Allen Tate: Orphan of the South
By Thomas A. Underwood
"Mother Wanted Me at Home"
The little white house where Allen Tate was born sat near Lexington Avenue in Winchester, a vibrant town in Clark County, Kentucky? Between its founding in the 1790s and Tate's birth on November 19, 1899, Winchester had grown from a cluster of several log cabins into an expanding city of six thousand residents. Although the courthouse in the middle of town was, to the chagrin of proud locals, "not gorgeous," the virgin timber, rich coalfields, and iron deposits in the surrounding bluegrass region lured businesses to the city, including sawmills, saloons, and even a music hall that featured both Shakespeare and blackface minstrels. Not long after one of the railroads crisscrossing Kentucky chose Winchester as a terminus, the adjacent hemp farms, horse ranches, and cattle ranges gave way to paved streets, electric wires, and streetcar tracks. Like many small towns in the South, Winchester was enjoying an economic boom.
No doubt it was lumber that brought Allen's father, John Orley Tate, to town in the mid-1890s. Orley had entered the business in 1887, when his new father-in-law brought him into the Illinois firm he owned. But Orley, only twenty-five years old at the time, took neither to the marriage with Nellie Varnell nor to the businessor for that matter to anything that interfered with his freedom to come and go as he liked. Having spent his youth living off an inheritance from his grandfather, he soon found that he was unable to get the few timber stands, mills, and farms he had taken over to generate much profit. He was well on the way to squandering the land he inherited, and had already begun bitterlyand falselyclaiming that his own uncle stole an enormous tract of mountain timber from him. The harder it became for Orley to earn a living, the more itinerant he became; soon he was dragging his growing family around the country in search of business opportunities. Before arriving in Winchester, he and Nellie had not only produced two sons, Varnell, in 1888, and Benjamin, in 1890, but had wandered as far as Washington, D.C., and Texas, and back. In 1901, when Allen was two years old, Orley moved the entire family to Ashland in order to be closer to his lumber firm and to the business contacts he needed in an ill-fated job as a salesman for an Indianapolis tool company.
Though Allen sometimes found himself sympathetically recalling his father as an innocent young man whose uncle swindled him and betrayed the family by fighting against the South in the Civil War, he more frequently remembered his father as brutal and unpredictable, as someone given to explosive fits of violence, philandering, and drinking. Long after Orley's death, Allen stood in awe and terror of this powerfully fisted man, whose elegantly tailored suits and gentle blue eyes belied a volatile personality. Whenever Allen and his brothers misbehaved, he disciplined them with "the razor strap."
Orley had once been forced to resign from a local men's club for casting aspersions on the character of another member's wife, yet he played the role of an antebellum Southern gentleman anxious to defend his honor at any opportunity. Allen often described the horror he felt as a child of six when, at lunch with his parents, he watched his father attack a waiter in a hotel restaurant. When a young black man serving them spilled soup on the table, Orley jumped to his feet, lifted a nearby chair, and crashed it over the waiter's head, killing himor so Tare came to believe. "I was afraid of him, and never ceased to be afraid of him," he reflected later.
For obvious reasons, Nellie Tate lived on the run from Orley. A short, tiny-footed, prim woman who wore white kid gloves and frowned upon Sunday entertainment and card-playing, she did her best to insulate herself and her three sons from a husband she differed from in every way imaginable. She probably sensed that he had married her for her beautiful dark eyes and sartorial splendorand she may now have regretted the plumed hats and luxurious fur collars she had worn seductively in her youth. Both of her parents had opposed her marriage to him because he had a reputation for being a gambling rich boy who "followed the horses and women," and before long many of their fears were confirmed. In religion, Nellie found that Orley considered himself a Robert Ingersoll freethinker, whereas she assiduously studied the Bible, choosing to divide her loyalties between Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism. Although Orley's father was a pious schoolteacher, Orley never developed any interest in studying, and when it came to intellectual matters, Nellie found him dull in comparison to her father, who had attended law school. Nellie herself lacked an analytical mind, but she read voraciously, devouring novels from Thackeray to Twain to the sentimental works of Augusta Evans. Having once studied briefly at a convent in Georgetown that resembled a finishing school, she thought she was her husband's social and intellectual superior.
