The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 138-141
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An Orthodox Man
Mark G. Malvasi
Allen Tate: Orphan of the South. By Thomas A. Underwood. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. 429 pp. $35.00.
Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate Collected Letters, 1833-1976. Edited by Alphonse Vinh. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1998. xi + 278 pp. $34.95.
In these wretched days of cellular telephones and electronic mail we shall probably never again see the like of Allen Tate. Tate wrote letters—letters that were often as elegant, incisive, and discriminating as the finest critical commentary. Along with a splendid body of poems and essays, Tate's voluminous correspondence represents an important contribution to American literature. Alphonse Vinh's skillfully edited and annotated collection, which brings together the more than 250 letters that Tate exchanged with Cleanth Brooks between 1933 and 1976, is thus indispensable for the study of American literary history in the twentieth century.
The Brooks-Tate letters do not offer as much discussion of poetry and criticism as does Tate's correspondence with Donald Davidson and John Crowe Ransom. They instead describe literary friendships with Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, and others. They also recount such episodes in literary and academic politics as Tate's conflicts with Van Wyck Brooks, Sydney Hook, and Archibald MacLeish, Brooks's struggles to edit and maintain The Southern Review at Louisiana State University, and the 1949 controversy surrounding the award of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound, then a resident of St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the insane. "It's my considered opinion, Allen," the ordinarily reserved and cordial Brooks advised on 13 February 1941, "that in academic matters one ought never use the rapier when the meat-axe will do. That's not to claim that I wield it with nonchalance or special grace. [End Page 138] But no other weapon will work on the academic politician. . . . Unless they are mowed off even with the ground in two days, they are again flourishing like the green baytree."
More fully than any other compilation of Tate's letters, those with Brooks relate the hard work involved in being a writer, a critic, and a literary scholar. The report of various professional hardships and obligations is intertwined with accounts of family, health, marriage, divorce, travel, and the continual and frequently disappointed efforts to get together in person for "good talk." The intimate tone of the letters, which betokened the abiding respect and genuine affection that developed between Brooks and Tate, never wavered. The tension that characterized most of Tate's other relationships, literary and personal, seems absent in his friendship with Brooks. Perhaps it was so because Brooks unreservedly admired him not only as a mentor and a friend but as a man. In a letter of 23 August 1973, Brooks confessed his esteem: "Why shouldn't I say it now—we are both old enough—that from a very early period you were my special hero as man of letters and that you remain one of the three or four people from whom I have learned most. I have always thought of you as the man of insight, the man of the shrewdest judgment, the truly orthodox man."
However valuable compendia of the sort Vinh has assembled may be, the sheer magnitude and variety of sources have routinely dissuaded all but the most tireless and intrepid scholars from even contemplating a biography of Tate. This circumstance makes Thomas A. Underwood's achievement all the more extraordinary. No one save Underwood has enjoyed such unlimited access to Tate's unpublished papers, or has had the time, the patience, and the fortitude to read through them. His biography will provoke considerable debate among southern historians and literary scholars, but the breadth and extent of the research are unlikely ever to be surpassed.
Underwood might have titled his book Orphan of the South: An Emotional History of Allen Tate. No vulgar psycho-biography, Underwood's study probes the life and mind of its subject to detail Tate's quest...