True South: Allen Tate's 'The Fathers'

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The literature of the Civil War is not merely vast and varied but at the very heart of American literature itself. Without the Civil War we would not have the work of William Faulkner, whose every syllable was informed and inspired by the war. It gave us "The Red Badge of Courage," the finest book of Stephen Crane's brief, incandescent career, and Stark Young's "So Red the Rose," Shelby Foote's "Shiloh" and, of course, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind." It gave us the magisterial memoirs of Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and much of the poetry of Walt Whitman. The issues raised by the conflict may have torn the nation asunder, but they gave -- and still give -- our writers rich and fruitful raw material.

The most famous of these countless books, "Gone With the Wind," was published in 1936. Two years later there appeared another first novel about the war, Allen Tate's "The Fathers." Superficially similar in some respects to "GWTW" -- a protagonist not unlike Rhett Butler, an assortment of jejune aristocrats, male bonding and bristling rivalry -- it enjoyed none of that book's commercial success, though its reviews were laudatory. Thanks to the good offices of the Swallow Press it remains in print, but it almost certainly is little read outside university courses in Southern literature and even goes unmentioned in the brief overview of Civil War literature in the usually reliable Oxford Companion to American Literature.

This is not especially surprising, given that the American market for serious works of literature is not exactly robust, but it certainly is an injustice, for "The Fathers" is a work of genuine consequence. It is not, as the late Arthur Mizener quite foolishly says in the beginning of his introduction to the Swallow Press edition, "the novel 'Gone With the Wind' ought to have been," since that is pitting an apple against an orange, but it most certainly is an intelligent, vivid, multi-layered and historically accurate novel, one that treats the antebellum South not without sympathy but with far more irony and distance than Margaret Mitchell was capable of mustering.

At the time "The Fathers" was published Tate was in his late thirties and already had achieved a considerable reputation within the literary and scholarly communities. Born in 1899 in Kentucky, he was the child of an impecunious, unhappy marriage. Tate did not begin to find himself until he entered Vanderbilt University in 1918, where he found personally and intellectually congenial company, fellow students with whom he established a magazine called the Fugitive. It became the house organ of a group of poets and scholars, the Agrarians, who detested the modern industrial world and looked back with longing to the Old South -- not to slavery, but to the Southern countryside and farms and even plantations. The Agrarians romanticized Ol' Dixie every bit as much in their own way as did the Daughters of the Confederacy in theirs, but they wrote out of a deep belief in farms rather than factories.

In 1930 Tate and several others published "I'll Take My Stand," an Agrarian manifesto that provoked great debate about the South and its future. Tate himself had gained renown with the publication in 1928 of "Ode to the Confederate Dead," which to this day remains his most famous poem, as well as with brief biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. As this suggests, he was haunted by if not obsessed with the antebellum and Civil War South. His biographer, Thomas A. Underwood, traces this to Tate's mother, who fancied herself a member of the Virginia aristocracy and clung to romantic illusions about it and the Old South. Underwood argues that Tate "learned to think of himself as a member of the genteel class" and "compensated for the shame he felt over his parents' financial condition by carrying himself as something of a Southern aristocrat."

It was as part of his struggle to locate his place in Southern history and tradition, Underwood says, that Tate wrote "The Fathers." He saw himself, in Underwood's words, as "an orphan of the South" and started writing this book as a history of his mother's Virginia ancestors, presumably in the hope of proving them to be every bit as distinguished as she had represented. Gradually, though, Tate's search for fact turned into the creation of fiction, a novel that simultaneously mourns the passing of a world that Tate cherished yet that exposes, with utter clarity and lack of sentimentality, the self-inflicted wounds that made its demise inevitable.

My own first encounter with "The Fathers" came, unsurprisingly, in an academic setting. In 1968-69, during a nine-month sabbatical from the newspaper where I was then working, I undertook a fairly systematic study of Southern literature. This included a rereading of "Gone With the Wind" and then "The Fathers," which a professor suggested as an antidote to it. As one who has always found things to admire as well as dislike about "GWTW," I was unsure that an antidote was needed, but I quickly realized that "The Fathers" was fiction of a different, and far higher, order. I was especially struck by its muscular prose and its exceptionally believable characters.

A second reading leaves me even more strongly convinced of this. Taking place over a period of about a year beginning in April 1860, it uses "domestic trials" to illuminate and humanize the "public crisis" then taking place. Set in rural Virginia, Alexandria and Washington, it tells of two white families -- the Buchans, members of "that unique order of society known latterly as the Virginia aristocracy," and the Poseys, who, "like children playing a game . . . had their fingers perpetually crossed -- which permitted them to do what they pleased." The novel is not a linear story but an exploration of the ties and tensions between the two families, and how these reflect what is happening to America as its terrible war begins.

The narrator is Lacy Gore Buchan, 65 years old, "an unmarried old man [who], having nothing else to do, with a competence saved from the practice of medicine, thinks he has a story to tell." He continues:

"Is it not something to tell, when a score of people whom I knew and loved, people beyond whose lives I could imagine no other life, either out of violence in themselves or the times, or out of some misery or shame, scattered into the new life of the modern age where they cannot even find themselves? Why cannot life change without tangling the lives of innocent persons? Why do innocent persons cease their innocence and become violent and evil in themselves that such great changes may take place?"

Lacy is looking back to events of half a century before, when he was 15 and mourning the death of his mother. The funeral takes place at Pleasant Hill, the family place in the countryside, and his recollection of that day's events sets him off on a seemingly discursive but tightly controlled (by Tate, that is) excursion into the past. "I was suspended nowhere, in a world without time," he says at one point, and this is true of the novel itself, which moves back and forth within time much as do the most complex novels of Faulkner.

Yet "The Fathers," though carefully and intricately constructed, is not at all a difficult book to read. Its prose is leisurely and at times somewhat dense, which requires one to read slowly and attentively (a demand most certainly not placed on the reader by "Gone With the Wind"), but one also reads eagerly as the individual characters and the society they inhabit move toward their unhappy ends.

The story that Lacy Buchan tells is not his own, though he figures in it. It is the story of George Posey, "the handsomest, most affable young man I had ever seen"; his wife, Susan, Lacy's sister; their father, Lewis Buchan, and his manservant, Coriolanus; a mulatto slave named Yellow Jim; and a great many other characters, white and black, Buchans or Poseys or neighbors or friends. Dominating all of them, though, is George Posey, "Brother George" as Lacy calls him, a charismatic, compelling man who inhabits a universe entirely his own. Lacy, who as a boy idolized him, finds him an endless, and unsolvable, mystery. At a crucial moment in the novel, Lacy's dead grandfather appears to him as in a dream and discusses George:

"It is never, my son, his intention to do any evil but he does evil because he has not the will to do good. The only expectancy that he shares with humanity is the pursuing grave, and the thought of extinction overwhelms him because he is entirely alone. My son, in my day we were never alone, as your brother-in-law is alone. He is alone like a tornado. His one purpose is to whirl and he brushes aside the obstacles in his way."

Impulsive and oddly innocent, George commits foolish and dangerous acts with no apparent thought for or understanding of their terrible consequences. He is an individualist, a man of the new world, in stark contrast to Lacy's father and others who went before: "Men of honor and dignity -- where are they now? . . . They did a great deal of injustice but they always knew where they stood because they thought more of their code than they did of themselves." Eventually, though, that old order became ingrown and stultified, and withered away. Allen Tate, who admired its codes and standards even as he lamented the injustice of slavery, gives it a crisp and clear-eyed salute in this estimable novel.

"The Fathers" is available in a Swallow Press paperback ($9.95).

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