Allen Tate
Allen Tate; drawing by David Levine

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 in a tent on the lawn. (After they all left, Katherine Anne Porter came and stayed six weeks.) The second paragraph reads:

Ford had been half in love with Caroline when she had worked as his secretary in New York ten years before. He had helped her write her first novel and then, reviewing it, had placed her among the best writers in America. Allen was not as fond of Ford as Caroline was, but he tolerated him for Caroline’s sake, and some people said he encouraged Ford’s attentions to Caroline, hoping for a clear field for himself and his flirtations with other women. Nobody in the world except Allen would ever dream that Caroline would succumb to advances from Ford or anybody else; Caroline was a relentlessly chaste wife—and a jealous one.

As this passage suggests, Ms. Waldron is very candid, and it testifies to her tact and good sense that she persuaded those who knew the Tates best to talk so freely—Andrew Lytle, Brainard and Frances Cheney, Malcolm Cowley, Ashley Brown, for example, and certainly not least, the Tates’ daughter, Nancy. Close Connections, like Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, unites candor with magnanimity in portraying a whole group and an era as well as a single person.

I have plunged into the personal aspect of the book without first explaining the public aspect suggested by the subtitle “Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance.” The two cannot be separated, for the Tates’ hospitality and attractiveness as a couple were as important to the movement as their accomplishments as writers and teachers. When they married in 1925, Allen was living precariously by his writing in New York, after graduating from Vanderbilt, where he had been a leader of the group of poet-critics who published the little magazine The Fugitive (1922–1925). Allen, with such ex-fugitives as John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren, reinforced by eight other writers and academics, published the Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand in 1930, and for some years remained much concerned with Southern history, social and economic problems, and—more briefly—politics. While the Southern Renaissance is sometimes said to include much that is remote from the Fugitive/Agrarian groups—Faulkner and Wolfe, for example—these groups were central to the movement, insofar as it was a movement.


Both Tates leaned toward an embattled austerity in their writings, but they were in person not like that at all. They were sociable and convivial, but these qualities were in the service of an absolute commitment to writing and to those who were trying to write, and, secondarily, to their native region. Though Allen’s great theme was the fragmentation of the modern world, the dissociation of the modern sensibility, the Tates were themselves models of integrity, dedicated to the unity of life and work. Both acted throughout their lives as voluntary consultants to innumerable would-be writers, some of whom remained obscure while others became famous. (Caroline, for example, worked intensively with William Slater Brown on his unsuccessful novel, but gave much help to successful writers as different as William Price Fox and Flannery O’Connor.) Yet while they kept the Muses’ sterner laws in an essentially unworldly manner, they enjoyed worldly pleasures, from gossip to games (especially charades), detective stories, jokes and limericks, and, especially, drinking.

Peter Taylor’s testimony is typical: Allen, impressed by his writing in the freshman composition course at South-western, asked him home for dinner, and Taylor recalls,

“I had never met a writer. I thought Caroline would be a dried up professor’s wife. She was plump then and didn’t fix herself up but she was full of laughter and fierce. It was wonderful for me to meet the Tates, to find someone who made me feel that what I was writing was important and serious, that it was not just local color.”

Tate encouraged Taylor to send his stories off to magazines and persuaded him to enroll at Vanderbilt that fall. “When I went to Vanderbilt, it happened that I was assigned to Donald Davidson for registration,” said Taylor. “I told him I wanted to study under John Crowe Ransom and he said, ‘Come on, I’ll take you over and introduce you.’ We went over to where Mr. Ransom was registering students and Davidson said, ‘John, here’s a boy Allen has sent us.’ That was the way things used to be done.”

I knew about Allen from friends and personal experience, but had known about Caroline only from her letters to Sally Wood.1 As these letters revealed, and Ms. Waldron’s book demonstrates more fully, Caroline was a warm, highspirited, and entertaining correspondent and a funny, often wickedly witty commentator on the social scene. But one would never suspect this from her nine novels, which, though admirably done in the Ford-James tradition, are heavily freighted with historical, moral, and (in the later ones) theological symbolism and almost wholly lacking in humor. Except for Aleck Maury, Sportsman, they are strict and uncompromising tragic works, offering the reader few enticements.None Shall Look Back (1937), her Civil War novel, and Green Centuries (1941), set on the frontier in pioneer days, are perhaps the best. She never received either the popularity or the critical acclaim that she hoped for and seemed perpetually on the verge of getting.

