Straightening the Crook in the Lot, Part I

By Duane Otto, Director of Ithaka Fellowship

If change is to come, then, it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins. As an orthodoxy loses its standards, becomes unable to measure itself by what it ought to be, it comes to be measured by what it is not.  – Wendell Berry

In 1930, Harper & Brothers published an agrarian symposium entitled I’ll take my stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. In it, twelve men sought to do the impossible. They labored to preserve a coherent set of values that were at once “socially conservative and economically radical.”1

Specifically, they articulated the good life by drawing attention to the ancient values of domesticity, esteeming the family as the true foundation of society, commending the arts and amenities of life, stressing religion, and earnestly defending the values of rural life and man’s proper place within the created order. Contrary to popular opinion, the Agrarians argued neither for social structuring, nor from the growing pain of nostalgia. Rather, they simply believed the emerging spirit of the age was a formula for deracination. Thus by expounding upon what they believed to be timeless human values, they hoped to abate the prevailing drift toward consumerism, materialism, and mass dehumanization.

Did anyone listen? It is fair to say that Harper’s symposium commanded an audience. Their fervid convictions challenged the status quo and exposed many of the fallible assumptions of modern day life, culture, and familial living. Yet at the end of the day the warnings and concerns of the twelve agrarians primarily went unheeded. Their voices neither stirred emotions nor moved people’s minds to question the hidden trappings of modernity. Why is this? Notwithstanding the many socio-historical factors available for critique, I believe the failure of their project can be pinned to two suppressive forces, forces that are still at work to this day, subtly squelching even the most celebrated and creative voice of the movement thus far – farmer and poet, Wendell Berry.

To begin with, the Agrarian Project was fighting a giant of global proportions. They were fighting a movement called Progress, a movement that presumed to know the truth. Progressives rejected age-old wisdom. They systematically questioned and dismissed the traditional values and principles of the American Founders. Their goal was to shape a new democratic citizenship, one guided by the union of science and politics. And in their zeal to improve the world and overcome the growing conflicts between individual concerns and social goods, they squelched any and all voices that questioned their utopian hope, dismissing them to the margins of life and labeling them as echoes of a detached and by-gone age.2

The southern agrarians certainly understood the pride and power of this movement. They entered the battle with moral passion. Thus the reason for their “stand.” But the question in need of answering is this: who did they stand with? Who did they enlist to fight with them? The answer is the second suppressive force at work within the noble project called New Agrarianism.

by Duane D. Otto



1 Alan Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004). p.4

2 See: Bob Taylor, Citizenship and Democratic Doubt: The Legacy of Progressive Thought (University Press of Kansas, 2004).