Next to their intellectual differences, the greatest source of tension between Allen's parents lay in the romantic feelings Nellie nurtured for her Southern ancestors. Conveniently overlooking the fact that she and Orley were of Scotch-Irish ancestry and were both born in Illinois, she tried using her family ties to Virginia and the Old South as a buffer against her husband. Nellie, whose full name was Eleanor Custis Parke Varnell Tate, claimed to have been born in Fairfax County, Virginia, June 7, 1865, on the Varnell's ancestral farm, Chestnut Grove. So inflated was the myth she attached to this estate and the surrounding land, known as Pleasant Hill, that while she herself had moved to the border state of Kentucky, she referred to Yankees who had been in Virginia for the forty years since the Civil War as "those new people." Claiming a distant relative in Robert E. Lee, she set up a rigid dichotomy between her own side of the family, the Varnells and Bogans, and Orley's relatives, the Aliens and the Tates. She told her husband in frequent diatribes that he had sprung from a family of Yankee extraction. It did not seem to matter to her that his relatives on both sides were descended from old Virginia families or that Oak Grove, the Kentucky estate where the Aliens settled, was not much different from Pleasant Hill. "My mother," Tate reflected in later life, "had a strong if undisciplined imagination. I am sure she knew in a sense, which I could not fathom, that much of what she said was not true; but she said it so often, with such richness of accumulated detail, that she came to believe it."
Years later, Tate speculated that the reason for his mother's "high-handed disrespect for history" and her self-image "as a heroine of parthenogenesis in Virginia" lay in her need to separate herself from Orley and his roving life in the New South. Orley, perhaps recognizing the difficulty of the frequent moves he made in an effort to make a better living, tried to avoid arguments with her. He rarely mentioned his forebears and refrained from challenging her lectures on genealogy. But Nellie found her marriage to him unbearable. Since the restrictive social conventions of the era prevented her from getting a divorce, she spent little time with him.
Orley Tate accepted his wife's decision to lead a nomadic life, traveling from summer resort to mountain health spa, and Allen suspected that his father wanted it that way. Though she went on her peregrinations in order to get away from Orley, she blamed the stifling weather. "It's so sticky," she would complain on the coolest of spring days, and. gathering up her copious belongings into enormous trunks big enough to hold Grandfather Varnell's wedding waistcoat and Great-Grandmother Bogan's black lace, off she would go, in search of peace of mind and idle recreation. She inherited land from her father, an unhappily married lawyer who once had eighty-one slaves and 200,000 acres of timber in several states, but she seemed determined to sell everything she owned in order to finance her seasonal expeditions.
By the time Allen was born, in Nellie Tate's thirty-fifth year, she had identified a winter escape route, too. As soon as he was old enough, she whisked him away to Nashville. Her cousin taught mathematics at Vanderbilt University, and Allen's two older brothers, Ben and Varnell, enrolled there in the fall of 1906. She was, Tate later observed, "one of the few mothers who felt that she had to follow her sons to college."
Nashville that autumn was showing the first signs of the uncontrolled urbanism and boosterism that would anger Tate during his Agrarian period in the 1930s. In 1906, the large farm estates on the fringes of the city were no longer self-sufficient and were threatened by suburban development. The city was swallowing every community nearby and had, just that September, in a carnival-like ceremony during which the Board of Trade handed over to the mayor an oversize key to the city. annexed the area surrounding the Vanderbilt campus. Intending no mockery, Nashvilleans referred to their town as "the Athens of the South," and unapologetically constructed a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, across from the university. Strings of horseless carriages, such as the new Model F Packard and the Cadillac runabout, were common features on the streets. While local developer's dreamed of building a giant railroad terminal to connect the great Illinois Central and Southern Railroads to Nashville, town businessmen made plans for the city's first movie theater and first lighted Christmas decorations. Into this environment of commercialism and urban expansion, Nellie brought her three sons, installing them in the less-than-elegant Tulane Hotel, a residential inn near the university.
Despite the flurry of activity in Nashville, Allen lay bedridden his first winter there and was tended to almost constantly by his mother. Perhaps the death of her two-year-old daughter, Annie Josephine, ten years earlier had made her so fearful of losing her youngest sonfears no doubt heightened when she observed that Allen was born with an enormous head. Although he had his mother's fair skin, high forehead, and thin hair, his cranium was so large that people were soon speculating he was hydrocephalic (his relatives, in fact, wondered if he was "all there"). Fortunately for him, a large tuft of wispy blond hair sprouted on his bulbous brow, and by the time he arrived in Nashville he had become a precocious-eyed, if sickly, six-year-old who parted his slicked tuft of hair in the middle and wore tightly laced black boots.
