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John William Corrington: A Different Kind of Conservative

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Literature, Politics, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

A slightly different version of this article originally appeared here in The American Conservative.

When John William Corrington died in 1988, Southern conservatives lost one of their most talented writers, a refined Cajun cowboy with a jazzy voice and bold pen whose work has been unjustly and imprudently neglected.

A man of letters with a wide array of interests, an ambivalent Catholic and a devotee of Eric Voegelin, a lawyer and an English professor, Bill (as his friends and family called him) authored or edited over 20 books, including novels, poetry collections, and short story collections. His most recognized works are screenplays – Boxcar Bertha, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and Omega Man – but he hoped for the legacy of a belletrist. “I don’t give a damn about TV or film for that matter,” he once wrote somewhat disingenuously, adding that he cared about “serious writing – the novel, the story, the poem, the essay.” William Mills, who, after Bill’s death, collected the commemorative essays of Bill’s friends under the title Southern Man of Letters, declared that, should Bill have a biographer, “the story of his life will be very much the life of a mind, one lived among books, reading them and writing them.”

Bill was born in Ohio, a fact he sometimes concealed. He claimed on his C.V. that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, home to the Dixieland brass that inspired him to take up the trumpet. His parents, who were in fact from Memphis, had not intended to stay in Ohio but were seeking temporary work there to get through the Depression. Bill spent his childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he remained for college, taking his degree from Centenary College. He then earned a master’s in English from Rice, focusing on Renaissance drama, and later a doctorate in English from the University of Sussex in England. His doctoral dissertation was on Joyce’s Dubliners. He taught at LSU, Loyola University of the South, and California-Berkeley before tiring of campus politics and university bureaucracy. This was, after all, the late 1960s.

Film director Roger Corman discovered Bill’s fiction at this time and contracted with him to write a screenplay about the life of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Barron. As a child Bill was often bedridden with asthma, and his hobby was to build WWI and WWII model airplanes – as a young man he attempted to join the Air Force but was turned away for being colorblind – so Bill was already familiar with the Red Barron’s story. Having completed his assignment for Corman, Bill was confidant he could secure new sources of revenue when he left the academy and entered Tulane Law School as an already accomplished poet, novelist, and now screenwriter. During his first year in law school, he and his wife, Joyce, penned the screenplay for Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the popularity of which ensured they would always have a job in film and television. Bill’s grades in law school may have suffered from his extracurricular writing, but it was writing, not the law, that ultimately proved profitable to him.

Joyce wasn’t Bill’s first wife. He’d married briefly to a young Protestant girl whose father was a minister. Bill’s Catholicism and academic interest in mystical, pagan, and heretical traditions meant the marriage was doomed. Bill claimed it was never even consummated because she found sex to be painful. Over almost as soon as it began, the marriage was officially annulled.

Bill’s fascination with Catholicism, the South, and the works of Eric Voegelin, combined with his disgust for Marxism and campus radicals, made for a unique blend of conservatism. Early in his career Bill and Miller Williams went on the lecture circuit together to defend the South and Southern intellectuals against what they considered to be an anti-Southern bias within universities. Bill kept photos of Robert E. Lee and Stonewell Jackson on the wall of his study and named two of his sons after them. With the rise of the conservative movement during the Reagan Era and the slow separation of traditionalist and neoconservatives, epitomized by the controversy over Reagan’s nomination of Mel Bradford as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bill felt compelled to offer a Southerner’s perspective on conservatism. He considered his conservatism to be regionally specific, explaining that “I am a Southerner and for all my travel and schooling, I am not able to put aside the certain otherness that sets a Southerner apart from the rest of America even in the midst of the 20th century.” “The South,” he maintained, “is a nation buried within another.” His essay “Are Southerner’s Different?” was published thirty years ago in The Southern Partisan but still resonates even now when Southerners have become less “different.”

