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John Crowe Ransom was an American poet noted as much for his contributions to criticism and social theory as for his well-regarded poetry. Ransom was a leading figure in the movement of Agrarianism, which painted modern industrialized society as ultimately destructive of basic human needs and feelings. As such, his work promoted a ”back to the earth” philosophy. Ransom was also key in the development of the so-called New Criticism of poetry.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
John Crowe Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, on April 30, 1888. He was the son of John James (a Methodist minister) and Ella (Crowe) Ransom, a music and French teacher. His formal education began slowly due to his father’s moves among churches throughout the state. He was educated at home until he was ten, at which point he entered public school in October 1898.
In June 1903, he graduated at the head of his class from the Bowen School in Nashville, and in September he entered Vanderbilt University, from which he again graduated at the head of his class in 1909. In the years following his graduation, he taught intermittently before entering Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1914, he returned to his alma mater as a faculty member in Vanderbilt’s English department. In 1920, he married Elizabeth Kirkland, the daughter of the chancellor at Vanderbilt, and they had three children.
Ransom and the Fugitives
Around the year 1915, a group of fifteen or so Vanderbilt University teachers and students began meeting informally to discuss trends in American life and literature. Led by Ransom, then a member of the university’s English faculty, these young “Fugitives,” as they called themselves, opposed both the traditional sentimentality of Southern writing and the increasingly frantic pace of life as the turbulent war years gave way to the Roaring Twenties. They recorded their concerns in a magazine of verse entitled the Fugitive. Though it appeared little more than a dozen times after the first issue was published in 1922, Fugitive proved to be the vanguard of a new literary movement—Agrarianism— and offered a new way of analyzing works of art—the New Criticism. As one of the group’s major spokesmen (along with fellow members Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Donald Davidson), Ransom eventually came to be known as the dean of twentieth century American poets and critics.
The majority of Ransom’s most significant work was published between 1915 and 1928, when he was part of the Fugitive Group. In 1917, Ransom went overseas to serve in the First World War, which the United States had just entered. While in France, he revised a body of poems that were then published under the title Poems About God (1919). The characters in those early poems mirrored Ransom’s struggle against the nature of the world.
Two collections of Ransom’s poetry, Chills and Fever and Grace after Meat, were published in 1924 with the helpful intervention of writers Christopher Morley and T. S. Eliot, respectively. These and other collections feature fables and narratives that explore the dual nature of man and the inevitable disappointments of life. Critics praised both of these volumes, and it was these collections that propelled Ransom as a writer on par with Eliot and Ezra Pound.
An Accomplished Poet and Lecturer
In 1937, Ransom moved from Vanderbilt’s English department to Kenyon College, where he was soon promoted to Carnegie Professor of Poetry. In 1939, he founded the Kenyon Review, which he edited for twenty years. The most comprehensive collection of his work was the revised version of Selected Poems, first published in 1945, and in enlarged editions in 1963 and again in 1969. The latter volume included eighty poems.
Ransom’s writing earned him many prizes and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1931), the Bollingen Prize in Poetry (1951), the Russell Loines Award for Poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1951), a Creative Arts Medal from Brandeis University (1958-1959), the National Book Award for the 1963 edition of Selected Poems, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1966), and the Emerson-Thoreau Medal (1968). After his retirement from Kenyon College in 1958, he taught and lectured at more than two hundred colleges and universities—including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago, Rice, Vanderbilt, Duke, Florida, Iowa, and Indiana. Over the course of his career, Ransom published just under 160 poems, but his work was recognized in 1964 with the National Book Award. He died in Gambier, Ohio, about three months after his eighty-sixth birthday.
Works in Literary Context
A Southern poet and man of letters, Ransom chronicled the clash of flesh and spirit and the decline of morality in the twentieth century. He helped develop two significant movements—New Criticism, the textual analysis of poetry, and Agrarianism, which addressed the industrial age as an eroding force on artistic expression.
A Times Literary Supplement critic once concluded that Ransom ”has invented an idiom that both connects him with and separates him from the situations he describes. His language implies a judgment on the people around him, a distance between present and past, speaker and story. But it also implies an ironic depreciation of the poet; for this is only his judgment.” Many of these same qualities and attitudes eventually found their way into the new philosophy of criticism developed by Ransom and others in the 1930s. Using the Kenyon Review (founded by Ransom in 1939) as their principal forum, he and his fellow proponents of the ”New Criticism” rejected the romanticists’ commitment to self-expression and perfection as well as the naturalists’ insistence on fact and inference from fact as the basis of evaluating a work of art.
Instead, the New Critics focused their attention on the work of art as an object in and of itself, independent of outside influences. This includes the circumstances of its composition, the reality it creates, the author’s intention, and the effect it has on readers. The New Critics also tended to downplay the study of genre, plot, and character in favor of detailed textual examinations of image, symbol, and meaning. As far as they were concerned, the ultimate value of a work of art (in both a moral and an artistic sense) was a function of its own inner qualities. In short, explains author James E. Magner, Jr., in the book John Crowe Ransom: Critical Principles and Preoccupations,”[Ransom] wishes the world and the poem to be perceived as what they are and not as someone would have them to be.”