One of the remarkable things about the Tates’ relationship was that it seemed to be totally lacking in the competitiveness so prominent in many literary marriages—for example, that of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.Though Caroline was four years older, Allen, with his precocious brilliance and charm, had already established a reputation as poet and critic when they met, and he remained the dominant partner without question. Caroline, daughter of a schoolmaster turned preacher (of whom Aleck Maury is an idealized portrait), had been a newspaper reporter in Chattanooga while also trying to write a novel. Malcolm Cowley describes her before the marriage:

She wasn’t “one of us.” “We” were mostly poets and intellectuals and men. Caroline was a newspaperwoman from Chattanooga…. Caroline was writing unpublished novels that “we” didn’t read. Later she felt—and rightly, in part—that she was a victim of sexual discrimination.

Caroline’s duties as wife and hostess came first; her writing had to be squeezed in before or after. (Allen shared in the domestic chores, but it does not seem to have occurred to either of them that the order could be otherwise.)But Allen from the beginning supported and encouraged her writing to the utmost, even writing scenes for her when she was stuck, providing helpful suggestions when needed, and unflaggingly promoting her reputation. Ms.Waldron thus describes Caroline’s dilemmas in 1931:


Caroline was torn. She wanted to live in the country where she could walk in the woods and plant a garden and where she found the sources of her work, but she liked to be surrounded by intelligent, amusing people all the time. She needed time to devote to her writing, but she never turned her back on a chance for uproarious celebration. She wanted Nancy to have a happy childhood, but she resented the time that a child took from her writing, and she never let Nancy’s existence interfere with a party. She loved Allen possessively, adoringly, passionately, almost to the point of monomania, but Allen dithered about [his never completed biography of Robert E.] Lee, wrote little or nothing, and brought in very little money. She wanted to spend more time on everything she wrote, but they needed money so badly she felt compelled to hurry and finish each book and each story as fast as she could in order to get more money.

Caroline’s achievement under these circumstances is remarkable. Ms. Waldron, who rarely speaks out in her own person, comments:

The most avowed advocate of a patriarchal society, she had always maintained that everything she learned that was worth anything she had learned from a man and said many times that women lost their power when they gained the right to vote…. Everything in her life indicates that she was a strong, independent woman—who wanted to be something else. She kept her maiden name, worked all her life, was anything but a stay-at-home housewife. She acted like a feminist, talked like a Southern ninny.

Ms. Waldron’s other personal judgment concerns the Tates’ efforts in 1955–1956 to repair their failing marriage with the help of the Catholic Church: “Never did a couple seek the help of God and His Church more devoutly and more earnestly.And never did God and His Church seem more impotent or less interested.”

Caroline’s eccentricity in later life—her devotion, with all the zeal of the convert, not only to Roman Catholicism, but to mushrooms, painting, and Jungian psychology; her whimsical and peremptory teaching (though earlier she had been an enormously successful teacher of writing) that nearly ruined the fledgling University of Dallas—was at the opposite pole from Allen’s skeptical poise, which never deserted him. The Jungian analyst they both consulted in Rome “liked Allen better than she did Caroline—Allen’s charm always worked—but she conceded that she admired Caroline’s struggle to understand herself, as well as her strength and magnanimous qualities that showed through even in attacks of violence and despair.”

Perhaps the chief limitation of Ms.Waldron’s book is that Allen remains a somewhat enigmatic figure—inevitably, since Allen must be seen primarily through Caroline’s eyes. But the reader who knows little about Allen must be puzzled that the man who is seen here as rather lazy and hypochondriacal, perpetually having trouble writing, uninterested in nature but much interested in other women, can be worthy of the whole-hearted admiration Caroline never ceased to give him. I cannot pluck out the heart of Allen’s mystery, nor have I space here to describe his towering achievement as a man of letters (poet, critic, biographer, novelist, controversialist, editor); but I can offer some sidelights on his character and personality both from my own acquaintance with him and from the new volume of his correspondence with Andrew Lytle.

With the possible exception of the letters between Allen Tate and John Peale Bishop,2 which are less personal and sometimes rather consciously full-dress (Tate remarked at one point that he and Bishop were probably at the moment the only people in America conducting an eighteenth-century correspondence), these are the best letters of Tate’s yet published.Both as personal letters and as criticism of each other’s work, Lytle’s are often just as good; and the interplay between the two men is extraordinarily interesting.Tate and Lytle, three years younger, had been barely acquainted at Vanderbilt; Ransom urged them together in 1927 when Tate was living in New York and Lytle was studying drama at Yale. Though their literary interests were somewhat different—Lytle at first thought of himself as primarily an actor and a playwright, later as a novelist; Tate always thought of himself as a poet—they found each other very congenial and discovered much common ground.

