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Most remember it as a time of dashing young heroes on horseback, fair damsels
in distress, and majestic castles hidden from the vulgarity of daily life by the cool shade of fragrant magnolia and honeysuckle. It was a time and place so far removed from
today’s fast moving, billboard covered world that one could easily imagine that this lost
civilization existed on some far off continent, or perhaps not at all. However, the fact
remains that once upon a time the old South did exist, and there are many people still
who feel that the loss of this culture and its ideals is nothing short of a tragedy. One such individual was John Crowe Ransom, a man whose life was tempered with his intense
yearning for the tradition and stability that the old South embodied, and that has been lost forever amid the skyscrapers and factories that have replaced the cotton fields and
plantation homes of long ago. The power that the old South held for Ransom drove his
works, as can be evidenced in his poem, “Old Mansion,” which describes his ultimately
futile attempts to return to the old traditions.
The common thread unifying Ransom’s work is that of longing for the stability
and tradition that the old South embodies. As in his essays, this poem explores the
possibilities of what unlocking the secrets of this lost era might entail, and what benefits could be reaped in today’s society from such an undertaking. In this poem, Ransom fails; however, the poem remains an important step in his journey to seek out the old traditions and integrate them into a modern framework. To begin this journey, Ransom introduces the “old mansion” as a concrete concept to represent the traditional values and lifestyles sought. Every bit of the structure, from its ivied columns, crumbling graveyard, and ultimately, its inhabitants themselves, serve as parables for Ransom’s search.
The language in the opening stanzas clearly demonstrates the reverence and
personal affinity Ransom feels for the plantation home, i.e. the old South. Yet despite
the fact that he wants nothing more than to return to this way of life, he still refers to himself as an “intruder” (ln 1) into this world that he cherishes so highly. Clearly,
despite Ransom’s desire for a return to these simpler times, he maintains a feeling of
respect for the past itself, and is not attempting to relive it. He is an intruder in this past, yet he wants desperately to understand its meaning, rather than just appreciate its beauty.
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As he moves forward in his quest, he circumvents his ultimate goal, getting into
the house itself, in lieu of visiting the old tombstones, located nearby (ln 17-20). This, too shows Ransom’s reverence for the subject he is preparing to tackle, for before he allows himself to examine the subject itself, he first feels compelled to pay homage to the dead. In this case, the dead are not nameless ancestors or strangers, but are instead the bits and pieces of lives and histories that have been abandoned by recent generations. The tragedy in the tombstones he visits is not what they represent, but rather that these traditions do not necessarily have to be dead--they can, and should, rise again. This belief is what ties Ransom more than any other to the other Fugitives, as they all believe that in order to once again be great, the South must return to its agrarian roots, rather than attempt to “northernize” through industrialization. Because of this conviction, the tombstones take on an almost spiritual quality, since, while they do represent death, they also stand for the potential of rebirth, and hope for a new era of Southern greatness.
These thoughts in tow, Ransom again returns to his original destination, and
brings his attention back to the house itself. Here, he offers a description of the home’s structure, and with that description, explains more precisely what aspects of the old South he is so fervently seeking. He begins, “Stability was the character of its rectangle” (ln 21), as a means of illustrating the most important value he believes modern society has lost. The stability of the architecture Ransom is observing matches that of the stability of the old social order that existed in the old Southern tradition. He goes further to explain that only parts of the house can be seen from his vantage point, but those points that are still hidden from view can be imagined due to the consistency of the structure as a whole. Such a description also holds true for antebellum Southern society, in which all people, from the slaves to the plantation owners, had a specific and ascribed role in society. Because of the manner in which this society was organized, each person knew exactly what expectations and responsibilities were required of them, and regardless of the station they occupied, could find a certain comfort in the definite knowledge of their place in life. Ransom is suspicious of the irregularity of modern life, and craves the stability that a rigid social order can give.
