John Donald Wade (1892-1963)

A noted biographer, essayist, and literary-review editor, John Donald Wade is best remembered for his participation in the Vanderbilt Agrarian movement of the 1930s and especially his contribution to the symposium that was to become that movement's manifesto, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930). Wade, 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.

Early Life and Career

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.

The Vanderbilt Agrarian Movement

In 1928 Wade was recruited by Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to direct its newly formed graduate program in American literature. Here he soon fell in with a group of scholars and writers who were enthusiastically engaged in writing and talking about the South and its future in an increasingly modern world. After the Dayton, Tennessee, Scopes "monkey" trial in 1925 provoked the widespread ridicule of traditional southern values, these "Twelve Southerners," as they called themselves, responded with a defiant symposium that extolled the southern agrarian life and the virtues it embodied, while decrying the rapid spread of industrialism and urbanization. It was Wade who titled the book I'll Take My Stand, and his contribution, "The Life and Death of Cousin Lucius," is often called the most entertaining and readable piece in the collection.
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.

Return to Georgia

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).
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Further Reading
Robert G. Benson, "The Excellence of John Donald Wade," Mississippi Quarterly 29 (1976): 233-39.

Donald Davidson, "Introduction: The Gardens of John Donald Wade," in Selected Essays and Other Writings of John Donald Wade, by John Donald Wade (Athens: University of Georgia Press, [1966]), 1-20.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930; reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, [1977]).

M. Thomas Inge, "The Legacy of John Donald Wade," Georgia Review 21 (1967): 287-96.

Michael O'Brien, "Wade: A Turning Inward," The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 97-113.

John Donald Wade, Agrarian Letters: The Correspondence of John Donald Wade and Donald Davidson, 1930-1939, ed. Gerald J. Smith (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2003).
Cite This Article
Morton, Clay. "John Donald Wade (1892-1963)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 04 September 2013. Web. 02 September 2014.
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Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries