1937, he quietly set aside advocacy for his kind of agrarian economy. He never returned to it, and never found a replacement.
John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is an emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.