Tate first acquired both a wider public and some financial reward through his biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis and agonized for years trying to write a life of Lée, which he abandoned because he couldn’t believe in Lee.3 Lytle (born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee) fully shared these Civil War interests and himself wrote a fine life of Bedford Forrest, the best, they both agreed, of the Southern generals. Of Jefferson Davis, Tate said,

If I had lived in that time I should probably have been a moderate, but looking back it is easy to see that the extremists were right; they were the only men who really understood the situation and knew their own minds.Davis never knew his; Davis never knew fundamentally what the war was all about. He really thought it was about political abstractions and civil liberties; it was fought (largely unconsciously) for that irrational good known as national independence.

One point Lytle made about Forrest was that he showed how false the myth of the “aristocratic” South was:

As a matter of fact that good yeomanry was more Southern than the Quality, certainly they were more numerous, and certainly their bravery and devotion to the cause, seasoned with a salty humor, can demand the finest sort of admiration. I am going to show how the Jeffersonian Democracy leavened the whole, making it possible for a man like Forrest to become a rich planter, and Davis’s people for that matter, as well as Calhoun’s. There was this interplay between all the classes, a mutual esteem, that made it a solid thing.

The correspondence covers some forty years, from 1927 to 1968, of literary history, from the Agrarian movement in the early 1930s to the history of the Sewanee Review, the quarterly that Lytle edited in 1943–1944 and again from 1961 to 1973 and Tate edited from 1944 to 1946. There are often amusing observations on other writers, especially but by no means exclusively Southern. Tate said of Ransom that “his leaving Tennessee has been a disaster, and I am partly to blame for it. I pushed him into Ohio.”He comments on a review by Randall Jarrell in the Southern Review: “And I thought Jarrell bad—fresh and pert, though intelligent on the whole; he could have made his points about Miss Ellen [Glasgow] and Stark [Young] with less impertinence. There’s just something about Jarrell that I don’t quite like. He has a very nasty little ego.” He says of Lowell that “we like him but feel that he is potentially a nuisance.”

There is excellent detailed criticism of each other’s work, in which both show an absence of vanity and a genuine desire to help: I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an extensive demonstration of how much use to a writer candid, friendly, and intelligent criticism can be. When Tate tells Lytle not only how good he thinks The Velvet Horn and A Name for Evil are, but also what he thinks is wrong with them, and when Lytle does the same thing with Tate’s “The Mediterranean” and his novel, The Fathers, each takes the suggestions gratefully, and they often proceed to discuss revisions in detail.

They often write very personal letters, which range from profound questions of philosophy, history, and religion to the trivia of daily life. These produce fascinating portraits of the two men. Lytle, for example, makes a highly perceptive comparison:

This business of place and location exposes perhaps a temperamental difference between us. You know you’ve always been a wanderer, and yet you’ve never wandered in your mind because you live there. You’ve never felt much for the natural world, whereas with me, in the aspect of growing things,…it’s been my great struggle to give it up…. I don’t see how you can save the truth of God and man except in terms of the conventions of some society…. Naturally religious belief is the spiritual core, but theology isn’t the only discipline…. The South’s crucial situation was that the trading religion you mentioned once did not express, indeed contradicted, the experience of a people involved in the turn of season and the mystery of growing…. Whatever salvation is for me will have to lie in my work.

Tate replies,

In the first place, if you are right, Christianity could never have risen; it bucked the conventions of the Roman world…. But again I do not believe it is the physical, natural place as such that even you need…. I come more and more to the view that much of our agrarian thinking twenty years ago was much more modern than we realized: we were setting up the means as the end…. Having agreed that the agrarian is superior to the industrial society as a means, we tended to rest the case there, and thought of the agrarian as the end.

Tate’s letter to Lytle, on his final parting from Caroline, reveals the extent of his self-knowledge:

My last hope was that the threat of divorce might by force of shock (almost in the psychiatric sense) root out her accumulated grievances. At some deep, compulsive level she secretly claimed the privilege of keeping me as her husband and almost daily punishing me, meanwhile herself suffering intolerably from remorse. I am not good enough a Christian to accept this vicious circle, and the fact that I am at least three-fourths responsible for the situation does not make it easier to bear…. Moreover I am tired of abortive love-affairs, which are short-lived and increase my guilt, at the same time that they do less than good to the women involved. This hasn’t happened for some time, but it is a constant threat because I am dependent on women, and I cannot make a go of it living alone.

No biography of Tate has appeared since his death in 1979, though at least three are in progress, and one of these—Robert Buffington’s, undertaken before Tate died with his approval and help—promises to be excellent. The only one published so far, by Radcliffe Squires (1971), deals primarily with Tate as a man of letters. I would like to add a few comments to supplement the picture of Allen given in Waldron’s book and the Lytle-Tate letters. These brief remarks must be preceded by the warning that Allen Tate was an extremely complex man, and that I knew him only in certain ways and in his later years.

