| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
John Crowe Ransom
John Crowe Ransom, son of a Methodist minister, was
born in Pulaski, Tennessee. Rigorous training in the classics enabled him to
enter Vanderbilt University at fifteen. He left after two years to teach;
returning, he graduated in 1909 with the highest grades in his class. After
teaching another year, he went to Christ Church College, Oxford University, as
a Rhodes scholar, successfully pursuing a degree that required extensive
reading in original Greek and Latin texts. Soon he had an offer from the
English Department at Vanderbilt, where he taught from 1914 to 1917.
During two years spent with the United States Army field artillery in England
and France, First Lieutenant Ransom published Poems About God (1919).
1920 Ransom married Robb Reavill, a well-educated young woman who shared his
interest in sports and games. In the early 1920s discussions of poetry with
colleagues and friends led to the formation of a magazine, edited by a group
including Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate. Ransom found his mature
poetic voice in the short lyric poems published regularly in the pages of The
Fugitive from April, 1922, to December, 1925. All of the selections included
in the book appeared there, except “Here Lies a Lady” (Literary Review, 1923). Ransom
and Robert Penn Warren (his former student) served as editors in 1925, after
which the magazine folded.
poetry combines traditional forms and themes (love, mutability, death) with
modernism in tone and diction. These characteristics are seen in poems with
such varied subjects as the death of a child (“Bells for John Whiteside’s
Daughter”), the inevitable loss of youth and beauty (“Blue Girls”), a medieval
religious battle (“Necrological”), rituals of harvest and hunt (“Antique
Harvesters”). Although most of Ransom’s poems can be found in Chills and Fever
(1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927), he continued to revise, to “tinker”
with them, for decades.
Agrarianism may have been inspired by the Scopes anti-evolution trial in
Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, during which reporters attacked the South for its
backwardness. Ransom drafted the “Statement of Principles” for the volume I’ll
Take My Stand by Twelve Southerners (1930); his own essay, “Reconstructed but
Unregenerate,” is a reasoned defense of the European “provincial”
tradition—agrarian, conservative, anti-industrial. A year in England with his
family on a Guggenheim fellowship (1931–32) gave him a new perspective on the
economic situation in America. Yet, by the time his essay appeared in the
second Agrarian collection, Who Owns America? (1936), he was concentrating on
change of focus (and his financial situation) led John Crowe Ransom in 1937 to
accept an offer to move to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. A number of
students followed him there, including Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, and
Robert Lowell. In 1939 Ransom published a volume of literary criticism, The
World’s Body, and began to edit the Kenyon Review. The next year he was named
Carnegie Professor of English. The New Criticism (1941) analyzed the approaches
of I. A. Richards, William Empson, T. S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, and Ransom
himself; his title labeled the method emphasizing the kind of close analysis
Ransom practiced in his classes.
Poems (1945) brought together the poems Ransom chose to preserve, with some
revisions; reviewers compared his work to that of T.S. Eliot and Wallace
Stevens. His concern with training young literary critics and teachers led to
the founding of the Kenyon School of English in 1948 (it moved in 1951 to
Indiana University). In 1951 Ransom was awarded the Bollingen Prize in Poetry
for the body of his work.
his retirement Ransom continued to work, publishing a third edition of Selected
Poems (1969) and a final volume of essays, Beating the Bushes (1971). Ransom’s
health failed gradually; he died in his sleep at home in Gambier at the age of
eighty-six. Ransom’s career illustrates a commitment to the tradition of
classical learning that underlies continuing debates over core or general
education requirements in American colleges and universities. Yet he was one of
the earliest professors to attain tenure and promotion through creative writing
and literary criticism rather than traditional research and scholarship.
Martha E. Cook|
In the Heath Anthology
Here Lies a Lady
The World's Body
The New Criticism
Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays 1941-1970
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Poems about God
The complete text of Ransom's book (including scans of frontmatter and illustrations).
John Crowe Ransom Papers
An overview with a link to a comprehensive chronology at Vanderbilt Special Collections.
Modern American Poetry
Criticism, a biography, links, and more.
Robert Buffington, The Equilibrist, 1967
Thornton H. Parsons, John Crowe Ransom, 1969
Kieran Quinlan, John Crowe Ransom's Secular Faith, 1989
Miller Williams, The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom, 1972
Thomas Daniel Young, Gentleman in a Dustcoat, 1976
Thomas Daniel Young, John Crowe Ransom: An Annotated Bibliography, 1982
Thomas Daniel Young, ed., John Crowe Ransom: Critical Essays and a Bibliography, 1968