Poet, essayist, and social critic Donald Davidson played a major role in shaping southern Agrarianism and left a distinguished body of writings based on Tennessee and southern materials. Born in Campbellsville, near Pulaski, in 1893, to William Bluford Davidson, a teacher and school administrator and Elma Wells Davidson, a music and elocution teacher, Davidson was educated at Lynnville Academy, where his father was coprincipal, and Branham and Hughes preparatory school before enrolling at Vanderbilt University in 1909. He earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Vanderbilt before joining the English faculty. He remained at Vanderbilt for his entire career.
Davidson became a founding member of the circle of Vanderbilt students and professors that published the distinguished poetry magazine The Fugitive from 1922 to 1925. He and a few others, most notably John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Frank L. Owsley, and Robert Penn Warren, published the anticapitalist and antimodern Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, in 1930. Davidson was a vital member of both the Fugitive and Agrarian groups. Although bound to the modernist poets Ransom, Tate, and Warren by deep bonds of affection and a common southern sensibility, Davidson's relationship with them and the rest of the group was often marked by friction. Defensive and somewhat insecure, the recalcitrant and serious Davidson did not participate fully in their revelries and sometimes seemed prone to obstinacy and inaction.
This personal frustration marked a deeper intellectual division. Although some of the poems in Davidson's The Outland Piper (1924) bear the mark of Ransom and Tate's modernist aesthetic, the romantic Davidson never shared in their irony or philosophical skepticism. For Ransom and Tate, the South's steadfast religious faith and strong sense of tradition made it a useful symbol of value for alienated moderns. But Davidson saw the South as no mere symbol. A deep and abiding faith that a people's own history served as the vital source of meaning and value for modern Americans became the touchstone of Davidson's career. His minor epic, The Tall Men (1927), horrified Tate and Ransom with its unabashed lyricism and openhearted identification with the crude and violent pioneer “tall men.” In The Tall Men Davidson attempted to construct a racial myth of the South and to call his fellow southerners to remain loyal to their blood through sacraments of remembrance. Much of his later poetry, including the noted “Lee in the Mountains” (1934), embodies this theme.
Davidson shared the Agrarians' general distaste for industrial capitalism and its destructive effect on American culture. Davidson's romantic outlook, however, led him to interpret Agrarianism as a straightforward politics of identity. As twentieth-century Americans became citizens of a homogenized and commercialized world, Davidson called them back to their regional identities. “American” identity had become “characterless and synthetic,” he argued in 1933, and he encouraged Americans to embrace their identities as “Rebels, Yankees, Westerners, New Englanders or what you will, bound by ties more generous than abstract institutions can express, rather than citizens of an Americanized nowhere, without family, kin, or home.” (1) The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (1938), a volume of essays in social and cultural criticism, represented the fullest statement of Davidson's regionalism.
Davidson harnessed his politics of identity more tightly to antistatism after World War II. Davidson raged against a blurred “leviathan” composed of the national government and America's metropolitan culture. He rejected federal civil rights legislation on antistatist grounds, but his defense of racial segregation in the 1950s was a logical extension of his version of Agrarianism. Davidson, who considered African Americans racially inferior, defended segregation as a social institution developed by white southerners to preserve their culture and identity. In the 1950s he headed the pro-segregation Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, the state's generally ineffective version of a White Citizens Council.
In his evocative two-volume history of the Tennessee River published in the 1940s and his lyric poems edged with prophecy, Davidson enacted the role of southern “memory-keeper” in the postwar period. He bequeathed to neo-Agrarians both an intense southernism and an anti-pluralist and anti-cosmopolitan interpretation of Agrarianism, one much more philosophically antiliberal than the original Agrarian symposium. He retired from Vanderbilt after a distinguished career of teaching in 1964 and published a volume of collected poems, but his racism and antiliberalism damaged his literary standing. In the years after his death in 1968, however, Davidson's romantic Agrarianism obtained a wider audience among southern conservatives.