I met him at Princeton in 1940 and heard him deliver “Miss Emily and the Bibliographer” to the English Club. This was an exciting but extremely impolitic thing for him to do, since his thesis, presented to an audience of historical scholars, was that historical scholars have loved and preserved the corpus of English literature only as Faulkner’s Miss Emily loved and preserved the dead body of her lover. There was no discussion afterward: everyone tiptoed out, as at a funeral.

When I came to teach at Vanderbilt after the war, I reviewed his Poems: 1922–1947 for one of the local newspapers and Tate expressed gratification, as he did again when I reviewed On the Limits of Poetry for the Sewanee Review a little later. When I became editor of the Review in 1952, I asked him to serve, with Andrew Lytle and Francis Fergusson, as an advisory editor; Allen was exceptionally helpful to the Review without ever being intrusive; having been editor himself, he knew the pitfalls and temptations; and he knew virtually everyone in the literary world. In those years and later, I found repeatedly—as did many others—that Allen loved to do good by stealth; at moments of crisis, he would turn up, having already written the blurb or the recommendation or spoken to the person in power, with congratulations in victory or support and counsel in defeat.

To me Allen’s most remarkable trait was his absolute commitment to art, literature, and criticism, and to those who practiced them. This was so much taken for granted that it was never discussed; in fact, Allen was in his writing mostly preoccupied with the limits of art and criticism.

His commitment to art was the foundation of his second most remarkable quality, his gift for friendship. Assuming that his friends shared this dedication (though he must have known how uncertain it was in many of them), Allen found a basis for friendship with a remarkably diverse and sometimes unlikely group of people—Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellman, Malcolm Cowley, Sir Herbert Read, Jacques Maritain, Katherine Anne Porter, Archibald MacLeish, Kenneth Burke, Léonie Adams, Joseph Frank, and Willard Thorp, for example, to say nothing of poets like T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Phelps Putnam, Hart Crane, Denis Devlin, St.-John Perse, Howard Nemerov.

Allen made, I think, two assumptions in his friendships: first, the dedication to art I have mentioned (and with this common bond superficial differences didn’t matter); second, that we are all frail and imperfect beings, and therefore there will be no standing on dignity. Allen went immediately to a first-name basis with those he liked (young or old, obscure or famous), and he was impatient of formalities and superficialities; as Johnson said of Burke, “He put his mind to yours,” and though he never presumed or intruded, he wanted real contact and was ready to be candid about himself. His frailties—most obviously, being sometimes too fond of drink and of the ladies—made him seem more approachable.

Allen’s gift for criticism was so spectacular that it could seem almost a parlor trick, though obviously nothing could have been more remote from his intention.He could take your poem, essay, or story and tell you on the spot what was best in it and just what was wrong. Furthermore, he would obviously enjoy doing it and you would enjoy the process, because you would share his conviction that the whole literary enterprise is supremely important and that your attempts at writing are worth taking with the greatest seriousness. He was, of course, not infallible; but as a practical critic he seemed close to it. Throughout his whole career he served willingly as literary consultant to hundreds of young writers; even in old age he would write encouraging letters to new writers whose work he liked. “Shyness,” he liked to say, “is a form of egotism.” The bulk of his unpublished practical criticism must have been at least as large as that of his published criticism, and probably, in its different way, just as valuable.

Because Allen’s published criticism was sometimes a bit toplofty and even truculent in tone (on the principle that the best defense is an offense), people who did not know him sometimes assume that he must have been personally arrogant.4 But (except perhaps in youth or among enemies) nothing could be farther from the truth. Lowell’s phrases “jaunty and magisterial” and “stately yet bohemian, leisurely yet dedicated” are exact: while brilliantly picturing the decline of the modern world and its philosophical and religious confusion in his work, he was in person no prophet of gloom and doom, but rather dwelt on the positive side, his conviction of the greatness of the modern achievement in the arts. He personified the vocation of Man of Letters in a way extremely rare in America—or anywhere else, though more often approximated in France or England.

The two books under review complement each other in a satisfying way. The biography, in addition to its human interest and its usefulness as background to Caroline’s fiction and criticism, serves also as an excellent introduction to Lytle and Tate. The Lytle-Tate letters, with their extended passages of serious and candid discussion of the Agrarian movement, of each other’s literary works, and of questions of religion, philosophy, and history, help to explain why these two men were so much admired by those around them. Lytle, who shared Caroline’s feeling for nature and for fiction, wrote the best criticism of her novels, and some hints of it appear in his letters.

The concluding words of this review must be those of Jacques Maritain, Caroline’s epigraph to The Malefactors and now inscribed on her tombstone: “It is for Adam to interpret the voices which Eve hears.”

This Issue

March 2, 1989