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Allen Tate was a well-known man of letters from the American South, a central figure in the fields of poetry, criticism, and ideas. In the course of a career spanning the middle decades of the twentieth century, Tate authored poems, essays, translations, and fiction. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James T. Jones wrote that his "influence was prodigious, his circle of acquaintances immense." Tate relished his "man of letters" reputation—he consistently held for the highest standards of literature, feeling that the best creative writing offers the most cogent expressions of human experience. Sewanee Review's J. A. Bryant, Jr. called Tate a "sage" who "kept bright the instrument of language in our time and . . . made it illuminate as well as shine."
Tate was born and raised in Kentucky, the youngest of three sons of John Orley and Eleanor Varnell Tate. His family moved frequently when he was young, and his elementary education was erratic. Influenced by his mother's love of literature, however, he read extensively on his own, and he was admitted to Vanderbilt University in 1918. Tate proved an excellent student, earning top honors and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. More importantly, while an undergraduate he became aware of the special circumstances of Southern culture and sensibility. Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist James A. Hart wrote, "With a Border background [Tate] had to face the question of whether he was a Southerner or an American. Affirming the first, he had to confront the dominant positivist and materialistic Yankee values which were supplanting the older values of the South." Under the influence of his teachers Walter Clyde Curry, Donald Davidson, and John Crowe Ransom, Tate began to analyze his inheritance from a critical, but respectful, perspective.
Tate was the only undergraduate to be admitted to membership in the Fugitives, an informal group of Southern intellectuals that included Ransom, Davidson, Merrill Moore, and Robert Penn Warren. The Fugitives met once a week to discuss poetry—their own and others'—and to mount a defense against the notion that the South did not possess a significant literature of its own. In the periodical the Fugitive, and later in an important anthology called I'll Take My Stand, Tate argued that the Southern agrarian way of life reflected the artistic beauty, intelligence, and wit of the ancient classic age. Hart explained that Tate and his fellow Fugitives "believed that industrialism had demeaned man and that there was a need to return to the humanism of the Old South." The Agrarian movement, Hart added, "would create or restore something in 'the moral and religious outlook of Western Man.'" Whatever its beliefs, the Fugitive group exerted an enormous influence on American letters in the 1920s and on into the Depression era. A number of its members, including Tate, became the literary spokesmen for their generations.
Although Tate spent several years between 1928 and 1932 in France, he continued to write almost exclusively about the South. While he socialized with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the other expatriate American writers in Paris, Tate still explored his own personal philosophical and moral ties to his homeland. He wrote two biographies of Southern Civil War heroes, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall, began his most important poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," and worked on his only novel, The Fathers. Southern Literary Journal contributor George Core maintained that Tate was aware of the failings of the Old South, but it still remained "his chief model for his whole life. . . . Hence Tate's connections with the South—by inheritance, kinship, custom, and manner—have furnished him with . . . a central allegiance. Out of the tension between Tate's personal allegiance and his awareness of what he has called 'a deep illness of the modern mind' has come the enkindling subject of his work as a whole."
Not surprisingly, Tate's poetry has seemed to come from "a direct sensuous apprehension . . . of the Southern experience—the Southern people, animals, terrain, and climate," said Donald E. Stanford in the Southern Review. In many of his poems, Tate confronted the relationship between an idealized past and a present deficient in both faith and tradition. New York Times Book Review correspondent Hilton Kramer found the author "deeply immersed in the materials of history, and there could never be any question of separating his literary achievements from their attachment to the historical imagination." Kramer added that the particular history upon which Tate drew was "the history of a lost world carried in the mind of a Southerner, a classicist and an artist exiled to a Northern culture in which the imperatives of industrialism, philistinism, and bourgeois capitalism reinforce a sense of irretrievable defeat." Southern Review essayist Alan Williamson wrote that the stance in Tate's poetry "is that the individual is deeply unworthy, and should desire only to bring himself closer . . . to the destiny and the standards of the ancestors." Williamson concluded, however, that in some of Tate's later work "there is an undercurrent of contrary feeling: a bitter suspicion that the domination of the past, rather than the deficiencies of modern thought, is responsible for the sense of suffocation and unreality in present experience."
