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John William Corrington on the Mystery of Writing

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Creative Writing, Creativity, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on September 19, 2018 at 6:45 am

In 1985, John William Corrington delivered a lecture (“The Mystery of Writing”) at the Northwest Louisiana Writer’s Conference in Shreveport, Louisiana, his hometown. The lecture is part memoir, part commentary on writing as a craft.

Corrington explained in his lecture that he wanted to be a musician before he wanted to be a writer. He discusses his education at Centenary College and the state of popular literature at the time. He explains that he left academia because he felt disenfranchised politically in the academy, thus causing him to enter law school.

The lecture demonstrates that Corrington saw himself as a Southern author who bemoaned the state of current popular writing. He notes how his popular writing for film and television earned him money though his literary writing—novels and poetry—was not profitable.

Although he wrote for film and television, Corrington disdained those media forms and felt they did not challenge viewers intellectually, at least not in the way that literature challenged readers.

Corrington’s conservatism is evident in his emphasis on a discernible literary tradition and his disgust for the technologies that made possible his own career. His advice for his audience is that they write about what they know, just as he writes about the South; therefore, he advises his audience not to become professional writers, but to find other employment as a source for writing. His discussion of good writing as an ongoing investigation of perennial themes calls to mind the controversial notion of the literary canon as developed by Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom, John Ellis, and E. D. Hirsch.

“The Mystery of Writing” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

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.

Review of Coleman Hutchinson’s Apples and Ashes

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Southern History, Southern Literary Review on June 20, 2012 at 8:00 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review first appeared here at the Southern Literary Review.

Confederate literature and literary culture have not received the critical consideration that they warrant.  Not only that, but they have been dismissed as scant and mediocre.  Scholars of the South and of the Civil War—even those whose work has reached wide audiences—have paid more attention to other humanistic fields than to literature, particularly to Confederate literature and particularly during the so-called “fighting” years of 1861-1865.  This neglect, argues Coleman Hutchison in Apples and Ashes, is regrettable because “the Confederacy gave rise to a robust literary culture.”

Several factors account for the dearth of scholarship on Confederate literature, not least of which is the fact that the Confederacy existed for only a short time, during which Confederate writers had to overcome, among other things, ink and paper shortages; many of these men and women struggled to see their work reach print in cities occupied by Union troops.  Accordingly, much of what might have become Confederate literature was lost or unpublished, yet the relative shortage of Confederate literature was not due to lack of talent, but to printing paralysis.

Another reason Confederate literature has failed to become a common subject of study is the presumption that this topic is not worthwhile, largely because Confederate cultural values have been discredited.  There is, today, the tendency to demonize or denounce any person who would take seriously the claims and writings of Confederate partisans, politicians, and highbrows.  Yet to take something seriously is not to endorse it, and to proclaim certain intellectual matters off-limits—even if those matters are highly complex and, when studied carefully, telling about contingencies and urgencies of our own day—is dangerous and foolish indeed.  Hutchison is just as aware of the importance of Confederate literature as he is of the importance of disclaiming it.  “To write about the Confederate nation,” he says, “is to risk being seen as endorsing its right to exist.”  He adds, emphatically, that his book “is by no means an apology for the Confederacy or Confederate nationalism,” and that he “finds almost nothing that is admirable in the politics and culture of the Civil War South.”  That Hutchison feels compelled to disassociate himself from Confederate ideology at all suggests how strangely anxious the impulsive, opportunistic, or lazy readers will be to either condemn or celebrate (depending on their perspective) this book as pro-Confederate.

Mostly uninterested in matters of taste and judgment regarding the literary quality of his subjects, Hutchison submits that Confederate literature teaches literary scholars not only about the nuances and cultures of nationalism, but also about nineteenth century American (read: non-Confederate) letters generally, since Confederate literature was in conversation with—and in contradistinction to—American literary nationalism.  Among the distinguishing features of Confederate literature were its aspirational impulses and its focus upon an imagined and impossible future.  In some respects, the South’s belles lettres recognized the poignancy of a lost cause narrative before the cause was actually lost. Read the rest of this entry »

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Julie Cantrell

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Southern Literary Review, The South, Writing on February 29, 2012 at 6:10 am

Julie Cantrell was editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review.  She teaches English as a second language to elementary school students and is a freelance writer who has published two children’s books. Julie and her family run Valley House Farm in Mississippi.  Her first novel, Into the Free, was released by David C. Cook in 2012.

 

Julie, so glad to be doing this interview.  First of all, congratulations on the publication of Into the Free, which, at the moment, is number 23 on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list.  What does it feel like to have completed your first novel?

It’s amazing! The entire journey has been joyful for me, but to see it reach readers across the world is incredible. Having it become a bestseller is simply surreal. I admit I’m a bit numb watching it climb the charts, and I keep thinking it will end in a few minutes – a strange little bubble of joy that is about to pop. For that reason, I’ve been doing the happy dance nonstop and am just going to enjoy the fun while it lasts.

