- Revaluation: Allen Tate's The Fathers
As the United States gears up for the Civil War sesquicentennial, conflict may increase on the literary front, where decisive advantage has yet to be won by either side. Although the North was routed, in my opinion, by the publication in 1936 of Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!, the editors of the critical collection Classics of Civil War Fiction (University of Alabama Press, 2001) absurdly declare that "the best southern novels do not generally compare well on artistic grounds with northern fiction about the war." Contradictory claims will no doubt persist until the bicentennial and beyond. Meanwhile enter my special plea for Allen Tate's The Fathers (1938), which for too long has drawn too little attention from both North and South.
Over forty-odd years I have taught The Fathers perhaps a dozen times, and my esteem for the novel has consistently risen. The Fathers does not yield its riches easily. I have learned that it demands repeated encounters. Tate expected the reader, moreover, to recognize an intertextual key that has nearly passed all notice: The Fathers was inspired by The Good Soldier (1915), the first modernist novel in English, which Tate regarded not only as Ford Madox Ford's greatest book, but also as the masterwork of British fiction in the twentieth century.
In 1944, after taking charge of Sewanee Review, Tate wrote of Ford that no other writer had more effectively advanced "the great tradition of the novel" that, he said, sprang from Stendhal and Austen and came down through Flaubert, James, and Conrad to Joyce, Woolf, and Hemingway. Ford's influence, Tate asserted, was "immense, even upon writers who did not know him, even upon other writers, today, who have not read him." Only late in life, however, did Tate spell out his own indebtedness to The Good Soldier, which he professed he had read "some thirty-five times" and imitated "in the way Johnson imitated Juvenal in London" ("FMF," New York Review of Books, 1 June 1963). That is, he adapted a classic work to other, but comparable, cultural circumstances.
This is no place to explore the relationship between Ford and Tate, an enduring friendship through which they played out, with varying ratios of parity, the roles of master and journeyman, teacher and student, artist and critic, father and son. What's relevant here is that during the spring and summer of 1936, while Ford was visiting Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon [End Page 494] in Clarksville, Tennessee, The Fathers was being launched. The host surely discussed the novel with his guest, especially in light of the narrator's function in The Good Soldier—an American character described by Tate as "the hesitant prober of motive with the intimate but obfuscated view"—as well as of Ford's experiments with time-shifts, gradual revelation, and progressions d'effet. These were the formal innovations that enabled a writer to see around as well as through a narrator's privileged (yet limited) and clear (yet partly cloudy) point of view.
Ford's John Dowell, like his counterpart Lacy Buchan, is a participant-observer, an actor in the story of which he is also the teller. The Good Soldier is at once an inside and an outside narrative of adulterous triangles proliferating among the characters, though not involving Dowell, who is oblivious to their existence and, thus, their impact on himself and the others; of ruttish couplings that disrupt these characters' private security; of characters who are simultaneously deranged by massive but unheeded cultural shifts; of transformative public events that are signs of the historical crisis soon to be manifested in the Great War; of heralds of modernity's reign of terror, at least for Edwardians "of quite quiet dispositions," only thinly insulated from the New Order by wealth and privilege; and of the saving remnant of "what in England it is the custom to call 'quite good people.'"
Using 1860-61 as the American equivalent to the eve of the Great War, Tate echoes Ford's concern with a stable society on the brink of extinction. The thematic crux of The Fathers is the...