The Tate of the Nation

» August 3rd, 2017

Few readers, even the well-read, know much about Allen Tate. Those who do know the arcane American poet—usually professors who teach “southern literature”—would likely not label him a humanitarian. Cerebral, distant, combative, self-obsessed—yes—but not a social reformer in any sense of the term.

And yet (a million caveats notwithstanding) there is something morally ambitious about Allen Tate. For a man whose defining question was “Whom and what shall our souls believe?,” this ambition seems a reasonable premise from which to start exploring this underappreciated man of letters. 

A careful reading of Tate’s poetry, essays, and letters—comprising nearly a half-century of output—reveals an ongoing humanizing preoccupation: Tate and his fellow travelers—known in the 1920s as the Fugitives and, later, the Agrarians—wanted his readers, particularly those in the South, to feel spiritually at ease in their southern-ness. He wanted them, as complete selves, to be meaningfully connected—weft in the warp—to the American South.

For this to happen, the southerner had to undergo a critical conversion, one that he deemed “violent.” The southerner, in essence, had to acknowledge his dissociation from the modernist present while understanding himself and his civilization as continuous with a stable, heroic, and mythical past. The empirical nuts and bolts of history were not so much to be ignored as transcended. Contemporary civilization, in turn, would naturally hew to this intellectual shift.  Eventually, a southern city on a hill would emerge.

This utopian vision of the South, while generous, was elusive. It was made even more so by the belief that the work of poetry could bring it to fruition. And, of course, poetry decidedly failed to bring it to fruition. Tate’s quest for a southern renascence suffered, in the end, from a tragic flaw that became increasingly evident as the empirical history of the twentieth century turned the nation’s focus—and in turn the South’s—to the century-long quest for a racial reckoning.

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