The United Tates

The Lytle-Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate

edited by Thomas Daniel Young, edited by Elizabeth Sarcone
University Press of Mississippi, 395 pp., $37.50

Ann Waldron’s excellent life of Caroline Gordon is the most intelligent and readable biography yet to appear of any writer of the Southern Renaissance. It tells a story fascinating in human terms, even if the reader has no interest whatever in that literary movement. To me Ms. Waldron’s book was a delight and a revelation, for, though Allen Tate was my friend during the last three decades of his life, I never met Caroline Gordon and knew of their life together only at second hand. This book fills in many blanks, explains many hints and allusions. But one of its strengths is that it does not attempt to explain everything: Ms. Waldron is perceptive about her subjects and understands the complex relations among them remarkably well; but she never pretends to explain them completely.

The central mystery in this book is the relation between Caroline and Allen, who were lifelong lovers and collaborators, but so tormented each other from time to time that they found life together finally impossible. Though Ms. Waldron naturally and properly sees Allen chiefly through Caroline’s eyes, she is resolutely nonpartisan and aware of the faults—as well as the great virtues—on both sides. Caroline herself, while conscious of all Allen’s absurdities—his “respectful indifference” to nature, his frequent complaints of writer’s block and other ailments (which did not prevent him from producing a steady stream of biographies, essays, reviews, stories, letters, and a superb novel, as well as his splendid and highly wrought poetry), his susceptibility to the charms of other women—never ceased to admire and almost worship him. The relationship often seemed comic from outside (and sometimes even from inside), and Ms. Waldron brings this aspect out fully, but manages to do so without cutting down either person. It would be very easy for anyone—and perhaps especially for any woman—writing about Caroline to make Allen the villain; this she does not do. Like Caroline, she is irreverent but never disrespectful toward him. Her poise and the balance of sympathy she maintains are remarkable.

The reader is amused without ever losing sight of the reality of the suffering involved or the exceptional gifts and dedication of these two people. So the book is both entertaining and, for me at least, extremely moving. It is a great love story, like George Meredith’s Modern Love:

Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat….
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!

Fortunately, Ms. Waldron’s tone is without a trace of Victorian lugubriousness; it is lively and, wherever possible, light.

She opens with the Tate ménage at its height in 1937, when Ford Madox Ford, with his wife, secretary, and sister-in-law, spent the summer at Benfolly, the Tates’ house in Tennessee. Robert Lowell had arrived uninvited and lived …

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