London: Arktos, 2012
At the end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre concludes that modern civilization is bankrupt, and modern intellectual and political traditions are incapable of understanding and rectifying this decadence. He does not, however, counsel generalized pessismism, for once modernity expires of its own corruptions a new age will begin. Thus he recommends we follow the example of Late Antiquity, when
men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained, so that morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. . . . What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. . . . We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.
I first read these words as a college undergraduate, and they made a deep impression on me. One sunny afternoon, I bought a copy of After Virtue at a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon, then embarked on a long train journey, during which I read it cover-to-cover. Much of MacIntyre’s argument struck me then and now as relativistic and sophistical. But MacIntyre’s final words resonated with my longstanding and steadily deepening conviction that Western civilization was heading toward a collapse. At that moment, I thought of creating a kind of monastery/college/communue in a remote location, in which Western civilization could be preserved not just in dead letters but in living minds, passed on from teacher to student until a new culture could emerge around them.
This idea has stayed with me, in one form or another, ever since, and it received its most adequate formulation when I discovered the Traditionalism of René Guénon and Julius Evola. In The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon actually proposes the creation of a secret initiatic society to preserve the cultural treasures of the West through the crash of the current Dark Age and into the beginning of the next civilizational cycle.
One reason I found Tito Perdue’s novel Morning Crafts so appealing is that it is set against the backdrop such an intellectual ark, created to shelter the treasures of the West through the storms and deluge to come.
Tito Perdue was born in 1938 in Chile to American parents with deep Southern roots. His family moved back to the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War, settling in Alabama. He took degrees in English literature, European history, and library science. He worked in the Midwest and Northeast as a bookkeeper, a library administrator, and an insurance underwriter. In 1982, he took an early retirement and returned to the South to write full-time, which he has done ever since. He has authored more than a dozen novels, seven of which have been published, Morning Crafts being the most recent.
Perdue’s first novel, Lee, was published in 1991, to widely positive reviews. His next two novels, The New Austerities and Opportunities in Alabama Agriculture, appeared in 1994. The strong elitism and misanthropy of Perdue’s novels, however, made his work increasingly hard to place in politically-correct mainstream publishing circles. Thus his next novel, The Sweet-Scented Manuscript appeared only in 2004, followed by Fields of Asphodel in 2007.
Since then, Perdue’s books have appeared from New Right publishers: The Node came out in 2011 from Nine-Banded Books; Morning Crafts came out in 2012 from Arktos; and Washington Summit Publishers will publish his next novel, Reuben, sometime in 2013.
Tito Perdue is America’s finest living novelist. His genre is Southern Gothic, and his style is magical realist. His main themes are the nature of the good life and the decline of Western civilization. With the exception of The Node, all of his published novels (and most of the unpublished ones) relate episodes in the life of Leland Pefley, beginning two generations back with his grandfather and extending into the afterlife.
Lee Pefley is something of an alter-ego of Perdue himself: like Perdue, he is born circa 1938; like Perdue, he marries a woman named Judy; like Perdue, he seems to be a lover of nature, of Western civilization, and of a simple but materially comfortable form of life; like Perdue, he becomes an increasingly angry and alienated as the civilization he loves falls apart around him, being replaced by urban sprawl, junk culture, and tasteless, degraded material opulence.
Morning Crafts is the best place to begin the saga of Lee Pefley. Young Lee is introduced at the end of Opportunities in Alabama Agriculture, but the book is primarily the story of his grandfather. Morning Crafts is the first installment of Lee’s story published so far, although there is an unpublished prequel about Lee, aged 11, called The Smut Book.
The novel is set at the beginning of the 1950s. Young Lee Pefley, aged 13, is fishing near his father’s Tennessee farm when a well-dressed stranger from the city beguiles him into his car and abducts him. The kidnapper drops Lee off in a remote location in rural Alabama, with a number of other abducted boys. The boys, of course, fear that they are to be molested or killed.
But their captors — Goldman, Arnsdorf, Spivey, and others — have something far more outlandish in mind: an experiment in education. Using shady sources of funding, they have assembled a group of kidnapped boys and a vast library of stolen books on a remote farm to preserve the Western cultural tradition by passing it on to a new generation. Lee quickly determines that he can leave any time, but he decides to stay, because he discovers that he enjoys the life of the mind. His teachers, especially their leader, Goldman, not only impart languages, history, art, and science. They also teach a radically elitist and hierarchical critique of modernity. The core of the curriculum seems classical and pagan. But as far as their neighbors know, they are running a Bible Academy. This kind of dissembling, however, is also part of the curriculum. The educated man must always seek to blend in with the demos, lest they persecute him.
