There is no other American man of letters quite like Marion Montgomery. With the addition of each new book to the canon of works published by the Sage of Crawford, his achievement becomes the more astonishing; the range and depth of his thought, its variety and scope the more impressive. For Professor Montgomery has written educational theory, poetry, drama, criticism, fiction, systematic philosophy, literary history, and theology. Which is to say nothing of his special gift for cultural analysis. Moreover, he has done all of this at a pace that is constantly accelerating. Nor is there any suggestion of abatement. Montgomery’s synthetic powers are exceptional. Whatever the subject, his results are original and unexpected. Therefore it is a significant event when he comes forward to acknowledge those models and influences that have directly impacted upon his mind.
The Men I Have Chosen for Fathers fits inside a recognizable genre, with the word “chosen” in its title seriously meant. There is an explanation for Marion Montgomery. And these “men” (including Flannery O’Connor) are part of it. This list of fathers leans toward the reflective. No modern writer has had a more comprehensive encounter with the grand tradition of British and American literature than Professor Montgomery. Furthermore, his literary education reaches beyond those confines of language to include Vergil, Dante, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But the principle of selection operative in assembling this book is not primarily aesthetic in origin. To the contrary, this time the common denominator bringing under one cover essays on Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin, Cleanth Brooks, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Flannery O’Connor, and Solzhenitsyn is truth spiritual and religious—both the absence of such insight as a kind of negative evidence and its unquestioned centrality in the work of those artists and thinkers Montgomery most admires.
In The Men I Have Chosen for Fathers Pound and Frost are negative examples and Voegelin a mixed figure—so determined not to violate the mystery of God that he refused to allow for revelation of his Deity as immanent in time; as incarnate, embodied, of a proportion and placement, subject to discussion. Voegelin describes himself as a pre-doctrinal, “pre-Nicean” Christian who cannot deposit his ineffable experience of “the Ground” in any dogma or religious structure, though he knows how it could be done.
According to Montgomery, we can trust as guides O’Connor, Weaver, and Solzhenitsyn—and Cleanth Brooks remains the mentor in strictly literary questions. Moreover, Thomas Stearns Eliot is never far from Montgomery’s horizon.
The art of his near-contemporary and fellow Georgian, Flannery O’Connor, has been a persistent subject for Montgomery. No one else has written more (or better) commentary on her fiction. Once more his subject is the reality of evil in Miss O’Connor’s stories and the sacramental view of creation that modifies her Augustinian rigor. He also praises her reviews for the Georgia Bulletin—conversations with members of a Roman Catholic community to which she belonged.
It is this same civilized availability and discursiveness that he admires in Professor Brooks’ William Faulkner: First Encounters (1983). For Marion Montgomery, it is criticism as social encounter concerned with the “ancient relation of life and art” that recommends this introduction to Faulkner studies—an “understanding Faulkner” to go with Brooks’ other guides to the inexperienced reader in the art of construing texts on their own terms, with reference to the language and the mythos of the world to which they belong. Brooks is critic as expositor, who presents the student with literature as a mode of knowledge in the concrete. He is a rhetor, like Professor Montgomery’s other Southern preceptor, Richard M. Weaver of North Carolina.
Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay is Montgomery’s focus among his works. It is, according to the original subtitle, a “study in the survival of a mind and a culture.” Montgomery salutes Weaver’s book as achieving its purpose: for encouraging the phenomena that it also explains. Weaver, says Montgomery, earned a place “in our pilgrim company” where he “bears himself with the resoluteness of a prophet,” showing us always the significance of our contingent status. Moreover, as rhetor. Weaver is obliged to persuade us of the truth given to him, just as the critic must teach us to read on our own.
The poet, in contrast to the rhetorician, must attempt both more and less. He must show an action, rendering “a movement of the soul in words” that is as far from provincial as it is from rootless abstraction.
What is of value in Solzhenitsyn has, in this book, its counterpoint in the qualities Montgomery believes to be missing from the work of Robert Frost and Ezra Pound. The three writers are played off of one another in an instructive fashion. Frost is for Montgomery the great equivocator; and Pound a strange variety of liberal Utopian—at least until he discovered that knowledge was not enough, that the Renaissance was flawed at its core, had invested too much of human hope in the image of a salutary city. Montgomery’s overviews of these two poets are persuasive. Moreover, for some of us they help to clear away difficulties. Frost as public man often affected more than guarded epiphanies, even recommending something close to Christian orthodoxy to his friends. But for Montgomery, Frost is usually a poet like Edgar Allan Poe—the “modern autonomous and alienated man.” Frost fights shy of asking too much of his metaphors and of reaching toward those meanings that the heart desires to find. Montgomery believes he is too Socratic. His reservations recall the early comment of Yvor Winters on Frost as “spiritual drifter.” They do not account for everything Frost wrote, but do point to a difficulty with his characteristic strategy. Concerning Montgomery’s assessment of Ezra Pound, even a small caveat is inappropriate. For Pound was always an American who had no home-place in his country—a defender of the great traditions of the West who could not participate in most of them. Like most moderns, he invested too much of himself in an imaginary future.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the absolute antitype of Pound. The Russian novelist, following the established Orthodox tradition, condemns the prideful effects of Renaissance and Enlightenment progressivism on the West, their glorification of man and his ability to solve his own problems. Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn, as in his 1978 speech at Harvard University, denigrates reason as a false idol and the worship of science as alchemy—an infernal magic, dangerous to the souls of those it touches. In experiencing Communism from Lenin to Stalin to Andropov, the Russians, Solzhenitsyn believes, have had a chance to reach the bottom and to see how empty is the modern spirit: that it is a measure of where related statist arrangements will tend, once they have run their course. In an extraordinary essay Montgomery compares Solzhenitsyn to the Nashville Agrarians who came together in I’ll Take My Stand. The analogy is perceptive. For reasons that have to do with why Richard Weaver, Solzhenitsyn, and Donald Davidson all appear on his list of prophets, Montgomery reacts as he does to Cleanth Brooks, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and Eric Voegelin. For Montgomery is, in all of his openness, a fierce traditionalist and no part of the secular right, despite his deep suspicion of omnicompetent government. There is some evidence that, like Solzhenitsyn, he is more concerned with the harm that may be done by a secular American right than he is with Marxist ingenuity still functioning in the civilized world.
After warning against the attractions of mere repose, mere submission to what is providential, Marion Montgomery concludes his tribute to those who have educated him on a pious, accepting note, thankful for the givens in his life. The imagination of the artist feeds on providential things; but he reminds us that it is by choice that we defend or neglect particular positions, respecting what others have achieved by protecting their “self-ordering” and the “substance” it reveals: what will come of it once we have appropriated its excellence in what we do.
[The Men I Have Chosen for Fathers: Literary and Philosophical Passages, by Marion Montgomery (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 264 pp., $24.95]