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John Crowe Ransom's Life and Career


Kieran Quinlan

RANSOM, John Crowe (30 Apr. l888-3 July 1974), poet and critic, was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, the son of John James Ransom, a Methodist minister, and Ella Crowe. Raised in a strongly religious though also very open-minded household, the precocious Ransom entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville at age fifteen. Following graduation in 1909 and a stint as a high school teacher, he went on to study classics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford from 1910 to 1913. Ransom was appointed to an instructorship in Vanderbilt's English department in 1914 and, apart from service as an artillery officer in France during World War I, remained there until his departure for Kenyon College in Ohio in 1937. In 1920, Ransom married Robb Reavill; the couple had three children.

Ransom's original interest lay more in philosophy than in literature; his letters from Oxford to his father express his sympathies with the American pragmatists and with John Dewey in particular. His growing concern with aesthetic issues, however--such as the need to give a satisfactory account of the "unknown quality of poetry," its preference for the imaginative rather than the logical--and his exposure to arguments about free verse (vers libre) as a member of the Fugitive literary group, which he joined on returning to Nashville, inspired him to begin writing poetry. The Fugitives--the other notable members of which were Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren--had also begun as a philosophically oriented discussion group, but they were soon meeting regularly to offer sustained criticism of one another's poems.

Ransom's first book, Poems about God (1919), was completed during his military service. He quickly became disillusioned with these early exercises in rustic skepticism, however, and always refused to have any of the poems republished in subsequent volumes, though both Robert Frost and Robert Graves had warmly praised his work. Ransom's mature style is to be found in the poems that compose Chills and Fever (1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927), which appeared originally in the group's magazine, The Fugitive (1922-1925). Although Ransom continued to "tinker" with poetry throughout his long career, his reputation rests largely on the output of these three years.

Noted for their metaphysical wit and occasional archaisms, Ransom's poems are most frequently short lyrics in which he explores the ironies of human existence as they are manifested in the domestic scenes of daily life. The death of a small child, for example, is for him but a dramatic instance of the fate that awaits all of us, heightened by the incongruity between the energy of new life and the abruptness of its extinction. Thus, in what may be his best-known poem, "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" (1924), when we encounter the corpse of the little girl we are "sternly stopped" and "vexed" to see her "lying so primly propped." Ransom typically used regular meters and seemingly sentimental situations to draw attention to the irregularities and unsentimentality of life itself.

While he is often referred to as a "major minor poet," Ransom was fully convinced of the importance of the kind of contribution he had to make: "With a serious poet each minor poem may be a symbol of a major decision. It is as ranging and comprehensive an action as the mind has ever tried." By 1927 Ransom had come to believe that he had exhausted his themes and generally ceased thereafter to compose new poems. Nevertheless, his poetic work continues to be held in high esteem and, on this ground alone, his is an assured place in the history of American letters. In 1951, many years after he had ended his creative activities in this field, Ransom won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and in 1964 he received the National Book Award for his Selected Poems published the previous year. English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes spoke in 1977 of Ransom's best poems as "very final objects.... There is a solid total range of sensation within the pitch of every word."

The Fugitives had begun as a group much engaged with the intellectual and artistic problems of the modern world and with an ardent desire to escape the "moonlight and magnolia" school of southern writing. But attacks on the region by H. L. Mencken and others during the 1920s--many of them provoked by the Scopes "monkey" trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925--caused them to rethink their position and to become enamored for a time of certain forms of southern nationalism. By 1930 they were ready to argue that the South's distinctive characteristic was that it was still an agrarian society and that as such it stood as a bulwark against the industrial materialism and communism of the age. In I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, a collection of essays published in 1930 by twelve Southerners, Ransom argued that it was only in an agricultural society that humanity had a true perception of its place in the universe: as beings subject to suffering and death; industrialized society tended to dull this sense of human contingency and so falsified the perception of life.

Ransom defended the arguments presented in the book when they were widely ridiculed and attacked, but by 1936 he was less certain that a return to an agricultural economy could save the nation, and by 1945 he had publicly changed his position: "Without consenting to a division of labor, and hence modern society, we should have not only no effective science, invention, and scholarship, but nothing to speak of in art." In fact, even in 1930, Ransom's ambivalence about modern society was reluctantly expressed in his famous defense of religion, God without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy. There, with considerable ingenuity and knowledge of contemporary philosophy and science, he argued at length for the need to revive the Old Testament God who would represent the harshness of the universe as it actually is rather than continue exalting a gentle Jesus (or his parallels in liberal society--the social reformers) who merely confirms our complacencies. However, his book is undercut by Ransom's admission that religion is simply a creation of man and that the modern mind cannot accept many of its traditional premises; thus the argument, as Ransom himself recognized, finally collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

