American Exceptionalism and Southern Exceptionalism Reply

I'll take my stand

Part II of Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism

Over the next few days I am posting a paper I delivered at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City last week.   Today, I will delve into the meaning of exceptionalisms and southern exceptionalism.

Exceptionalisms and Southern Exceptionalism 

Exceptionalism is a common term reflecting the uncritical narratives that set one people apart from another.  For example, the idea of American Exceptionalism as framed by Martin Lipset is what he labels the American Creed: “Liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez faire, or what he calls a set of dogmas for a good society.”[1] American narratives often draw on these dogmas as sources of validation, suggesting that the society is good, right-directed, or pursuing valid-goals.  Exceptionalisms often, though highlighting the narratives at work by the majority, leave some with counter narratives for why those dogmas didn’t work for them.[2]  The Southern African American is hard pressed to find that narratives of egalitarianism validate his access to education, politics, or liberty in a society constrained by segregation.[3]   Nevertheless, exceptionalisms help explain why society believes itself different from others.  They also serve to explain the past as a triumph of the social system, rather than a mar on the past.  Thus, a narrative invoking exceptionalisms might choose to appreciate the progressive move out of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation rather than focus on the enduring effects any of those institutions may continue to have.[4]

      If the American experience is explained by exceptional qualities, then the Southern Experience may be described by a different reference to the past: “defeat, humiliation, and impotence in the face of intractable social problems.”[5]  The south eagerly adopted the idea of American exceptionalism for itself, believing the society to be set apart, unique, and validated by moral superiority.  This is best characterized by the collection of essays I’ll Take My Stand, in which Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, argued that the Southern rural life should be preserved in what they apprehended was Northern industrialization.  [6]

But as eminent southern historian C. Vann  Woodward’s The Search for Southern Identity argues, time proved that the real southern experience was characterized by “grinding poverty, political impotency, military defeat, racial conflict, and social guilt.”[7]  Sheldon Hackney has argued that Southerners have had to define themselves in opposition to a presumed American norm.[8]  Similarly, Orville Burton contends that the Southerner remains an “other” or “stranger” in the American narrative.[9] For our purposes, Robert Penn Warren embraced the idea that Southerners found themselves looking backward more than forward so to speak – consistently defining themselves, their environment, and their identity against the backdrop of how the exceptional failed in its promise, and the fact that the war was not won.  This is revealed in Warren’s life experience and works.

Warren himself takes up the mantle of exceptionalism in a number of contexts.  Jewishness and its meaning are pre-eminent constructs in a number of Warren’s novels including Flood and Wilderness.  In both novels, Jewish persons find themselves, like Warren’s southern characters as both out of place and in place.   Warren outside of his literary endeavors also pursued social justice on behalf of Soviet Jews by joining with the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews to urge Soviet writers to take up the mantle of Tolstoy, Dostovsky, Checkov and others to find a place in Soviet society for Jewish persons.  Each of Warren’s suggestions in his letter to the Soviet Writers Conference urges support for physical space allocated to the preservation of Jewish Identity – schools, synagogues, cultural centers and the like.  Similarly, it was primarily because of American Exceptionalism that Warren declined a Chaired Professor at the University of California.  At the time, California law mandated that government employees sign a loyalty oath affirming their allegiance to the country and their disavowal of communist tendencies.

For Warren, the presence of the counter narrative – or the contradiction – and the ability to reconcile the counter narrative is a primary reason the South exists as lonely.  Those contradictions are depicted in the way physical space and the law’s relationship to that space is described in both works.


[1] Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: The Double Edged Sword (1996).

[2] See Nancy Leong, The Open Road and the Traffic Stop: Narratives and Counter-Narratives of the American Dream, 64 Fla. L. Rev. 305 (2001) (describing the tension between the fiction of American equality and race-based profiled stops); David Levering Lewis,Exceptionalisms Exceptions: The Changing American Narrative, 141 Daedelus 101 (2012).

[3] See W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America 1860-1880 (1935) (suggesting that the choice for an American narrative is one between “freedom, intelligence and power for all men; the other was industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power”).

[4] Invoking W.E.B. Dubose’s emphasis on choice, see supra note 12.

[5] David R. Jannson, American Hegemony and the Irony of C. Vann Woodward’s the Irony of Southern History, 44 Southeastern Geographer 90 (2004).

[6] See Donald Davidson et al, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners (1930).  For an analysis of Warren’s contribution, which some of the writers believed was contradictory to the overall message, see Steven Ealy, ‘A Place for the Negro in the Agrarian Scheme’: Robert Penn Warren’s Contribution to I’ll Take My Stand,  30Political Science Reviewer 120 (2001).

[7] Jannson, supra note 14, at 90.

[8] Sheldon Hackney,  The South as Counterculture, 42 American Scholar 283 (1973).

[9] Orville Vernon Burton, The South as “Other,” the Southerner as “Stranger,” 79 J. Southern History 7 (2013).

 

 

 

 

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