The case of Allen Tate

Religious atheist: The case of Allen Tate

Bawer, Bruce

SOMEWHERE AMID THE VOLUMINOUS BACK MATTER of his new biography Allen Tate: Orphan of the South,1 Thomas A. Underwood informs us that he has “completed all of the research for a full life of Tate,” but that owing to restrictions placed on certain materials by surviving friends of Tate and by various literary estates, he has covered only the first thirty-nine years of Tate’s life-a period when the celebrated poet and critic (who was born in 1899 and died in 1979) was largely preoccupied by an attempt “to reconcile his art and his ancestry.” In his introduction, Underwood explains that this endeavor at reconciliation is his biography’s overriding theme: “It was during the first half of his life … that [Tate] gained both an identity and a family by answering the question that had vexed him since his childhood: How could he be a genuine son of the South when he felt like an orphan?”

There can be no question but that Southern identity was of major significance to Tate during his first four decades. Though he was born in a border state (Kentucky), grew up largely in two Northern states (Indiana and Ohio), and would spend the bulk of his career teaching at Northern colleges and universities (Princeton, NYU, Kenyon, Chicago, Minnesota), his Southern heritage mattered so much to him that he repeatedly claimed to have been born not in Kentucky but in Virginia, where his mother’s forebears had lived. His widely anthologized “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” his role in the founding of the Agrarian movement, and his biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis underscore the depth of his regional consciousness. Yet the plain fact is that while his contributions to modern poetry and to the New Critical canon continue to be of interest today, Tate’s anguished, conflicted fixation on his own Southernness can, to say the least, seem remote from contemporary concerns.

It is not surprising, then, that Underwood’s decision to focus on this narrow theme has resulted in a biography that, while well researched and workmanlike, lacks a certain urgency. Underwood-who is at pains to let us know how diligent a scholar he has been, haunting the Princeton archives summer after summer-serves up plenty of information about Tate’s odd-couple parents (his father was a footloose, freethinking gambler-businessman, his mother a pious Southern lady with literary pretensions), about Tate’s early career (Vanderbilt University, followed by a string of unpromising jobs at a Ford plant, a coal firm, etc.), and about his youthful “personality, traits, habits” (an index heading under which one finds such subheadings as “antiSemitism of,” “drinking of,” “racism of,” and “homophobia”). Most of the material amassed here, however, fails to rise off the page. Nor does Underwood’s academic, often clumsy prose help: in the space of five pages, we read that “T. S. Eliot’s newest long poem, The Waste Land, overtook the November 1922 issue of the Diaf (“overtook”?); that a college friend of Tate “was not only short, but irreverent” (huh?); and that Tate’s dormitory room at Vanderbilt “was only about forty feet square” (surely he means forty square feet).

To be sure, the book has its moments. It is not uninteresting to read about Tate’s first encounters with his mentor John Crowe Ransom and with his lifelong friend Robert Penn Warren (who first appears here as a “tall and gawky” sixteen-year-old who asks Tate, “Have you written a poem?”). Though Tate’s wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, never quite comes into focus, Underwood’s account of their marriage has its moments of engaging weirdness: both spouses, he writes, became “so fascinated by genealogy and with the decline of Southern aristocracy that they had taken to denigrating the social backgrounds of each other’s families.” And while the composition of Tate’s most famous poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” is recounted in lackluster fashion, Underwood captures something of the ambiguity of Tate’s long-distance dance with T. S. Eliot, whom he at once worshipped, resented, slavishly imitated, and was hopelessly baffled by, and who served as a model for his development into a combination of literary revolutionary and social conservative. Then there are Tate’s ethical contradictions. He would become a virtual poster boy for Southern honor and Christian morality-and yet he routinely lied (as noted) about where he had been born, committed plagiarism (he bragged to a friend that he had included in his Davis book “at least twenty-five pages . directly lifted, without inverted commas,” from an earlier biography), and was (mainly post-1939) a compulsive philanderer.

