The War Within

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

It is a risky business to attempt an explanation of intellectual and cultural change. The writer must, of necessity, approach his subject in broad terms and thus chance oversimplification or distortion. If the writer tries to prove his general assertions through the biographical study of specific individuals, he multiplies his dangers, for not only must he show a thorough knowledge of each individual, but he also must convince his readers that such examples justify his larger assertions. When the examples selected include individuals as complicated and complex as Ellen Glasgow, Ulrich B. Phillips, William Faulkner, Howard W. Odum, or Robert Penn Warren, on whom numerous volumes have already been written, the scholar has surely set himself a most formidable task.

Such is the case with Daniel Joseph Singal in his study of Southern intellectual history, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945. Actually, his title is too modest, for the work covers both nineteenth and twentieth century attitudes and beliefs, although he does center his study on the decades between the world wars. It is Singal’s contention that the “Cavalier Myth and Identity,” so often traced to the writings of Sir Walter Scott, were adopted by the Southern aristocracy before the Civil War to impose an outward semblance of order on what was underneath a turbulent, often chaotic society, threatened by rebellion and social upheaval by the lower classes and slaves. After the war, the “Lost Cause Myth” was used to justify the war itself, which came to be seen in the late nineteenth century as a valiant and romantic attempt to preserve an ideal (and idealized) way of life. The “New South Creed,” propagated by leaders such as Henry Grady, combined the Lost Cause ideas with Victorian concepts of progress, industrialization, and morality. Thus, the figure of the paternalistic Southern gentleman, associated with the plantation system, shifted to the factory, becoming the paternalistic factory owner. This brand of Southern Victorianism, Singal contends, which combined an emphasis on moral order and industrial progress with the notion of the heroic leader, “had settled in with a vengeance” by the late nineteenth century and kept the Modernist movement out of the South until after World War I.

Singal equates the Southern Victorian culture with “a world view of radical innocence.” Modernism refuted that innocence; its new worldview accepted the irrational, the need to “live without certainty”—which, indeed, could see change, conflict, and turbulence in a positive light. Because the Victorian culture was so deeply embedded in the South (which, Singal maintains, had become a “backward province” to the rest of the nation), the Modernist revolt against it was more concentrated and can thus be more clearly studied than in other subcultures.

Singal constructed his study of the Southern shift from Victorianism to Modernism around the biographical investigation of select and representative individuals from the fields of history, literature, and sociology. Part 1 deals with “Three Southern Post-Victorians”: Ulrich B. Phillips, Broadus Mitchell, and Ellen Glasgow (with a brief discussion of James Branch Cabell included), whose roots were in the nineteenth century. Each attempted to break with the worldview of the Old South; each strove for a new sense of realism; yet each finally failed in his quest. Part 2 examines Howard W. Odum, William Faulkner, and the Agrarians, specifically Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and, most fully, Allen Tate, all of whom are labeled as “Modernists by the Skin of Their Teeth.” In Singal’s account, these men are transitional figures who faced the new without totally breaking with the old. Part 3, “The Modernist Generation Arrives,” concludes the book with studies of William Terry Crouch and The University of North Carolina Press (the publishers of this book); Rupert Vance, Guy B. Johnson, and Arthur Raper, sociologists who went beyond the initial investigations of Howard Odum; and, finally, Robert Penn Warren, whose novel All the King’s Men (1946) Singal regards as “a landmark in the...

(The entire section is 1715 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The New York Review of Books. XXX, March 3, 1983, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 31, 1982, p. 13.