Calling something “different” presupposes another something that’s not the same. The title of Bill’s essay therefore begs the question: “Different from what?” Bill crafted the essay for an audience of Southern conservatives. At the expense of style he might have framed his question this way: “Are Southern conservatives different from conservatives in other regions of America?” To which he would have emphatically answered yes.

He used the essay to compare three icons of conservatism – Ronald Reagan, George Will, and William F. Buckley – to ascertain whether they expressed regional distinctions within American conservatism and to suggest that each failed to formulate or represent the essence of conservatism. Constituted by disparate and oft-competing traditions, “conservatism” in America, he suggested, failed as a meaningful category of discourse in matters of national rather than local importance. Its characteristics among Southerners, however, were readily apparent.

Because Bill identified himself as a Southern conservative, he doubted whether he could sit down with Reagan, Will, and Buckley “over glasses of sour mash” and achieve “such sweet agreement on the range of problems facing the world” that “any opinion one of us stated might by and large draw nothing more than approving nods from the others.” He rejected as “mere sentimentality” and “downright delusion” the “notion that conservatives east, west, midwest and south” could “find themselves in agreement on most matters of public policy.”

Bill criticized Reagan for stationing marines in Lebanon “without a clear-cut combat role” or a “mission to achieve.” He doubted whether he and Reagan held “the same view of the use of military force.” Bill regarded his own view as “simple and founded purely on Roman principles: Avoid battle whenever an interest or purpose can be obtained by other means, political, diplomatic, or economic; fight only for clear-cut interests which can be won or preserved by force; fight when and where you will be able to achieve a determinable victory. If you engage, win – at whatever costs – and make sure the enemy suffers disproportionately greater loss than you do.” This view of war materialized in Bill’s first novel, And Wait for the Night, which, inspired by Hodding Carter’s The Angry Scar, depicted the devastation of the South during Reconstruction. And Wait for the Night begins with a long section on the fighting that resulted in the fall of Vicksburg. If there’s a theme common to Bill’s fiction about war, including his short stories and his third novel, The Bombardier, it’s pride in a soldier’s duty but sensibility to the horrors of war.

Bill’s dislike of Will arose from the controversy ignited by the failed Bradford nomination. Will had taken to the Washington Post to decry Bradford’s attachment to the “nostalgic Confederate remnant within the conservative movement.” Bradford’s singular offense was proposing that Lincoln was a “Gnostic” in the sense that Voegelin used the term. A friend and admirer of Voegelin who would eventually edit Voegelin’s works, Bill did not think Lincoln was a Gnostic. As Bill put it in a 1964 letter to Anthony Blond, the British editor who had published And Wait for the Night, Lincoln stood “in relation to the South very much as Khrushchev did to Hungary, as the United Nations apparachiks did to Katanga.”

Bill was one of those conservatives Will decried for having a not unfavorable view of the Confederacy. He once dashed off a missive to Charles Bukowski that referred to Lee as “the greatest man who ever lived” and he later asked to be buried with a Confederate flag in his coffin. A statue of General Sherman on a horse inspired – rather, provoked – Bill’s book of poems Lines to the South. Robert B. Heilman observed that 75% of Bill’s short stories involved the Civil War. Asked whether he was a Southern writer, Bill quipped, “If nobody else wants to be, that’s fine; then we would have only one: me.”

Unlike Will, Bill was not about to let Lincoln mythology become a condition for conservative office or to disregard the different historical circumstances that shaped political theories about the role of the central government in relation to the several states. “Will’s stance,” Bill announced with typical bravado, “comes close to requiring a loyalty oath to the Great Emancipator, and I for one will not have it. It is one thing to live one’s life under the necessity of empirical events long past; it is quite another to be forced to genuflect to them.”