A second movement that Ransom helped develop was Agrarianism, a direct descendant of the Fugitive philosophy—the Agrarians, in fact, were former Fugitives (the original group drifted apart around 1925) who banded together again in the late 1920s to extol the virtues of the rural South and to promote the establishment of an agrarian, or agriculturally-based, economy (as opposed to an industrial one). Industrial living cut one off from nature and from its inherent honesty, said the Agrarians, leading to a withering of art, spirituality, self-reliance, and happiness. Such a life was played out ”miserably in a rectilinear jungle of factories and efficiency apartments,” explained John L. Stewart in his study of the poet and critic. As far as Ransom and his fellow Agrarians were concerned, it was through working closely with nature that true satisfaction could be achieved. As Louis D. Rubin, Jr. has explained in Writers of the Modern South, ”for Ransom the agrarian image is of the kind of life in which leisure, grace, civility can exist in harmony with thought and action, making the individual’s life a wholesome, harmonious experience. . . . His agrarian-ism is of the old Southern plantation, the gentle, mannered life of leisure and refinement without the need or inclination to pioneer.”
Though the rustic dream of the Agrarians more or less evaporated with the coming of the Depression, it left its philosophical imprint on Ransom’s later work. As Richard Gray observed in his book The Literature of Memory, ”the thesis that nearly all of [Ransom’s] writing sets out to prove, in one way or another, is that only in a traditional and rural society—the kind of society that is epitomized for Ransom by the antebellum South—can the human being achieve the completeness that comes from exercising the sensibility and the reason with equal ease.”
Works in Critical Context
Ransom won critical praise and numerous awards, including a National Book Award for Selected Poems and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His celebrated students include Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. Louis Untermeyer, writing in Yale Review, hailed Ransom as an imaginative poet, a technician of brilliance, a storyteller of power, whose flavor is as individual as that of any American writing today.”
As poet Isabel Gambel MacCafrey has written, he provided a small but accurate mirror of the modern sensibility. . . . He has been celebrated rightly, as the poet of perilous equilibrium, of dichotomies and ironies, of tension and paradox.” Some critics, nevertheless, think Ransom’s contributions as critic, editor, and teacher were of even greater importance to modern American letters than his poetry. He was, many believe, the most original theoretical literary critic produced in America in the twentieth century.
A Lasting Body of Work
Ransom’s theories were not greeted with universal enthusiasm. George Core, echoing the views of those who felt Ransom’s own poetry was too cool, subdued, and philosophical, cited Ransom’s neglect of the emotive dimension of the poem” as the most serious possible deficiency in [his] theoretical formulations about poetry.” Despite these and other reservations, however, most critics agreed with James E. Magner that Ransom has given the world a redirection. . . . He has made the pragmatists clear their vision again and again, and made them focus upon the poem, whose reason for existence, he thinks, is to catch up the world beautifully in the texture of its worded being.”
Hyatt H. Waggoner, commenting in his American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, concurred with Stewart that Ransom’s poetry will outlast his critical theory. His influence has been enormous . . . all out of proportion, really, to his actual accomplishments as a critic. . . . [But] he will be remembered as a distinguished minor poet who, chiefly in his early youth, wrote a small number of perfectly wrought, finely textured poems that are likely to be remembered a long time.” On the other hand, Robert D. Jacobs stated in the South Atlantic Quarterly that ”John Crowe Ransom may be called a minor poet, and by some an eccentric critic, but within his special province he is unique.” Core, impressed by both Ransom the poet and Ransom the critic, agreed that his contributions to literature should not be minimized. He concluded: ”The present fame of John Crowe Ransom is very great … this much is clear: the essential reputation is certain and will endure.”
Chills and Fever
Writing in The New Republic, Brad Leithauser claimed that Ransom ”came into his own” with Chills and Fever. Louis Untermeyer called the book ”unquestionably the best volume of poetry to be published in 1924.” Richard Tillinghast, writing in The New Criterion, said the book placed Ransom ”as a highly visible figure in the early years of literary modernism.” At the time the book came out, The New York Times Book Review critic, commenting on the ”sophisticated obliqueness” of the The poetry in Chills and Fever, compared Ransom to T. S. Eliot. Not all critics saw the similarity as a good thing, however. James E. Magner, also comparing Ransom s style to that of T. S. Eliot, pointed out that ”neither Ransom nor Eliot is particularly logical in his critical progression. … Both critics intimate a part of a definition, make somewhat arbitrary divisions, and then discuss what they are interested in, with a casual unpredictability.
- Magner, James E., Jr. John Crowe Ransom: Critical Principles and Preoccupations. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1971.
- Stewart, John L. John Crowe Ransom. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
- Buffington, Robert. The Equilibrist: A Study of John Crowe Ransom’s Poems, 1916-1963. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967.
- Knight, Karl F., The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom: A Study of Diction, Metaphor, and Symbol. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1964.
- Lawrence J., ed. ”John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974).” Poetry Criticism. Vol. 61. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.
- Young, Thomas Daniel, ed. John Crowe Ransom: Critical Essays and A Bibliography. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
- Young, Thomas Daniel. John Crowe Ransom: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1982.
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