Second Thoughts

John Crowe Ransom: Critical Essays and a Bibliography

edited by Thomas Daniel Young
Louisiana State, 290 pp., $8.50

Essays of Four Decades

by Allen Tate
Swallow Press, 640 pp., $10.00

The Fugitive Group: A Literary History

by Louise Cowan
Louisiana State, second printing, 277 pp., $2.45 (paper)

The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and Agrarians

by John L. Stewart
Princeton, 552 pp., $12.50

My occasion is the appearance, in revised and enlarged editions, of John Crowe Ransom’s The World’s Body, first published in 1938, and Allen Tate’s essays, which have been issued in several collections since 1936. Mr. Ransom, ever abstemious, has not given us a Collected Essays, but he has gone over The World’s Body again and added a Postscript, a long essay in second thoughts. Mr. Tate has restored some essays which were displaced in earlier collections, and he has given examples of recent work, a fine appreciation of Herbert Read, an essay on modern poetry, and a rebuke addressed to those who cultivate the unliteral imagination. Mr. Young has brought together some of the most substantial essays on Ransom’s work. The result is a big book which might have been bigger. I miss, from the testaments, Tate’s recent celebration, but otherwise most of the important pieces are included: essays by Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz. The editorial spirit is somewhat protective: in company as fervent as this, Yvor Winters’s strictures on Ransom might have been allowed.

That the history of the Fugitives is not all sweetness is shown in Mrs. Cowan’s excellent study, first published in 1959, a vivid account of the early days, the gifted friends at Vanderbilt, the rise and fall of the famous magazine. Her story ends in 1928 when the surviving Fugitives took their literary consciences into the political world, calling themselves Agrarians. Mr. Stewart’s book continues the story, concentrating upon Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Donald Davidson as Agrarians, poets, critics, novelists. Mr. Stewart is a sharp critic, too hard on Tate’s poems, but otherwise just. For him, the story is not complete: even now, I imagine, he is watching the major figures for signs, smoke signals, new images, new metaphors.

Of The World’s Body it is almost enough to say that it is a beautiful book. Ransom is always ready for close criticism, when it suits his occasion, but he is never pedantic, he never fusses about New Criticism or Old Criticism. His only requirement is that a man know his business. So he has never been guilty of wrenching the poem out of its place and age into thin air. His essays were written at a lively time, when first principles had to be defined and defended. The contexts were often religious and political, but Ransom’s natural temper is philosophical and aesthetic.

He has always been a stylist, a rhetorician of the quiet school, a poet of elegance and verve. He has not favored noise. New readers are astonished to see how much hard thinking can be done with grace; one of Ransom’s sentences, quaintly turned, will stay in the mind for years. (A minor instance, from Ransom’s review of Gone With the Wind: “We feel that Scarlett was not really stupid, but Miss Mitchell enforces her upon us frequently in that light by reading her …

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Letters

Cash Nexus October 9, 1969