Tate never forgot that winter with his mother. "After chicken pox," he recalled, "I had in succession measles and scarlet fever, which kept me in bedwhere my mother seemed to like having meand I read or she read to me Grimm's Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen, G. A. Henty's With Clive in India and With Lee in Virginia, and best of all Page's Two Little Confederates, the little heroes of which I envied the blue, double-barrel guns sent to them after the War by the wounded Yankee soldier they had helped nurse back to life." When Nellie was not reading to him from American classics like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, she seemed to relish playing a role in the formation of his Southern identity, and told him storiessome true, others notabout the slaves and Civil War heroes in her own family. She was especially proud of her father, who fought at Gettysburg in Pickett's charge. Since she had no other way to spend her time, she made a career out of lecturing Allen on his genealogy. "Mother wanted me at home," he remembered.
Yet there was an increasing selfishness in the way she clung to her son. In the summer of 1907, she took him to Dawson Springs in Kentucky, but she probably had her own leisure in mind rather than his precarious health. By Christmas, when his health had deteriorated instead of improved, it was not clear whether her full-time ministrations were helping or hurting. She brought him to a local doctor, who began treating him for "nervous indigestion" and expressed to her his fears that the disorder might be related to the unusual childhood illness known as St. Vitus' dance, a disease caused by rheumatic infection in the brain and characterized by involuntary movements of the face and tongue, followed by heart disease, and, finally, respiratory-tract problems. With such a gruesome prognosis. Allen was immediately put on a liquid and dry toast diet. It was not until two years later, when Nellie took him to the Louisville doctor she saw for her neurasthenia, that they discovered the misdiagnosis. After a brief examination that included thermometer, stethoscope, and an old-fashioned thumping on the chest, the white-haired physician, dressed in the traditional Prince Albert of the day, turned to Mrs. Tate and announced, "Madame, what this boy needs is a good square meal."
Though Allen believed that his life had been saved, he never ceased to be afraid of his mother's smothering care. "The sight of her," a friend of his recalled, "could make Allen turn pale." Even after forty years, when he was going through the first of three divorces, his "very bad mother fixation" continued to haunt him. He confessed to his first wife, the Southern novelist Caroline Gordon, that he had neurotically identified her with his mother, on whom he wanted "to take revenge because she menaced him when he was young and helpless." He had come to empathize with George Washington, whose mother, he read, had "tried and humiliated" him. After learning from Julia Cherry Spruill's Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies that Washington's mother, a distant relative of Nellie, was indomitable and domineering and interfered with Washington career, he wrote a note to his brother Ben in the book's margins: "Thus, after five generations `blood will tell.' Isn't she just like Mama?"
When Allen was finally well enough to begin formal schooling in late 1908, he was still trying to escape from Nellie's attentions and was suffering a variety of humiliations. She had begun dressing him in Windsor ties and sailor suits, in Buster Brown outfits, or, worse, as Little Lord Fauntleroy. He resisted by jumping into the gutter on the way to school and rolling around in the dust so he would be scruffy enough to look more masculine. Swearing his allegiance to the great Confederate generals and pretending he was John Pelham, he fought off "imaginary Yankees" with a wood saber. His classmates picked on him anyway, bullies beat him up from time to time, and everyone teased him about his "small voice" and Yankeeish Kentucky accent, rude to their ears in comparison to Nashville's soft drawl.
Since the community surrounding Vanderbilt was now within the city limits, Allen was eligible to enroll as a second grader in the well-known grammar school the Tarbox, on Broad Street. A red brick building of three stories, the school had become the best elementary school in West Nashville and was attracting children from the most distinguished families. Classes, however, were run in a militaristic fashion, and students were required to march to their performance-ranked seats to the tune of live piano music. It was possible to advance to the preferred seating area only by reciting lessons before the entire class. Miscreants were subjected to public humiliation by a paddle-brandishing principal, a Mr. E. S. Brugh, who seemed to enjoy eliciting shrieks of pain from his students. The upper grades met on the top floors, the lower grades on the bottom, and boys and girls were kept completely apart from one another even on the playground, where administrators erected a special barricade. Since the school was also segregated racially, the blacks at Tarbox were not students but the custodians who tended the potbellied stoves and an old woman who ran the concession stand outside.
Casting about for ways to prove his manliness in the midst of this alien urban environment, Allen made friends with a few boys his age and joined a neighborhood football team known as the Little Vanderbilts. Though he never made a tackle, he did learn how to pass the ball and was allowed to pose as center in a newspaper photograph. But just when his health seemed to be mending, he suffered a relapse and had to withdraw from school, this time staying at home for a full year, during which his father rejoined the family in Nashville and set up another short-lived business. Allen was confined to bed again. Images from this period in his life would haunt him and later appeared in his poetry: "At nine years a sickly boy lay down / At bedtime on a cot by mother's bed / And as the two darks merged the room became / So strange it left that boy half-dead."
