John Donald Wade (1892-1963)
A Macon County native who spent much of his life in Georgia , was not as prolific as some of his Agrarian colleagues, notably Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, and as a result did not attain their fame. Still, he exerted an influence over the Agrarian movement, as well as the larger sphere of American letters, that belies his relative obscurity.
A great-great-grandson of John Adam Treutlen, the first governor of Georgia, Wade was born on September 28, 1892, in Marshallville. The son of Dr. John Daniel and Ida Frederick Wade, he spent the first eighteen years of his life in this rural central Georgia town, and its conservative agrarian values were to mark his work throughout his career. After earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia in Athens in 1914 and a master's degree from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a year later, Wade went to New York City to begin work on a doctorate at Columbia University. After two years, his academic progress was deferred while he served as a second lieutenant in World War I (1917-18). He completed his doctorate in 1924.
Beginning in 1919, Wade taught at the University of Georgia while completing his dissertation, a lengthy work that would later be published as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet: A Study of the Development of Culture in the South (1924). At a time when philology had not yet relaxed its grip on academic writing, Wade's biography of Longstreet, the author of Georgia Scenes, broke new ground by blurring the lines not only between history and literary criticism but also between scholarship and literature. Vigorously researched, the book is nevertheless infused with humor and pathos, and it employs narrative devices verging on the novelistic, including imagined dialogue.
Biography soon became Wade's preferred genre, and he returned to it throughout his career. Sometimes called a modern Plutarch, he found the lives of important persons in the past to be exempla for living a good life. As a Ph.D. advisor, he pioneered the biographical dissertation and in so doing anticipated the interdisciplinary field of American studies.
In 1926 Wade left the University of Georgia. The next year he became assistant editor of the Dictionary of American Biography (for which he wrote 116 sketches) and devoted himself to researching a second book. The subject of this new biography was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, to which Wade's family had been devoted for generations. As biography, John Wesley (1930) is exemplary, though its literary style and occasional use of irony engendered confusion and even contempt in some Methodist circles.
Predictably taking the form of a biographical sketch, the essay is based on the life of Jacob Walter Frederick, Wade's maternal uncle and a man who embodied the "southern way of life" as defined by many of the book's other contributors. Frederick (fictionalized as"Cousin Lucius") is described as hard working, self-reliant, learned, and tradition bound. As he grows older and times change, Cousin Lucius sees the new generation of young people leaving for the city and recognizes that they desire and expect "without effort, things that have immemorially come as the result of effort only." Wade vividly but dispassionately dramatizes Frederick's life, avoiding the temptation to comment on its lessons until the final two sentences of the essay: "And all who wish to think that he lived insignificantly and that the sum of what he was is negligible, are welcome to think so. And may God have mercy on their souls."
I'll Take My Stand was followed by a sort of sequel, Who Owns America? (1936), which sought to combine Agrarian efforts with those of the English Distributists, who articulated a humane vision of social and economic life based upon religious social doctrine. To this volume, Wade contributed "Of the Mean and Sure Estate," a narrative essay illustrating the dangers of rural America's aping of city life. The movement lost momentum soon thereafter, and its various members drifted toward other pursuits. Although the Agrarians were alternately ignored and denounced in their time, their efforts comprise a crucial chapter in the intellectual history of the South, and I'll Take My Stand is perhaps the single most influential expression of southern exceptionalism.
In 1934 Wade returned to the University of Georgia, where he served as professor of English and chairman of the Division of Language and Literature. Eight years later he married Julia Floyd Stovall, with whom he had a daughter, Anne. He founded the Georgia Review in 1946 and edited it for four years. As stated in his introduction to the inaugural issue, Wade originally envisioned a publication that would "make its contents of special concern to Georgians" and stress the idea "that the dignity and worth of country life must be reaffirmed for the people who practice it and for people who do not practice it." It soon became apparent to him, however, that a strictly regional and agrarian focus was impossibly narrow, and, indeed, by emphasizing quality of writing rather than subject matter, the quarterly became one of the nation's most prestigious literary reviews. In 1950 Wade retired from the university and returned to the town of his birth.
In his later years Wade's attention turned to his beloved Marshallville. His final book to be published in his lifetime was The Marshallville Methodist Church from Its Beginning to 1950 (1952). As executive of the Marshallville Foundation, Wade spent twenty years beautifying the town. He died on October 9, 1963, leaving unfinished a historical novel set in Macon County. In the years since his death, Wade's admirers have kept his voice alive through three posthumous publications: Selected Essays (1966), a revised edition of the Longstreet biography (1969), and the correspondence of Wade and Davidson (2003).