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Allen Tate's Life and Career

David Havird

TATE was born John Orley Allen Tate near Winchester, Kentucky, the son of John Orley Tate, a businessman, and Eleanor Parke Custis Varnell. During Tate's childhood the business interests of his father-lumber, land sales, and stocks-forced the family to move as often as three times a year. As Tate later recalled, "we might as well have been living, and I been born, in a tavern at a crossroads." By 1911 his father's business ventures and his parents' marriage had failed. The youngest of three boys by almost ten years, Tate found himself in "perpetual motion" with his mother, a native Virginian whose family seat in Fairfax County later became the "Pleasant Hill" of Tate's only novel, The Fathers (1938).

From 1916 to 1917 Tate studied the violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. As he implies in his late poem "The Buried Lake" (1953), his failure to fulfill his musical ambitions signaled "the death of youth." In 1918 he enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. During the fall semester of his senior year (1921), at the invitation of Donald Davidson, a member of the English faculty, Tate began attending the informal meetings of the group of men, which also included his sometime professor John Crowe Ransom, that launched the Fugitive in 1922. Tate thus became a founding editor of the poetry journal whose three-year run heralded the literary renascence of the South.

At nineteen he had immersed himself in the English poet James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night (1874), a seminal if (as he later confessed) "disconcerting" influence on his verse. Now among the Fugitives, he distinguished himself as a savant of a cosmopolitan body of literature. According to Ransom, Tate was already reading the French poets Charles Baudelaire (a translation of whose sonnet "Correspondences" he published in 1924), Stéphane Mallarmé, and Rémy de Gourmont. He could have added Gérard de Nerval. Tate himself recalled that he "read the 'Later [W. B.] Yeats' in the early nineteen-twenties." A letter in 1922 from Hart Crane, who seemed to hear the cadences of T. S. Eliot in Tate's poem "Euthanasia" in the Double Dealer, prompted Tate to purchase Eliot's Poems (1920). Immediately he recognized his affinity with the older poet: "This man, though by no means famous at that time, was evidently so thoroughly my contemporary that I had been influenced by him before I had read a line of his verse."

A brush with tuberculosis forced Tate to withdraw from Vanderbilt in 1922. After some months of recuperation in the mountains of North Carolina, he returned to the university in 1923. During his last semester, he roomed with Robert Penn Warren, who became the youngest of the Fugitive poets and Tate's lifelong friend. With Ridley Wills, another roommate and fellow Fugitive, Tate produced The Golden Mean, a parody of The Waste Land, which he in fact admired. Indeed, Tate's published riposte, later that year, to Ransom's attack on Eliot's poem in the New York Evening Post chilled their relationship. With a diploma dated 1922, Tate received his bachelor's degree in 1923.

In 1924 Tate moved to New York City, where he met Hart Crane. During a summer visit with Warren in Kentucky, he began a relationship with Caroline Gordon, whom he married in New York in May 1925. Their daughter, Nancy, was born in September. Between 1925 and 1928, with their child in the care of her maternal grandparents in Kentucky and Gordon in the employment of the English novelist Ford Madox Ford, Tate wrote freelance articles and reviews for such periodicals as the Nation and the New Republic, did editorial work for the publisher of pulp romance magazines, performed janitorial functions in the building where they sometimes lived, and hobnobbed with such literary men as Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, Malcolm Cowley, and Kenneth Burke--as well as Crane, with whom the Tates shared a house in rural Patterson, New York, during the winter of 1925. Tate later did the introduction to Crane's first volume of poetry, White Buildings (1926).

Tate's four years in New York culminated in the publication in 1928 of both his first collection of poems, Mr. Pope and Other Poems, and a biography, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier. In addition to the much-anthologized title poem, Mr. Pope included "Death of Little Boys," "Th Subway," and an early version of Tate's best-known poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Written for a popular audience, the life of Stonewall Jackson was the first of three projected biographies of Confederate heroes. It was followed by Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (1929). Tate's inability to meet a publisher's deadline for his biography of Robert E. Lee led him in 1931 to enlist both Gordon and Warren as ghostwriters. Eventually Tate abandoned the project.