No doubt to get away from her husband, Nellie took Allen to Louisville, Kentucky, a city she had run to periodically since the mid-1890s. The two of them arrived in town with so little advance planning they had to stay at Galt House, an antebellum hotel on the banks of the Ohio River. But Louisville was a bustling metropolis of a quarter million inhabitants and plenty of housing, and they were soon ensconced in an apartment on Floyd Street. When Allen's health improved enough for him to continue his schooling, Nellie enrolled him in a boarding school run by an elderly couple she had befriended.
The Cross School became one of the few happy settings of Tate's childhood. For the next three years, the Crosses served as his surrogate parents, offering him emotional stability, parental approval, and a classical curriculum comparable to those offered by European preparatory academies. Mrs. Cross, who held a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, founded the school in 1895 over the objections of her husband, W. O. Cross, who called her a "foolish woman" for buying a twenty-seven-room mansion for delinquent taxes. The heavy stone building boasted an arched entryway, ceilings nineteen feet high, French chandeliers, imported stained glass, finely crafted woodwork, a wide sweeping staircase, and bulging bookcases. On South Fourth Street, the old mansion was not far from the center of town.
In pedagogical principles, atmosphere, and curriculum, the Cross School was entirely unlike the riotous Tarbox School in Nashville. The Crosses had only sixty students enrolled during the school's heyday, and even then classes were small, informal, and conducted around tables. Recitations were made before even smaller groups of students of various ages, each of whom followed an individually tailored program. Mrs. Cross, who had grown up in a large family that lived on a farm, applied the lessons she had learned when she and her siblings were held accountable for individual chores. She stressed the development of character and monitored her students for "indications of natural inclination and aptitude." Her husband, despite his initial resistance to the school, soon began teaching there himself, applying what he had learned in his long career as public school principal. Though he taught arithmetic and Latin, his approach was not especially systematic. He was conscientious about the assignment of vocabulary words and required the students who ate lunch with him to speak in Latin when they asked for a second helping of biscuits, but he taught without a textbook. It was little tribute to Mr. Cross's teaching techniques when Allen finally learned how to decline and conjugate Latin verbs and read a part of Cornelius Nepos's Lives.
Perhaps because she listened to children rather than lecturing them. Mrs. Cross was a more successful teacher. In the very first week of class. she went around the room calling on students to see what poems they knew well enough to recite. Allen, who came into the school with the advantages of a bedridden child who had learned how to read long before his peers, raised his hand and volunteered The Chambered Nautilus and To Helen. When a few of the other students snickered. Mrs. Cross looked about sternly and said, "We will ask Allen to recite `The Chambered Nautilus'." He recited so beautifully that Mrs. Cross presented him with a little edition of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and thereafter took a special interest in him. She soon gave him his first exposure to the old-fashioned field of study known as "rhetoric," long a popular course of study in the South. Each week. he and his peers were required to spend time reading, to turn in a single-page essay, and to work through tedious exercises in grammar. Though he had trouble with his prepositions, he never had difficulty finishing novels, and by the end of the year had read Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities.
Allen's mother soon decided to ask the Crosses to admit him as a boarding student. She had been unable to locate a good nurse to watch over him, and because she found it difficult to walk with him between their new apartment and the school, she hoped the couple would take him in. Since she also wanted the freedom to travel whenever she felt like it, she was no doubt delighted when the Crosses agreed to her plan. Now she could spend the winters looking in on Allen's older brothers in Nashville, visiting relatives in Illinois, or, if absolutely necessary, accompanying Orley on his own aimless travels.
Allen had not escaped Nellie's interminable trips to watering places and mountain resorts, but living with the Crosses lent stability to his life. There were only two other boarders there, and he had the opportunity to become a member of a small family. In the new environment, his physical appearance improved markedly: color returned to his face; his oversize forehead became slightly less misshapen; he began parting his hair on the side and started wearing a sport coat and necktie instead of a sailor's suit. But if the three idyllic years he spent with the Crosses strengthened his self-confidence and bolstered his intellectual abilities, living with the old couple gave him with a false sense of domestic tranquility. His newfound happiness came to an abrupt end in 1912, when Nellie brought him to Ashland to rejoin his father.
Ashland must have looked no different to Allen than Louisville had. With the Ohio River nearby, the town grew steadily from its settlement in the eighteenth century until 1854, when it was spurred to exponential growth after the Kentucky Iron, Coal and Manufacturing Company laid out plans for a city. By 1912, Ashland was a thriving industrial hub. Automobile traffic, movie houses, and scores of small associations, including the YMCA, Elks, and the Merchants Club, contributed to a commercial environment similar to those Allen had witnessed in Nashville and Louisville. But the frenzied local economy could not have been as disturbing to Allen as the turmoil within his own home.
