Reassessing the Reassessment: John Glass on Allen Tate

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Allen Tate: The Modern Mind and the Discovery of Enduring Love
by John Glass
(The Catholic University of America Press, 376 pp., $59.95)

In some ways, John Glass’s new book, Allen Tate: The Modern Mind and the Discovery of Enduring Love, has been a long time coming. It has been ten years since Robert Brinkmeyer recognized, in his essay for the Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South, the flurry of revisionary criticism surrounding the Southern Renaissance and concluded that “Now seems like a good time to reassess the reassessment.” Given last year’s publication of The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom, the recent international attention paid to Allen Tate by Polish critic Joseph Kuhn, and Vanderbilt Library’s new online archive of the research material for Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro? (a resource praised by Ta-Nehisi Coates, David W. Blight, and others), the response to Brinkmeyer’s call for renewed critical consideration seems to be quickly growing in volume. So while we may not be entirely surprised to find this new book on Allen Tate, what is surprising is that this book should prove an important volume for those interested in a poet who has already received such voluminous critical attention.

In fact, “Poor Allen Tate,” as Paul Conkin has referred to him, has perhaps received more derisive criticism than any other significant American writer during the past few decades. Michael Kreyling has accused him of the equivalent of literary gerrymandering to satisfy his own cultural politics, while Thomas Underwood has made him play the role of the pathologically stunted child of an overbearing mother. Glass, however, attempts to understand his subject’s beliefs by coming to terms with Tate’s “private belief about the nature of the self.”

By stating this as his objective, Glass argues for a critical approach that recognizes the autonomy of the work of art and its ability to interrogate and illuminate human experience. Reversing the approach that sees the artistic work as symptomatic of cultural forces, Glass argues instead that “Southern culture is not the lens through which Tate is brought into focus. On the contrary, it is Tate’s work that helps bring the South into focus.” While this reversal of a more common critical mode may be imperfect, overly simplifying the issue, it does allow Glass to come to novel and interesting insights.

Perhaps the best example is one of the earliest: his discussion of Tate’s encounter with “Aunt Martha.” In his memoirs, Tate describes a childhood journey with his mother to see Aunt Martha Jackson, an ancient woman, formerly enslaved to Tate’s family, who was rumored to be the half-sister of Tate’s great-grandfather. Now blind, this “blood-cousin,” as Tate describes her, lays her hands on the young boy’s face and proclaims that he resembles his ancestors. Despite the various factual impossibilities surrounding the scene—Aunt Martha would have to have been older than one-hundred and twenty for all the stories surrounding her to be true—Tate says that the episode had a profound effect upon him and “reversed my stance.”

The significance of this reversal cannot be sufficiently appreciated if one does not acknowledge Tate’s reprehensible views on race, which Tate held early in his career and to which Glass could have called more attention. Underwood’s biography Allen Tate: Orphan of the South (2003) documents Tate’s history of racism at length. During the ‘20s and ‘30s, Tate spent a great deal of effort defending the lost agrarian lifestyle of the South, and displayed a shocking sympathy for the slave system upon which it was built. While he never committed to the defense of slavery in public, Tate did convey in a letter to Mark Van Doren that he believed “the end, agrarian rule, would justify the means, slavery, if no other means were at hand.” In another letter, this time addressed to John Brooks Wheelwright, Tate went so far as to bemoan the absence of slavery given the modern race troubles: “It’s too bad that the negro has no interested protector—for example, an owner—and is at the mercy of the mob. I see no solution.” While these statements were made in the context of abstract political theorizing, Tate’s racism also extended to and infected his views on personal interaction as well. In an infamous letter written to Lincoln Kirstein, editor of the Hound and Horn—a letter that Tate later tried to suppress through legal action—Tate left no room for doubt regarding his personal feelings towards African Americans: “The negro race is an inferior one … A white woman pregnant with a negro child becomes a counter symbol, one of evil and pollution.” As Underwood states, this is truly Tate at his worst. Yet just as one cannot do justice to Tate by ignoring the worst of him, neither can one obtain a true image of the man if one ignores the efforts that he made to correct these failings. As he once told Malcolm Cowley, “I wasn’t born with virtue in these matters; I have had to acquire it.” And so he did—or at least attempted to—supporting the Montgomery bus system boycott, criticizing those who prevented African Americans from registering to vote, and even speaking alongside Dr. Martin Luther King at a civil rights event. These were all dramatic and public actions, and yet they were calculated to be so. While one would like to take him at his word regarding his conversion away from such racist opinions, Tate’s correspondence reveals a concern primarily for the damage that these opinions had done to his public image more than anything else. It is this complex and dramatic change that Tate merely hints at in his understated description of a “reversed stance.”

The troubling complexity of Tate’s racial prejudice is a key aspect in the narrative of his personal and spiritual development, yet to his book’s detriment, Glass does not sufficiently acknowledge it. Nevertheless, Glass’s close reading of the “Aunt Martha” scene as depicted in Tate’s memoir does have value. Glass focuses on Tate’s artistic decisions and explicates Tate’s various allusions to Classical literature in order to show how Tate presents Aunt Martha in the role of prophetic priestess and thereby recreates the sense of his epiphany, a sudden realization that, as Glass says, “the Old Order of Virginia continues in unlikely places, in a boy from Kentucky, and . . . that order is itself a recognizable vestige of an even older one.” Glass claims that, as a result of this episode, Tate’s sense of family and of himself “extended to include tangible complicity in slavery and adultery”; however, in his attempt “to fit [his experience] into a pattern” by writing it down, Tate, Glass argues, universalizes his subjective experience so that the reader can come to a deeper understanding of southern culture in particular and of human sinfulness—along with the possibility of grace—in general.