A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 took Tate abroad--to London, where he met Eliot, and to Paris, where he took tea with Gertrude Stein, established a friendship with Ernest Hemingway, and cemented his relationships with Ford and Bishop, whose posthumous Collected Poems (1948) he later edited.

Upon his return to the United States in 1930, Tate settled with his family on the Cumberland River near Clarksville, Tennessee, in an antebellum farmhouse, "Benfolly," purchased for them by his older brother Ben, a financially successful businessman. With his contribution, "Remarks on the Southern Religion," to I'll Take My Stand (1930), Tate embraced agrarianism. The publication of I'll Take My Stand by the twelve so-called Southern Agrarians--among whom were three other erstwhile Fugitives, Ransom, Davidson, and Warren--represented the formal phase of a sectional movement that pitted the rural South (whose traditional economy it championed) against the urban, industrialized North. Six years later, with the release of the sequel Who Owns America?, which he edited with Herbert Agar, Tate exposed the "superstition of Technological Determinism" and articulated a conservative response to the Roosevelt administration's revolutionary New Deal.

By 1937, when he published his first Selected Poems, Tate had written all of the shorter poems upon which his literary reputation came to rest. This collection--which brought together work from two recent volumes, Poems: 1928-1931 (1932) and the privately printed The Mediterranean and Other Poems (1936), as well as the early Mr. Pope--included "Mother and Son," "Last Days of Alice," "The Wolves," "The Mediterranean," "Aeneas at Washington," "Sonnets at Christmas," and the final version of "Ode to the Confederate Dead." The subject of Tate's own interpretive essay "Narcissus as Narcissus" (1938), itself a model of the New Criticism, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" presents the poet's own "quest of the past," as Tate explained in a letter to Davidson (12 Apr. 1928)--a quest to which he felt an "acute" commitment, "for since the Civil War my family has scattered to the four winds and no longer exists as a social unit." With its autumnal setting, the poem (which is only ironically an ode) depicts the modern age as stubbornly naturalistic despite moments of vision that disclose to the individual a transcendent reality, as symbolized by the heroism of the Confederate infantrymen who rise from their graves, "[d]emons out of the earth."

The publication of The Fathers (1938), Tate's distinguished novel of the Civil War, established its author as one of America's leading men of letters. Within a year he became a poet in residence at Princeton, where he remained until 1942. In 1943 he became the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress, in 1944 the editor of the Sewanee Review, and in 1946 editor of belles lettres at Henry Holt in New York. In 1948 he served on the jury that awarded, in February 1949, the controversial first Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound for his Pisan Cantos. Tate resumed his academic career in 1948 when he accepted a three-year appointment at New York University.

That year also saw the publication of two retrospective collections of prose and verse: On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-1948 and Poems, 1922-1947, which included "Seasons of the Soul" (1944), Tate's longest and one of his most important poems. Agonizingly personal, even while "reflecting throughout," as Davidson recognized, "the disastrous implications of World War II," this 240-line meditative poem depicts the violence whose source is the alienation of human beings from one another and from the divine forces that once animated the natural world. The poem asks without quite answering whether literal death offers the only end to that violence or whether reverence for a quasi-divine maternal principle might not effect the spiritual rebirth of individuals and communion within a family of nations.

In 1951 Tate accepted an academic appointment with tenure at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his retirement in 1968. During the 1950s, often through an association with the new Fulbright program, he gave frequent lectures abroad: in England, France, Italy, and India. In 1953 he published The Forlorn Demon: Didactic and Critical Essays, which included four of his most important works of intellectual prose. In "The Man of Letters in the Modern World" (1952) Tate recalls past societies that regarded "the temporal city [as] the imperfect analogue to the City of God " and depicts the hell of human existence within a thoroughly secular technological society, whose efficient production of means--which include the language of mass communication--demands a consumption that knows no end. Tate maintains that the role of the man of letters is the supervision of language, whose own aim must be "to forward the ends proper to man." For Tate, a convert in 1950 to Roman Catholicism, "[t]he end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time."