The main character of the book is Millie Reynolds.  How did you come up with Millie?  Did you know what she would be like—her personality, her attitudes, her struggles—before you started writing, or did she sort of come to you as you worked?

Well, to be honest, I never intended to write from a child’s point of view. I originally set out to write about the “Gypsy Queen,” but it just wasn’t the voice I heard. Then I saw a scene of a poor, depressed woman standing on a porch watching the Travelers leave town. She wanted to leave with them, but she was too afraid to take the first step. So I sat down to write her story, but it wasn’t her voice I heard either. Instead, Millie sat in her tree and told me her story. I know it sounds kooky, but I guess I just have a very vivid imagination. I’m happy to introduce Millie to readers, and I hope they love her as much as I do.

You once told me that you had two kids, four cows, three goats (two of which were then due with babies that you’d have to bottle feed), two dogs, two cats (one stray that arrived pregnant), a horse that likes a lot of attention, a flock of hens, a newly arrived carton of chicks, a husband, and a full-time job as a speech therapist.  How did you ever manage to finish writing Into the Free

It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? In fact, we’ve grown bigger since then! I still work in an elementary school, but now I teach English as a Second Language, so I was able to reduce my hours to part-time this year. With a full-time farm, a teaching job (which is never really part-time, as any teacher will tell you), two kids, a wonderful hubby, freelance gigs, and an active community life, we stay very busy. I usually write between the hours of 3 am and 5 am, when the rest of the world is sleeping. I just love it more than sleep.

Tell us a little about your choice of setting for the novel?

I am a southern girl, through and through. I spent my childhood in Louisiana before leaving the south after graduate school. I loved living in various states across the country, but our family relocated to Mississippi seven years ago, returning to our southern roots. I find this state incredibly rich with everything needed to whip up a story. I never considered setting it anywhere other than Mississippi. However, I like to mix things up a bit, so let’s see where the sequel takes us.

Any advice for aspiring novelists who might come across this interview?

Yes. I say, Go for it! If writing is what you love, be willing to make sacrifices to keep that in your life. Only you know what you were born to do, and only you know how to live the life that makes you happy. Life is short. Choose wisely.

Thank you, Julie.  This has been a great interview.  I’m thrilled to see the success of Into the Free, and I would encourage readers of this site to purchase a copy right away. 

Thank you, Allen. I am honored to be interviewed here on a site I have always loved. You’ve done a fabulous job with Southern Literary Review, and I know your readers all agree. Kudos!

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Ace Atkins

In Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, News and Current Events, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Writing on December 12, 2011 at 8:46 am

Ace Atkins is the author of nine novels, most recently The Ranger and Infamous.  A former journalist at The Tampa Tribune, Atkins has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into a 1950s murder.  He lives on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi.

The following interview first appeared here at Southern Literary Review.

AM: What I suspect everyone wants to know is, how do you stay so prolific?  How do you write so much, so quickly?

AA: I’m very fortunate to be a full-time novelist. I’ve been writing full time since 2001 and that gives me the freedom to concentrate completely on my stories. Many terrific writers I know have to carve out time from from their jobs to work on a book. I am able to go to my office every day and work on that new novel. I feel pretty damn lucky and that in turn means I get to work on more projects.

AM: You seem to have located The Ranger in regions of the South that you know well.  Would you call this book “Southern literature”? 

AA: Absolutely. I don’t get into working in a certain genre—that’s up to readers and critics—and can hurt the writer and reader. My new series of novels could not be set anywhere else but the South and certainly centers on many Southern themes. I gain a lot of inspiration from the gritty world of Faulkner’s crime stories and turn my attention to the descendants of those people. 

AM:    I noticed that country music and country musicians appear throughout The Ranger.  Can you tell us about the significance of this to the novel?

AA: My first four novels were stylistically and thematically about blues. I always wanted to work on a novel that felt like an old Johnny Cash ballad—a solider returning home to town, unrequited love, guns and violence. I listened to a lot of Johnny Cash and also tons of Outlaw Country—Waylon, Merle, etc.—when coming up with the background of Quinn Colson.

AM: Who is Colonel George Reynolds?  I noticed his name in the Acknowledgments. 

George is the guy who saved my ass. I had contracted to write a novel about a U.S. Army soldier without knowing enough about the modern war in Afghanistan. Colonel Reynolds contacted me from Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan about signing a copy of my novel, Devil’s Garden. He offered help if I ever needed. It turned out, I needed help immediately. He offered terrific insight direct from the battle front and introduced me to the real Ranger who provided the background for Quinn Colson. 

I could not have written the book without him and he still provides me with a ton of answers to picky questions. Read the rest of this entry »

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