Southern historian Underwood perceptively narrates the early tumultuous years of Allen Tate (1899–1979), the poet-critic who helped lead the Southern Literary Renaissance.
By his own admission, Tate in his youth was perpetually “running over with violent feelings, usually directed at my terrible family.” His father, a heavy-drinking philanderer, failed at every business he tried, while his overbearing mother dragged the sickly Allen along on her constant travels, feeding him inflated stories about aristocratic Virginia forebears. At Vanderbilt University, out from under his mother’s thumb, Tate found an outlet for his fierce intelligence and ambition by becoming a founding editor of The Fugitive, the first significant modern poetry journal from the South. He also tried, not always successfully, to harness the rigor of T.S. Eliot’s Modernist aesthetics without bogging down in obscurantism. But continuing ambivalence about his family led Tate to become what an acquaintance called a “child of wrathful detachment,” ready to quarrel even with friends over minor matters. Sometimes the author overemphasizes Tate’s obsession with his family, but he adeptly explains the poet’s political conservatism as a search for order in a contemporary world spiritually desiccated by scientific positivism. That quest led Tate to contribute to I’ll Take My Stand, the “Agrarian Movement” manifesto that denounced the South’s drift toward industrialization and welfare statism, and to pioneer (along with Vanderbilt friends Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks) “The New Criticism” as a response to Marxist-influenced literary theory. Tate also befriended, with mixed generosity and turbulence, such writers as John Crowe Ransom, Hart Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Lowell, Ernest Hemingway, and Caroline Gordon (who became his first wife). Underwood concludes with Tate coming to grips with the past of his family and region in The Fathers, his acclaimed 1938 novel about a collapsing antebellum family.
An admirable recounting of how Tate began his journey to influence American poetry and criticism in the 20th century. (22 b&w illustrations, not seen)