Lately, I’ve been reading a sadly ironic biography of a talented but confused author who spent his life trying to find himself. He rejected what he had in his own backyard and wandered to strange vistas in search of what he thought he wanted only to realize that what he had had was really what he was and what he wanted all along.
Sound confusing? It is. But that’s life. Or rather, it’s the life of John Orley Allen Tate as recounted in Thomas A. Underwood’s book Allen Tate: Orphan of the South (Princeton, 2000). Growing up in the post-World War I South, in a dysfunctional family with parents who chased get-rich-quick schemes and could never settle down in one spot, Tate hated everything about his lot in life. He did everything he could to distance himself from not only his family but also the South and its traditions. Yet, he found himself bound to an overly protective mother who even went to college with him.
Tate wanted to be a famous poet. He wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. Above all, he wanted affection, attention, and approval by the literary elite outside the South. He enrolled in Vanderbilt to gain the education he thought he needed to achieve all those things, but he quickly found himself caught up in the group of writers known as the Fugitives, so-called after the name of their little literary magazine called The Fugitive. Among the group’s members were several faculty members with whom Tate developed a love-hate relationship. Men such as Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Edwin Mims. As Tate’s literary career struggled along, his grades suffered along with his finances, and he ended up getting his older, financially successful brother to pay his way. He sought the approval and acclaim of such Northern literary critics as H.L. Mencken by striving to write in the newly arising Modernist style.
Tate produced several poems that he considered magnificent Modernist works of art, but they were so convoluted and complex and lacking in message that even fellow Modernist writers in his circle failed to understand them. Tate seemed to think that the more obscure his writing the better it was. Enough people whose opinions he valued encouraged his continued production of such writing that he became increasingly disgusted by the uninitiated and unenlightened Southern morons who couldn’t understand what he wrote.
Eventually, Tate became so disgruntled with the perceived boorish literary ignorance of the South (they didn’t know good writing when they saw it, he thought) that he decided to leave the South for good. He finally achieved his dream of living among the literary luminaries of New York City. Later, he traveled to Europe and lived among the expatriate Americans in London and Paris who were trying to produce avante garde, Modernist literature. At first, Tate was enamored of those writers, meeting, partying, and rubbing shoulders with such writers and publishers as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Mark Van Doren, and others. And he relished the libertine life they lived.
Over time, however, he realized that those people were no more than literary snobs who cared for only their own writing, the people who gushed about their writing, and other writers who sought to imitate their writing. About the time this light was dawning for Tate, a publisher offered him contracts to write sequential biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. His research for those books took him back into the South, and that was when he realized that what he really longed for was a return to his roots in the South. So the prodigal returned.
Tate became a motivating influence for the development of a movement known as Agrarianism, a protest against the ill effects of industrialization, and especially what he saw it doing to the South. He helped organize a group of like-minded writers known as the Agrarians, who became most famous for their collection of essays titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.
Although I haven’t yet finished Underwood’s book, I’m learning that the overriding lesson from it is that one should not despise or be ashamed of where he or she is from but rather to honor and reverence it. One should be himself, not try to be someone else from somewhere else. Look to your own backyard and make the most of what it holds for you.
Oddly, one of my favorite authors also was influenced by many of the same authors with whom Tate worked at Vanderbilt, but he turned out much differently. Rather than rejecting his roots and seeking literary success somewhere else, Jesse Stuart followed the sage advice of Donald Davidson: “Go back to your people. Go back and write of them. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.” (For more on Stuart, see my article “The Beloved Country” in The Writer, April 2016 at this link: https://www.writermag.com/2016/04/11/dennis-l-peterson/.)
Stuart’s writing is everything Tate’s was not. It’s understandable. It deals with common people. It honors Stuart’s Southern heritage and people. And it has a message, a legitimate “takeaway.”
The subtitle of Underwood’s biography is Orphan of the South. If Tate was an orphan, it was an orphanhood that he himself created. Maybe by the time I finish the book I’ll find something about Tate that I like. To this point, however, I find him to be an orphan that I wouldn’t want to adopt!
Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson