Richard M. Weaver (1910—1963) of North Carolina
It would be difficult over-estimate the influence of this quiet scholar on both the expression and the understanding of Southern thought as well as of American conservatism.
Richard Malcolm Weaver was born in the mountains of North Carolina near Weaverville, founded by his family. He studied first at the University of Kentucky and then at Vanderbilt University, which was still under the influence of the Agrarians. Weaver wrote, in an essay called “Up from Liberalism,” that he came to Nashville as a socialist and left as an Agrarian, having learned that the Agrarians were wiser and better men than the leftists he had known. Weaver received his Ph.D. in 1943 at Louisiana State University. His dissertation, directed by Cleanth Brooks, was only published after Weaver’s death, as The Southern Tradition at Bay: A Study of Postbellum Thought (1968). It concerns unreconstructed writers like Albert Taylor Bledsoe and Robert Lewis Dabney who continued to defend and apply the values of the Old South after the War between the States.
For most of his career Weaver taught English at the University of Chicago, going home every summer to Weaverville where he was sometimes observed plowing with a mule. Weaver’s most important book and the one which launched his prominence was published in 1948: Ideas Have Consequences. The book is not Southern, except in inspiration. The book was widely commented upon and praised for its analysis of the spiritual and philosophical decline of American society and invocation of traditional views. Weaver’s book shares credit with Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind for a revival of traditionalist conservative thinking. He became a revered figure, something of an icon to conservative groups and publications. (For instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute named a Fellowship and the Rockford Institute a valuable literary prize for him.) It is likely that some of his admirers have not understood the Southern basis of Weaver’s stance.
Weaver became a recognized expert in the scholarly subspecialty of “Rhetoric.” Except for Ideas and works on rhetoric his prolific writings did not appear in book form during his lifetime. His essays on a great variety of subjects were published in many places. They reveal a man deeply learned and deeply reflective in philosophy, theology, history, literature, and culture. Two books of collected essays were published shortly after Weaver’s passing: Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (1964) and Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (1965). These essays continued the critique of modernity in Ideas Have Consequences.
Two posthumous collections contain Weaver’s wisdom, especially in regard to things Southern: The Southern Essays of Richard Weaver, edited by George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson Jr. (1987) and In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929—1963, edited by Ted J. Smith III (1998). These collections of Weaver’s writings are rich in commentary on the history and culture of the South, as witness some of the titles: “Southern Chivalry and Total War,” “Lee the Philosopher,” “The Older Religiousness of the South,” and “Reconstruction: Unhealed Wound.” Before his passing Weaver was planning an American version of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In a well-known work of late antiquity, Plutarch had written admonitory biographies of paired Greek and Roman figures. Weaver was planning the same for Northern and Southern Americans. Three chapters of this unfinished work, separately published as essays, indicate what it would have been. “Two Orators” compares Daniel Webster and Robert Y. Hayne and their differing ideas of “the Union.” “Two Types of American Individualism” contrasts the alienated individualism of Henry David Thoreau with the “social bond individualism” of John Randolph of Roanoke. “Two Diarists” contrasts the personal journals of two figures from early colonial times, William Byrd II of Virginia and Cotton Mather of Massachusetts. Anyone who examines this essay will be easily convinced that differences between the North and the South were present at the beginning and not at all related to slavery.
Quite a lot has been and continues to be written about Weaver, his ideas and his influence. Some useful works in this respect are Joseph Scotchie, ed., The Vision of Richard Weaver; Fred Douglas Young, Richard M. Weaver: A Life of the Mind; and Ted J. Smith III, Steps Toward Restoration: The Consequences of Richard Weaver’s Ideas.