September 15, 2006

HAVE WE FORGOTTEN OUR ENCOUNTER WITH THE WITCHES?:

The consequences of Richard Weaver (Roger Kimball, September 2006, New Criterion)

Weaver the man was—or became— almost as eccentric as his work. Born in North Carolina, he was the first of four children. His father, an outgoing man who owned a livery stable, died when Richard was only six and his mother was expecting her last child. The family eventually resettled in Lexington, Kentucky, where his mother managed Embry and Company, a millinery business owned by her brother. Although Weaver became a formidable debater, he was a shy, bookish boy: his sister Polly remembers him sequestered in his bedroom for hours on end with the family typewriter. He blossomed socially in college, though his intellectual vocation seems to have settled upon him only gradually. In an autobiographical essay called “Up From Liberalism” (1958), Weaver recalls that in his undergraduate years at the University of Kentucky earnest professors had him “persuaded entirely that the future was with science, liberalism, and equalitarianism.” By the time he graduated, in 1932, the Great Depression had swept the country and Weaver, like many others, had evolved into a full-fledged socialist. He served as secretary of the campus socialist party and, during Norman Thomas’s presidential campaign, rose to be secretary of the statewide socialist party.

His metanoia began at Vanderbilt where he came under the mesmerising spell of John Crowe Ransom, the “subtle doctor” to whom he dedicated The Southern Tradition at Bay. What one might call the “localness” of Ransom’s teaching—his agrarian emphasis on the importance of place, the genealogy of art and thought—began to wean Weaver from the centralizing imperatives of socialism. After taking a master’s degree in 1937, he spent a restless few years teaching, first in Alabama, then Texas. It was while driving across the Texas prairies in 1939, he recalled later, that he had a revelation: “I did not have to go back to this job … I did not have to go on professing the clichés of liberalism, which were becoming meaningless to me… . At the end of that year I chucked the uncongenial job and went off to start my education over, being now arrived at the age of thirty.”

Weaver now switched into high intellectual gear. At LSU he studied not only with Cleanth Brooks but also with such commanding figures as Robert Penn Warren and the literary historian Arlin Turner. Summers found him at Harvard, the Sorbonne, or the University of Virginia pursuing his studies. He finished his dissertation in 1943 and, recommended by Brooks, landed a job at the University of Chicago.

Weaver’s entire career unfolded at the University of Chicago. He taught there from 1944 until his early death, from heart failure, in 1963 at the age of fifty-three. Weaver was dutiful—he always insisted on keeping his hand in teaching introductory courses when most senior staff fobbed off that chore on junior colleagues—but he was never happy in Chicago. One biographer speaks of his “hermetically sealed existence” there. He had colleagues, but few if any close friends. He never married. He lived alone in a small apartment with his pipe, his books, and a nightly beer for company. In the summer, he would go south to stay with his mother in the house he had bought her. He traveled there by train—he boarded an airplane only once in his life, to lecture in California—and he always instructed his mother to have the garden plowed by horse or mule, not—abomination of desolation—by a tractor.

There was more than a little irony in Weaver’s situation. The great Henry Regnery, who published Weaver’s book The Ethics of Rhetoric in 1953, summed it up with his customary aptitude. How odd that a man who repudiated the modern world and all its works should spend virtually his entire career “at a university founded by John D. Rockefeller, where, not long before he arrived, the first chain reaction had taken place … and in the city where fifteen years before there had been a great exposition, ‘A Century of Progress,’ celebrating achievements of science and technology.” As Regnery noted, being so out of place must have been a powerful goad to Weaver’s ire, and hence to his work.

Weaver’s star rose dramatically in 1948 when Ideas Have Consequences was published by the University of Chicago Press. He instantly went from being just another disgruntled prof to being a sort of academic celebrity. He had a knack for telling people what they didn’t want to hear in such a way that they craved to hear it. “This is another book,” he began mournfully, “about the dissolution of the West.” It was Weaver’s constant theme. Ideas is a brief book, fewer than 200 pages. But it crackles with passion and extensive, if sometimes imperfectly digested, erudition. Its success, or perhaps I should say its notoriety, astonished everyone, not least its author.

Paul Tillich—then at the height of his fame—spoke for one contingent when he declared the book “brilliantly written, daring, and radical… . It will shock, and philosophical shock is the beginning of wisdom.” Others were less admiring. Writing in The Antioch Review, one critic denounced Weaver as a “pompous fraud” and his book as a retreat to “a fairyland of absolute essences.” Ideas was not a measured, carefully modulated argument; it did not elicit a measured, carefully modulated response. I suspect that some part of the book’s success lay in its title. It is not catchy, exactly, but it bluntly articulates an immovable intellectual truth: ideas do indeed have consequences. It is ironical, then, that Weaver intensely disliked the title, which was foisted upon him by his editor. In his excellent biography of Weaver, Joseph Scotchie reports that Weaver almost pulled the book from the press over the title. Weaver’s friend Russell Kirk said that The Adverse Descent was the title Weaver favored; other scholars say it was The Fearful Descent. Whatever it was, Weaver was fortunate that his editor prevailed.


As it happens, the whole Intro to Ideas is on-line

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2006 5:56 PM
Comments

Speaking of Southern Agrarian types, any word on the new film version of All the King's Men that is being released soon?

I'm hoping that it is better than the original film version, which was a disappointment to say the least.

I think you might be right oj in your judgment, in your review of ATKM, that it is the 20th century's Great American Novel.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 15, 2006 7:14 PM

Gee, more dreary Platonic fearmongering. So we've been without transcendentals since William of Ockham? It's been all downhill since 1347? You paleocons really have to decide whether the magnificent rise of Western civilization since 1500 to the present represents the truth of Christianity or if is all just a load of secularist witchcraft.

The Muslim world never heard of William of Ockham, so I guess they were spared the great downfall that befell us. Lucky them!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 16, 2006 2:37 PM

Robert:

The civilization has certainly declined since then, largely due to folks racing down rationalist dead-ends. We do have better hygiene though, even though we know less.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 2:51 PM

Rationalist dead ends like American democracy?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 17, 2006 9:39 AM

America and democracy are anti-Rationalist.

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2006 10:02 AM

Sure it is, that's why the most influential book of the Revolutionary period was the Age of Unreason by Thomas Paine.

So what year did Western civilization peak?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 17, 2006 11:23 AM

Sure we are, that's why the most influential book of the Revolutionary period was the Age of Unreason by Thomas Paine.

So what year did Western civilization peak?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 17, 2006 11:23 AM

Robert:

You're just confused there. Common Sense was important, in which he defers to Judeo-Christianity. Age of Reason was trivial in the States, though vital in France where he he nearly ended up guillotined, in what would have been too exquisite a fulfillment of his rationalism.

When he finally dragged himself back to America he found his role in the Revolution had been largely eradicated from memory because his anti-religious views were abhorred.

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2006 4:49 PM
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