“Literature is an avenue to glory ever open for
those ingenious men who are deprived of honors or of wealth.”

—Isaac D’Israeli

These volumes—one of letters, the other heavily dependent on correspondence—document and analyze, respectively, episodes of American literary history that feature three brilliant personalities. These volumes will surely attract readers on that basis, for there is an element of celebrity, of controversy and gossip, attaching to the names of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell, and even to Andrew Lytle’s name. Beyond that level, however, there is substance to be gleaned, and lessons learned. These volumes are in their different ways instructive, entertaining, and chastening. I find them above all both uplifting and deflating; for when I am not buoyed by their contents, I am cast down by comparisons with the literary scene of today.

The letters between Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate are in effect the body of over forty years (1927-1968) of literary and cultural comradeship. Their association as Agrarians, famously expressed in I’ll Take My Stand (1930), is here documented expansively as a shared point of view rather than the particular political position that would be presently construed. That viewpoint distinguished Allen Tate (1899-1979) from most of his contemporaries, and it still distinguishes Andrew Lytle—perhaps the most remarkable of living American writers—today. Tate the poet moved from a tense historical awareness and satirical tone to a Dantesque mode before the muse deserted him. Lytle the storyteller is still spinning yarns and narrating myths and histories. Both of them have left some of the best criticism there is, work fortified by a perspective they shared and that exempted them from the dogmas of modern secular liberalism.

This point of view was not a provincial but rather a regional one of historical depth and sophistication. The level at which Lytle and Tate thought, the terms of their discourse, must today give us pause. Far from being partisan or from embodying the grotesque cliches formulated by New York and Hollywood, the communings of their letters show a standard of apprehension we are hard-pressed to find the like of today. An example is Lytle’s response to Tate’s imposing novel, The Fathers (1938), a work notable in the history of American literature and a great work about American history. Another is Tate’s response to Lytle’s drafts of The Velvet Horn (1957), a powerful masterwork with as many affinities to Paradise Lost as to Absalom, Absalom! Here, in a December 23, 1954, letter to Lytle, Tate digresses to a meditation on “society” in a way that leaves the technique of fiction behind—but not the ultimate concern of the novel, nor of two aging Agrarians.

The society comes into fictional being only as a quality of character and action, not as an end in itself I can deliver myself of this wisdom because I have been and still am to a great extent the victim of its lack. It has occurred to me in recent years, in retrospect upon our eariy days, that we made the South, and especially the Old South, an object of idolatry, in the strict sense of the word: we were worshiping a “perishable god.” I have come to the view that no society is worth saving as such: what we must save is the truth of God and Man, and the right society follows. We thought that the South was a historical problem; it was actually a theological problem. . . . Place in itself is nothing . . . “place” does not sustain us; we sustain place, and through it nature will give back to us only what we have put into it.

Lytle’s reply picks up the argument at the crucial point, in a statement that we rehearse today though in other terms:

I don’t see how you can save the truth of God and man except in terms of the conventions of some society. You might have a private salvation, but we were born at such a time and were formed by conventions whose fragmentations had not reached such a stage of dissolution as they have now. They had meaning. Indeed there would have been no Oedipus without an ordered state, and certainly no Antigone without Creon. Naturally religious belief is the spiritual core, but theology isn’t the only discipline.

But the letters exchanged by Lytle and Tate are also practical, affectionate, humble, and provisional. Often they concern politics in the small sense, money, marriage, family, health, travel arrangements. Finally they are the letters of “Brothers”—as each man called the other—who quit corresponding because they had finally managed to live so near to each other that they had no need for letters.