Bill was unable to put his finger on what irked him about Buckley. Rather than criticizing Buckley directly, he criticized things associated with Buckley: “the Ivy League mentality” and “the American aristocracy.” Bill had an earthy dynamism and a brawling personality and didn’t take kindly to (in his view) pompous sophisticates who seemed (to him) to put on airs. He preferred the matter-of-fact, muscular qualities of those rugged Americans who possessed, as he mused in a rare moment of verbosity, “a hard-nosed intelligence, an openness to experience, a limited but real sense of classical past and a profound respect not only for institutions in place but for the work of a man’s hands and mind as well as a deep and unshakeable certainty of the role of divine providence in the affairs of humanity not to mention a profound contempt for inherited title, place and dignity.” This did not describe Buckley, at least not entirely.

Bill’s outline for conservatism, unlike Reagan’s and Will’s and Buckley’s, involved what he called “traditional Southern thought and sentiment,” to wit, the land, the community, and a foreign policy of “decency and common sense,” which is to say, a “realistic, non-ideological orientation toward the rest of the world.”

This last aspect of his conservatism, couched in such plain diction, simplifies what is in fact a ramified element of his shifting Weltanschauung. He hesitated to “presume to enunciate a ‘Southern view’ of foreign policy” but acknowledged that “there remain a few antique verities stretching from President Washington’s Farewell Address to the Monroe Doctrine.” These verities had to be, he believed, “reviewed” and “reinterpreted” in light of what was then the most pressing threat abroad to American values at home: “the rise of a Russian empire bound together by force.”

The policy of containment that was a shibboleth for some policy experts during the Reagan years was for Bill a waste of time. “I do not recall that our liberal predecessors argued for the ‘containment’ of National Socialism as it ravaged Europe in the late 1930s and 40s,” he said. That did not mean he categorically favored military intervention. “Obviously,” he qualified, “direct military force to attain specific goals is not among our options.”

What then was among the options? Bill’s answer was less quixotic than it was unhelpfully obvious: “political economics.” He anticipated that the Soviet Union would “find itself pressing the last drop of economic usefulness out of the poor befuddled bodies of its subjects” if the West quit supplying the Soviets with “western technology, western food, and vast sums of western credit.” Despite its artlessness, this approach won the day but never played out as neatly or innocently as Bill envisioned it.

Within weeks of publishing “Are Southerners Different?,” Bill delivered a paper in Chattanooga that decried the “rise of ideologies from the Enlightenment egophanies of the philosophes through the scientism and materialism of the 19th century to the political mass-movements and therapies of the 20th century, including, but not limited to, National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism,” all of which, he claimed, had “resulted in a virtual decerebration of the Humanities.” Bill had entered a melancholy, meditative phase in which he began to portray political extremism of all stripes as a vicious assault on the humanities, those organizing aesthetic and social principles that “bear witness to the truth insofar as they penetrate noetically to the common experiential symbols of human beings.”

Bill resisted categories and defied simple classification. He informed Bukowski, for instance, that he had taken up the sonnet just to throw “dirt in the eyes of those would love to put some label on my ass.” Shortly after discovering Voegelin, Bill began to read Russell Kirk. Bruce Hershenson, then a producer with a Los Angeles television station who had come to prominence through a documentary on the funeral of John F. Kennedy, commissioned Bill to write a screenplay of Kirk’s Roots of American Order. Bill drew up the script, but it was never produced. Kirk later entrusted the script to Richard Bishirjian. (That script is now on file at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.) Bishirjian intimated that the script’s failure had to do with “the new political appointees at NEH that Bennett recruited.” These appointees, Bishirjian said, were “ideologues for whom John Locke, the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Jaffa define America.”

The heavy burden of the past on Southern consciousness suits Southerners for the type of humanistic inquiry that interested Bill: the humanities, according to him, “remember” and “re-collect” and “force upon us the memory of humanitas in all its experiential and symbolic variety.” “It is a handy thing for a writer to discover that his geographical and spiritual situations are parallel,” he said. “It makes the geography live, and lends concreteness to the soul.”