Allen must have observed the growing disparity between his parents' way of life and their shrinking financial resources. Even though they had been living off of their assets for years and were on a course to financial ruin, they seemed neither to realize nor to care that they were exhausting their land holdings. They continued to live beyond their means, and after reuniting in Ashland, they moved to 314 East Winchester Avenue, a large and comfortable home in an upper-middle-class residential area. These carefree financial attitudes had their effect on Allen. Raised by a father who paid little attention to household expenditures and by a mother who claimed the family had descended from the gentry, Allen not only became a poor manager of his own money, but learned to think of himself as a member of the genteel class. He compensated for the shame he felt over his parents' financial condition by carrying himself as something of a Southern aristocrat.
The reunification of Allen's family under one roof also presented him with the challenge of getting reacquainted with his father. Until departing Louisville, Allen had only periodically been forced to deal with Orley, who seemed a distant figure, frequently absent and rigidly Victorian. Though Orley continued to describe himself either as a lumberman or a traveling salesman, and was supposed to have come to Ashland to start a new business, he spent much of his time taking naps in the dusty backroom office of their new home. Each night after dinner, he made Allen come shake his hand in gratitude for the evening meal. In earlier years, his father had spoken to him rarely, and then only to offer such platitudes as "You know, every American boy can be president if he wants to." But now he began lecturing Allen.
The occasion for such a lecture might be an indiscretion, like the time Allen pilfered a bottle of liquor from Orley's private cabinet. Allen had smuggled the bottle out to his friends waiting inside the stable. taken a swig, refilled the bottle from the tap, and quietly returned it. Complacent in the belief that he had cleverly covered his tracks, he continued shaking his father's hand each night, until several days later Orley interrupted the rite to remark coldly, "Son, the next time you steal the whiskey don't ruin it for other people by putting water in it." Orley, who attributed such behavior to blacks and poor whites only, was not bothered by his son's intemperance but by the social significance of the behavior.
His father also lectured him on the facts of life, warning him flatly, "Never go with a common whore." It is altogether likely that Allen, who had reached puberty and was developing an interest in girls, had begun to suspect his father's unfaithfulness to Nellie. He already knew something of his father's cruelty to her because just a few years earlier, in Nashville, he burned a letter Orley wrote that made her cry. Though in time Allen took a less critical view of his father's philandering and was amused that even on his death bed in 1933 Orley found the energy to compliment the attending nurse on her fine proportions, he felt humiliated for his mother. He must have been upset that throughout her marriage to Orley, he was rumored to be "chasing other women, having champagne suppers and drinking champagne out of ladies' shoes."
Since Orley was orphaned at the age of eleven, he probably understood little about bonding between parents and children, and even less about being a role model for an adolescent. Yet Orley's incapacity for emotional intimacy with his own sons only deepened Allen's desire for a strong father, and at times Allen felt affection for and---especially after his deathempathy with Orley. After all, he had been named after his father: his full name was John Orley Allen Tate. Through most of Allen's childhood, he was called both Allen and Orley, and until his college classmates started teasing him with the nickname "Oily," he had even signed his name, in carefully crafted letters, "Orley A. Tate." Distancing himself in a warmhearted way, he tried calling his father "Poo," but there was something contrived about the affection manifest in such a nickname. "I didn't greatly enjoy my father's society," he confided to a friend after Orley's death, "and I saw him only once or twice a year, for a few days; but I was greatly attached to him by those mysterious ties that I hope we shall never understand. In the most important respects he was a perfect father, but there was never a way for me to tell him so. He had no understanding of the modern world, but he had fixed points of reference for his ideas and conduct; and I think one of his perfections lay in the imperfection of both his ideas and conduct. In other words his code was perfect and his conduct erraticthe formula for a `gentleman' of his era."
In his own way, Orley did show a certain loyalty to his three sons. Once Ben beat up two boys near Winchester and one of the boy's fathers came to the door complaining. Orley, whom Allen later described as "having the pioneer psychology and carrying a gun until he was forty," challenged the man to a duel and waited in vain for him on the street the next morning. Yet while Orley seemed physically powerful to his sons, Allen sometimes found himself worrying that his father would die and he would be left behind. His fears were probably heightened whenever his father teased him for dragging in back "like a cow's tail." Soon Allen began having a recurrent nightmare in which he was left alone in an enormous deserted house where every so often a vaguely recognizable woman or man would walk in from one of the many doors and stare at him threateningly. He began repeatedly envisioning his father lying in a casket, an image that terrified him in childhood and made him feel "unmanned" as he grew older.
