The Cosmopolitan Provincial

Allen Tate's ambivalent, artificial relationship with the South

Orphan of the South

ALLEN Tate gained a reputation during the early and mid twentieth century as a literary modernist, a Southern Agrarian, and a fierce combatant in various literary and cultural wars. Called "our best American poet" (at least in part because, for a time, no other poet on this side of the Atlantic so resembled Eliot himself) and by Louis Untermeyer in the 1930s "the best critic in America today," Tate held forth for more than three decades as a formidable, and sometimes waspish, man of letters. Now, some twenty years after his death, he is remembered as one of the two or three finest poets of the twentieth-century South, a friend and mentor to numerous other writers (Hart Crane, E. E. Cumming, Malcolm Cowley, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, and Edmund Wilson, among others), and the author of one of the most-enduring novels about the antebellum South -- in sum, a powerful literary force.
Tate's period of influence began early, during his undergraduate days at Vanderbilt University, in the 1920s. Drawn into a group of poets and critics that was led in the beginning by John Crowe Ransom, who had already acquired a minor but favorable reputation as a poet, and also included Donald Davidson and Warren, Tate soon emerged as the leader of its modernist wing. In 1922 the group began a little magazine called The Fugitive, so named because its contributors wanted to flee "from the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South." An early apostle of Eliot, Tate left the South in the mid-twenties for New York, became friends with the most celebrated American modernists there, and promptly became known as a literary critic of unusual insight and power. Tiring of New York, and repenting of his earlier southern iconoclasm, by the late twenties Tate preferred to defend the South. In 1930 he joined with Ransom, Davidson, Warren, and eight other southerners in producing an impassioned argument for an agrarian society and an equally fervent criticism of an American industrial capitalism that seemed at that moment to be floundering.

Tate continued his defense of Agrarianism and his attack on both capitalism and socialism throughout the first half of the 1930s, joining with eight of the original Agrarians and a number of other conservatives to produce, in 1936, an assault on monopoly capitalism and collectivism. During these years he also struggled to write a novel based on his Virginia ancestors; which appeared in 1938, marked a departure from his earlier defense of the South -- and an end to his decade-long focus on Dixie.

This -- 1938 -- is as far as Thomas Underwood's life of Tate takes us, although for the remaining forty-one years of Tate's life he was a literary force, teaching at Princeton and the University of Minnesota, among other institutions; serving as the editor of the and as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress; and capturing at least some of the honors he craved (most prominently the Bollingen Prize for poetry, although not the Nobel, which he yearned and lobbied for but never came close to). In short, Tate's is a life worth writing about, and at first glance one might be surprised that not until now has there been an in-depth biographical treatment. (That Underwood covers only half of Tate's life would suggest that a second volume is in the works, although nowhere does the author explicitly say so.) Rather it is merely the first thorough study (even of a half life) that has been brought to completion; several other aspiring biographers have given up their efforts or suspended them in frustration, because of the demands made by their subject and his family. Indeed, few modern writers have thrown so many obstacles in the paths of their prospective biographers. All the while that Tate seemed to cooperate (placing in the Firestone Library at Princeton more than fifty boxes of papers, which contain several of the notable literary correspondences of the century), he and his heirs imposed conditions and restrictions that threatened to make the writing of a comprehensive biography impossible. One scholar, Radcliffe Squires, produced in 1971 a biography of very limited value. Another, Louis D. Rubin Jr., who understood Tate and his relationship to the South perhaps better than any other scholar, finally turned away from the task altogether. The problem is what one aspirant (whom Tate's widow threatened to sue) called the "literary soap opera" that was Tate's life, complete with feuds and frequent sexual encounters.

In any case, only Underwood, who took up Tate's trail in 1985, stayed the course, and what he has produced is a work that is not only comprehensive and well researched (too well, some will say, with its 100 pages of notes) but also insightful, well written, and balanced (though it is generally sympathetic to Tate, it is far from uncritical). Underwood has benefited from the cooperation -- to a greater degree than any of the earlier prospective biographers -- of the Tate family. He has also, one suspects, benefited from the fact that this is the half of Tate's life during which his subject -- who after forty would shift into high gear as a philanderer -- was on relatively good behavior.

THE primary focus of Underwood's study is Allen Tate's relationship with his family and, nearly as an extension of his family, the South. Although he was born in Kentucky, in 1899, as a young man Tate gave the impression that he had been born in Virginia, nativity in the Old Dominion being considered infinitely superior to that in the Bluegrass. In a region that stressed both geographic and family stability, the young Allen Tate was the beneficiary of neither. His father was anything but the kindly patriarch of the southern family romance: undependable, emotionally distant, sometimes violent (particularly toward blacks), Orley Tate was also often in financial trouble, and he fell into bankruptcy during Allen's late teens. From Tate's earliest years his parents frequently lived apart, leaving Allen to the "smothering care" of a mother who, proud of her ancestors, felt socially superior to her husband. Growing up in a series of towns and cities, largely in the Ohio Valley, a slight, sickly, and unathletic child, Tate earned grades just good enough to admit him to Vanderbilt, which his two older brothers had attended more than a decade earlier. His mother at first accompanied him.

At Vanderbilt, Tate found a sense of family for the first time, initially in a social fraternity, then with a group of undergraduate literary friends, and finally in the Fugitive group. If at times he resented Ransom (who seemed to Tate, as he later wrote, "cold, calculating, and highly competitive"), he also saw Ransom, who was eleven years older, as one of the two primary mentors of his life. But Eliot was his idol, particularly after the publication of The Waste Land, in 1922. And Eliot's "impersonal poetry" -- stripped of the romantic excess of the nineteenth century -- appealed to him for a number of reasons. One to which Underwood gives particular attention relates to Tate's messy relationship with his parents and his distrust of emotionalism. Underwood argues, "It was natural for [him] to feel comfortable with an aesthetic theory that not only allowed him to attend to style rather than express feelings, but also to hide his identity as a Southerner."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In