John Crowe Ransom: Young Prophet to Poet

by Linda Center.

 John Crowe Ransom, future Agrarian and Fugitive poet, entered Vanderbilt University in the fall of 1903. Only fifteen, he had graduated earlier that year from Nashville’s Bowen School, 1309 Broadway, which headmaster A. G. Bowen proudly advertised in the city directory as a “high-grade preparatory school for boys.” *

Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1888 to Methodist minister John James Ransom and Sara Ella Crowe. Typical of ministers’ families, the Ransoms had lived in several Tennessee communities before moving to Nashville when the elder Ransom accepted the position of minister at North High Street (6th Ave.) Methodist Church. (In 1906 the congregation moved to its new building on Monroe Street.) Young John was educated at home, along with his three siblings, until he entered public school at the age of ten. He was enrolled at the Bowen School in 1899.

1903 Senior Class of the Bowen School. John Crowe Ransom is 4th from the left.

Ransom graduated at the top of his class of five at Bowen. His classmates were Ernest William Goodpasture, Frank S. Jones, Robert Edwin Blake, and Daniel Hillman Scales. He was literary editor of the school paper, The Bowen Blade, and a member of the debate club. His senior photograph in the 1903 yearbook, The Olio, shows a very youthful face wearing a very serious expression.

It fell to Ransom to write the class prophecy. Along with pieces written for the school newspaper, this may be one of Ransom’s first published writings. Entitled “As Seen from 1930,” he describes a dream in which he saw himself in retirement reflecting on the various careers and life-turns of his classmates.

I am not naturally a dreamer; I modestly acknowledge that I am rather a wide-awake realist than a dreamy, sleepy-headed sentimentalist. I can hardly now remember one of the dreams of my childhood. But recently I had a real dream. It was more than a dream;…it was a vision….[I]t was none of your common, everyday dreams. Nor was it the natural sequence of a hearty supper;…I ate very sparingly on the eve of my vision.

Ransom continues that when he awoke, he retained “the most minute detail of events which I had foreseen…”

…not an item escaped me. I was, from the very first, sure that this vision was not an idle imagination of a sleep-befogged brain, but was a vivid, clear, accurate insight into future events; it was truth itself.

But I refused to consign the proof of the fact that I had witnessed a vision to the mere certainty of my own opinion; I am too broad-minded for that sort of thing. I would go farther. So from its place under a huge pile of books on the top of my wardrobe I took down the well-worn Bible. Closing my eyes, I opened the book at random. The very first verse I read substantiated in full my belief. The next and the next were like it. Was it a miracle? I would refer you to the verses mentioned, but I have forgotten them.

He recounted the dream to his classmates and stated that they were “ready to show fight when I told them the events which I had foreseen. I spoke as follows, just as I had witnessed and just as if it were a recent occurrence”:

About nine o’clock one morning I was sitting on the cool veranda of my beautiful summer home, which was situated on the outskirts of a small Southern city….My surroundings were ideal.

It was the summer of 1930, and I was well advancing toward a ripe middle age. The hair upon my temples was rapidly turning gray, and I was retiring to spend the remainder of my hitherto eventful life in a rest and quietude which was still accompanied by the fame which I had gained. My term of office as a great Federal official had just been completed, and the expressions of approval with which the conscientious performance of my duties had been hailed had not quite died away. Physically I was well preserved; I was a rather tall, stout man, and was still erect and unstooped of shoulder.

He describes sitting in his easy chair reading the daily paper when a small advertisement caught his eye—“D. Hillman Scales, Phrenologist, Printer, and Photographer.” He quickly copied down the given address and “had my man hitch up an automobile, and I started away.” Finding a seat in Scales’ crowded establishment, the two old classmates caught up on the fates and whereabouts of the three other members of the class of ’03. John learned that Hillman had been in partnership with Ernest Goodpasture until recently.

