American Literature Allen Tate
Michael Kreyling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0239


John Orley Allen Tate was born in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1899. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1979. He devoted his three-quarters of the twentieth century, with nearly single-minded passion, to becoming a man of letters. There have been few figures in the history of American letters who have striven so fiercely for that title and left both wreckage and achievement along the way; Edgar Allan Poe is another, and Tate wrote about him as “our cousin.” Tate’s undergraduate education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville (1918–1923) is usually considered the initial stage of his quest. There he met Robert Penn Warren, with whom he started a modernist literary crusade, as well as Donald Davidson and the more senior John Crowe Ransom, against whose traditionalist bulwark Tate mounted an assault. Edgy and argumentative criticism became thereafter a constant in Tate’s literary career. That career is reflected in four major divisions or stages. First, an early engagement (not quite a full embrace) of his regional identity as a “son of the South.” Early poems such as “Ode to the Confederate Dead” and his essay in I’ll Take My Stand (1930), “Some Remarks on the Southern Religion,” position Tate as a critic of the South but still in the South. His only fiction, the novel The Fathers (1938; rev. 1960) deploys his ideological outlook as an array of characters swept up in the Civil War—a conflict Tate saw as ongoing in US social and political history. When the political and social agenda at the heart of the reactionary project of Southern Agrarianism failed to gain traction in the mid-1930s, Tate moved to poetry and literary criticism. This phase can be said to encircle the most significant achievements of Tate’s striving to become a modern man of letters. His critical essays, frequent reviews, and assessments of the contemporary status of poetry in the United States established him as a major player. He taught creative writing at Princeton University from 1939 to 1942; was appointed the first Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress in 1943; edited the Sewanee Review from 1944 to 1946. In 1949 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and to the more selective American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964. He won the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1956. He taught at the University of Minnesota from 1951 until his retirement in 1968. A third aspect of Tate’s importance to modern letters may be pinned to his conversion to Catholicism in 1950. He subsequently became a beacon in the “Catholic Revival.” He was awarded the Christian Culture Gold Medal in 1958. Jacques Maritain, recipient of the Gold Medal in 1942 and French ambassador to the Vatican 1945–1948, had been Tate’s sponsor at his baptism. A fourth aspect developed after Tate’s death from roots in his conservative political thought; he became a focal point in academic “culture wars.”

Primary Works

Agar and Tate 1936, Tate 1930, and Tate 1936 represent Tate’s work in social-economic policy. He was throughout his career a devoted believer in private property as the basis of freedom; these essays place him firmly in the conservative political tradition described as neoliberal and free market. Brown and Cheney 1983 collects Tate’s poetry reviews, on which meager payments he lived in his early years, and in which he developed skills in practical criticism that flowed into the New Criticism of the later 1940s and onward. Much the same can be said of Gordon and Tate 1950. Tate 1991 and Tate 1998 represent Tate’s forays into Confederate biography, vehicles for him in working out why the Confederacy might have succeeded (Stonewall Jackson) and why it failed (Jefferson Davis). Tate 1989 collects poetry from Tate 1928, Tate 1932, and subsequent individual volumes. Tate obsessively rearranged his poems, but always retained the most significant—among them “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” “Aeneas at Washington,” “The Swimmers,” and the long poem “Seasons of the Soul.” The Fathers (Tate 1938, rev. 1960) often is lost in the popularity of two near-contemporary Civil War epics: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936). For many critics Tate’s sole novel holds its own in such company.

  • Agar, Herbert, and Allen Tate, eds. Who Owns America?: A New Declaration of Independence. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1936.

    Twenty-one essays, with an introduction by Agar. Common themes are the dangers of centralization of governmental and economic power, the need for a return to regionalism and for small farms and local businesses as bulwarks against “collectivist” concentrations of power whether Marxist or capitalist. Tate’s essay in this volume, “ Notes on Liberty and Property,” asserts the basis of liberty in individually owned private property. It had been published in the ill-fated American Review 6 (1935–1936), pp. 596–611.

  • Brown, Ashley, and Frances Neel Cheney, eds. The Poetry Reviews of Allen Tate, 1924–1944. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

    For several years after graduating from Vanderbilt, Tate strove to live on the meager earnings of a book reviewer, poet, and editor. Many of the books he reviewed were volumes of poetry; in the reviews there are traces of the aesthetic theory for which he would become known among transatlantic followers of T. S. Eliot.