The biography’s most absorbing section begins when Tate, in 1929, comes up with the idea for “a society, or an academy, of Southern positive reactionaries” that would be modeled on-of all things-the French fascist group the Action Francaise and that would labor to turn “the Old South . . . into a convenient symbol of the good life for everybody.” Speaking up for what he called “a sectionalism of the mind” and envisioning “a complete social, philosophical, literary, economic, and religious system,” Tate proposed “the drawing up of a philosophical constitution … as the groundwork of the movement.” Thus was born the so-called Agrarian movement-and the manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, about which Paul V. Murphy, an assistant professor of history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, has now written an engaging study entitled The Rebuke of History.2

Before we proceed to Murphy’s book, however, it may be useful to look at I’ll Take My Stand itself-and at the moment in history when it appeared. The year was 1930. In Russia, millions of peasants were dying as a result of Stalin’s brutal collectivization program; the Empire of Japan was on the verge of launching a bloody and barbarous invasion of Manchuria; Hitler, his power growing daily, was a scant three years away from gaining control of Germany. Nearly everywhere on the planet, totalitarian ideology-whether in the form of Nazism, fascism, or Communism-seemed to be on the rise; many believed that democracy was doomed to extinction. The United States, which had just been rocked by the stock-market crash and was sinking fast into the Great Depression, seemed powerless to stop the march of tyranny. Fortunately, in the forthcoming world conflict, America would enjoy three crucial advantages: an excellent military, a strong industrial base, and a populace that believed in liberty fervently enough to make extraordinary sacrifices on its behalf. In the first of these three attributes, one region-the South, with its long and distinguished martial tradition-excelled; in the other two, it fell perilously short. Its economy was agrarian; its society was founded on a staggeringly undemocratic, and seemingly intractable, system of racial inequality and segregation. Yet it was these latter two elements of Southern life and culture-the very elements that most critically enervated a nation that would soon be called upon to serve as the stronghold of world freedom-that the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand most passionately defended.

At a time, in short, when America’s intellectual elite should have been lifting high the torch of democracy, Tate and company were serving up proposals for social change derived from the pre-Civil War slaveholding states and the French fascist movement. For Tate, to be sure, both the Old South and the Action Francaise paled alongside medieval feudalism, which in his view (no joke) came closer than any in history to answering humanity’s deepest needs. As he saw it, the social structures of the Middle Ages, while admittedly imposing certain limitations, provided a greater sense of meaning and security than did free modern societies, which in his view suffered from a calamitous lack of certainty, purpose, and unifying symbols. Twentieth-century capitalism and Communism just didn’t cut it, and the antebellum South, while pointing in the right direction, hadn’t quite put the whole thing together properly. Tate admired the neoclassicism of the Neo– Humanists but recoiled from their rejection of religious belief. Not that he was a believer himself: “I am an atheist,” Underwood quotes him as saying, “but a religious one-which means that there is no organization for my religion.”

It is astonishing that such an astute man-who so obviously derived so much of his own life’s joy and meaning from the liberty to think, write, learn, and dissent-can ever have sincerely imagined for a moment that he would have been satisfied living in the Dark Ages. But then escapist fancy was the very stuff of I’ll Take My Stand. “The authors contributing to this book,” began its introduction, “are Southerners, well acquainted with one another and of similar tastes . . . all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial.” The contributors-all of them white men, and many of them (including Tate and Ransom) members of the Vanderbilt-based “Fugitive” school of poets-further admitted that they weren’t in the business of “proposing any practical measures.” That’s for sure: instead of looking forward realistically, the “Twelve Southerners” (as they styled themselves) returned repeatedly to fantasy versions of the South’s past-versions in which blacks (and sometimes poor whites as well) were more or less invisible, and in which affluent white plantation folk led a civilized, graceful existence pretty much identical to that depicted in the Twelve Oaks barbecue sequence in Gone With the Wind. Similarly, when they contemplated the South of their own time, most of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand romanticized beyond recognition a region that was in fact scandalously overrun with poverty, disease, and illiteracy, and warned of the dire threat of industrialization, with its supposedly dehumanizing effects, even as they wrote about their darker– skinned neighbors as if they were some subhuman species on the level of dogs or horses.