Ernest—or “Doc.,” as we called him—was a fine boy. He made an M. D. of himself, as he always said he would, and then came here and went into business with me….We got along fine until at last Doc. fell in love. That ruins a young fellow; and it is worse on an old one, as Doc. was, of course, five years ago. Then Doc. had an extra bad case of it, too.

The conversation turned to Bob Blake. “Surely you have heard of Blake, the pugilist, haven’t you?” asked Hillman.

That’s Bob. You remember, he was always inclined toward athletics, and he turned out just as I knew he would. He has now for a long time been the champion heavy-weight boxer of America. But he is getting just a little old, and cannot stand the pace much longer.

In Ransom’s “dream,” Hillman continued:

Then there is Jones. I always did like Jones. As soon as Jones graduated from Bowen he went on a trip up North, and married the daughter of one of the richest brewers in the country. He met the young lady in Chicago, where they became mutually attracted to each other. Jones made an impression with the father by the common sense and arithmetic knowledge he displayed, and won over the mother by his winning personality and good looks. It was easy sailing after that….

After Hillman finished, the two classmates “sat and mused [and] reviewed…our various fortunes.” Ransom concludes:

[L]astly, here was I, comfortable, well preserved, and had been President of the United States….

I arose to go, and Hillman followed me to the door. “Do you still say you don’t want those pictures?” he demanded. Perhaps, then, you want some printing done. I give you special rates, and will charge only—”

But I was gone.

John C. Ransom

The “fortunes” of Hillman Scales, Bob Blake, and Frank Jones are unknown. Ernest W. Goodpasture did in fact become a physician and in 1930 was a member of the faculty at Vanderbilt University Medical School. Ransom’s fortune lay not in politics, but in academia. By 1930 he had been a Rhodes Scholar, joined the faculty at Vanderbilt, served at the front in WW I, and published four books of poetry.

In the early 1920s Ransom and fellow faculty members, including Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate, began meeting to discuss their poems and manuscripts. From 1922 through 1925 the group published their literary magazine, The Fugitive, to present their writings to the public. Most of Ransom’s poems written in those years first appeared in the magazine. He wrote very little poetry after publication of the magazine ceased.

In 1926, along with Davidson and Tate, Ransom began to shift from literary to social and cultural criticism. Calling their philosophy Agrarianism, they began a movement to counter the industrial and material culture that had dominated America since the Civil War. The result was the publication in 1930 of I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, a collection of essays which argued for a return to Southern traditions and an agriculture-based economy. He later moved away from the agrarian tenets, seeing them as archaic and invalid in modern times.

Ransom left Vanderbilt in 1937 to become a professor of poetry at Kenyon College in Ohio. In 1939 he founded the highly respected literary journal, The Kenyon Review, and continued as its editor until his retirement in 1959. Although retired as professor and editor, Ransom continued to be engaged in—and honored by—the nation’s literary community until his death at age 86 in 1974. His ashes are buried on the campus at Kenyon College.

Throughout his academic and personal life, Ransom applied lessons learned from his early education at home and at the Bowen School. Even though a minister’s son growing up in a very religious household, he was schooled in an atmosphere of open-mindedness. Later in life, looking back at his years at Bowen, Ransom stated that Principal Angus G. Bowen had done more for his education than any other man. These early influences are keys to Ransom’s mature intellectual honesty and agility. He was always open to new ideas and, after careful examination, ever able to discard unworkable stances and beliefs.

* The Bowen School, headed by Principal Angus Gordon Bowen, was founded in 1893 as the Wharton Academic School by Arthur Dickson Wharton, former principal of the Hume and Fogg Schools. In 1898 Wharton returned to that position and Bowen became principal at Wharton’s academy. The following year the school’s name was changed to Bowen Academic School. Professor Wharton died in 1900 at the age of sixty. The Bowen School was in existence until 1919. In the early 1920s Bowen became an insurance agent and maintained an office in the Chamber of Commerce building until his death in 1948. Both Bowen and Wharton are buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville.


John Crowe Ransom Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections
Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Government Archives
Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture

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