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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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).

In 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.

Ransom’s 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.

Ransom’s 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 literary criticism.

This 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.

Selected 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.

After 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
Longwood College

In the Heath Anthology
Here Lies a Lady (1923)
Philomela (1924)
Piazza Piece (1925)
The Equilibrists (1925)

Other Works
The World's Body (1938)
The New Criticism (1941)
Selected Poems (1945)
Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays 1941-1970 (1971)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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