Indeed, when they used the word “Southerners,” the Twelve Southerners almost invariably meant either whites or upper-class white males. (Of the twelve, only Robert Penn Warren made it clear that he actually thought of blacks as Southerners.) When they did acknowledge the existence of “negroes,” it was not to recognize their labor or to lament their centuries of mistreatment, but to view them as a problem (or, as contributor Donald Davidson would later put it, an “irregularity that had somehow to be lived with”). In his essay on education, for example, John Gould Fletcher argued that it was “a waste of money and effort” to try to educate blacks, since schools exist to create “gentlemen”; Northern-style public education, he complained, “puts that which is superior-learning, intelligence, scholarship-at the disposal of the inferior.” For his part, Frank Lawrence Owsley griped that after the Civil War the South “was turned over to the three millions of former slaves, some of whom could still remember the taste of human flesh and the bulk of them hardly three generations removed from cannibalism.” (Owsley was not the only author in I’ll Take My Stand who seemed to be convinced that free cannibals make for a society in drastic peril, while enslaved cannibals make for a bucolic paradise.) Even Warren, who in his essay affirmed that “it will be a happy day for the South when no court discriminates in its dealings between the negro and the white man,” dismissed the idea of integration as “radical” and “eccentric.” (To his credit, Warren-unlike some other contributors to I’ll Take My Stand-later repudiated his early prejudices.)

And what of Tate? Amidst all the racist ranting, Tate’s essay, “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” stands somewhat apart. Rather than celebrating the antebellum South (or an imaginary version thereof), Tate chose to analyze what he saw as a real-life Southern failure-the region’s inability, in his view, to shape a religion appropriate to its culture. The South’s problem, in the view of Tate (who would convert to Roman Catholicism in the mid-1950s), was that it “had a religious life, but it was not enough organized with a right mythology.” Like Eliot, he posits a dissociation of sensibility: in the Old South, he claims, there was insufficient connection between mind and spirit. How to remedy this? The Southerner, he insisted, must “take hold of his Tradition . . . by violence.” It is an audacious and idiosyncratic argument; but Tate’s ability to achieve some degree of critical distance on the regional piety that possessed him and his colleagues alike is impressive and sets him refreshingly apart from the rest of the crowd.

For all the apparent ambition of I’ll Take My Stand, most of its contributors, to judge by their own actions, seem not to have taken their own rhetoric very seriously. Of the Twelve, only Andrew Lytle actually lived and worked on a farm; as for Tate, as David Laskin noted in his recent book Partisans, he “barely knew a hoe from a hatchet.” Several of the Agrarians fled the South within a few years of the book’s publication– among them Ransom, the group’s elder statesman, who in 1937 left Vanderbilt for a position at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he would found the Kenyon Review and help launch the New Criticism. Ransom himself would later dismiss the whole Agrarian movement as an exercise in nostalgia, while Tate-“a fierce polemicist who did not believe ultimately in the efficacy of political protest” (Underwood)-would admit that for most of the contributors the movement had really been about religious, not socioeconomic, questions. In the end, it’s hard to refute Henry Hazlitt’s contemporaneous description of the Twelve Southerners as “typewriter Agrarians.” As even a sympathetic Southern critic, Louis D. Rubin, would observe in 1978, “There was and is no ‘practical’ alternative to indoor plumbing and rural electrification; nor, I am convinced, were most of the Agrarians really interested in discovering one if it existed.”