Allen's brothers, Ben and Varnell, were living in Ashland, but they were of little comfort to him. While Allen admired them, they were some ten years older than he was and had not spent much time with him. Ben and Varnell were only two years apart in age, had attended the same high school in Ashland, entered Vanderbilt in the same class, and joined the same fraternity. Both had recently married, and after abandoning their study of law at Vanderbilt, they returned to Ashland to start a wholesale tobacco business together. Though they had known their parents in the early years of their marriage, they told Allen little of what they knew about Orley and Nellie. As a result, Allen grew up as if he were an only child, often feeling like an orphan with an overbearing foster mother.
When his older brothers were younger, they had suffered their own humiliations from their mother, and undoubtedly felt a degree of sympathy for Allen. Nellie made both older boys wear knickerbockers, double-breasted jackets, and high collars. She dressed Varnell in delicate lace, in medieval-looking robes with rope belts, and once in full Scottish regalia, including a plaid kilt, an oversize tartan bow tie, and a black velvet vest. (With his blond hair and blue eyes, he could have passed for Allen without a large cranium.) Viewing her first two sons as ornaments, she was of little help with their education. She insisted on following them to Nashville when they entered Vanderbilt, but spent all of her money on her summer travels and saved nothing for their tuition. The two boys, who were forced to work long hours in order to get through school, harbored resentments toward her for years afterward.
Ben and Varnell learned to take care of themselves. Ben, for example, used to say, "We were brought up with silver spoons in our months and were expected to eat the spoons." Reacting against his father's financial instability, he resolved to become a millionaire, tie had absorbed enough of his mother's genealogical preoccupations to make him worry about the the family name. "I'm not going to be a pauper with an honored name," Ben proclaimed, adding, "by God. I'm going to make it!" Since his new wife came from an affluent family. it was easy for him to establish the business that eventually made him the breadwinner for the entire Tate family. He learned to distance himself from his parents, and later remarked of their mother, "She'd tell me what to do and I'd say `Yes, m'am,' and I'd do what I goddamn-well pleased."
Varnell, who would soon move west to make his fortune, became equally independent. "We did not have parents of the mental type, to point out much of anything to us," he explained later, "so we more or less `growed up,' and had to take some hard knocks." Varnell turned out to be a gentle and thoughtful young man who was less intellectual than Allen and less successful with money than Ben. Years later, his son described him as "sort of half way in between" Ben, who was "all business," and Allen, who was "all arts." Though Varnell developed some insecurities about having accomplished less than had his two younger brothers, his experience with their parents made him feel genuine kinship with Ben and Allen. He came to value all the things their parents had failed to provide for them: "happiness, a family, the respect of your fellow-men, absence of financial worries, your own self-respect." As his wife observed in later years, he and his two brothers had "inherited much intelligence, but little love and understanding."
Unable to elicit much emotional support from his parents, Allen looked around for substitutes. Presently he encountered an elderly and obese Southern lawyer who had fought for the Confederacy and retired to a life of Jeffersonian yeomanry. The old man spent most of his time reading or distractedly tending to his farm, and soon took Allen under his wing, lending him books, coaching him in the Greek classics, and lecturing him on philosophy. No doubt bored by the teachers in the local junior high school in Ashland, Allen was taken by the Confederate's demeanor, especially by his worn panama hat and habit of looking disappointed when a person did not immediately recognize quotations from Plato's Phaidros. Certainly he was the opposite of Allen's anti-intellectual father, who proclaimed that he "did not read books."
It was in Ashland that Allen developed his lifelong habit of taking refuge from emotional conflict by reading in private. His brothers had assembled an impressive book collection at Vanderbilt, and since their parents' small library contained more than minor novels by John Esten Cooke, Augusta Evans, and E. P. Roe, Allen began reading in the back room of the house. In addition to Shakespeare, Scott, and Dickens, he found popular history books, a rare two-volume edition of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, and, of special interest, a worn multivolume edition of Edgar Allan Poe, once owned by his mother's grandfather, Major Benjamin Lewis Bogan. The set included not only Poe's poetry and tales, but also a biography of him by James Russell Lowell. Allen spent hours reading through the biography and staring at a "desperate and asymmetrical" picture of Poe, hopingnot unrealisticallythat he might one day resemble the writer. Allen enjoyed the first literary criticism he read, Poe's Marginalia, and soon tried writing on his own. Since Allen had also been reading astronomy and was fascinated by the notion of a universe perfectly and hierarchically ordered, he found Poe's Eureka, a bizarre metaphysical essay applying the laws of Newton to criticism, especially appealing. Inspired, he tried to construct a scale model of the planets by lining up a volleyball and various pieces of fruit in his backyard on Winchester Avenue.
