When Allen Tate died in 1979, Simon and Schuster speedily commissioned a biography, to be written, they announced, by Ned O’Gorman, a poet of some reputation and a friend of two of Tate’s three wives. O’Gorman, it would seem, got going in the usual way, writing to all the obvious Tate contacts and attempting to interview key intimates. He also trawled through at least some of the vast cache of Tate material (57 boxes, 30 cubic feet) that sits in Princeton’s Firestone Library – sold to the university by Tate in 1967. By the mid-1980s, O’Gorman felt ready to put pen to paper: ‘So one day the biographer has enough to begin. And he begins to write and discovers, as I have discovered, that lies, deceptions, half-truths, fake truths, family loyalties, friendships, literary feuds get in the way and render even a birth date suspect.’
This could be any biographer bemoaning the pitfalls of his trade. With Allen Tate, though, there were more pitfalls than plateaux. Tate was a quarrelsome type and deeply self-important; he had a taste for feuds, for laying down the law, for scolding friends who fell short of his elevated standards – both personal and literary. Many saw him as a somewhat comic figure, forever tinkering with the details of his Southern ancestry or putting a superior gloss on even the most mundane of his self-advancements. But it was not the high-horse pretentiousness of Tate that put paid to the O’Gorman project. The problem, it emerged, was to do with Tate’s complicated love-life. In his youth, as an ambitious young literary blade, Tate was known to have enjoyed some indiscretions (vide his ‘discovery’ of Laura Riding) but it was not until his later years – post-1940; he was born in 1899 – that he achieved Great Lover status. This randiness of Tate’s was not, O’Gorman has testified, ‘a phase, a period’, or even a mere ‘flash of libidinous fever’:
It was a quality in his life that assumed in his marriages a fragmenting power and dealt to his creative life a sundering loss of energy. He lived out a literary ‘soap opera’; the tales are infinite, all of them true, most of them scandalous. Many of the ladies with whom Allen slept are alive. Many of them are distinguished, and some of them are celebrities.
Oh really? Who? And this, of course, could be any publicist trying to inject a bit of vigour into a dull literary life. One does recall the stories, though – well, some of them. And it is certainly true that Tate’s entanglements were the source of some amusement to his literary friends, and particularly to those who had experienced the lash of his high-mindedness. In many American literary biographies or collections of letters, Tate appears in clownishly satyric aspect: the comedy sometimes sharpened by comments on his physical appearance (he had a strangely bulbous head and as a child was reckoned to be hydrocephalic), his intense and platitudinous solemnity, his late-won and unsmiling Roman Catholicism. Tate once said that all his poems sprang from the suffering that comes from disbelief, and perhaps his love pursuits were similarly energised.
O’Gorman may have been intending to pursue some fancy thesis of this kind, but in the end he despaired of his attempts to ‘find a way to deal with this erotic element’ – indeed, the poet’s widow threatened to sue him if he kept on trying. His biography of Tate remains unwritten, and this – in view of his juicy prospectus – seems a pity. Instead, we must make do, at least for the time being, with Thomas Underwood’s immensely detailed and tirelessly literary investigation of Tate’s early career, which culminated with Tate, at almost forty, on the brink of an eventful if largely uncreative middle age: a middle age in which the poet maybe tried to compensate for the intellectual ardours of his youth by cranking up the pomposity and the religion – and, of course, by sleeping with celebrities. In spite of O’Gorman’s – and Tate’s widow’s – qualms, it seems a fairish bet that Tate himself would have preferred the prospect of a biographer raking over the mature splendours of his love life to the kind of attention he gets here from the assiduous Underwood.