Murphy’s book disconcerts one at first with its seemingly benign spin on the Twelve Southerners. Noting that recent commentators have called their anti-industrial message “prophetic,” he cites a 1980 Time essay that “remarked on the appeal of Agrarianism to modern-day environmentalists and theorists of the `zero-sum’ society.” (Today, one wouldn’t be surprised to see Agrarianism linked with the anti-globalization movement.) Yet soon enough Murphy is not only freely acknowledging the Agrarians’ moral failings but also piling up evidence that the prejudices on display in I’ll Take My Stand were, alas, only the tip of the iceberg. He notes, for example, that when Tom Mabry, a cousin of Caroline Gordon, suggested introducing them to the black writers James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, the Agrarians rejected the offer point-blank. “There should be no social intercourse between the races,” Tate declared flatly, “unless we are willing for that to lead to marriage.” When Mabry accepted a job at all-black Fisk University, Warren comments that Mabry had “decided to commercialize his talent for nigger-loving.” As Murphy writes, “Ultimately, blacks were a mystery to the Agrarians. They simply did not understand black culture, nor did they make an effort to try and understand it.”

At the heart of Murphy’s book is the proposition that Agrarianism, to a considerable extent, laid the foundations for the modern American conservative movement, which is generally seen as beginning with William F. Buckley’s 1955 founding of National Review or, alternatively, with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. This is not an easy argument to make. For one thing, the more closely one looks at Agrarianism, the less correct it seems to call it a movement: though I’ll Take My Stand received widespread media attention when it appeared, it sold only two thousand copies in its first ten years. (It is Underwood, not Murphy, who mentions this important statistic.) For another thing, though the modern American conservative movement was indeed forged by the coming together of people with a wide range of views (e.g., Klansmen and Catholic revivalists, libertarians and anti-freespeech reactionaries, apostles of capitalist progress and, yes, Agrarians), its guiding philosophy differed vastly from that of the Twelve Southerners. The Agrarians hated industry and placed regional over national loyalty; NR conservatives loved both America and Big Business. True, both movements were suspicious of the federal government; yet there is a clear discontinuity between the overtly intolerant language of many I’ll Take My Stand contributors and the rhetoric of Goldwater and Buckley, who strove to distance themselves from the John Birch Society, the KKK, and other hate groups. As Murphy himself points out, moreover, Tate-Agrarianism’s founder-“evinced little interest in the conservative movement.” (The only time he ever voted, it was for FDR.)

There is, in fact, less philosophical continuity between Agrarianism and National Review conservatism than there is between Agrarianism and today’s Religious Right, as embodied in organizations such as the Christian Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention. Yet Murphy is less interested in pursuing connections between the Agrarians and know-nothing Bible-thumpers (which are, in any case, a matter less of direct influence than of shared values) than in making the case that I’ll Take My Stand inspired later generations of political intellectuals. In order to draw this linkage, he is obliged to place inordinate focus on one of the Twelve Southerners, Donald Davidson, who became a leader of the 1960s anti-Civil Rights movement in Tennessee, and on a handful of midcentury “New Conservatives” who are on record as having admired Agrarianism. These rather offbeat figures include Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind (1953), who became a friend of Davidson and described himself as “a northern Agrarian”; Raymond Weaver, author of Visions of Order (1964), who, defending racial segregation, said that it was vital “to define democracy and keep it within its place”; and-most eccentric of all-Eugene D. Genovese, author of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), who even as a young Stalinist esteemed Southern slaveholders for what he saw as their precapitalist and anti-bourgeois politics.

Genovese is, it should be said, an illuminating example of the way in which left-wing and right-wing extremes meet in a love of tyranny and a hatred of freedom. Indeed, what drew all these “New Conservatives” to I’ll Take My Stand, aside from sheer racism, was a distrust of democracy. Yet even as they were taking inspiration from the anthology two to three decades after its publication, some of the Agrarians themselves were retreating from the views they had articulated in its pages. Perhaps the greatest shift was that undergone by Warren, who came to recognize (as Murphy puts it) the “moral obloquy of segregation” and to feel that Southern values, as he understood them, were threatened not by blacks but by white bigots. “In the crucible of the 1960s, Agrarianism had come to be newly divided against itself,” writes Murphy. “And so, too, was Warren divided against himself. It was Donald Davidson, Warren’s old teacher and lifelong friend, and not the black man, who had come to be Warren’s other self, the southerner who could not break free of the chains of history.”