The three other essays complement not only one another, but also the autobiographical poetic sequence with which Tate occupied himself during the early 1950s. "Our Cousin, Mr. Poe" (1949) and "The Angelic Imagination" (1951) concern Edgar Allan Poe, toward whose ethereality Tate felt a dangerous inclination. In "The Symbolic Imagination" (1951), an ingenious consideration of the concluding canto of The Divine Comedy, Tate embraces Dante as the exemplar of a mode of imagination that apprehends in physical nature "clearly denotable objects . . . , which yield the analogies to the higher syntheses." Allusions to Dante richly inform the dreamscape of "The Buried Lake," his last major poem, which charts his tortuous progress toward knowledge of "enduring love" through reconciliation with a feminine principle. "The Maimed Man" (1952) and "The Swimmers" (1953), as well as "The Buried Lake," reveal Tate's mastery of Dante's terza rima. Originally conceived as sections of an eight- or nine-part sequence, but published independently in periodicals, these three poems first appeared together in The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems (1971). Tate received the Bollingen Prize in 1956.

The last twenty years of Tate's life witnessed his divorce from Gordon in 1959, his marriage also in 1959 to the poet Isabella Gardner, and his divorce from her and marriage to Helen Heinz, his former student at Minnesota, in 1966. In 1967 Tate became the father of twin sons, one of whom died in an accident in 1968 after the family's move to Sewanee, Tennessee. A third son was born in 1969. Tate died in Nashville.

The master of several literary genres, Tate was an influential figure not only of the so-called Southern Renascence, but also of the modernist movement in literature. As both a searching observer of his region and an articulate champion of a culturally conservative point of view, he provided--in "What Is a Traditional Society?" (1936), "The New Provincialism" (1945), and "A Southern Mode of the Imagination" (1959)"--the essential explanatory framework," as Richard H. King observes, "for Southern cultural achievement." A self-described "writer of programmatic essays covertly eliminating kinds of poetry that I was sure I did not want to write, and perhaps ... justifying what I was attempting," Tate was a knowing student of literary modernism as it developed from the French symbolistes and the late Victorians through Yeats, Pound, and Eliot. Tate's own "harshly formed, powerful poems" (as Randall Jarrell described them), with "their tone of somewhat forbidding authority," test the limits of the symbolist mode and formal versification.

Tate's papers are at the Firestone Library, Princeton University. There are three volumes of correspondence: John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young, eds., The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate (1974), and with Young as principal editor, The Republic of Letters in America: The Correspondence of John Peale Bishop and Allen Tate (1981) and The Lytle-Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate (1987). Textually unreliable, Collected Poems, 1919-1976 (1977) dates the poems and presents them in chronological order. The most inclusive collection of the criticism, Essays of Four Decades (1968), is supplemented by Memoirs and Opinions, 1926-1974 (1975). See also The Poetry Reviews of Allen Tate, 1924-1944, ed. Ashley Brown and Frances Neat Cheney (1983). In the absence of a comprehensive biography, Radcliffe Squires, Allen Tate: A Literary Biography (1971), is most useful. See also Veronica A. Makowsky, Caroline Gordon: A Biography (1989), on Tate's long relationship with his first wife, and Walter Sullivan, Allen Tate: A Recollection (1988), on the later years. Radcliffe Squires, ed., Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations (1972), includes a bibliography. Robert S. Dupree, Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of the Poetry (1983), is thorough and brilliant. William Doreski, The Years of Our Friendship: Robert Lowell and Allen Tate (1990), and Langdon Hammer, Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism (1993), consider facets of the life and work. For Tate and southern literature, see Louise Cowan, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History (1959), and Richard H. King, A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955 (1980). An obituary is in the New York Times, 10 Feb. 1979.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.

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