Underwood believes that Tate’s early intellectual posturings, his wish to cast himself as a Deep South tribal prophet, can be traced back to his concern with matters of ‘genealogy’ – i.e. to his Mum and Dad. His parents were constantly boasting of their links to bygone Southern grandeur but neither of them was genuinely grand. For one thing, they were born in Illinois. The father, a feckless and nomadic business failure, had genuine Old South credentials – his forebears had owned lots of slaves – and he liked to present himself as a victimised yet stalwart relic of the good old days. Allen often affected to despise his father’s general uselessness but warmed to the wrecked-gent self-presentation. Tate’s mother also made a somewhat pitiable fuss of her Virginia roots and claimed to be descended from Robert E. Lee. When her marriage began to fall apart, she made it her mission to educate Allen and his brothers in the details of her family history, taking them repeatedly on visits to ancestral sites and introducing them to ancient relatives. On one occasion, she ‘ceremoniously’ produced for Tate an old ‘mulatto’ woman who, she claimed, had once ‘belonged’ to her grandfather. ‘These excursions,’ Underwood says, ‘left a permanent impression’ on young Tate and would later feed into his 1938 novel, The Fathers, a work of heavily researched nostalgia. Between them, Underwood believes, Tate’s parents instilled in him two lasting tendencies: a fear of failure and a contempt for Yankee ‘business values’. His own success, he was determined, would transcend such values. The outcome was perhaps inevitable: he turned himself into a poet.
At Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, Tate made his first outings as a literary personage, and his stance from the beginning was aggressively cocksure. He linked up with – or took over – a ‘discussion group’ of local poets, who called themselves the Fugitives and spent much of their time plotting a Deep South ‘revival’: in other words, or so it sometimes seemed, they wanted their parochial verses and short stories to be praised by New York critics. Happily, such praise was soon forthcoming – the Fugitives included future eminents like John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren in addition to the usual line-up of duffers – and the group’s magazine, the Fugitive, was widely welcomed as the voice of a significant new literary movement. This was a period when every new movement was deemed to be significant. Even T.S. Eliot in London in the 1920s heard about the Fugitives and indicated his approval.
Tate, though, was not willing to be tagged as a mere regionalist talent. Although still in his early twenties, and haughtily committed to his Southern origins, he hankered for a larger stage than Nashville could provide. He started writing reviews for New York periodicals and took to upbraiding his Nashville colleagues for their lack of intellectual rigour (he was already deep in Pound and Eliot, the poems and the prose), their technical conservatism and their petty, inbred rivalries. He ruffled many feathers and discovered in himself a taste for the stern-magisterial. The famously low-key and courtly Ransom was not in the least charmed by Tate’s jaunty intransigence, and Tate was in turn enraged by Ransom’s diffidence, telling him on one well-known occasion: ‘If Jesus Christ should come upon earth and present me with a poem I sincerely thought inferior, I would tell him just that to his teeth.’
A turning point for Tate, as for so many other American poets of the 1920s, was his reading of The Waste Land. Tate was entranced by the poem’s self-assured obscurity and by what he could deduce of its prescriptive urgency. His poems at once assumed a clotted bookishness that thoroughly repelled the more old-fashioned of his co-Fugitives, and he took to describing himself as Modernism’s gift to the Old South. Already he could perceive links between The Waste Land’s anti-materialism and his own developing contempt for urban-industrial encroachments from the North. The path ahead seemed clear: he would not allow the rural South to be turned into a spiritual waste land.
In the meantime, though, Tate needed to strengthen his own cultural prestige, and this meant heading North. In 1925, he left Nashville for New York and there linked up with the Greenwich Village/Dial set. He made friends with Hart Crane and tuned into the prevailing atmosphere of world-saving innovation. He tried to make a living as a freelance writer (he was always fretting about money in these early years), signed up to write a clutch of Civil War biographies, and when the Greenwich Village crowd, or some of them, transferred to Europe, he went too – in 1928. In London, Tate paid homage to Eliot, who had for him by now the status of ‘a demi-god’, was too shy to meet Yeats, and ‘found it difficult to work on the long poem he had promised the Guggenheim Foundation’. He also ran into Frost, whom he ‘disliked instinctively’ and came to the conclusion that ‘the best mind in England’ belonged to Herbert Read. Cutting short his England trip, he and his wife headed off for Paris (Tate had married the fierce and ultra-Southern novelist, Caroline Gordon, a few years before: he would later marry her again, after a divorce, and then divorce her yet again). In Paris, he fell in with all the usual Steins and Hemingways – who met, the lot of them, with his fierce disapproval. ‘More and more,’ he said, he found himself ‘heading towards Catholicism. We have reached a condition of the spirit where no further compromise is possible.’ He also re-pondered his Americanism – but then, how could an American in Europe really claim to have a heritage worth pondering? After two years abroad, he returned to the United States, eager to take upon himself the Americanist role which Eliot, for all his wondrous merits, had – in Tate’s view – made it his business to avoid. So too, in their frivolous and self-inflating way, had the American expatriates of the ‘Lost Generation’.