Murphy’s desire to accord Agrarianism a somewhat more prominent role in political history than it may deserve does not make his book any less interesting or valuable. The portraits he paints of the Agrarians and of their often unsavory but nearly always colorful admirers, and his accounts of the largely forgotten intellectual struggles and political developments in which they participated, are fascinating; the book is consistently lively, scrupulous, and smart. Nonetheless, it must be said that to view Allen Tate through the narrow lens of Agrarianism (or, for that matter, to focus, as Underwood does, on Tate’s early preoccupation with Southern identity) is not to do him any favors. Thus it is a relief and a pleasure to turn from these accounts of Tate’s racism, reaction, and regional chauvinism to Essays of Four Decades, a collection that originally appeared in 1968 and that has now been reissued with an introduction by Louise Cowan.3

Along with his fellow Agrarians Ransom and Warren, of course, Tate was in the front ranks of the New Critics, whose attention to the structure of a literary work rather than to its social or biographical background may at first blush seem at odds with the preoccupations of I’ll Take My Stand (just as Tate’s lifelong enthusiasm for literary modernism may appear to contradict his fondness for medieval feudalism). Yet as Cowan points out in her splendid introduction, Tate’s social and literary criticism both have something crucial in common: a preoccupation with form. “To Tate, as to many of his Southern colleagues,” observes Cowan, “form is meaning.” Indeed, the more one reads his literary essays after having been immersed in his political ideas, the more one recognizes a distinct continuity: to put it a bit baldly, Tate believed that a society should cohere as comprehensively and harmoniously as a good poem does. (Like a poem, too, a society needed unifying symbols.)

This being the case, it is perhaps rather surprising that the most appealing aspect of Tate’s literary essays is not the rage for order they express but the structural flexibility they often manifest. Tate begins his preface to the Essays by distinguishing himself from the likes of Kenneth Burke (for whose systematization he professes respect even as he makes it look rather ridiculous) as well as from the armies of academic scholars with their narrow fields of specialization. Describing his criticism as “improvisation, or one thing leading to another,” he makes it clear that he is a “poet-critic” who is “not concerned with consistency and system”-not determined, that is to say, to impose a forced, false coherence on his material-but who is, rather, interested in probing individual literary works in an attempt to figure out why they work (or fail to). Cowan rightly agrees with his self-description: “Neither systematic nor methodical, his critical thought is geared toward one thing only: the pursuit-and only incidentally the sharing-of insight. Tate’s chief value as a critic, as a matter of fact, lies in his moments of revelation-sometimes perverse, sometimes obscure, often illuminating. Nothing he writes is obvious, nothing has been said before.” Even more consistently, perhaps, than his poetry (which can have a forced, willed quality: Tate admitted himself that the only time he ever really “let go” was in his famous “Ode”), Tate’s literary criticism is an authentic expression of the whole man.

The forty-eight essays and prefaces collected here were first written between the late 1920s and late 1960s and cover a wide range of territory. In a pair of 1951 essays, Tate discusses Poe as an example of what he calls “the angelic imagination,” and Dante as an example of 11 the symbolic imagination.” He laments (in 1932) that Archibald MacLeish’s Conquistador presents “a sentimental view of experience”; predicts (in 1931) that Ezra Pound “is probably one of two or three living Americans who will be remembered as poets of the first order” but adds that “there is no reason to infer from that that Mr. Pound… knows in the least what he is doing or saying”; and argues (in 1963) that Herbert Read, considered as a poet, belongs in the same company as Eliot, Pound, and Conrad Aiken. The book even includes Tate’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, retitled “Religion and the Old South.”

