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.