Allen Tate, teacher, writer, poet, and critic, was associated with Tennessee for most of his life and lived in the state for long periods, especially during his college years at Vanderbilt University (1918-23) and during his last years in Nashville and Sewanee (1967-79). Tate grew up thinking that he had been born in Virginia but, in fact, like other members of the Fugitives and Agrarians, was born in Kentucky–in his case in Winchester in bluegrass country.
For all of his mature life Tate was a professional man of letters. First and foremost, he was a writer, not a teacher, although he taught often, especially at the University of Minnesota (1951-66). As was the case with his two masters, T. S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom, Tate was known chiefly for his criticism and poetry. He also wrote biography (lives of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis); a novel, The Fathers (1940); translations; tributes to such friends as Eliot, Ransom, Andrew Lytle, and Cleanth Brooks; and memoirs. With Caroline Gordon he wrote and edited a superb textbook, The Craft of Fiction (1951). He edited A Southern Vanguard (1947) in memory of John Peale Bishop and a special issue of the Sewanee Review devoted to Eliot (1966) and completed many other comparable projects during his long career, most notably the second Agrarian symposium, Who Owns America? edited with Herbert Agar (1936).
Much of Tate’s most important editorial work was done at the Sewanee Review in the middle 1940s–first as an unpaid advisor to Andrew Lytle (1942-44) and then as editor (1944-46). Lytle and Tate decisively changed the Sewanee Review from a journal devoted to the humanities to a literary and critical quarterly. Tate created the blueprint for the critical quarterly in “The Function of the Critical Quarterly” (Southern Review, 1936). Not only did he remake the Sewanee Review, but he advised John Crowe Ransom about the Kenyon Review and helped with the founding of the Hudson Review in 1948.
Tate was endlessly helpful to countless writers and editors. He and Caroline Gordon befriended such writers as Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, as well as editors John E. Palmer and Frederick Morgan. Tate had a great gift for friendship and knew practically every important British, American, and European writer during the course of his mature life–from Eliot to Yevtushenko. His literary friends and acquaintances included, in addition to the Fugitives and Agrarians (especially Ransom, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and Lytle), Ford Madox Ford, Malcolm Cowley, Hart Crane, William Meredith, Louis D. Rubin Jr., Joseph Warren Beach, Howard Nemerov, Edmund Wilson, Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Jacques Maritain, and Elizabeth Hardwick.
Tate charmed many women and was married four times–twice to the novelist Caroline Gordon and then to the poet Isabella Gardner and finally to a former student who had been a nun, Helen Heinz. He had a daughter, Nancy, by Caroline Gordon and sons, John and Ben, by Helen Heinz.
Tate’s poems are traditional in form–rhymed and metered. The severe formality of his verse may have resulted in his not writing considerably more poetry. His collections began with Mr. Pope (1928) and ran through The Mediterranean (1936) and The Winter Sea (1944) to his Collected Poems (1977).
Tate’s criticism may well outlast his poetry, a matter that would frustrate and disappoint him. He was a great critic, and most of his criticism can be found in Essays of Four Decades (1968) and Memoirs and Opinions (1975). During his lifetime Tate was blessed in the critics who wrote about him–Brooks, Rubin, Nemerov, Walter Sullivan, Radcliffe Squires, M. E. Bradford, Arthur Mizener, Frank Kermode, and Denis Donoghue. He has not been nearly so fortunate so far as a critical biography is concerned. A model citizen in the realm that he called the Republic of Letters, Tate was both feared and revered in his lifetime. Since then he has been reviled often, when not ignored.