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Allen Tate's ambivalent, artificial relationship with the South
by Fred Hobson
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Allen Tate (1899-1979)
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 I'll Take My Stand, 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, Who Owns America?, an assault on monopoly capitalism and collectivism. During these years he also struggled to write a novel based on his Virginia ancestors; The Fathers, 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 Sewanee Review 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."
If he wanted to conceal that identity in the early 1920s, Tate announced it loud and clear after the mid-1920s. Among the immediate reasons for the change was his response in 1925 to the Scopes evolution trial, in Dayton, Tennessee, and the attention it received in the outside world -- "the large-scale mockery," as Davidson later wrote, directed at Tennessee and the South. Another was, as Underwood writes, "the difficulty of his life in the North" in 1925 and 1926. But at a deeper level Tate was looking for "a system of thought more emotionally satisfying than Modernism." Having left the southern community (in which his membership had been marginal to begin with), he attempted -- as Louis Rubin has remarked -- to will himself back into it. This was a difficult task, since community, ideally, functions at an unconscious level; the very awareness of it risks turning it into an abstraction and rendering it inoperable. Returning, in any case, is what Tate attempted. In one sense Southern Agrarianism provided him with the next in that series of families he sought; in another it became for him what, two decades later, Roman Catholicism would become -- a spiritual haven, a stay against disorder.
Out of Tate's new search for meaning in the southern past came perhaps his best-known poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," in which the persona, a modern man afflicted with what Tate once called "the locked-in ego," stands at the gates of a Confederate cemetery and attempts, unsuccessfully, to connect with the Civil War dead -- who, he prefers to believe, had been able to escape the prison of self. Out of the new impulse also came his essay in I'll Take My Stand, "Remarks on the Southern Religion," a reflection on the antebellum South ("a feudal society without a feudal religion"). Out of that new spirit came two biographies as well, of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, and also a failed try at a biography of Robert E. Lee. In all these ventures one can see that the champion of an impersonal poetry is himself the most personal of writers. In exploring the lives of Davis and, especially, Jackson and Lee -- the patriarchs of the Confederacy -- he was again searching for a spiritual father, although what he ultimately found in Lee ("the egoism of self-righteousness," a "Sunday school morality") provided a model nearly as unsatisfactory (although for vastly different reasons) as the original. And the personal for Tate became intensely political as well. "My hatred of the Yankees," he once wrote Mark Van Doren, "... is only personal in the most extreme sense -- that is, I hate the force that destroyed the background of my family and ultimately set me adrift in the world." It would be years before he could admit that the collapse of family came not from without but from within.
Tate was in the early 1930s the most provincial of men and also among the most cosmopolitan. For a time he lived as a kind of country squire on an old Tennessee farm; the textbook Agrarian saw little irony in the fact that the farm had been bought with and was supported by the spoils of industrial capitalism, supplied by his wealthy brother, Ben. But Tate did not remain on the land for long; most of the time he relived, in his rootlessness, the lives of his parents -- although rather than Louisville and Cincinnati and Ashland, Kentucky, he wandered to London and Paris, the South of France and Greenwich Village. Abroad with his wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, on a Guggenheim in 1928 and 1929 (and again in 1932-1933, on Gordon's Guggenheim), he met Eliot (he was "somewhat put off by [Eliot's] affected British accent"), met and disliked Robert Frost, initially was fond of Hemingway but soon came to feel uncomfortable in his presence, and found he had little use for Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the remnants of the Lost Generation. Even abroad he pondered the American South, the virtues of a traditional society, and the larger matter of spiritual faith as a corrective to humanism, science, and positivism. In his Reactionary Essays (1936) he continued his attack on American writers and critics of the left, and in certain essays he associated himself with the New Criticism -- which, with its focus on the formal aspects of art, presumed to be apolitical, although in fact its disregard of historical, social, and political context was itself a political position. In the mid-1930s Tate's reputation and that of the other Agrarians was damaged by their alliance with Seward Collins, the publisher of the American Review, whose public statements in apparent support of Hitler and Mussolini exposed him as a fascist. Even Tate's co-editorship of Who Owns America?, promoted as an attempt to move away from "both Fascism and Communism" toward "a modern realization of the Jeffersonian democracy," did little to rehabilitate that reputation, at least for the present.
