Okay, so most of us weren't exactly out there getting dirt under our own nails, but we sure did have some Romantic ideas about how people lived in the South before the Civil War. Is that a bad thing? Depends on how you feel about Romanticism, probably.
In any case, agrarianism wasn't a real back-to-the-land crusade; it was a literary movement. We liked to think about how culture thrived during an era of small farming, and we were opposed to the era of industrialism and modern urban life. Did someone say concrete? Talk about ugly.
Louis D. Rubin summed up the spirit of the movement best: "The agrarian image is of the kind of life in which leisure, grace, civility can exist in harmony with thought and action, making the individual's life a wholesome, harmonious experience.... [Ransom's] agrarianism is of the old Southern plantation, the gentle, mannered life of leisure and refinement without the need or inclination to pioneer" (source).
I'll never get over how cool this name is. The Fugitives (or Fugitive Poets) was a group of poets and critics at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s. We had our own literary rag, astonishingly called The Fugitive.
If there's one word that sums up the Fugitives, it's probably tradition.We were all about traditional verse—forget those crazy, all-over-the-place modernist poems with no rhyme scheme, meter, or clear stanzas.
We also had a lot of love for the traditions of Southern life, and we rejected the oppressions of urban industrialism. Now, don't get me wrong, we were not completely sentimental about the South; we didn't necessarily approve of its dark side (ahem: slavery), though some have accused us of racism and of supporting the idea of slavery.
Yeah, we romanticized the Old South more than a little bit. But that doesn't mean we actually approved of slavery. To us, the antebellum South was a period before the invasion of chaotic modern development, industry, technology, and all of those unearthy things that ruin the natural pace of life. Before the war, people in the South had a more spiritual relationship to the land.
Remember how the O'Hara family felt about Tara? That's what we're talking about.
With some of the original Fugitives, I wrote a book called I'll Take My Stand. I think the title says it all, but just so you know, that manifesto discussed at length how the South rocks way more than the North. Before the evils of the North flooded down and wrecked the South, life was all about leisure, manners, idealism, and conservative values.
No, aesthetic distance is not about how many feet you stand from a painting in a museum. It's about striking a balance between body and mind in the process of creating art (in my case, writing poetry). Some poetry is sappy, and some is overly sophisticated—either way, there's not enough balance.
I always believed in the importance of appealing to both the heart and the head of the reader. Achieving aesthetic distance is in your readers' best interest: you don't want them sobbing over your sonnets, but you do want them moved by what you have to say.
So, anyone who accused my Agrarian literary movement of being overly nostalgic was just talking smack. Two things I avoided above all: being preachy and being overly autobiographical. Strangely, it's not all about me…
This may go without saying, but I can't stand the idea of my readers not knowing about New Criticism, an important theoretical school, whose name I actually coined. We New Critics were all about close reading—which means paying attention to the words on the page and not to the fact that the poet who wrote them contracted syphilis and died at 27.
We don't exactly say "who cares about context?" but, really, who cares about context? Contextual information tells us precisely nothing about the poem, and it often makes us misinterpret the poem. Let's say a poet writes about something purely imaginary that he or she came up with while strolling past a creek many years ago. What happens if some smart-aleck critic comes along, figures out that the flu was going around when the poem was written, and decides that the poem was the result of a fever? That would be wrong, even if it looks like history backs it up.
Forget biography and sociology, my friends. Embrace the text and its form. Rinse and repeat.