Southern literature has always demonstrated a close relationship between the writer and their surroundings. Whether such surroundings include the physical layout of the land or descriptive tidbits of culture, Southern literature remained consistent in its decadence and indulgence of lavish beauty. Through such imagery, Southern authors can often lead their readers down a path into history, thus shaping the audience’s perception of how the South came to be, where it fell short, and how it can be redeemed. This path toward redemption continues today as modern echoes from a group of writers known as the Fugitive Poets.
The power of literature can often prove a dangerous weapon to wield in the public eye, especially during turbulent times. As the Reconstruction era came to a close, poverty and the Jim Crow laws gripped the South, warping racial relationships to a twisted monstrosity. Beginning in 1922, The Fugitive Poets, a collective of scholars, writers, and poets gathered in the West End of Nashville at Vanderbilt University to discuss such themes. The group consisted primarily of five core members: Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson and Laura Riding Jackson. From these meetings, the members created and published a literary magazine containing a combination of modern poetry and literary criticism.
The general philosophy of the group suggested that the Southerner’s place remained in the agrarian lifestyle of old and that a person’s real satisfaction came from closeness with nature and the surrounding environment. John L. Stewart wrote of this general philosophy that “poetry, the arts, ritual, tradition, and the mythic way of looking at nature thrive best in an agrarian culture,” such as the one from which the South initially gained its renown. However, with the end of the Civil War brought the Reconstruction, which introduced the South to the full brunt of the Industrial Revolution. Mill towns replaced farming communities. Thus, its vibrant cultural identity gathered rust as lonely fodder forgotten.
The Fugitive Poets sought to revive this agrarian culture, not only as a means of restoring the South’s former identity but also as a contribution to its context within the whole of America itself. It would provide a means of grounding the South once again while unifying it with the rest of the country. This philosophy inspired the idea that such a lifestyle could enhance “aesthetic satisfaction” while keeping a man humbled by the “limits of his power.” Though short-lived (The Fugitive only published around twelve issues), the beliefs sparked inspiration for future Southern writers’ styles and imagery. Avid readers can easily find this trend in modern works in which nature can either bring the Southerners to their knees or build them up. Man’s authority depended on the unbiased influence of environment. Its existence, both dangerous and beautiful, creates an abundant means of telling stories through which the subject can either fight or accept.
The Fugitives also staunchly believed in letting go of the sentimentality to which many Southerners continued to grasp. Letting go, in a sense, would include no longer glorifying the usage of slavery as a means for success. While some of the Fugitive members had conservative views that included racism and segregation, others did not cling to such beliefs. Micheal Kreyling writes, “So much about the ‘Racist South’ has to do with memory” (Kreyling 1). For writers such as Robert Penn Warren, the aspect of ‘letting go’ would certainly include accepting but freeing the memory of racism and slavery. While Warren’s political views began at the traditional norm, they took a more progressive direction as he got older, eventually rejecting segregation altogether.
Though the Fugitive Poets eventually disbanded in 1925, after only three short years of circulating their publication, some members would move on to continue shaping and molding Southern literature. It takes on the form most readers recognize today. The contributors of The Fugitive not only brought a kind of oneness with nature to the table of literature but some of the first cries that the culture ought to stop clinging to a former glory brought on by the enslavement of other humans. Southern pride could live and flourish in the beauty that it deserved without the exclusions brought on by Jim Crowe. The culture would benefit from inclusiveness, acceptance of the past, and cultivation of the future. These poets did their part in cultivating the future that is now the current present. Who carries the torch of cultivation now? Alternatively, as Warren so aptly stated it—
“Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore
The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?”
A Brief Guide to the Fugitives. (2012, May 12). Retrieved April 20 , 2017, from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-fugitives
John Crowe Ransom. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2017, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/john-crowe-ransom
Kreyling, M. (2009, March 6). Robert Penn Warren: The Real Southerner and the Hypothetical Negro. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-abstract/21/2/268/191760/Robert-Penn-Warren-The-Real-Southerner-and-the
Warren, R. P. (n.d.). Mortal Limit. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/warren/onlinepoems.htm