John Crowe Ransom is often called a "major minor poet," one who made a significant contribution to literature, but is not widely read. His poetry was strongly praised by his friends and critics, and Ransom's contributions to criticism and literary theory were of even greater importance, affecting many twentieth century writers. He was convincing with his opinions, and even more so when he changed them. He once destroyed a book-length manuscript he had spent a year writing because it was "hopelessly abstract."
Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee. His father, a Methodist minister, and mother raised Ransom and his three siblings in a very religious, yet open-minded household. Ransom was home-schooled until he was ten years old, at which point he entered public school and then Nashville's Bowen School, one of the preparatory schools. Ransom later wrote that Angus Bowen, the headmaster, had done "more for my ... education than any other man." He entered Vanderbilt University when he was just fifteen years old, and after two years, left he couldn't afford tuition. He then taught in Lewisburg, Tennessee. After a year drilling high school students on their Latin and Greek, he was eager to return to college. Back at Vanderbilt, he edited the Observer, the literary magazine, and was selected for the honor society Phi Beta Kappa.
Upon graduation, Ransom returned to his earlier post at Haynes-McLean School in Lewisburg, only now he was the senior master and co-principal. He quickly dropped that job, however, when he was able to go back to school at Oxford as a prestigious Rhodes Scholar. In 1914, after three years at Oxford, he began a teaching post at Vanderbilt. Finally, he stopped his seesawing; except for a short duty during World War I, he remained at Vanderbilt until 1937.
Ransom had already started to read poetry critically, and at Vanderbilt, he started discussing philosophical ideas about writing with students and friends. The group, which would later be nationally known as "The Fugitives," started out as a discussion group and gradually turned into a literary criticism circle. Ransom submitted many of his early poems to these friends for suggestions. From 1917 to 1919, Ransom served in France as part of the Fifth Field Artillery in World War I; he wrote his first book of poems, Poems about God, during the war. Though the book was published in the United States and highly praised by Ransom's friend Robert Frost, Ransom did not let any of the poems be republished in collections. He was dissatisfied with his first efforts at poetry and quickly moved on to other writing.
After marrying Robb Reavill in 1920, he returned to his work with The Fugitives. By 1930, the group was ready to go public with their theories; they were dissatisfied with the direction of Southern writing and wanted a new consideration for meter, stanza, and rhyme in poetry. Mostly, they hated what they called the "moonlight and magnolia" school of literature. That year I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition was published; a collection of essays about the social changes in the South, it contained an essay by Ransom himself. He argued that the agrarian, farming society was the only true one for the South. In it, humanity had a true sense of its place in the universe; the new Industrialism movement misrepresented reality. Unfortunately, his opinion was harshly criticized, and by 1945, in the face of continued Industrialization, he had publicly changed his mind.
Ransom was never too stubborn to revise old, or even new, ideas. His work God without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy, wavered between two opposing ideas. The first was Ransom's belief that Christianity needed to return an Old Testament God, strong and vengeful, but the second idea stated that religion was a man-made concept. In the end, Ransom recognized the failures of his own argument. Unlike other writers of the idea, however, he admitted so.
In 1927, Ransom formally committed himself to critical writing. Despite his three volumes of published poetry, he believed he had run out of themes in the eleven years he wrote poems, so he devoted himself to his new school of literary criticism. Winning support from writers all over the country, "New Criticism" was an expansion of his work with The Fugitives. He favored irony and inner complexity in poetry, within the boundaries of a strict classical style. Poems, to him, were made of two things: structure (the argument) and texture (the images). Both elements had to be perfectly balanced for the writing to work.
Full of new ideas about literature, Ransom took a teaching job at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in 1939. There he founded the now famous Kenyon Review and the Kenyon School of English. In 1941, he published a book of essays detailing New Criticism. After twenty years at Kenyon, Ransom retired, although he remained active in the literary world. Long after he had stopped writing poetry, Ransom won two awards for it: the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the National Book Award for his Selected Poems. He was later elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and given several honorary dinners. Ransom died in his sleep on the Kenyon campus, and his ashes are buried behind the school library.