Bill’s soul, as it were, was shaped by the South, to which his spirit belonged. Tapping Robert Frost, he speculated that the symbolism of General Lee’s and General Joseph Johnston’s surrenders “made all the difference” in terms of his “development as a writer.” Whatever he wrote or thought, he knew he’d already lost. In a basic sense this is true of us all: life heads unswervingly in one fatal direction. Better to realize we’re fighting battles we cannot win: that we cannot, of our own accord, bring about a permanent heaven on this temporary earth. We may take solace and even rejoice in our shared inevitability. We all go the way of the South: We die, no matter how hard we try to stay alive.

 

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Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

To Educate in the Permanent Things

In Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Walt Whitman, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2013 at 8:18 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama proposed changes to preschool, high school, and college education, respectively. His proposals generated praise and condemnation from the predictable cheerleaders and naysayers. Some celebrated his efforts to expand early childhood education; others suggested that he should have focused more on the student loan crisis; still others, not to be outdone, pointed to school funding, teacher salaries, grading, standardized testing, technology, and foreign study as the pressing issues that he neglected to address with sufficient detail.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how to improve American education from the top down. But positive change rarely happens through centralized design; it arises spontaneously through the interaction of human agents operating within and among social groups. The State cannot plan and then promulgate a proper education, and legislative enactments cannot reflect the mores and traditions of local groups with differing standards and expectations. The most prudent and humble proposals for improving education are not couched in statist, Platonic terms about civic education and human perfection; instead, they approach learning modestly, on the individual level. They entail the everyday interactions between teachers and students. They are not stamped with the approval of politicians, unions, think tanks, or interest groups.  They take place in the classroom, not the public square. A teacher anywhere, whatever his station, school, or background, can implement them in his course without disrupting the pace or provoking the ire of the educational establishment. The best of these, because it is so easily executed, is simply to teach what T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk after him, called “permanent things.”

The permanent things are the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations; their canonization in literary, philosophical, religious, and historical texts happened and is happening in slow degrees. We can trace the permanent things through curricula that emphasize the ultimate values of prosperous societies. An informed, laborious study of the perennial themes and archetypal patterns in what are variously denominated as the Great Works, the Western Canon, or the Classics can help us to organize and make sense of the permanent things. There are those who would object that this approach seems too hopeful and ideal. But no one has suggested it as a panacea, of which there are none, and anyway, is there a proposal that could be simpler, more straightforward, and more workable than assigning and discussing the Great Works?

As early as 1948, Eliot remarked that “there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture—of that part of it which is transmittable by education—are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” It might be asked just who these barbarian nomads are and why we ought not to welcome their cultural practices and assumptions. The barbarian nomads could be, I think, any group lacking in historical perspective and mostly ignorant of the illuminating continuities that have guided our weightiest and most imaginative thinkers. The practices and assumptions of these nomads are not grounded in lived experience but aimed at utopian projects such as ensuring equality, creating fundamental rights, or eliminating poverty, and, to the extent that these practices and assumptions deviate from enduring norms, they cannot be said to have flourished ever.

To study the permanent things, on the other hand, is to consider the prevailing and profound ideas from certain times and schools in relation to other such ideas from various times and schools throughout successive eras. It is to map the course of perennial ideas to examine how they apply to different settings and generations. It is both sequential and diachronic in its approach. Its chief benefit is to put ideas into context, which is to say that it is to make us aware of our own presuppositions and perspectives that necessarily arise from our social, cultural, and historical situation.  Each thinker lives in his own specific era and place and cannot gain knowledge in a vacuum outside of time; our era and place shape the manner in which we think and restrict our ability to imagine conditions beyond our immediate and tangible experience.

This is not to submit that our ideas are determined for us, only that we enter into experience with certain perceptions that we have no control over. They are there because of the conditions present at the time and space in which we exist.  A sustained study of the permanent things will show us that our perceptions are not totally alien from those of our predecessors, although the respective perceptions are different. It also teaches us to compensate for our prejudices and to avoid thinking that our necessarily limited perspectives are unconditionally true and universally acceptable, even if they have verifiable antecedents. It reveals, as well, that schools of thought cannot simply be deemed later versions of earlier schools just because the two are in agreement about certain points. Finally, although we cannot escape those presuppositions that are embedded in our thought and culture, being alert to their probable existence can counteract their possible effect.