It all sounds vaguely Traditionalist. But it has its sinister aspects. Aside from the fact that the students were kidnapped, the books were stolen, and the whole operation was carried on under piously fraudulent pretenses, students are divided into Alphas, Betas, and Gammas, and Gammas basically are treated as slave labor for the farm. One boy actually dies from overwork. They are kept drugged. Others are simply sent away, which takes on increasingly sinister connotations. At the end, it is strongly implied that they are to be killed. But this does not seem to bother Lee and the other Alpha boys, who are entirely absorbed not just with learning but with competing with one another, their insecurities and jealousies masterfully manipulated by their teachers. I think that Perdue includes these unsettling elements to communicate that the aims of the teachers are so important that all more mundane moral considerations fall by the wayside. To save our civilization, we may indeed have to resort to extreme measures.
To my ears, the name Goldman has sinister connotations as well. I do not know why Perdue chose it, but it brings to mind three Jews who were associated with liberal education in the 20th century: Mortimer Adler, Leo Strauss, and Jacob Klein. Klein was for many years the dean of St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he presided over a “Great Books” program that joins together the best possible curriculum and the worst possible pedagogy: Mortimer Adler married, as it were, to Maria Montessori. Klein was a schoolmate and life-long friend of Leo Strauss. Strauss taught at St. John’s at the end of his career, and many of his students found work there. Thus St. John’s (both in Annapolis and Santa Fe) has a cultish atmosphere that is generically Jewish, with a dominant Straussian, neoconservative strand. The nameless rustic Alabama Academy comes off as a pocket parody of St. John’s. When the locals and the police begin to get suspicious, Goldman and company simply torch the place and decamp to Mexico.
Morning Crafts is a classic Bildungsroman, a story of the awakening of the mind. One of the most effective scenes in the book is when Lee, having grown haughty with his knowledge, visits a remote Alabama cabin, much like the place in which he grew up. It is inhabited by a young man and his mother or grandmother. They offer him their hospitality, and Lee enjoys their simple food. He appreciates the beauty of their hand-made quilts and birdhouses, their ability to combine natural simplicity and material comfort. But the man has no way to appreciate Lee. His world consists of smoke, drink, food, hunting, and whores. As he drinks himself into a stupor, he keeps insisting that Lee has been “ruint” by his education. But this is simply not true: the educated man, especially a man of refined taste, can appreciate the simple life and even live it. Lee feels great tenderness for these collard-eaters, because he is one of them — or was. Back at the Academy, they also live off the land. They live simply, but they live well. Men of the mind can appreciate unintellectual things, even if they are beneath them. But unintellectual men cannot return the favor: they are blind to the things above them and incapable of loving them. This is why the wise must rule. But only if the wise who have a cultural and organic connection to the rest of the society, which brings us back to the Goldman problem.
My general preference is for tightly plotted novels. Perdue’s work, however, is more episodic and chronicle-like, which makes sense, since he is telling the story of a life spread over a number of books. Morning Crafts is a succession of short chapters, vignettes separated from one another by indeterminate spans of time, leaving it to the reader to put it all together. But it nevertheless works because of Perdue’s fascinatingly drawn characters and entrancingly beautiful writing. I have not taken such sheer delight in language since the last time I read Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude — and that is saying a lot, since it is my favorite novel of all time. I would have stopped every ten minutes and read something aloud, if I had someone to read it to.
Jonathan Bowden once said that the overwhelming decadence of our culture does not mean that the creativity of our race has disappeared. It has simply been marginalized and disprivileged. Thus there must be great white novelists, painters, poets, composers, and other creators out there. We simply have to find them, publish them, and promote them. We have to create new cultural spaces where the greatness of our people can flourish. Tito Perdue is proof of this. Chased from the mainstream, he continued to labor in solitude until the New Right finally caught up with him. He has now found a community of writers, publishers, and readers who love his work and wish to share it with the world. You, dear reader, need to join them. I cannot recommend Morning Crafts and his other novels highly enough.
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