The Old South was semifeudal, agrarian, backward-looking, and religious, much like the European communities of the Middle Ages. Some critics have detected in Tate's work a return to somewhat medieval patterns of thought. In Renascence, Sister Mary Bernetta wrote, "In the Middle Ages there was one drama which took precedence over all other conflict . . . the Struggle of Everyman to win beatitude and to escape eternal reprobation. Tate recognizes the issue as a subject most significant for literature." Furthermore, like Dante, a poet he admired, Tate employed the most demanding poetic forms, which became "a compelling ritual to which the reader must submit in order to approach this poet's meaning," according to Robert B. Shaw in Poetry.
One of Tate's preoccupations was indeed "man suffering from unbelief." His modern Everyman, however, faced a more complex situation than the simple medieval morality tale hero. Michigan Quarterly Review contributor Cleanth Brooks explained, "In the old Christian synthesis, nature and history were related in a special way. With the break-up of that synthesis, man finds himself caught between a meaningless cycle on the one hand, and on the other, the more extravagant notions of progress—between a nature that is oblivious of man and a man-made 'unnatural' utopia." Even though he had periods of skepticism himself, Tate felt that art could not survive without religion. Pier Francesco Listri wrote in Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations, "In a rather leaden society governed by a myth of science, [Tate's] poetry conducts a fearless campaign against science, producing from that irony a measure both musical and fabulous. In an apathetic, agnostic period he [was] not ashamed to recommend a Christianity to be lived as intellectual anguish."
Tate expounded upon many of the same themes in his criticism. Because he believed in the autonomy of art and the aesthetic formalist basis of critical analysis, he was classified among the "New Critics" of the mid-twentieth century. In On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Alfred Kazin observed that in order to save criticism from the "scientists," Tate "disengaged literature itself from society and men, and held up the inviolate literary experience as the only measure of human knowledge. Literature in this view was not only the supreme end; it was also the only end worthy of man's ambition." Ferman Bishop claimed in his book Allen Tate, that for the author, "the distinctively literary quality of a poem, play, or novel is the manner of its presentation." Sewanee Review essayist Eliseo Vivas wrote, "At the heart of [Tate's] criticism, informing it throughout and giving it remarkable consistency and force, is his protest against the meaning of the present and of the probable future."
Having had a classical education himself, Tate employed numerous classical allusions in his work; he also often wrote intensely personal poetry that would not reveal itself instantly to a reader. In the Sewanee Review, Cowan called Tate "the most difficult poet of the twentieth century," and other critics have offered similar assessments. Brooks, for one, noted, "Tate puts a great burden upon his reader. He insists that the reader himself, by an effort of his own imagination, cooperate with the poet to bring the violent metaphors and jarring rhythms into unity." Georgia Review contributor M. E. Bradford also maintained that Tate, with "his preference for the lyric and for the agonized persona in that genre—along with the admiration which his ingenuities in the employment of all manner of strategies have together inspired—have confirmed his reputation for obscurity, allusive privacy, and consequent difficulty. Were it not for his politics, his poetics, and his honesty about them both, he could have become the object of coterie enthusiasms."
Monroe K. Spears offered some reasons why Tate never became merely the object of coterie enthusiasms. In the Sewanee Review, Spears praised Tate for his "independence and common sense and avoidance of cant" as well as for "his stubborn honesty and candor; his ideal of poise, integrity, and intelligence." New Republic contributor James Dickey also found Tate to be more than a "Southern writer." Dickey wrote, "[Tate's] situation has certain perhaps profound implications for every man in every place and every time. And they are more than implications; they are the basic questions, the possible solutions to the question of existence. How does each of us wish to live his only life?" Bishop concludes that Tate's place in American letters "is secure," adding, "He is one of a very small number of American writers who have had the ability to present the intellectual as well as the emotional side of the American experience. In a culture which has seemed so often to encourage and even depend on the anti-intellectual, he has emphasized the opposite. Ultimately . . . he will be proved to have dealt with the truly significant elements in our experience."