Tate’s intelligence was of a programmatic kind. It would not have been enough for him to set up as an Americanist writer in the William Carlos Williams mould, using the shape and language of his poetry to declare a cultural allegiance, or responsibility. The language of Tate’s poems was unvaryingly sonorous/ poetic and his verse persona tended always to the bardic/anonymous; his work on the whole is suspiciously susceptible to ‘explication’ – a discipline, it should be said, at which Tate thoroughly excelled, especially when his own texts were the topic for discussion. For him, the cry was: No things but in ideas! But then he was not, like Williams, ‘an old village cut-up’ (Pound’s dismissive phrase). He was a gent from the Old South, and his mission was specific. His war was not against the dominance of European cultural precursors. His enemy was close to hand, and the dominance he sought to combat issued not from Europe and the past but from the American North and the fast-changing here-and-now.
Back in Tennessee by 1930, the Tates took up residence in an antebellum mansion – with 85-acre estate attached – that had been bought for them by one of Tate’s brothers, who had made a lot of Northern money out of coal. In this location (although he was still broke) Tate played the part of an Old South plantation chief (minus the slaves). Malcolm Cowley commented that the new house had a dining room big enough to accommodate Stonewall Jackson’s military staff, and this grandiose aspect of his dwelling had more appeal for Tate than did the day-to-day tending of his acres; he would have made a good botanist, somebody said, but never a good farmer. Still, his evocative location made it possible for him to resume his senior position with the Fugitives. When he left for New York some of the more hard-line Nashvillites accused him of desertion. Now he had returned, cosmopolitan and modernistic, to occupy a Tennessean mansion. It was time to hoist – re-hoist – the flag.
Over the next few years, Tate devoted most of his time and energy to promoting ‘the principles of Agrarianism’ – the first such principle being to ensure, somehow, that ‘the South should avoid becoming a replica of the industrial North.’ The South, it was averred, was spiritual; the North was brutishly commercial. The South stood for Nature; the North for the Machine. In essay upon essay, the predictable antitheses were trotted out: farm v. factory; traditional values v. dollar-hungry opportunism; individual v. mass, and so on. A symposium, I’ll Take My Stand, appeared in 1930, with contributions from Tate, Warren, Ransom and Donald Davidson, and this was followed by Who Owns America? in 1938, the year at which Underwood concludes the present narrative. By then, Tate had come to realise that the Agrarian fantasy, or ‘culture of the soil’, had led him into some dark and difficult terrain. In order to promote Agrarianism, which he continued to see as an American offshoot of literary Modernism, ‘a reaffirmation of the humane tradition’, he entered into an alliance with a blatantly fascistic periodical, the American Review. Later on, he would try to play down this connection; at the time, though, he was more than pleased to have a platform for his Southern sermons. And anyway, at heart, he was in sympathy with much of what the paper stood for; and so, too, was Eliot (although Eliot’s Criterion did draw the line at some of Tate’s polemics). Bit by bit, during the 1930s, the threat of ‘Northern industrialism’ became, for the Agrarians, almost identical with the more immediately pressing threat of ‘International Communism’. Despite his later protestations, Tate was more than ready at the time to overlook the anti-semitism and pro-Hitlerism of the American Review in order to promote his ‘spiritual’ defence of the Deep South’s traditions. And when leftist New York critics pointed out that those traditions included slavery and lynching, he was snootily untroubled by their scorn:
I belong to the white race, therefore I intend to support white rule. Lynching is a symptom of weak, inefficient rule; but you can’t destroy lynching by fiat or social agitation; lynching will disappear when the white race is satisfied that its supremacy will not be questioned in social crises.
Underwood’s biography concludes at just about the point when Tate began to wish he’d never said some of the things he said during the 1930s. The biographer’s tone, though, is indulgent and forgiving and he presumably knows more about the later Tate than we do. Will he be allowed to venture down those paths which O’Gorman feared to tread? For Tate’s sake, we must hope so.