A rigorous study of the permanent things provides a lodestar for evaluating particular ideas against that which has been tested and tried before. Ideas that seem new always have traceable antecedents, and individuals equipped with a fundamental knowledge of the permanent things are able to situate purportedly novel ideas alongside their forerunners. These individuals recognize that change is not always progress; sometimes it is decline, deterioration, or decay. Only a sense of the continuities of history and thought can demonstrate the difference. Our political pedants in general and President Obama in particular insist on recognizing and implementing new institutions as if a radical departure from historic standards and established customs is itself the mark of good and lasting policy. Yet the permanent things show that even the most exceptional thinkers, those who represent the spirit of their age, whatever that might have been or might be, are part of a greater tradition.

It may be true that to study a particular thinker’s cultural milieu and biography is requisite to placing his ideas into their proper context and to highlighting the unacceptable premises of his philosophy; nevertheless, cautious interpreters ought to consider whether his thoughts necessarily lead to certain consequences, or whether the events that seem related to his thoughts arose accidentally, apart from his philosophy. Put another way, the cautious interpreter must carefully consider causation: whether theories actually generate particular circumstances, or whether those circumstances would have come to pass regardless of what the thinker spoke or wrote. Mussolini, for instance, praised William James, but it does not follow that anything James said or wrote endorses or enables fascism. He who would suggest otherwise betrays an ignorance of James’s work. The permanent things can help us to distinguish the true forms and implications of an individual’s thought from their appropriations by hostile forces.

By studying the permanent things, moreover, we learn that we cannot achieve the proper education through mere funding; nor does the solution to schooling gridlock and setbacks come from student aid, dress codes, student evaluations, tuition, or whatever. These issues begin to seem fleeting and trivial to one with an historical sense. They are at most temporary struggles, and although they are important, as all struggles are important, we are not to subordinate liberal learning to them. The best way to achieve the liberal learning necessary to make important and meaningful distinctions about our complex world is, as I have suggested and as it bears repeating, through a holistic, painstaking exploration of the permanent things. This means not only reading the Great Works for their content, but analyzing them in light of their place in history.

The beauty of this approach is that anyone can carry it out; the wisdom of it lies in its civilizing effects. Whether one is a homeschooling parent, a public school teacher, the leader of a local book club, or simply a curious-minded autodidact, the permanent things are available to him in texts, waiting to be sifted through and analyzed. It is true that there is disagreement as to what constitutes a Great Work and by what criteria, but it does not take more than research and commonsense empiricism to discern which pre-twentieth century texts have withstood the test of time. Teaching the permanent things does not require a large-scale, bureaucratic, administrative overhaul. It does not demand central planning or the implementation of mass, curricular programs; it can be accomplished through decentralized networks of concerned individuals. If parents would teach their children, friends their friends, colleagues their colleagues, and so on, we would in the aggregate become a more literate, astute, and informed society. And as our politicians lecture us about our duties even as they demand our money, we can take comfort in the proverb that these things too shall pass.

Glory and Indignity

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Politics, Southern History, The South on February 20, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review first appeared here at The University Bookman.

John Randolph of Roanoke
by David Johnson.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012

“I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.” Thus spoke John Randolph of Roanoke (1773–1833), one of the most curious, animated figures ever to grace American soil. That David Johnson’s biography of Randolph is the first of its kind since Russell Kirk published John Randolph of Roanoke in 1951 suggests how deteriorated American memory and education have become. Randolph ought to be studied by all American schoolchildren, if not for his politics then for the vital role he played in shaping the nation’s polity. Dr. Kirk declared that in writing about Randolph, he was summoning him from the shades. If so, Johnson has gone a step farther and brought Randolph into the sunshine to reveal just how spectacular a man he really was.

