Today marks the birthday of John Orley Allen Tate, born in Winchester, Kentucky on November 19, 1899. In his lifetime, Tate made his mark as poet, critic, and novelist, although he never achieved the level of both critical and popular success achieved by his friend and fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren.
Tate attended both private and public schools and also spent a year studying violin at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music before entering Vanderbilt University in 1918. Tate displayed a precocious talent early on and soon became one of the “Fugitives”—the influential group of writers and philosophers who met to critique one another’s writing and to discuss literary, philosophical, and aesthetic ideas in Nashville, Tennessee. Fellow Fugitives included men who would become distinguished writers: John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Andrew Lytle, among others. Tate was cosmopolitan in spirit, deeply aware of the currents of modern poetry, and was drawn to early Modernist works like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The emptiness of the modern world would be a major theme of Tate’s as well.
Tate married a woman who would make her own mark as a novelist and short story writer: Caroline Gordon of Todd County, Kentucky. She and Tate moved to New York, joining the creative ferment of Greenwich Village in the 1920s and spending time with other important writers like Hart Crane, Edmund Wilson, and Malcolm Cowley. In 1928 Tate published his first volume of poetry—Mr. Pope and Other Poems, and also a biography of Stonewall Jackson, demonstrating early on an interest in southern history and themes he shared with his good friend Warren. Tate followed his book on Jackson with one on Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1930. Incidentally, Warren’s first book was a critical biography of abolitionist and Harper’s Ferry raider John Brown.
Tate and Gordon went to Europe in 1928, experiencing the vibrant literary scene there and meeting the famous literary expatriates of the time, such as Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the Fitzgeralds. But by 1930 the couple and their daughter had returned to the south, this time to Tennessee, where Tate assumed a teaching post at Vanderbilt University.
Now the country had entered the Great Depression. Tate, along with other southern intellectuals, was sensitive about criticism of supposed defects in the region’s culture from people such as H.L. Mencken, and he joined a number of fellow writers and academics—including some of the former Fugitives—in a group called the Southern Agrarians, which issued a famous critique of the industrial culture of the northern United States and a defense of the south’s traditional rural values. That volume was called I’ll Take My Stand, and Tate’s fellow contributors included Warren, Lytle, and Ransom, along with scholars in other fields, such as Herman Nixon, a political scientist, and historian Frank L. Owsley.
The issues raised by I’ll Take My Stand are complex and multilayered, and beyond the scope of this biographical portrait, but perhaps it is sufficient to say that Tate and his fellow writers felt the industrial culture of the north lacked meaningful connections to community, family, and the past, breeding alienation and isolation as a result. They felt the south’s rural culture provided a model for a culture anchored in meaningful local traditions that bound people more closely to the land, community, and family. Of course, the Achilles heel in this defense of the south was the difficult issue of race and the treatment of black Americans. Warren, for one, would later repudiate his comments on race in I’ll Take My Stand, and Tate would modify his views as well–and Tate’s views of the time were pretty harsh in regard to minorities.
On the other hand, the issues raised in the book are still with us today as we debate the effects of technology on culture, the necessity of healthy farms and farm communities, and the anomie and dislocation many feel in our “postmodern” world. Noted essayist, novelist, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry, in my opinion, has a kinship of sorts with the Agrarians because of his concern for preserving rural communities and culture and his criticism of industrial society.
During the 1930s, Tate published two of his most famous works: the poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” and his novel The Fathers. “Ode to the Confederate Dead” is, among other things, a meditation on history and culture contrasting the courage of dead Confederate soldiers and the sacrifice of earlier generations with the aimlessness and confusion of modern society. It is not a mindless celebration of Confederate heroics; rather, it is a reflection on the modern world’s chaos and meaninglessness—a disorder characterized by a separation from the past and the sacrifices of those now gone, and a lack of sustaining values that can provide form and meaning to modern lives. The poem is complex and has been seriously studied through the years since its publication, and my own description here gives but the barest idea of its themes, but I hope it provides some sense of the poem’s nature.
Tate’s one novel, The Fathers, also deals with issues of culture and values. Here the values of an established member of the Old South, John Buchan, are contrasted with a man who represents the values of the modern age, and brings disaster in his wake through his failure to operate with a unified and coherent sense of values within his society.
Tate was a lifelong teacher, working not only at Vanderbilt, but at Southwestern University in Memphis, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of Minnesota. He also held visiting writer and lecturer posts at other institutions. In addition, he appeared on a CBS radio program called “Invitation to Learning,” founded the creative writing program at Princeton, and served as an editor of The Sewanee Review. It is also important to note that he mentored other writers, among them Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He became known for his literary essays as well, and played a role in the development of what became known as the “New Criticism,” which emphasizes close reading of a text, focusing only on the literary elements and steering clear of contextual issues such as the writer’s biography, historical circumstances of composition and so on. Tate was the first of the Fugitives to publish a book of literary criticism: Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas in 1936, and this volume played a role in forming the New Criticism approach to literature that would have a profound effect on literary study in the U.S. He continued to publish criticism through the 1940s and 50s. Tate became a Catholic in 1950, and former wife Gordon converted to Catholicism as well.
Tate was married four times, twice to Caroline Gordon. He divorced Caroline Gordon in 1945, then remarried her one year later. But the couple divorced again, this time for good, and Tate married a poet named Isabella Gardner in the early fifties. They divorced as well, and Tate married for the last time in 1966, this time to Helen Heinz, a nun enrolled in one of his classes. Tate had a daughter with Caroline Gordon in the late 1920s, and then became a father again in his later years, having three sons with his last wife.
Allen Tate died on February 9, 1979 in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge & London, 1978.
A Literary History of Kentucky. William S. Ward. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1988.
The History of Southern Literature. General Editor: Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge & London, 1985.
Collected Poems, 1919-1976. Allen Tate. Introduction by Christopher Benfey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007.