[To honor a week that began with my Dad’s birthday and includes my own, I’m featuring a series on fatherhood in American culture, history, and literature. This is the second in that series. Once again, the weekend’s post will be a crowd-sourced one, so please share your responses, ideas, thoughts, suggestions, and perspectives for that post!]
On the complex generational relationship that helps explain the Southern Renaissance.
It’s easy enough, and certainly not inaccurate, to characterize the group of Southern intellectuals and writers who formed the vanguard of the 1920s and 30s Southern Renaissance as profoundly conservative, as rebelling against radical and future-driven national and international movements and trends such as modernism, urbanization, and (eventually) the New Deal. This was the group, after all, who called themselves first the Fugitives and then the Agrarians, and whose collective writings culminated in the unquestionably conservative manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930). No American Studiers worthy of the name could fail to take such historical and cultural contexts into consideration when analyzing why these young men (mostly) and women came together at this moment, and why they wrote and thought the things they did.
Yet there are other kinds of contexts that also inform any and every writer’s (and person’s) identity, perspective, and works, of course, and I believe a biographical one is particularly important when it comes to analyzing the Southern Renaissance figures. They were born around the turn of the 20th century, which meant that their parents had been born, in most cases, just after the end of the Civil War; those parents were thus the children of both Civil War veterans and of the incredibly complex and fraught post-war period, the children of (among other things) both the Lost Cause and the New South. To take the Renaissance’s most enduring literary figure, for example: William Faulkner was born in 1897, to parents born in 1870 and 1871; his father Murry both tried to build the family’s railroad company and to carry on the legacy of his own grandfather, a writer and Civil War hero known as “The Old Colonel.” Is it any wonder, then, that young Quentin Compson is so obsessed with the voice and perspective of his father, Jason Compson, and of the family and Southern pasts about which he learns from Jason?
If we move beyond Faulkner, and into the works of the Fugitive and Agrarian writers who even more overtly self-identified as part of the Renaissance, we likewise find works and characters centered on—obsessed with, even—the legacies of their fathers. Perhaps no work better exemplifies that trend than Allen Tate’s historical and autobiographical novel The Fathers (1938), a text that engages in every tortured word with the legacies of the Civil War and its aftermath and of the familial and cultural issues raised therein. Far more ambiguous and complex, but perhaps even more telling of this father-centered trend, is Robert Penn Warren’s poem “Mortmain” (1960), a five-section elegy for Warren’s father; the first section is entitled “After Night Flight Son Reaches Bedside of Already Unconscious Father, Whose Right Hand Lifts in a Spasmodic Gesture, as Though Trying to Make Contact: 1955,” and while the subsequent four sections range far beyond that man and moment, they do so precisely to ground many other historical and cultural questions in that profoundly autobiographical starting point. As Warren’s life and career illustrate, the Southern Renaissance figures were not circumscribed by such generational relationships—but they were certainly influenced, and in many ways defined, by them.
Next father-focused post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses, ideas, or suggestions about fatherhood in America?