Donald Davidson (1893—1968) of Tennessee excelled as poet, essayist, and critic and teacher of literature. He was a leading member of the Fugitive Poets group at Vanderbilt University which was an early stirring of what was to become the celebrated Southern Literary Renascence. He was also a leading member of the group of Twelve Southerners who published the Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. Davidson remained throughout his career faithful to the Agrarian regionalist message and it influenced all that he wrote.
Donald Grady Davidson was born in Tennessee and, like most of the Agrarians, he received an old-fashioned and largely private classical education. He saw combat service as a lieutenant in World War I before returning to Vanderbilt to finish his education. He was the only one of the Agrarians to remain at Vanderbilt, where he was professor of English until retirement. Davidson wrote about (as well as participated in) Southern literature, but his academic specialization was British literature—especially British writers concerned with rural life, like Thomas Hardy, and the ballad tradition, which, of course, contained some of the roots of Southern literature. The list of later prominent writers who were students of Davidson is long.
In his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, called “A Mirror for Artists,” Davidson laid out the view of culture that he would continue to write about. A great culture required a living folk tradition, out of which would come great art. American culture, as exemplified by New York, was a consumer commodity, an inauthentic middlebrow “culture poured in from the top” rather than rising from the native soil. Great art had always had regional roots.
In later writings Davidson expanded the Agrarian stance beyond culture, taking in history, economics, and public affairs. He was relentless in his opposition to the proponents of “a New South.” His book Attack on Leviathan (1938) was an extension of the message, telling American history from the regionalist standpoint and reiterating a basic Agrarian prescription for the troubled times: the desirable social ideal was not industrialism and bigness, but the widespread ownership of real property that represented a humane alternative to the twin giants of corporate capitalism and socialism. The book attracted little attention at the time but was republished in 1991 by Russell Kirk as a part of his Library of Conservative Literature with the itle Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States: The Attack on Leviathan. Davidson spent his summers at the Bread Loaf Writers colony in Vermont where he became friends with Robert (Lee!) Frost and acquired respect for the life of rural New England, which he praised in his book of essays Still Rebels, Still Yankees (1957). The Southern Writer in the Modern World (1958) was a reflection on the Fugitive-Agrarian experience.
Davidson’s production of essays and literary criticism was prolific. He wrote an exemplary historical work, The Tennessee (See 03.08.01). He was also the author of a successful textbook in composition. Always devoted to music, he wrote a novel about country music called The Big Ballad Jamboree (published posthumously in 1996) and a folk opera libretto for Singin’ Billy (1952). Mark Winchell’s biography (Where No Flag Flies: Donald Davidson and the Southen Resistance, 2000) is thorough and sympathetic. Also interesting are several publications of letters: Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, edited by John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young (1971) and Agrarian Letters: The Correspondence of John Donald Wade and Donald Davidson, 1930—1939, edited by Gerald J. Smith, 2003.
Davidson will probably be longest and best remembered as a poet. Between 1924 and 1961 he published four books of verse: An Outland Piper, The Tall Men, Lee in the Mountains and Other Poems, and The Long Street. In 1966 his Collected Poems, 1922—1961 was published. Davidson wrote verse over a long period and on many themes. Those poems that most move and remain with a Southern reader are his epic treatments of Southern heroes like John Sevier, Andrew Jackson, Bedford Forrest, and “The Tall Men” who conquered the Tennessee frontier; and renderings of great Southern events like the Battle of Franklin and Forrest’s capture of the Union force of General Streight. Many poems portray the contemporary world and its alienation from heroic forebears. Especially cherished by countless Southerners to the present day is “Lee in the Mountains, 1865—1870,” imagining the postwar meditations of General Lee on the heritage of the South, which will remain loved and honoured “unto all generations of the faithful heart.”