As Allen became more bookish, his relationship with his mother became more strained. Unable to elicit any intellectual encouragement from her, he soon decided that she was showing him a new indifferencethe first signs, he mistakenly concluded, of a permanent withdrawal from him. She seemed unequipped to respond to his blossoming interest in poetry. Though she reminded him that his Great-Grandfather Bogan, a "poet" who was also editor of the Alexandria Gazette and had known "Mr. Poe" personally, she began warning him: "You are straining your mind and you know your mind isn't very strong." Allen found that she viewed the intellect not as a device for sifting evidence and evaluating beauty, but as a reservoir for the romantic images she had appropriated from the literature of nineteenth-century Southern writers. Yet he had discovered that he did not like for her to ignore him, and continued trying to win her approval. "At the age when most boys were turning blackflips to impress the girls," he admitted later, "I was quoting poetry to them as surrogates of my mother, to whom I had to prove that I was not an imbecile."
Nellie had hardly withdrawn from him. Hauling him with her to summer resorts like Sweet Chalybeate Springs in Virginia and Estill Springs in Tennessee, she took on a renewed interest in encouraging his ties to the South. When she brought him to Washington, D.C., to be near her surviving descendants, the surroundings encouraged her in her mission to educate him in the history, actual and legendary, of the Varnell and Bogan families. She dutifully brought him to Fairfax to see the the disintegrating foundations of Pleasant Hill, burned to the ground by Union troops en route to Manassas; she took him to Georgetown to visit elderly relatives; and she ceremoniously introduced him to an ancient "mulatto" woman she claimed had been her grandfather's slave. These excursions left a permanent impression on Allen. Some of his mother's family history contributed to the passionate defense of Southern culture he articulated in the 1930s, and Pleasant Hill itself reappeared many years later as the physical setting of his novel, The Fathers.
As his mother foisted her Southern legends on him, Allen felt a mixture of hatred and love for her. On the one hand, he appreciated her strong will and even enjoyed seeing her pretend to be a Southern belle. But he came to resent the effect of her delusions on his intellectual development. In time, he saw her as pathetic. After her death, Tate confided to Ellen Glasgow, the famed Virginia novelist, that the code-obsessed Southern belle of her novel Virginia was just like his mother, a social artifacta "Southern woman of the past generationa generation caught between two fires." A Woman of his mother's era, he explained, "had a training to which the world no longer responded, and a courage that was equal to every ordeal except that of facing the fact that her courage was irrelevant."
Throughout 1914, Allen was unable to escape Nellie. He spent the summer with her in a Maryland chautauqua known as Mountain Lake Park. Trying to avoid her, he developed an infatuation with a boarding-school girl from Kentucky. He recited poetry to the thin young woman and played tennis with her, but his flirtations led nowhere. To make matters worse, the mood at the park became oppressive in August after guests learned of the German invasion of Belgium and the beginning of World War I. Allen returned home with his mother, and she enrolled him in Ashland's Central High School, a bloated, Victorian building erected at the turn of the century to accommodate the town's growing population of young people. The instruction there was probably poor in comparison to that of the Cross School, but Allen performed well during the 1914-15 school year. In algebra, in English literature, and in English composition, he received grades of 90; in ancient history and Latin, 85. His withdrawal from his family into the world of books had yielded positive results.
In 1915, Orley Tate's business failed and the Tates were forced to give up their home on Winchester Avenue. Allen often referred to his father's "financial collapse" as a turning point in his life. After editing a biographical sketch of himself years later, he contemplated adding a reference to the event, a piece of information he believed would "throw light on the uncertainties and perhaps some of the aberrations of my life up to about 1925." Since his parents now had only a few parcels of land to sell and no prospects in Ashland, they packed up again. Orley took the family farther west along the Ohio River to Evansville. Indiana, directly across from Owensboro, Kentucky.
"What I remember most about my boyhood," Tate once told an interviewer, "was being moved around." Until he entered college, he rarely stayed more than a few years in one place. Though most of those places were Midwestern or Northern rather than Southern, the urban growth he observed during his brief residences in cities in the Ohio Valley stimulated his interest in Southern Agrarianism, his hatred of Northern industrialism, and his firm belief that America was permanently and negatively transformed by World War I.
