Paragon of post-World-War II-era conservatism and defender of Southern traditionalism, Richard M. Weaver, scion of North Carolina, was one of the most important American thinkers of the twentieth century.
The oldest child (out of four) of Carrye Lee Embry and Richard Malcolm Weaver, Richard Malcolm Weaver, Jr. was born on March 3, 1910 in Asheville, North Carolina. When Richard was five, his father died, and at eight, he moved with his mother to Lexington, Kentucky, where he lived out his childhood and attended mainly private, grammar schools.
After graduating from Lincoln Memorial Academy in Harrogate, Tennessee, only a few miles below the Kentucky border, Weaver attended the University of Kentucky (UK) from 1927 to 1932. As an undergraduate English major, he engaged socialist ideas and even joined the American Socialist Party; but his membership, as he put it, began his “disillusionment with the Left.” After a brief time as a graduate student in the English Department at UK, Weaver transferred to Vanderbilt University and studied for a time under the direction of John Crowe Ransom, a Southern Agrarian who co-authored I’ll Take My Stand (1930); Ransom no doubt helped shape Weaver’s ideas and cultivate an interest in explaining the Southern political tradition.
While writing his dissertation, Weaver decided to teach at Texas A&M (1937-1940). At College Station, he soon grew tired teaching “the clichés of liberalism,” and working under the guidance of a new advisor (Ransom had left Vanderbilt). So, Weaver transferred to Louisiana State University. In Baton Rouge, he studied under Cleanth Brooks, a contributor to Who Owns America?: A New Declaration of Independence, originally published in 1936. Brooks later played an instrumental part in helping Weaver publish.
After earning his Ph.D, and teaching briefly at North Carolina State University, Weaver was hired mainly to teach, not to do research, at the University of Chicago (UC). The determined and self-regimented Weaver, nevertheless, taught many surveys (he earned awards for excellent teaching) and found time to publish.
In 1948, the University of Chicago Press published Ideas Have Consequences. Despite initial, disappointing sales, the book in time was the quintessential work of post-war traditional conservatism. Because of this publication, UC offered Weaver a professorial position, with more time for research and writing.
Yet publishing major works remained time-consuming and problematical. More than once, university presses rejected Weaver’s manuscripts. An undaunted Weaver revised drafts and submitted his work elsewhere. Meanwhile, Weaver wrote many smaller essays for new conservative publications, such as National Review and Modern Age. Consequently his popularity soared. In 1962, for example, Young Americans for Freedom recognized Weaver for his “dedication to the preservation of the heritage of our Nation through consistent support of the principles of freedom and individual human dignity.”
During his last years, Weaver delivered lectures across the nation. And shortly before his death, he accepted an English position at Vanderbilt. In Nashville, he would have undoubtedly enjoyed being an academic, but most importantly, simply living.
But he never returned to live in the South. On April 2, 1962, in the apogee of his academic career and at fifty-three years old, Weaver suddenly died of a heart attack. One can only imagine what influence Weaver’s subsequent works might have had.
Many of his writings were published after his death, however. As a result, his posthumous fame surpassed that of his lifetime. Of all his works, Weaver’s most influential are Ideas Have Consequences (1948), The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (1964), The Southern Tradition at Bay (1968) and the Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (1987).
In these works, it is evident that he identified with the land of his birth and that his childhood and love of the land influenced many of his later ideas. Although he lived outside of North Carolina for most of his life, Richard M. Weaver visited his family often (he even purchased a home in Weaverville), and never lost a sense of place.
Frank S. Meyer, “Richard M. Weaver: An Appreciation,” Modern Age 14 (1970); William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography 6 vol. (Chapel Hill, 1979-96); Ted J. Smith, III, ed., In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 (Indianapolis, 2000); Joseph Schotchie, ed., The Vision of Richard Weaver (New Brunswick, 1995); Fred Douglas Young, Richard M. Weaver 1910-1963: A Life of the Mind (Columbia, MO, 1995).
By Troy L. Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project
See Also:Related Categories: Modern Era, Political History, Education