“Southern Conservatism”: The View from Brooklyn

By John Shelton Reed for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

The James Madison Program at Princeton often provides an unexpected breath of common-sensical fresh air in the academic fever-swamps.  Last March it held a conference on the work of the historian Eugene Genovese, and I was allowed to comment on a few of the many provocative things this Brooklyn-born Sicilian-American has had to say about the American South.  (The first part of what follows is adapted from an essay in my book Minding the South.)

For many years Gene Genovese has been not only the foremost living historian of the Old South’s slave society — and maybe the “living” isn’t needed — but also an exemplary “public intellectual,” bringing his formidable intelligence and analytic skills to bear on issues of the day in a variety of forums.  What he has to say on almost any subject is worth hearing — not because he has always been right, as he’d be the first to acknowledge, but because what he says is invariably interesting, and because he says it so well. That’s certainly true of what he has had to say about the species of conservative thought that he called in his Massey Lectures at Harvard “the Southern tradition.”

Consider Gene’s collection of essays and reviews, The Southern Front, published in 1995. Early in the book he presents three biographical reflections on what he calls “Representative Carolinians.” (That’s an uncharacteristic inaccuracy, by the way. Would that James Johnson Pettigrew and James Henley Thornwell had been “representative” — what a society that would have been!)  Two of these pieces began as admiring reviews of books I have read, and they are good books, but I can honestly say that the reviews make even better reading.  Taken together, these three essays exemplify a number of features that mark the entire book, and indeed much of Gene’s incidental and occasional writing of the last few decades: admiration for what he sees as worthy and unjustly neglected aspects of Southern thought; impatience with cant (especially politically correct cant); generous sympathy with men and women of integrity, intellect, and courage committed to lost (even rightly lost) causes; learning, tough-mindedness, and wit.

If the collection has a central theme, it has to do with Gene’s alarm at the excesses of unchecked individualism, and his search for a corrective.  He once found that in Marxism, and perhaps still does, with some major, rueful reservations. However, he argues that similar themes can be found in a strain of Southern conservative thought that originated in the defense of slavery and flowed into the last century through the Vanderbilt Agrarians and Richard Weaver to Mel Bradford and other, lesser lights. (And incidentally, he pays the authors of I’ll Take My Stand the courtesy of taking them seriously as doing what they thought they were doing – unlike my otherwise estimable colleague Louis Rubin, who tried to defang them by making their “South” some sort of trope.)

Obviously those of us who share Gene’s views at least in some respects will take the most satisfaction from seeing them so well argued.  But even those who disagree with his prescription, or who don’t see the problem to begin with, would profit from reading these pieces.  They will find, in the first place, simply a wealth of little-known fact. It’s good to learn about Pettigrew and Thornwell and Mel Bradford and Eugene Rivers — all fascinating men, who should be better known than they are.  But it’s at least as great a pleasure to learn more about Gene Genovese, who is at least as interesting as the people he writes about. Reading him is like traveling with an amusing and perceptive companion. There’s something gallant about his defense of unfashionable scholars he believes have been ignored or treated shabbily by the academy, and he has a remarkable talent for unearthing such folk and celebrating their contributions (thereby, excuse the expression, expanding the canon).  There can’t be many others who have read the major works of both the Stalinist historian Herbert Aptheker and the (Pat) Buchananite journalist Sam Francis — and Gene is probably unique in admiring both of them.

When I first read his essays on Southerners’ religion I found it ironic that a professed atheist should have a more penetrating understanding of Christian theology and the life of faith than most seminary professors of my acquaintance – but that irony has since been resolved, with Gene’s return to the faith of his fathers. Somewhere he has said explicitly that entering into the minds of his antebellum subjects led him to take religion seriously, and he may have picked up his splendid manners the same way. Long before it became fashionable, he was calling for civil discourse, with all points of view freely expressed and evaluated on their intellectual merits.  Again and again, he has illustrated how courteous and principled disagreement is expressed, and has disarmingly sought (and often found) common ground with many who would be only too glad to treat him as an adversary.

He’s not all sweetness and light, though.  Did you know that a switchblade knife is also called a “stiletto siciliano”?  Gene wields a deft one – and when he smells cowardice or bad faith, he can take up another traditional Italian weapon, the truncheon, as he does in the epilogue to The Southern Front, where he assails some of his fellow leftists, less for their complicity in the crimes of Stalinism than for their lack of candor about it.

But to return to his affectionate treatment of “the Southern tradition.” I recently dug up a letter I wrote to him, after looking at an early draft of his book with that title.  It was almost fulsome – but I was younger then. My one criticism was that he didn’t give enough attention to what is basically an empirical question, to wit, are his “Southern conservatives” anything other than scattered and ineffectual fossils? It was phrased as a question, but in fact I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

The problem is that Gene wasn’t talking about Southern conservatives as most of the world understands that phrase. There are a great many of those, self-defined, but Gene’s Southern Conservative (I’ll capitalize the C for his variety) is not a generalization from these specimens but an ideal — and one to which only a very few individuals are more or less in approximation. As John Donald Wade’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand concludes, “Fo’ God, I believe Mas’ Lucius done dead!” Yes — Mas’ Lucius, Mel Bradford, and nearly all of their ilk, alas.