Kirk’s biography of Randolph was in fact his first book. Kirk dubbed the colorful Virginian a “genius,” “the prophet of Southern nationalism,” and the “architect of Southern conservatism.” In The Conservative Mind, Kirk treats Randolph as a necessary link between George Mason and John C. Calhoun and proclaims that Randolph should be remembered for “the quality of his imagination.” Randolph enabled the proliferation and preservation of the conservative tradition in America. He became an icon for decentralization and localism.

Why would a scandalous, sickly, go-it-alone, riotous rabble-rouser appeal to the mild-mannered Dr. Kirk? The answer, in short, is that Randolph was as conservative a politician as America has ever produced, and he was, despite himself, a gentleman and a scholar. Eccentric though he appeared and often acted, Randolph celebrated and defended tradition, championed small government and agrarianism, sacrificed careerism and opportunism for unwavering standards, professed self-reliance and individualism, took pains to preserve the rights of the states against the federal government, delighted in aristocratic tastes and manners, read voraciously the great works of Western civilization, cultivated the image of a statesman even as he attended to the wants and needs of his yeomen constituents, discoursed on weighty topics with wit and vigor, and adhered to firm principles rather than to partisan pandering. Admired by many, friend to few, he made a prominent display of his wild personality and unconditional love for liberty, and he devoted himself, sometimes at great cost, to the ideals of the American Revolution, which had, he claimed, marked him since childhood.

Remembered chiefly (and, in the minds of some progressives, unfortunately) for his contributions to states’ rights doctrines and to the judicial hermeneutics of strict constructionism, Randolph was responsible for so much more. The son of a wealthy planter who died too young, Randolph became the stepson of St. George Tucker, a prominent lawyer who taught at the College of William and Mary and served as a judge on the Virginia General District Court and, eventually, on the Virginia Court of Appeals, the United States District Court for the District of Virginia, and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. A cousin to Thomas Jefferson, Randolph studied under George Wythe and his cousin Edmond Randolph. A boy who was forced to flee his home from the army of Benedict Arnold, Randolph later played hooky from college to watch the orations of Fisher Ames, the stout Federalist from New York, and Madison. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the U.S. Senate, and was, for a brief time, Minister to Russia. A supporter of Jefferson before he became Jefferson’s tireless adversary, he criticized such individuals as Patrick Henry, Washington, Madison, Monroe, John Adams, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. He was sickened by the Yazoo Land Scandal, opposed the War of 1812 in addition to the Missouri Compromise, and promoted nullification.

Many conservatives, Kirk among them, have tended to overlook the more unpalatable aspects of Randolph’s life, whether personal or political. For instance, Randolph was, more than Jefferson, enthralled by the French Revolution and supportive of its cause. He manufactured a French accent, used a French calendar, and called his friends “Citizens.” In his twenties, he referred to himself as a deist “and by consequence an atheist,” and he acquired, in his own words, “a prejudice in favor of Mahomedanism,” going so far as to proclaim that he “rejoiced in all its [Islam’s] triumphs over the cross.” One might excuse these infelicities as symptoms of youthful indiscretion and impetuosity, but they do give one pause.

Not for lack of trying, Randolph could not grow a beard, and although he spoke well, his voice was, by most accounts, awkward, piping, off-putting, and high-pitched. His critics have painted him as a villain of the likes of Shakespeare’s Richard III: resentful, obstinate, loudmouthed, and as deformed in the mind as he was in the body. Yet Randolph cannot be made into a monster. More than others of his station in that time and place, Randolph was sensitive to the problems of slavery, which had only intensified rather than diminished since the Founding. He freed his slaves in his will, granted them landholdings in Ohio, and provided for their heirs. Slavery was incompatible with liberty, and Randolph, despite being a product of his time, appears to have worried much about the paradox of a nation conceived in liberty but protective of institutional bondage. Randolph asserted, in some way or another, over and over again, that his politics were based on a presumption of liberty, which was (and is) the opposite of slavery and governmental tyranny. Read the rest of this entry »

My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic

In American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Essays, Ethics, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following appeared here at Prometheus Unbound and here at Mises.org.

Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some 28 books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out 24 years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great-grandnephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

In part because of his longstanding support for free-market economics, scholars of literature have overlooked Hazlitt’s literary criticism; and Austrian economists — perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for other reasons — have done little to restore Hazlitt’s place among the pantheon of 20th century literary critics. Yet Hazlitt deserves that honor.

He may not have been a Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, or Kenneth Burke, but Hazlitt’s criticism is valuable in negative terms: he offers a corrective to much that is wrong with literary criticism, both then and now. His positive contributions to literary criticism seem slight when compared to those of the figures named in the previous sentence. But Hazlitt is striking in his ability to anticipate problems with contemporary criticism, especially the tendency to judge authors by their identity. Hazlitt’s contributions to literary criticism were not many, but they were entertaining and erudite, rivaling as they did the literary fashions of the day and packing as much material into a few works as other critics packed into their entire oeuvres. Read the rest of this entry »

Bogus on Buckley

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Libertarianism, Politics, Writing on February 9, 2012 at 8:34 am

Allen Mendenhall

It was customary practice in my family to gather at my grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner after church.  Loyal to our Southern traditions, we would, after eating, divide company: men into the living room, women into the kitchen or den.  My brother and I, still children, would sit silently, for the most part, while my grandfather, father and uncles bandied about the names of politicians and discussed the day’s sermon or newspaper headlines. 

I first learned of William F. Buckley Jr. during these Sunday afternoons, as he was often the topic of conversation.  I was too young to know much, but young enough to learn a lot quickly, so I began to follow this man, this Buckley, to the extent that I could, from those days until the day that he died in February 2008.  

Overcommitted to supposedly universal political ideals and to the spread of American liberal democracy throughout the world, Buckley was not my kind of conservative.  He could be tactless and cruel, as when he violated the ancient maxim de mortuis nil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, speak no evil”) in an obituary to Murray Rothbard wherein he wrote that “Rothbard had defective judgment” and “couldn’t handle moral priorities.”  Buckley then trumpeted some unflattering anecdotes about Rothbard before likening Rothbard to David Koresh. 

Despite such tantrums and vendettas, I always liked Buckley.  Something in the way he conducted himself—his showy decorum, flaunted manners and sophisticated rhetoric—appealed to me.

Carl T. Bogus, an American law professor and author of the biography Buckley, seems to share my qualified respect for Buckley, despite disagreeing with Buckley on important political and theoretical issues.  “I should tell the reader up front,” Bogus warns, “that I am a liberal and thus critical—in some instances, highly critical—of Buckley’s ideology.”  Yet, adds Bogus, “I admire William F. Buckley Jr. enormously.”     

Unlike bobble-headed television personalities and think tank sycophants, Bogus does justice to his subject, treating Buckley’s ideas evenhandedly on the grounds that he (Bogus) is “disheartened by the present state of partisan animosity,” one solution to which, he says, “is to take opposing ideas seriously.”  Bogus not only takes Buckley’s ideas seriously, but credits them for changing America’s political realities.    Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Read the rest of this entry »

A Few More Words on Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Politics on October 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Many American politicians call themselves “conservative” despite never having read Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Robert Taft, Donald Davidson, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk.  Television pundits recycle the term “neoconservative” without even a passing reference to Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, or Norman Podhoretz.  A welcome respite from the ignorance of the talking heads, Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (Yale University Press, 2009) is an engaging and informative book, even if it is more of an introduction to American conservatism than a critical study.  I recently reviewed the book here at the journal 49th Parallel, but I have more to say about it.

American conservatism is rich and complex but too often simplified or ignored by academics who think they know what conservatism means.  I applaud Allitt for taking conservatism seriously and for marshaling a wealth of evidence to support his thesis.  Those who cannot identify what generally distinguishes a paleoconservative from a neoconservative, or who’re confused by the apparent hypocrisy of conservatives who call for big-government spending on military and surveillance while griping about big-government, need to read this book.  Allitt provides clarity and direction for the uninitiated.  He deserves not just our attention, but our admiration.