At Vanderbilt, Ransom was one of the first academics in the United States to legitimize the position of the poet and critic in English departments, which until then had favored scholars engaged in philological and historical studies. His experience in the classroom, and the influence of I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929), persuaded him that too little attention was being given to the actual texts of poems as opposed to the biographical and incidental information surrounding their composition. Thus, both his efforts to correct this deficiency and his philosophical desire to show how poetry could offer a knowledge not provided by the sciences led him to produce a number of essays on the nature of poetry, particularly in the years after the demise of his agrarian interests. In what is probably the best known of these, "Wanted: An Ontological Critic" (1941), Ransom argued that "the differentia of poetry as discourse is an ontological one. It treats an order of existence, a grade of objectivity, which cannot be treated in scientific discourse." Much of his subsequent career was spent attempting to clarify such ideas, his basic contention being that a poem consists of both structure (argument) and texture (images) in precarious harmony. Although he always stressed the limitations of science, Ransom was equally aware that the argument of a poem could not fly in the face of scientific knowledge, a position he came to assert more and more insistently in his later essays.

When Ransom moved to Kenyon College in 1937, he was followed by three of his most distinguished pupils: Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Lowell. The college president was eager to have him begin a new journal, The Kenyon Review, which Ransom was to edit from 1939 to 1959. In the Review, one of the most successful of the little magazines, Ransom frequently published authors and views that were quite at odds with his own. He also founded the Kenyon School of English, designed to gather distinguished critics and students together to develop a more critical approach to literature along the lines he had already outlined, though by no means confined to them.

Ransom's practice of literary criticism is often termed "New Criticism," and indeed in 1941 he published a book of essays with that title. Earlier, in "Criticism, Inc." (1937), he had argued that "Criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic." But Ransom himself was always more the theoretical than practical critic, and it was left to two former students of Ransom--Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren--to produce the book that is forever associated with the movement: Understanding Poetry (1938). Ransom in fact quickly became skeptical about the New Criticism, especially its tendency to over apply the concepts of paradox and irony to literary texts in order to show their "organic unity" rather than allow for their possible disharmonies. He was also for many years ambivalent about the work of the New Criticism's favorite representative poet, T. S. Eliot, on the grounds of the latter's excessive obscurity, philosophically unfounded religiousness, and overall pessimism about the modern world.

While Ransom is usually regarded as a conservative critic, his mind was in constant evolution, always willing to change a view once held but no longer persuasive. A man of quiet disposition and extreme courtesy--but an avid competitor in games and sports of all kinds--Ransom was a revered and influential teacher. Emphasizing early the harshness of human existence, in the end he advocated a rather benign skepticism, believing that "this is the best of all possible worlds" and that we are unlikely to know a better one.

Following his retirement from teaching and from editorship of the Kenyon Review in 1959, Ransom remained active in the academic world, writing new essays, constantly (and perhaps unwisely) revising his early poems, lecturing, and collecting those belated honors and recognitions that usually grace the closing years of a distinguished literary career. Toward the end of his life he suffered from a variety of recurring ailments, which gradually led him into long periods of withdrawal and silence. Ransom died in his sleep at his home on the Kenyon campus.

Letters and papers pertaining to Ransom are to be found in the Firestone Library of Princeton University, the Library of Congress, the Yale University Library, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the Lily Library of Indiana University, the Chalmers Library of Kenyon College, the Haverford College Library, the Mona Van Duyn Collection and the William Jay Smith Collection of the Washington University Libraries, and the Jesse E. Wills Collection of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University (which also houses part of Ransom's library). Thomas Daniel Young and George Core published Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom in 1985. Other books by Ransom include Grace After Meat (1924), The World's Body (1938), Selected Poems (1945), and Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays 1941-1970 (1971). In addition, see Thomas Daniel Young and John Hindle, Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom (1984). The standard biography is Gentleman in a Dustcoat (1976), by Thomas Daniel Young, who also edited, John Crowe Ransom: An Annotated Bibliography (1982). An excellent memoir is by Ransom's granddaughter, novelist Robb Forman Dew, "Summer's End," Mississippi Quarterly 30 (Winter 1976-1977): 137-54. See also Louise Cowan, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History (1959); Robert Buffington, The Equilibrist: A Study of John Crowe Ransom's Poems, 1916-1963 (1967); Marian Janssen, The Kenyon Review 1939-1970: A Critical History (1990); and Kieran Quinlan, John Crowe Ransom's Secular Faith (1989).

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


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