Cover image for Allen Tate : orphan of the South
Allen Tate : orphan of the South
Underwood, Thomas A.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
viii, 447 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
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PS3539.A74 Z93 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Despite his celebrity and his fame, a series of literary feuds and the huge volume of sources have, until now, precluded a satisfying biography of Allen Tate. Anyone interested in the literature and history of the American South, or in modern letters, will be fascinated by his life. Poetry readers recognize Tate, whom T. S. Eliot once called the best poet writing in America, as the author of some of the twentieth century's most powerful modernist verse. Others know him as a founder of The Fugitive , the first significant poetry journal to emerge from the South. Tate joined William Faulkner and others in launching what came to be known as the Southern Literary Renaissance. In 1930, he became a leader of the Southern Agrarian movement, perhaps America's final potent critique of industrial capitalism. By 1938, Tate had departed politics and written The Fathers , a critically acclaimed novel about the dissolution of the antebellum South. He went on to earn almost every honor available to an American poet. His fatherly mentoring of younger poets, from Robert Penn Warren to Robert Lowell, and of southern novelists--including his first wife, Caroline Gordon--elicited as much rebellion as it did loyalty.

Long-awaited and based on the author's unprecedented access to Tate's personal papers and surviving relatives, Orphan of the South brings Tate to 1938. It explores his attempt, first through politics and then through art, to reconcile his fierce talent and ambition with the painful history of his family and of the South.

Tate was subjected to, and also perpetuated, fictional interpretations of his ancestry. He alternately abandoned and championed Southern culture. Viewing himself as an orphan from a region where family history is identity, he developed a curious blend of spiritual loneliness and ideological assuredness. His greatest challenge was transforming his troubled genealogy into a meaningful statement about himself and Southern culture as a whole. It was this problem that consumed Tate for the first half of his life, the years recorded here.

This portrait of a man who both made and endured American literary history depicts the South through the story of one of its treasured, ambivalent, and sometimes wayward sons. Readers will gain a fertile understanding of the Southern upbringing, education, and literary battles that produced the brilliant poet who was Allen Tate.

Author Notes

Thomas A. Underwood , a native of Texas, teaches at Harvard University. A frequent lecturer on Southern history and literature, he has also taught at Columbia, Boston, and Yale universities.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Some biographers depict the triumph of poetic genius as a thing fated and inevitable. Underwood discards all such illusions in this compelling account of Allen Tate's formative years. Indeed, painstaking research reveals how close this literary genius came to losing his way and squandering his gifts by becoming a political pamphleteer. To uncover the reasons for this near-tragedy, Underwood plumbs a difficult childhood during which Tate's parents burdened him with the myth of beleaguered southern virtue. In his self-lacerating responses to the imperatives of that myth, Tate vacillated. His true artistic vocation allied him with regional giants like Faulkner and Ransom and with international figures like Hemingway and Pound. But reactionary politics exercised a strong attraction, drawing Tate into the orbit of apologists for Hitler and Mussolini. Tracing each step--and misstep--in letters, conversations, and poems, Underwood charts the torturous path by which Tate finally escaped from fascist temptations and genealogical confusions. Liberated at last by self-knowledge, Tate could finally write the milestone novel The Fathers, in which he exposed--with artistic poise and maturity--the imprisoning cultural contradictions of the South. A biographical study to be treasured as long as Tate's masterful verse attracts readers. --Bryce Christensen

Library Journal Review

When Allen Tate (1899-1979) spoke of "my terrible family," apparently he meant not only his blood relatives but also Southern culture as a whole. As a youth, he coped with his violent father and distant mother by affecting aristocratic airs in the midst of familial squalor. He came into contact with writers like John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren at Vanderbilt and, during the obligatory sojourn to Europe between the wars, had run-ins with Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein. Tate was only able to come to terms with himself (and his burdensome heritage) in early middle age, by which time he had helped define the Southern Literary Renaissance, founded and abandoned the reactionary Agrarian movement, and published The Fathers, a novel one critic called "a psychological horror story." Best known today for such poems as "Ode to the Confederate Dead," Tate is fully dramatized here as a soul in torment, a seminal figure in Southern literature, and, as "a Modernistcriticizing the modernization of America." An independent scholar, Underwood painstakingly researched all of Tate's life (the book includes nearly 100 pages of notes) but concludes in 1938, when Tate achieved some level of closure. Plans for a second volume are indefinite at this point, though it would be a pity not to build on this solid foundation.DDavid Kirby, Florida State Univ., Tallahassee (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Introduction: "My Terrible Family"p. 3
Chapter 1 "Mother Wanted Me at Home"p. 6
Chapter 2 "Unlike a Natural Mothers"p. 30
Chapter 3 "0 Poet, O Allen Tate, 0 Hot Youth!"p. 60
Chapter 4 "They Used to Call Me `the Yankee'"p. 89
Chapter 5 God the Father and the Southp. 121
Chapter 6 An Agrarian and "the Brethren"p. 158
Chapter 7 Orphan of the Southp. 196
Chapter 8 Fatherless Famep. 233
Chapter 9 A Family Reconstructedp. 264
A Note on the Text and Abbreviations Used in the Notesp. 307
Notesp. 313
Sources and Acknowledgmentsp. 413
Indexp. 431