I thought Gene didn’t say enough about this, but when I looked at the book again the other day, I found that he actually did. I don’t think I missed it the first time, so maybe he paid some attention to what I wrote.  Anyway, it’s there, and it should be, at least in Gene’s book, because he very much wants this variety of conservative thought to be a political as well as an intellectual force to be reckoned with. He explicitly acknowledges that Southern Conservatives  are a tiny minority and can only exercise influence in coalition with others.  Writing in the mid-1990s, he mentioned three possibilities.

First, he observed that Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign had brought together traditionalists and “free-market libertarians.” He found this hopeful, but in truth there were probably even fewer Buchananite libertarians than Southern Conservatives.  The mainstream of libertarianism (if there is such a thing – anyway, the Cato Institute and readers of Reason magazine) had little to no sympathy with Buchanan.  Gene was no doubt thinking of the libertarian component of the John Randolph Society — Murray Rothbard and some of his disciples – not an imposing force even at the time. No, forget libertarians – there aren’t enough of them to begin with, and there are even fewer who can overlook their many disagreements with traditionalists.

Another possibility Gene suggested was an alliance with socially and culturally conservative black quasi-nationalists like his friend the Reverend Eugene Rivers.  He pointed out the manifest similarities between the political thought of Lani Guinier and that of John C. Calhoun.  But that proposed coalition seems to have excited almost no one other than Gene and (for the record) me.  It certainly seemed to be a non-starter with black folks, who are understandably suspicious of conservative white Southerners of any stripe — and all too many of the latter didn’t like the sound of it either.  That last may not have surprised Gene: he was pretty clear-sighted about the racism that is the perennial serpent in the bosom of Southern nationalism. One doesn’t have to share the hysteria of the Southern Poverty Law Center to recognize a missed opportunity in the recent, sad example of the League of the South.

Finally, Gene expressed hopes for some sort of cooperation between Southern Conservatives and the religious right. But the idea that a handful of intellectuals could steer or even seriously influence that movement strikes me as — I’m sorry — ludicrous.  The religious right is mighty enough that it doesn’t have to listen to anyone who doesn’t bring power, votes, or money to the table – and it’s precisely the lack of those that is Southern Conservatives’ problem. To be sure, some traditionalist conservatives are influential in the councils of the Christian right – Albert Mohler, for one – but although Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he is not exactly a Southern Conservative in Gene’s sense of that phrase.  And in fact, it seems as unlikely to me as it did to Allen Tate in his Southern Agrarian phase that an evangelical Protestant can be that sort of conservative.  But that’s an essay for another day.

So, where do we go from here?  Well, to begin with, I think we need to recognize that the South is no longer the repository for “the Southern tradition.” Perhaps that tradition was once culturally if not numerically dominant in the South, but it certainly isn’t now. The South of Calhoun and Fitzhugh has been stomped flat by – what?  Not even Jefferson’s South. Maybe Andy Jackson’s – or, hell, Davey Crockett’s.  Anyway, the answer to the question I was asking in the 1990s is even clearer now:  Southern Conservatives are only a Remnant in their own country. Maybe even especially there.

But they should not despair.  They’ve never been the only Americans to articulate these principles. In fact, if you’re looking for articulation, forget I’ll Take My Stand and turn to Who Owns America? in which some of the Agrarians hooked up with an assortment of Distributists, neo-Thomists, and capital-H Humanists — something like the bar scene in Star Wars — to make explicit much that was only implied in the earlier book. And these days something very similar is alive and well in the burned-over district of upstate New York (of all places), where my buddy Bill Kauffman – like me, a former writer for Chronicles – lives and writes splendid books with titles like Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.  Moreover, and ironically, this intensely localistic tradition is also flourishing in the placeless nowhere of the internet:  check out the website of something called the Front Porch Republic, for instance.  These ideological compatriots at least give Southern Conservatives someone to talk to.

And even if they are a Remnant, that’s not a bad thing to be. In an essay called “Isaiah’s Job,” Albert Jay Nock (a thinker I admire almost as much as I admire Gene) cites not just Isaiah, but Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and the Lord God of Israel to support his argument that in sorry times being a Remnant is the only course open to honorable men and women.  They can take comfort from the realization that they are keeping ideas in the ideological gene pool, where later generations may find them useful. As T. S Eliot, a traditionalist of another stripe, once wrote, “We fight for lost causes . . . rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”

And, speaking of lost causes, Southern Conservatives who hold fast to what they believe can take with them what General Lee called “the satisfaction that comes from duty faithfully performed.”

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