  • Gordon, Caroline, and Allen Tate. The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story, with Commentary. New York: Scribner’s, 1950.

    Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon entered the burgeoning textbook market with The House of Fiction. Gordon was more immersed in fiction than Tate, and she wrote the lion’s share of the “commentary.”

  • Tate, Allen. Mr. Pope and Other Poems. New York: Minton, Balch, 1928.

    Tate’s first published volume of poems, published by the same firm which published a series of biographies of Confederate military figures. Tate wrote two of these, on Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. He attempted a third, on Robert E. Lee, but failed to complete it.

  • Tate, Allen. Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand: An Agrarian Manifesto. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930.

    Tate’s essay, “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” argues that secession as a cause was doomed because it was undergirded by the wrong religion: not the divinely focused religion of medieval Catholicism but the modern, mercantile-focused Protestantism shared with the North. The essay was not the success he had hoped. Nor was the volume as a whole. Appearing on the eve of the Great Depression, it attracted mostly hostile reviews. Nevertheless, it has been reprinted several times, recently in a seventy-fifth anniversary edition: Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

  • Tate, Allen. Poems: 1928–1931. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

    Tate’s connection to the “Lost Generation,” of which he was a member, with the intercession of Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins who accepted this collection for the press. His poem “The Paradigm” seethes with modern estrangement kept in check by strict Dantean terza rima. An early version of Tate’s signature poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” appears here—along with “The Oath,” constructed as a late-night conversation with fellow Southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle in which, after a few bourbons, the dead visit.

  • Tate, Allen. Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936.

    In the mid-1930s Tate was still in the high flush of his dual endeavors as a poet and a social theorist. See Agar and Tate 1936. Tate carried several of these essays forward to Essays of Four Decades (Tate 2000).

  • Tate, Allen. The Fathers. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1938.

    An English edition, with a slightly revised ending by Tate, is prefaced by a laudatory introduction by Arthur Mizener: London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1960; repr. Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 1984; and Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. The Mizener introduction is included in Squires 1972 (cited under Tate and the Literature of Modernism). Tate’s only successful venture into fiction, The Fathers is based on what he remembered of his own ancestors and embodies, in its characters, Tate’s theory of the Civil War as a contest between demonic individualism (the Union) and a doomed agrarian civilization (the South).

  • Tate, Allen. Collected Poems: 1919–1976. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

    Tate was a relentlessly self-conscious poet; he collected, selected, and revised his poems several times during his career. This volume contains the sum of his achievement in poetry: the final version of “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” notable poems such as “Aeneas at Washington” and “The Mediterranean,” and the later poem “The Swimmers” in which Tate revisits a boyhood incident of lynching. Originally published 1978.

  • Tate, Allen. Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier. Nashville: J. S. Sanders, 1991.

    The first of two biographies of Confederate icons completed by Tate. His Jackson is something of a “killer angel” for whom the bloodshed of war and the cause of the Confederacy were outgrowths of his Christian faith. Originally published 1928.

  • Tate, Allen. Jefferson Davis, His Rise and Fall: A Biographical Narrative. Nashville: J. S. Sanders, 1998.

    Tate came to loathe Davis. Unlike Jackson, for whom war and religion were one whole, Davis was (for Tate) too absorbed in the machinery of government to represent a semi-religious cause. Originally published 1929.

  • Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades. Reprint. Wilmington, DE: ISI Press, 2000.

    See Arbery 2010 (cited under Tate and the Conservative Tradition). As with his poems, also with his essays Tate selected and collected. This volume contains nearly fifty of his essays, ranging from Longinus to Ezra Pound. “The Man of Letters in the Modern World” is Tate’s apologia for his “vocation,” and leads off the collection. Several essays concern his attachment to the South: “Narcissus as Narcissus” is, for example, his own reading of “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Reviewed primarily for Tate’s impact on poetry by Helen Vendler in New York Times Book Review (4 May 1969), p. 6; and by Michael O’Brien for Tate’s place in the intellectual history of the US South in Times Literary Supplement 5071 (9 June 2000), p. 26. Originally published 1968.

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