- Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, and: Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate: Collected Letters, 1933–1976
Where did Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate meet? The answer is not Vanderbilt University, where they were both students of John Crowe Ransom, a few years apart, and where the Southern Agrarian branch of the New Criticism, which they represented, had its start. They met, rather, at the Café des Deux Magots in Paris in 1929 (Brooks and Tate 250). It’s a suggestive detail because it brings Brooks and Tate together on the set of the Lost Generation, at a café famous for its expatriate patrons, and it reminds us that, if the southern New Critics started in Nashville, they had another point of origin in the international modernism of bohemian Europe. Their dedication to modernist literature, and not the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, first united Brooks and Tate.
The situation of their meeting is suggestive for another reason too: the two southerners, unlike the typical American expatriate before them, arrived at the Deux Magots with something like official sponsorship—Tate came to Europe as a Guggenheim Fellow, and Brooks as a Rhodes Scholar. If Brooks and Tate were in any sense bohemians, then, they were also institutional men; when they returned home, they carried the cause of modernist literature into the institutional settings (largely, but not only, academic ones) where they forged their careers. The southern New Critics—who would include Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, as well as Brooks and Tate—were positioned to mediate between the international modernism of the 1910s and 1920s [End Page 165] and the academic literary culture of the midcentury U.S. They brought literary modernism, or at least a certain strain of it, into the American university.
The story of this cultural work is told in the two volumes of correspondence under review here, with related but different emphases in each. The Brooks-Tate letters are usually brief and pointed, like business communiqués. Their business was, as Tate once put it, “Southern log-rolling” (253). It entailed the conniving of all sorts of things—editorships, teaching posts, speaking dates, prizes and fellowships, book projects, book reviews; it also included, often, the conniving of the appearance that no conniving had taken place. Some of the same thing goes on between Brooks and Warren, but their letters are more concerned with collaboration of another kind: the making of a series of textbooks that introduced two generations of American undergraduates to literature. These textbooks, which were also influential anthologies, include An Approach to Literature (1936), Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943), Modern Rhetoric (1949), and, with R. W. B. Lewis, American Literature: The Makers and the Making (1973). All but the last appeared in multiple, revised editions.
Both sets of letters point to the role of literary quarterlies in the rise of the southern New Critics. The new quarterlies of the 1930s and 1940s contained elements of both the modernist little magazine and the scholarly journal, while they were differentiated, in another direction, from popular magazines like the Saturday Review of Literature. They served their sponsoring institutions by identifying them with advanced, cosmopolitan views, which was useful to a small or new school far from the prestigious universities of the Northeast. Before they edited any textbooks, Brooks and Warren were coeditors of the Southern Review, which was founded in 1935 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where both men taught. Ransom, who moved from Vanderbilt to Kenyon College, was the editor of the Kenyon Review. In 1938 Brooks joked to Tate, “if you were at Va., and with John’s Kenyon Qu., and the S.R., we might have the queer spectacle of the agrarians being charged with running a monopoly...