Valdosta Daily Times

May 8, 2013

Langdale book seeks relationship between conservatism and the South

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA —  A former Valdosta resident has written a book that delves into both “the rise of the modern conservative movement and the demise of Southern regional distinctiveness.”

John J. “Jay” Langdale III’s University of Florida doctoral thesis became the basis for his book, “Superfluous Southerners: Cultural Conservatism and the South 1920-1990.”

“As an undergraduate at Mercer University, I acquired two long-standing areas of academic interest. One was the history of ideas and the other was that history and literature of the American South,” Langdale says. “Over the course of my graduate work in Southern studies at Ole Miss and my doctoral work in history at UF, I reconciled these interests by focusing on the intellectual history of the American South. This book is, in many regards, the end product of this endeavor.”

Langdale sees “Superfluous Southerners” as a look at the conservative philosophy’s limitations and possibilities in the U.S.

“When you look at American history, there is relatively no basis for conservatism. In Europe, conservatism is based upon having had, among other things, a feudal past and an established church,” Langdale says. “The United States prides itself on having had neither. This country was founded upon Enlightenment-inspired notions of material and moral progress.

“Traditionalist conservatism, on the other hand, upholds a respect for mystery and human limits. Now, one can say that, in terms of conservative thought in America, there is nothing to study and leave it at that. To the contrary, I am intrigued by the American writers and thinkers who, in scorn of these circumstances, have labored to elaborate a viable conservative tradition in this country.”

To illustrate this idea, Langdale uses the example of the Nashville Agrarians and their philosophical heirs.

“The Agrarians, who are best known for their 1930 symposia, ‘I’ll Take My Stand,’ sought to critique industrialization from a regional traditionalist conservative perspective,” Langdale says. “The book traces their relation to modern American literary culture and to the rise of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement. While they were never very politically influential, the Agrarians and their descendants, during the Cold War, were culturally influential in the fields of literature and literary criticism.”

He also looks to the instructive story of Mel Bradford who lost the National Endowment for the Humanities chairmanship to neo-conservative William Bennett in 1980. “This relatively forgotten event was, on one hand, emblematic of the limitations of traditionalist conservatism in America,” Langdale says, “but it was also notably amongst the first times that a then-emergent group of neo-conservatives began to assert themselves on the national stage.”

The son of John and Virginia Langdale, Jay Langdale is a 1989 Valdosta High School graduate. He teaches at Andrew College in Cuthbert, where he also chairs the social science divisions and heads the honors program. He and wife Jennifer live in Eufaula, Ala., and have a son, Alex.

As for his next book, Jay Langdale is already at work.

“I am in the early stages of writing an intellectual biography of Richard Malcolm Weaver,” he says. “He was a student of the Agrarians, was the author of the book ‘Ideas Have Consequences’ and was a pivotal figure in the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement in America.”