An Extraordinary Book
In the year 1990, half the peoples of the world have risen to strike a blow against Leviathan; so perhaps Davidson’s courageous book will be better understood, and by more people, than it was in 1938. —Russell Kirk, “Donald Davidson and the South’s Conservatism”
Donald Davidson taught students to read word by word. The habit of reading words by eyefuls, he warned, deadened the mind. A lifelong reader of Latin and Greek, he could show how a subtle English sentence was as rich and tangled as a flexible Latin or Greek sentence. Looking back nearly fifty years, Walter Sullivan has written that “He was the first and best writing teacher I ever had, and whatever the subject, his performance in the classroom was extraordinary.” Robert Penn Warren looked back nearly seventy years when he recalled that “Davidson was an extraordinary teacher, just extraordinary.”
Reading historians and sociologists with a keen eye for words and syntax, Davidson draws sparks in this book by putting to the test of hammer-and-anvil claims of warring factions. Ideas from these warring factions take shape under a single theme, the war between Immovable Bodies and Irresistible Forces. The shape of the forces is a monster, Leviathan. The bodies are living men who, like Brother Jonathan and Cousin Roderick, upright and relaxed, resist successfully the irresistible.
Frederick J. Turner scrutinized Immovable Bodies. The object of Turner’s critical inquiry was to trace “an organic sectionalism which receives its character from many and various factors occurring early and late and which is persistent—is, indeed, the condition, or one of the prime essentials, of nationality.” The cultures which form this prime essential are so rooted that they survive today, despite the fact that engines and electronic devices have shrunk distances between Charleston and California. The “distance between Charleston, South Carolina, and the west coast is comparable,” Turner points out, “to the distance between Constantinople and the west coast of Spain; and the distance from our northern to our southern border is comparable to the distance between the Baltic coast and the island of Sicily.”
To teachers this distance may appear to be a relic. Those from South Carolina and from California, who have flown in a sealed omnibus to a professional meeting in some large city, will show fewer distinctions of mind and tongue than will laborers. These teachers, interpreters of culture, will likely be thinking of their kind when they announce the cessation of regional habits and language. But a sociologist, keen of ear and eye, like John Shelton Reed, can sketch the words and habits which reveal essential differences characteristic of various regions in this country. At the forefront of the conditions which have influenced the formation of these habits and words Davidson lists “the permanent physiographic situation,” the “less permanent, but persistent, population features,” and the “attitudes remaining from frontier experience.” Any theory which neglects the physiographic features is crippled. Any theory that neglects “population features” and “attitudes remaining from frontier experience” has discarded history and tradition. Conversations overheard by John Shelton Reed at Alice’s Restaurant in California and Chuck’s Barbecue in Alabama certify that population features and attitudes ingrained by habit still mark distinct peoples in various regions of the United States. Davidson’s word, “essential,” is exact. The Immovable Bodies of stubborn cultures are essences.
Charles A. Beard flattened these bodies under an Irresistible Force, economic theory. This led him to the conclusion that the war between the states of the North and the South was a second revolution in America, or to be exact, the first, since it led to the “idea of the Great Society,” the homogeneous nation. The revolutionists were not the seceding Southerners but the Unionists of the North and West who were in tune with—Davidson quotes Beard—“the flowing substance of things limned by statistical reports on finance, commerce, capital, industry, railways, and agriculture.” These flowing substances, Davidson argues, are neither substantial nor irresistible.
Rupert Vance and Howard Odum, at whose post John Shelton Reed now stands sentry, were pioneers in constructing a “working philosophy of the New Regionalism.” Not Davidson’s word, “philosophy.” The philosopher asks those questions which no economic theory can answer. What is beautiful? What is good? How do we know a thing? What exists? Vance and Odum pursued wisdom by way of theoretical and practical knowledge of things and their causes. Their reports on Southern culture are substantial.
