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20.00.09 The Works of M. E. Bradford, by Clyde N. Wilson.

M.E. Bradford (1934—1993) of Texas has a unique place in 20th century Southern writing.  Vastly  learned in literature, history, and political thought, he avoided academic specialization in his writings.  In  elegant prose he carried out the self-chosen, old-fashioned role of a good and knowledgeable man speaking to his fellow Southerners (and other people of good will) about their heritage and traditions.  His work constituted an intellectual revolution.  At a time when it was thought that the conservative Southern view of the world was moribund, he revived it brilliantly and in a way that  went  into areas of British and American history and culture  beyond those his Agrarian teachers had explored.  Although his work is scattered through many books and articles, it all relates to a deeply thought out view. Melvin E.A. Bradford was born in Fort Worth to a cattle family.  After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, he went to Vanderbilt University to get a Ph.D. in English with the Agrarian Donald Davidson.  As he later wrote, he was attracted to Agrarianism not because it was a pretty theory but because it rang true with the life of his family and forebears.   For most of his career, until his passing, Bradford taught at the University of Dallas, which never acknowledged his importance.   No one who met him ever forgot him.  To his immense and easily dispensed learning and courtly courtesy, he added a presence of over well over 300 pounds and an inevitable Stetson. Bradford wrote seven books and edited six more.  It takes 20 pages just to list his articles and essays, without including the large number that have been republished in many print and online sources.   Some of his important essays, especially of the last years, are still uncollected in book form.  Bradford’s books are not easy to review because, except for Founding Fathers, they are all collections of essays with varied subjects.  For instance there are articles about Faulkner’s works in three different volumes, and the same is true of Lincoln articles.  In nearly all of the books there is material about the American Founding.  His essay collections are A Better Guide Than Reason,1979, republished with a different subtitle in 1994 (see 10.15.05);  Generations of the Faithful  Heart:  On the Literature of the South, 1983 (see 11.12.01);   Remembering Who We Are:  Observations of a Southern Conservative, 1985 (10.06.10);   The Reactionary Imperative:  Essays Literary and Political, 1990 (10.06.05);  Against the Barbarians, and Other Reflections on Familiar Themes, 1992 (10.06.06);  and Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, 1993 (02.04.03). Bradford described the South as “a long- lasting bond, a corporate identity assumed by those who have contributed to it.”  The South was not a mere temporary and unfortunate aberration from the American “mainstream” as many liked to believe.    It was a reality with a continuous existence over more than three centuries.    It provided identity and allegiance for millions of people over many generations.  To make this case Bradford wrote on nearly every aspect of Southern history, from the earliest times to the near-present, and on Northern and English history as well.  The dominant element of the North (though not the whole North), he wrote, is teleocratic — determined to drive and correct society toward  an intellectually constructed vision of a perfected  future — a vision including Equality, an abstraction that does not exist in reality.  The South is nomocratic — a content, traditional society in which values and attitudes are widely understood and shared and govern behavior without the need for government coercion or intellectual rationalization — what Richard Weaver had described as “social bond individualism.”  A strong illustration of this was the Confederate army — not a military machine but a gathering of kinsmen and neighbours. Bradford wrote on every important Southern writer of the 20th century, especially Faulkner, and also much on British and American Western literature.   A common belief of modern times is that great artists are always alienated individuals in rebellion against their unsatisfactory society.  Not so, said Bradford, pointing back to an earlier understanding that the artist was not an antagonistic of his society but its loyal interpreter — what he called the Great Tradition.  The best Southern writers, he showed, even when exposing the darker side, were within the Southern fold, not rejecting their allegiance and heritage but using the history of their people to craft art touching the universal experience of humanity.  Donald Davidson had taught that all great literature came from regional roots.  Though Bradford began as a literary scholar, he devoted a large portion of his research and writing to the American founding, to understanding the Revolution and the Constitution.  In  Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution  (first published  in 1982 as A Worthy Company and revised and republished in 1994),  Bradford carefully described each member of the Philadelphia Convention — his occupation, experiences, religious faith, and what he thought the goal of the Constitution should be.   In Against  the Barbarians he gives a similar treatment to many other Founders, often less known.  A Better Guide Than  Reason contains a number of seminal essays on the Founding, and Original Intentions studies various state ratifications of the Constitution.  He creates in this work a full-blooded, original, and convincing  picture of the Founding — what the people were like and what they really intended  and did not intend in the Constitution.  The bulk of the Founding  generation that he portrays were more conservative and Christian than has often been claimed.  They were not driven by a fervor to overturn society for abstractions of liberty and democracy, but by a desire to save their valued existing  societies from interfering innovations threatened by London.   They defended what Bradford called “corporate liberty,” not individual equality.  The American Revolution was “a revolution not made, but a revolution averted.”   In this phase of his work Bradford is just as thorough and sympathetic in treating Northern Founders as he is in Southern. Bradford’s four short essays on Lincoln’s rhetoric became notorious in the national media at the time of his nomination to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Bradford argued that Lincoln was often inconsistent and opportunistic.  Most importantly, in his rhetoric (as in the Gettysburg Address and other famous documents) he used Biblical language to suggest that he was speaking for God and he  created a regime in which the goal of equality was established as a divine mission of America, “a continuing revolution,” which had distorted the American regime up to the present.  In  1980—1981 Bradford was the recipient of a great deal of public notice, most of it derogatory, when President Reagan nominated him to be head of the NEH and then, under pressure, withdrew the nomination.  A great deal of  dubious  commentary on this event has been published by the “neoconservatives” who acquired the patronage of the NEH by private slander and public misrepresentation of Bradford.  The definitive account, by Bradford’s close friend Thomas Landess, is  “Mel  Bradford, Old Indian Fighters, and the N.E.H.,” which is archived on  Clyde N. Wilson, ed., A Defender of Southern Conservatism:  M.E. Bradford and His Achievements, published in 1999, contains appreciations of Bradford by Wilson, Thomas Landess, Thomas Fleming, Marshall DeRosa, Mark M. Winchell, and Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, as well as an exhaustive bibliography of Bradford’s writings (see10.06.09).  Anyone who looks on the internet will find an unusually large number of articles regarding Bradford’s great influence.

CNW, 2013