Despite the stability of the house itself, Ransom notes that “Decay was the tone of old brick and shingle” (ln 23), indicating that while still structurally sound, the house is in danger of becoming completely run down, unless something can be done immediately to revive it. Likewise, the traditions and stability Ransom wishes to preserve are slowly creeping into obscurity, and may well be lost forever. He goes on in the next stanza, after again paying homage to the rich Southern heritage, to explain that “one had best hurry to enter if one can” (ln 28). These lessons and values of the past must be taught to the younger generations soon, or be lost. Someone must step up and become a custodian of this history, and take on the responsibility of its resuscitation, so that the new era can begin.
Ransom himself wants to be that guardian, and after mustering up all of his
courage, he steps up to take this heavy duty. He walks boldly to the front door of this
plantation home and knocks, desiring to be allowed entrance into the most secreted
troves of old knowledge. As before, he explains that he wants only a “dole of a look”
(ln 31), and does not wish to intrude upon this quiet history. His intent is not to meddle or cause problems; Ransom simply wants to be a student of tradition, and be allowed access, if only for a moment, to the grandeur and opulence that the old Southern lifestyle personifies.
However, much to Ransom’s great disappointment, he is not met with open arms
and enthusiastic welcomes. Instead, he finds himself defeated and unfulfilled. When the
door is finally opened, he is met with another relic of the old South, a black house
servant, who informs him that he may not come inside. The servant goes on to explain
that “The old mistress was ill” (ln 37), and asked that Ransom, this stranger, leave her
grounds at once. The mistress’s illness, like the decrepit condition of the house itself,
illustrates the dire plight of the old South. She, too, has fallen into disrepair, and sits in her plantation home alone, save only for the companionship of a black servant. Her lifestyle is almost extinct, and so the mistress if forced to hide away from modern chaos in her little island of a long forgotten culture. She chooses not to share her secrets and instead keeps them close, for reasons unknown and inexplicable to Ransom.
Left with no other option, Ransom is forced to begin his long trek away from the
plantation house. However, he remains haunted by the house itself, this last great relic of the old South and all her heritage. As he leaves, he imagines that he can actually see the house crumbling before his eyes (ln 41), its mutilated pieces scattering in disarray, and forgotten by the world. This, too, will be the fate of the heritage he wants to protect, if something is not done immediately, a conviction that Ransom makes urgently clear. Yet, he was denied the opportunity to take on this stewardship, and preserve this history, so he is disheartened upon leaving, for he fears that all will be lost, and the South itself will fall permanently into a position of near obscurity, known to all as a mere shadow rather than as a force in its own right.
As he continues on his way, though, Ransom is once again fueled by his
determination to seek the wisdom of his forebearers, and rekindle the spirit and greatness of the old South. He admits this experience has left him unnerved, and walks on “with courage shaken” (ln 47), but nevertheless intact. He reluctantly leaves this old world that he so desperately wants to remain in, and goes back to the one of today, still hoping to uncover the wisdom of the traditions he treasures so dear.
As stated before, “Old Mansion” serves merely as a starting point for what would
blossom into an incredibly varied journey into the past, as Ransom and other continued to
fight the machinations of the modern world in favor of returning to the one that exists
today as a distant memory. He and his contemporaries devoted a great deal of effort to
this battle against seemingly inevitable ebb of homogenized industrialization into their
beloved South, as they heralded a return to nature and to the land as the only way for the South to return to its former splendor. More important to Ransom than the crops that the agrarian lifestyle ultimately produced, was the unique simplicity that this way of life embodied, since he feared the control all things generic and impersonal seemed to be taking all around him. Today, Ransom and the other Fugitives appear to have lost this battle: the South has continued in its march toward complete commercialization, and the simplicity and stability the sought exists today only in tiny pockets that have been isolated in one way or another from the ever expanding core of technology. And unless some unexpected turnaround in current trends happens in the future, the ideals they were trying to promote will be as much a memory as the dream of the old South itself.