Occasionally, posing himself some big question such as “What should the man of letters be in our time?”, Tate can be overly abstract and heavy, and even less than perfectly lucid. Yet even when one must reread one of Tate’s sentences once or twice in order to understand it, one never feels that he is being deliberately difficult or obscure. “To whom is a poet responsible?” he inquires in one essay, and replies: “He is responsible to his conscience, in the French sense of the word: the joint action of knowledge and judgment.” And for what, he asks further, is the poet responsible? “He is responsible for the virtue proper to him as a poet, for his special areti for the mastery of a disciplined language which will not shun the full report of the reality conveyed to him by his awareness: he must hold, in Yeats’ great phrase, `reality and justice in a single thought.”‘ Indeed, to read Tate’s criticism is to be constantly aware that he is doing precisely what he describes here-namely, seeking to articulate a response in toto and refusing to “shun the full report of the reality conveyed to him by his awareness.” If at times Tate seems to belabor self-evident points about the act of reading or criticism, moreover, one must remind oneself that these points were at one time anything but self-evident; that they seem so now is a measure of the New Criticism’s success in shaping the way that many of us think about literature.

Which is not to say that Tate fits some people’s narrow stereotype of the New Critic-as, that is to say, a dry technician so preoccupied with close textual analysis as to lose sight of a literary work’s human significance or its place in the larger literary picture. Whether he is writing about Donne or Hardy, Keats or Pound, Tate is repeatedly asking the same questions: what is this particular writer’s distinctive quality? What can we learn from a study of his or her work about the art of literary creation, and about the human mind and spirit? When Tate is at his best, for instance in his essay on Emily Dickinson, his enthusiastic movement from impression to impression, from urgent insight to insight, his tendency to pile up jewel-like observations rather than to string them together into an argument, can remind one of a critic who is in other ways colossally different from him: Pauline Kael. Tate, the sober formalist, can resemble Kael, the giddy impressionist, even down to the way in which he uses dashes. And then there’s the perfect Kael– like bite with which he closes the Dickinson essay: “Cotton Mather would have burnt her for a witch.”

The Dickinson essay is typical of Tate’s best literary criticism, furthermore, in the way it weaves together wonderful observations on Henry James, Donne, Shakespeare, et al., as well as broad generalizations about culture and poetry, which might be described as digressions except for the fact that they are not really digressions at all: it is obvious throughout that everything in the essay is part and parcel of an effort both to place Dickinson-to use literary and cultural history as a means of illuminating her work-and, conversely, to use her work as a path to wider understandings. This is not to say that Tate traffics in facile social or biographical criticism; the salient point here is that for Tate, as for all of the best New Critics, attentiveness to the text does not mean reading it in quarantine-like isolation but, much to the contrary, recognizing in every line the complex way in which literary and cultural references serve to shape its effect. The Dickinson essay is dated 1928, and even all these years later, after the shelves full of Dickinson criticism that have been published since, it remains valuable. And so, it must be added, does the whole of Essays of Four Decades. Indeed, given the more problematic side of Tate that emerges in the books by Underwood and Murphy, this new edition of the Essays deserves a particularly warm welcome from readers who wish to know this important writer at his most sensitive, intelligent, and humane.

1 ALLEN TATE: Orphan of the South, by Thomas A. Underwood. Princeton Uinversity Press. $35.00.

2 THE REBUKE OF HISTORY: The Southern agrarians and American Conservative Thought, by Paul V. Murphy. The University of North Carolina Press. $19.95p.

3 ESSAYS OF FOUR DECADES, by Allen Tate. Introduction by Louise Cowan. ISI Books. $29.95.

BRUCE BAWER, who lives in Norway,

is the author of Stealing Jesus (Crown).

Copyright Hudson Review Spring 2002

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