Tate’s attempt at fitting the events of his life into a larger pattern relies, as Glass explains, on the premise that “the uncertainties of his present moment are not essentially different from those encountered and faced by his ancestors.” For Tate, these ancestors extend beyond the Old South into a much broader literary tradition. Glass’s reading of the essay “Remarks on the Southern Religion” shows how much is to be gained if one bears this tradition in mind while studying Tate. For example, Glass draws attention to a relatively short section of that essay in which Tate describes the modern mind as “vaunting Oedipus, who blind at last . . . has accomplished the murder of Laius and. . . married Jocasta. . . .” To my knowledge, no critic has given this section of the essay any more attention than a casual literary allusion is due, but Glass, through his extensive explication of Tate’s use of this symbol, demonstrates that it constitutes far more than casual pedantry. If Oedipus serves as the symbol of modern man, then Laius, his father, must stand as an apt symbol of the tradition out of which modernism was born, and if the story is continued to its logical conclusion, then it is modernity’s estrangement from its past that has resulted in the acts of violence that it has committed against both its heritage and itself.

Such a reading of Tate’s essay is not especially new, but Glass does not stop there. In fact, he argues that, as Tate’s essay focuses particularly on the modern mind in the South, it stands to reason that Laius in a special way represents, not only all of the past, but also, and more specifically, the South’s past. Of course, anyone who has read Oedipus Rex knows that Laius is far from innocent in his own right. Indeed, the “violence and impious pride” Laius demonstrates in Sophocles’ play makes him, as Glass asserts, “an especially well-chosen image of tradition in the antebellum South.” By figuring both the modern and traditional southerner in these terms, Tate intends his reader to see in the development of southern culture “the transmission of a curse.” This curse, however, will not go unnoticed forever, for, as Tate writes, “the end is yet to come. Tiresias is yet to come.” Just as Tiresias, the blind prophet scorned by Oedipus, sets the young headstrong king on his path of self-discovery with his confusing yet troubling words, Tate argues that The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot, especially its Tiresias episode, presents modern man with an equally confusing and troubling intimation of his own sins. The implication of Tate’s argument becomes increasingly clear: modern man must come to recognize the significance of the outrages he has committed against his own flawed heritage, but to do so, he must listen to the prophets of his age.

While, through this reading, Glass explains Tate’s understanding of Southern tradition in Oedipal terms, his explication escapes the reductions of many psychoanalytical critics because his focus is on what Tate can reveal to us about history and myth, rather than on what an abbreviated version of either can reveal about the inner workings of Tate’s mind. Glass concludes, “Tate effectively swings the reader’s focus across a span of two-and-a-half millennia from an image of modern man in ancient Greek drama to the same image found in twentieth-century poetry…. the dexterity with which Tate makes the connection is impressive.” The same could be said of Glass’s explication.

Throughout his book, Glass argues that the driving question that motivated Tate during his poetic endeavors was “Whom and what shall our souls believe?” Tate was keenly aware of the answers provided by art and history, and both—especially southern history—encouraged in him a tragic worldview. But in order to make full sense of human life as tragedy, Tate had to find an authority external to himself. “One might assert man’s tragic destiny,” writes Glass, “or his flawed nature, but there could be no justification for such a view apart from an appeal to private conviction or to past examples of poets and thinkers who held similar views. Man is not tragic without the admission that he is subject to the pieties.” The reason for Glass’s success in this book lies in the fact that he is willing to give what T. S. Eliot calls a “poetic assent” to these same pieties. Doing so, Glass is capable of offering key insights into illuminating passages.

As Glass makes clear, Tate found, over the course of his career, that the answer to his question “Whom and what shall our souls believe?” lay by necessity in the realm of religious belief, and the last of his poetry—beginning with “Seasons of the Soul”—explores the questions of sin, faith, and redemption. However, the purpose of these poems is not to provide its readers with their own religious experience, nor is it meant to accomplish the poet’s own personal redemption. Instead, as Glass says, “Tate’s poem is one of arriving at a state of mind where, or from which, religious conversion becomes possible.” In other words, Tate chooses for his artistic goal one much more circumspect than that of Milton, who sought to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, Tate seeks only to justify to his readers his own way to God.

While Glass’s sympathy with Tate’s religious views allows him novel insights, at other times it runs away with his criticism, which sometimes takes on the tone of an apologetic. For example, his assertion that the image of an ancient limestone windowsill in “The Swimmers” must be a reference to St. Monica’s deathbed vision is perhaps, as the medieval scripture scholars would say, a better example of eisegesis than exegesis. Moreover, his conclusion that Tate “writes his way out of Modernism” is somewhat weakened by his lack of explanation as to what exactly it was that drew Tate to Modernism in the first place. And as already mentioned, many readers will rightly find his minimal discussion regarding Tate and race to detract from his otherwise thorough description of Tate’s personal growth and development.

Nevertheless, the book is not without its own substantial accomplishment. Glass set out to chart the growth of a poet’s internal life and his attempts at “fitting it into a pattern,” and, in doing so, Glass continues a rich tradition of literary criticism characterized by civility and understanding. In the end, he helps us come to a more comprehensive view of the poet and of his poetry, reminding us that our assessments of both can benefit from a reassessed reassessment.