Allitt attends to several figures in this book, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett, John Marshall, John Randolph of Roanoke, George Fitzhugh, Rufus Choate, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, John Crow Ransom, Andrew Lytle, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Adams Cram, George Santayana, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, George Will, Ronald Reagan, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, M. E. Bradford, Thomas Fleming, Clyde Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and others.  One book cannot address every major figure that influenced American conservatism, and Allit’s failure to mention some names (Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Wendell Berry, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, or any of the Bob Joneses) is understandable.  Paul Gottfried appears just once in the book, and passingly.  But a case could be made that Gottfried’s paleoconservatism is more European in origin and thus worthy of analysis.  And surely Eric Voegelin warrants more than a casual reference in a single paragraph.

For some, Allitt’s most objectionable suggestion will be that the Civil War was a conflict of two conservatisms: Calhoun’s versus Webster’s.  This interpretation illuminates and simultaneously complicates such recent debates as the one held between Thomas DiLorenzo and Harry V. Jaffa over the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

Allitt also suggests that the Federalists represent an early manifestation of conservatism.  This classification would mean that Jefferson and his ilk were not conservatives, which would in turn imply that current Jeffersonians are not in keeping with a purely conservative tradition.  Allitt offers this helpful and accurate note about Jefferson: “He might not have been the Jacobin his Federalist foes alleged, but neither can he easily be thought of as a conservative.”  Many scholars and enthusiasts consider Jefferson to be a “classical liberal,” but the signification of that word relative to “libertarian” or “conservative” merely confounds definitional precision:  All three words have been used interchangeably and negligently in recent decades.  It may not matter if Jefferson is called “conservative” or “liberal,” especially if those terms cause people to short-circuit reflection or affix a contemporary label to a complicated man living in a complex, radically different era.

Allitt’s book is a fine contribution to and about conservative letters.  I recommend it to anyone who thinks he can explain conservatism.

A Quick Musing on Death and Time

In Arts & Letters, Essays, Literature, Writing on August 5, 2011 at 10:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

There’s an essay by Abraham Cowley, the seventeenth-century poet, called “Westminster Abbey,” that’s so strikingly relevant that it reads as if it were written lately, perhaps by a man like Russell Kirk.  The speaker muses about his stroll through the great cathedral.  He remarks that the gloominess of the place, the solemnity of the building, and the condition of the people who lie in it would seem to fill the mind with melancholy and thoughtfulness.

Having spent the previous afternoon meditating in the churchyard and cloisters, amusing himself, he claims, with tombstones and inscriptions, he now considers the grave as a strange register of experience, a satire upon the dead.  “Most of them,” he says of the tombstones and inscriptions, “recorded nothing else of the buried person, but that he was born upon one day, and died upon another: the whole history of his life being comprehended in those two circumstances, that are common to all mankind.”

Reduced to the facts of birth and life, as though nothing took place in between, the departed human reminds one of the permanent things, which find their most magnificent expression because of impermanence and death.

Cowley’s essay seems relevant because death is always with us, always relevant.  The contemplation of death, Cowley suggests, raises dark and dismal thoughts in timorous minds.  But to those who, like the speaker, take a broad view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes—who improve themselves on thoughts that others consider with terror—the contemplation of death is humbling and awesome, revealing as it does the vanity of grief.

As the speaker entertains himself by digging a grave, he considers “what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient cathedral; how men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers, monks and prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common mass; how beauty, strength, and youth, with old age, weakness and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.”

These bodies, imagined or seen, allow the speaker to feel an intimacy with death: an intimacy that ultimately leads him to reflect “with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of makind.”

“When I read,” the speaker declares, “the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.”

These words are only more resonant in light of the distance between us and Cowley, the some three-hundred-forty-four years that separate his death from the present.  What was real and existent for Cowley is not even memory for us.  We have memories of memories, and words recalling memories that we fill with our own experience.  But we don’t have the moments themselves.  We can’t have those back.

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