The letters tell the story of a literary friendship that was richly productive; of the personal lives of two remarkable men; of the evolution of Southern literature in the minds of two of its most formidable creators; and of the struggle in the 20th century of serious writers to survive. The struggle for money, the adjustments for the sake of family, the agonies of creation, and the reception of these writers by the academy—all anticipate the present day, but without the tone. The collapse of American independence in the global suction of the Second World War and the Cold War, as well as the collapse of civility in the 1960’s into what is today an encoded package of non-manners, non-speech, “civil rights,” and sundry other barbarities, is a world away from the mannerly style of Tate and Lytle. (Yet Norman Mailer complimented Tate for his testimony when Hubert Selby, Jr.’s “Tra-la-la” was on trial for obscenity in Provincetown.) Still I find a grim amusement in Allen Tate’s account of how he tried to deal with an irresponsible stepson; “We simply can’t get through to him. For example, he read this winter The Portrait of the Artist, and identified himself with Stephen Dedalus. I reminded him that when Dedalus, at the end of the book, left to ‘forge the conscience of his race,’ he knew Latin and Greek, and six modern languages. This made no impression at all.” When we consider who is talking, that’s quite a generational and cultural gap, but one much elevated from the ones we know now.

Allen Tate shows himself again as the man of letters and literary friend in Professor Doreski’s study of his relationship with Robert Lowell. The young Robert Lowell was told by the Tates in 1937 that their house was so full he’d have to pitch a tent on the lawn to stay. Lowell took them at their word, later studied with John Crowe Ransom, and began his career as a poet and a protege of Allen Tate. The relations of these two suffered, as all of Lowell’s did, from his bouts with mental illness. But the relation endured and prospered as well, in the form of Lowell’s work. Sadly enough, the younger poet did not outlive his master.

I suppose that the best part of Doreski’s volume is his tracing of the relationships between Tate’s poetry and Lowell’s. His pages on Lowell’s For the Union Dead and its status as a transformation of Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead is effective and compact. Less interesting, I think, are his recollections of quarrels and misunderstandings and resentments that are ephemera once important to the people who felt them but too often of little importance to others who don’t. And there is an irony in the friendship of Tate and Lowell that slips away in Doreski’s book, but which is that Lowell’s self-indulgences both personal and poetic were the opposite of the values Tate stood for.

There are some passages in Doreski’s volume that are open to question. I wouldn’t say that the opening lines of Tate’s poem “Aeneas in Washington” “strike an archaic note,” but rather that they translate lines of Vergil. I don’t like either Doreski’s description of the postwar atmosphere:

The McCarthyism of the late 1940s and early 1950s voiced a gnawing desperation in American society. Uncertain of our place in an increasingly complex world, threatened by an ideology as often misunderstood by its adherents as its opponents, Americans grew even more suspicious of difference and eccentricity, and the arts either became blandly ritualistic or withdrew into an underground that made the separation of culture from society a virtue. The characteristic verse of the early 1950s was Richard Wilbur’s elegant, insightful, but remote and somehow unchallenging formal constructs.

This view of those days trivializes history by dismissing the texture of it, and does nothing to advance the account of a literary relationship.

Nevertheless, Doreski’s book on Tate and Lowell is a useful one. It is a pleasure to dwell in the mental universe of people to whom poetry meant everything, and often Doreski succeeds in portraying such a world.

That world was, both literally and figuratively, a province of the Republic of Letters. Allen Tate’s correspondence with Robert Lowell as well as his political and social, not to mention poetic, presence were major factors in Lowell’s life. These volumes, then, join The Literary Correspondences of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate (1974) and The Republic of Letters in America: The Correspondence of John Peale Bishop and Allen Tate (1981) as impressive remainders of passionately literary communication and culture. These volumes too remind us of Allen Tate’s centrality, his indispensability, his strenuously maintained engagement with literary modernism and the 20th century. The literary scene today is not graced by the equivalent attitude, erudition, or generosity, though Andrew Lytle still writes, both a survivor and a beneficiary of a better world. His deep historical sense represents the culture of the best minds of his generation; but he has always been, like Allen Tate, an exception.


[The Lytle-Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, edited by Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi) 374 pp., $39.50]


[The Years of Our Friendship: Robert Lowell and Allen Tate, by William Doreski (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi) 251 pp., $30.00]