While, on the one hand, Rupert Vance studied in his pioneering work, Human Geography of the South, the details of a regional culture, on the other “President Hoover’s committee of social scientists . . . took little systematic notice of regional trends and characteristics.” Out of Rupert Vance’s observations came the remarkable books and studies of the North Carolina school. In a long and specific essay, “The Sociological Proteus,” Davidson assesses the work of this school, particularly Howard Odum’s Southern Regions. Odum was “at grips with Proteus for a good many years” and took a “most difficult and trying way” to get an answer to the question, “Is it true what they say about Dixie?” His statistics proved that it is true. They were useful to establish “what common-sense persons already knew,” and they were good to have at hand because “in our violently statistical, researching age, it is extremely useful to have on hand several bales of data to feed the asses.”
President Roosevelt also assembled his sociologists. While these sociologists were not bound to abstract theory, they differed from Vance and Odum. Roosevelt’s sociologists gave pride of place to science, whereas the North Carolina sociologists gave pride of place to history and tradition. For this reason the research at North Carolina was thorough in its analysis of Southern culture. But the conclusions and recommendations from this school offered a regional autonomy that, though enduring, was feeble. What Davidson called for was a radical restructuring of the Federal Union, so radical that it would require a constitutional convention. The result was to be a division which gave powers, now seized from the states by the central government, to regions.
Differences of language, habits, trends, and characteristics mark these regions. So do differences in art. In Davidson’s essay, “Regionalism and the Arts,” deracinated art pales before the robust and healthy art which is rooted in regional culture. But there are warnings that traps open for one who practices regional art. One trap is faddish lore. Those who once read “objectivist verse by candlelight” will now “go into the hills to dabble in ‘folk culture’ or into the desert to collect pottery and watch snake-dances.” Regionalism may degenerate into tourism. At a more serious level, regionalism may blind an artist to individual lines of thought and blunt individual talent. A true regionalism “must bear” in the modern world “the burden of its self-consciousness, which indeed is both the animating principle and the evil genius of modern art.” Great writers—such as Frost, Robinson, Masters, Lindsay, Glasgow, and Faulkner—have borne this burden. They cast off neither “what was back of them” nor self. “[Their strength] is in the combination that their individual genius, sensitive both to their times and to their heritage, has been able to make.” The ground for this strength is integrity.
Let [poets], then, write what they will, depending on their own integrity for a guide, and if they live like the Miller of Dee, envying nobody and with nobody envying them, they need not fear their integrity will be impugned or spoiled.
Integrity shines in this sentence, complex in syntax and suggestive in diction. Look at the chiasmus placed unobtrusively in midsentence and doing its work. Look at impugn and spoil which, joined, stir memory of English uses that carry the Latin senses of each word: impugnare, “to attack,” spoliare, “to strip an enemy of arms and armor.” Integrity came directly into English from Latin in the fifteenth century. It has retained in English the double sense of the Latin word, “moral uprightness of life” and “wholeness and purity.” Cicero used the word both ways: integritas vitae, “moral uprightness of life,” and incorrupta quaedam sermonis Latini integritas, “a certain unspoiled purity of Latin style.” In his discussion of individual talent, Davidson sounds a theme common to classical rhetoricians. The foundation of a sound literary style is a sound character.
The broad range and complex treatment of subjects in these essays form a complete argument of which the most famous essay in the book, “Still Rebels, Still Yankees,” is an epitome. Brother Jonathan, a New England farmer, and Cousin Roderick, a Southern planter, have characters and manners of life which follow altogether different trends and exhibit different characteristics. The one lives by “Yankee uprightness.” The other lives in “Rebel relaxation.” But these two admirable men—real people, not fabricated examples—have one trait in common. They are Immovable Bodies.
Donald Davidson, who spent his winters in Tennessee and Georgia, his summers in Vermont, was himself part Brother Jonathan and part Cousin Roderick. He was upright, bolt upright, and relaxed. This character has stamped itself on his upright, yet relaxed, style. The Attack on Leviathan requires strained attention.
Yet it leaves a reader, like an attentive fisherman, at ease. Author and book are, like the teacher whom Walter Sullivan and Robert Penn Warren remembered, extraordinary, just extraordinary.
Ward Sykes Allen (1922–), editor of Translating for King James, was professor of English at Auburn University.
Posted: February 16, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.