In fact by 1936 and 1937 Tate was moving away from Agrarianism, as were Ransom and Warren (though not Donald Davidson). In The Fathers, Tate pitted the values of the older South, embodied in the Buchans (read the Bogans, his Virginia ancestors), against those of a restless modern man, George Posey (based, to some extent, on Tate's capitalist brother, Ben). In the working-out of his novel Tate concluded that, after all, the Old South fell not so much because of the machinations of an evil predator North as because of internal weaknesses. In any case, his primary interest now lay not with the South but with the larger question of Western civilization -- and in the years that followed (beyond the period Underwood treats here), his focus would shift again, to his own spiritual condition. In 1950 he completed the conversion to Roman Catholicism that had begun more than twenty years earlier, when he had written Donald Davidson, "I am more and more heading towards Catholicism." At his death, in 1979, he believed himself securely in the arms of the Church -- though not without having undergone substantial backsliding.
Tate may finally have gotten right with God, but his larger problem (and such is my conclusion, not Underwood's) seems always to have been with humanity. His insensitivity toward women, particularly (though hardly limited to) Caroline Gordon, is well documented. Further, in his personal life he was, as Underwood demonstrates, a man so preoccupied with his search for father and family that he was a failure as a father, at least in his daughter's early years, when he and Gordon frequently deposited the child with relatives while they themselves traveled and lived elsewhere. What's more, despite his intellectual growth, Tate could not altogether escape the racial attitudes he had inherited from his father. His problem was the problem that the Agrarians exhibited, in a more general sense, in I'll Take My Stand. Although that volume was in many ways prophetic, in its indictment of industrial capitalism and what it does to human life, in its critique of American consumerism and general standardization, in its Thoreauvian question "Progress toward what?," it was also a defense of the southern racial status quo, stated in vigorous terms in a couple of the essays.
Several of the Agrarians, Warren most prominently, later came all the way up from racism. Others, notably Davidson, remained where they were -- or became even more firmly entrenched. Tate was somewhere in between. Although by the 1960s he had modified his position, at least for public consumption, his earlier behavior is hard to explain away -- his refusal, for example, to socialize with certain African-American poets, and particularly his vigorous protest in 1932 of a party proposed in Nashville for James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. His earlier statements have the ring of a racism virulent even by the standards of the southern intellectual community of the time. "The negro race is an inferior race," he wrote in a private letter in 1933, in an attempt to explain the position of the Agrarians as he saw it: "Our purpose is to keep the negro blood from passing into the white race." "I belong to the white race," he wrote at about the same time, "therefore I intend to support white rule." An increase in the number of lynchings in the 1930s he blamed on factors such as "Communist agitation, which deludes the Negro into believing that he can better his condition by crime" and "outside interference in the trials of accused Negroes." Although, to repeat, he later modified his position -- in any case, his rhetoric. As late as 1967 he wrote in a private letter, "I am not moved by the Negro's demand for social justice and equality (worthy as those causes may be); I am interested in order and civilization, which in a crisis take precedence over all other aims."
"Order and civilization": those were Tate's primary concerns, as they were Eliot's. Order to Tate meant not only social control but also, historically considered, the old order, and although he came to see certain shortcomings (in The Fathers) in the southern manifestation of that order, he defended it both in the South and, beyond, in Western civilization. In his essay in I'll Take My Stand, Tate asked how the southerner -- and, he would have added, any inhabitant of a post-religious world -- might "take hold of his Tradition." His answer was "by violence." Tate was hardly issuing a second call to arms, as some of his readers suggested. He meant, rather, a rhetorical violence, an act of the will and, then, of the mind. That -- to force his way back into what he had left behind -- was Tate's larger purpose, in his poetry and essays, in nearly everything he wrote.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; The Cosmopolitan Provincial - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 118-121.