Certainly industrial values were ubiquitous in Evansville, Indiana, between 1915 and 1917. These values seemed more threatening since the border city was situated in an agricultural region with strong Southern influences. The same year that the Tates moved to Evansville, Theodore Dreiser returned to see the city of his adolescence and was struck not only by the Evansville's intensely Germanic culture, but also by its distinctive regional affiliation. Evansville, Dreiser observed, "has all the characteristic marks of a Southern citya hot, drowsy, almost enervating summer, an early spring, a mild winter, a long, agreeable autumn.... Darkies abound, whole sections of them, and work on the levee, the railroad, and at scores of tasks given over to whites in the north. You see them ambling about carrying packages, washing windows, driving trucks and autos, waiting on table. It is as though the extreme South had reached up and touched this projecting section of Indiana." Evansville, which boasted it had the world's least expensive soft coal, also ranked as the second largest producer of hardwood lumber. Yet even as steamboats ferried out products from more than three dozen furniture factories, Orley Tate seemed unable to translate his townsmen's insatiable appetite for growth into personal profit. After only a few months, he moved the family back along the river to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Like the other Ohio Valley cities where Allen had lived, Cincinnati was an industrial mecca surrounded by farmland. Almost twenty railroads served the city from the South. Cincinnati's proximity to the river, its transportation channels, and its vast fields of bituminous coal explain why its machine-tool and metal manufacturers became major suppliers of materials during World War I. Just as the Tates were arriving in town in 1916, the Chamber of Commerce was launching a campaign to double the size of its membership, and pamphlets appeared touting the town's superiority as a manufacturing center. Recently the Industrial Department had lured seven major industrial firms to town and both the Business Men's Club and the Main Street Merchants' Association were hard at work advertising the city. They joyously welcomed the new hospital and medical college buildings, bragged about the new jitneys, and gloated over the city's growth in population to more than 400,000.
Yet Cincinnati was already experiencing the problems associated with urban industrialism. The coal industries emitted great quantities of smoke, tuberculosis infection was a problem, and residential areas and public parks seemed increasingly threatened by industrial developers. To make matters worse, the city was struggling to emerge from a dark political era under the infamous machine politician "Boss" George Cox, and was still suffering from years of labor unrest and social strife. Many of the city's native-born whites were venting hostilities toward blacks who had recently emigrated from the South in search of work.
If the problems of industrial growth left a permanent impression on Allen, they had no direct bearing on Orley Tate's business interests. Certainly they do not explain why Orley failed to make a living selling saws and axes in cities with such immense lumber and manufacturing interests. The most generous way to explain his failure is to portray him as an example of the tragedy his son later ascribed to Northern victory in the Civil War: Orley was a Southern gentleman deprived of his land and forced to make a living by trading off of the commercialization and industrialization of his own region. He was a victim of the doctrine of mindless progress sweeping the Middlewest and the "New South." Yet while Orley no doubt would have been more comfortable as a Kentucky landowner than as a traveling tool salesman, his troubles may have been due to laziness. Most mornings he was apparently unable to get dressed before noon.
The real victim as Orley shuttled his business back and forth between Evansville and Cincinnati was Allen, whose recent intellectual growth was held in check by the repeated changes in his educational environment. He changed secondary schools half a dozen times as Orley's fleeting businesses pulled him out of Kentucky into surrounding cities. During the war years alone, Allen was enrolled in four public schools; not long after he settled into one, he would be removed to another, only to be returned eventually to the first. As a result, he had neither the opportunity to build friendships with children his age nor the opportunity to follow a single course of study from beginning to end.
This instability was unfortunate because the two schools Allen attended in Evansville and Cincinnati were excellent. Evansville High School offered an especially challenging program. The school had strong ties with the University of Chicago and boasted one of the best high school libraries in the Ohio Valley. There was even a monthly literary magazine sponsored by the English department. But the antiquated building, which opened its doors on Seventh Avenue in 1868, was not big enough for its one thousand students. Perhaps it was all the moving around and the overcrowded classrooms that accounted for the drop in Allen's grades when he attended the school for a few months late in 1915. Though he made a respectable 85 in mathematics and an 84 in English, he barely passed history and Latin.
Allen's performance at the Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati was even worse. The school, located in a residential area near Cincinnati's medical college, offered an ideal environment for learning. When it was completed in 1895, the granite and sandstone building was viewed as "a model structure." It had the latest heating and ventilation systems, a finished hardwood interior, and sixteen classrooms, all gaily decorated and equipped with adjustable desks. There were physics and chemistry laboratories, an auditorium, a gymnasium, a map collection, and a library stocked with history, science, and literature books, including a special grouping of Roman and Greek classics. Allen's grades during the 1916-17 school year nevertheless continued their downward spiral. He received a 72 in zoology, 70 in Latin, 68 in physics, 65 in elocution; even in English, his average was less than 80. And while he could have joined a variety of organizations, such as the Drama, Spanish, and Debate Clubs, he participated in no extracurricular activities.
© 2000 Thomas Andrew Underwood