Today Allen Tate is remembered—if at all—as a Southern Agrarian or New Critic. His name barely registers in discussions of “Catholic” writers. It was not always so. Tate’s 1950 conversion from atheism to Catholicism was so well celebrated that Marshall McLuhan would say that his was “the nearest American equivalent to Newman’s conversion.”
Why do we hear so little of this American Newman? I started to wonder recently why we do not hear of his going to Mass with Ernest Hemingway in Paris, his pilgrimage to see T.S. Eliot in London, his correspondence with W.H. Auden? Why had I not heard of his time as poet-in-residence at Princeton where he spent countless hours discussing the Catholic faith with Jacques Maritain—who would eventually become his godfather? A friend who knows his work said to me, it is because he wrote the poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” and because we think he defended an old South that we are keen to expunge from our stained memory.
That sounded like the most plausible reason for our forgetfulness of Tate—until I read on—only to discover how profoundly unjust were such dismissals. Early on he certainly showed signs of having been habituated to a racist culture, but the mature Tate repented, and confessed that as original sin was to humanity so was slavery for the South. I began to think that perhaps we have forgotten Tate for other reasons.
In Tate’s view, the Old South “could not create its appropriate religion.” The cure for the South’s original sin was the salve of ancient and orthodox Christian religion that had been forgotten. Without it, Tate averred, the Southern way of life lacked the “spiritual legacy” it needed to guide it. It was precisely the Southern lack of “true religion” which meant so much violence and sacrifice by other means.
Such an analysis would make him forgettable for another set of reasons, namely the reasons of those who are keen to forget that the “spiritual legacy” of the West is Christian. And this theme runs throughout his work. In one of his most important essays, Tate argued that it was the task of “the man of letters in the modern world” to hold up to his own age “an image of man” that can be judged by a standard, that can “distinguish the false from the true.” Here his literary concern is with the power of words and “the vitality of language” to communicate, but the questions of true religion continue to percolate beneath the surface, for by mid-century his literary criticism had become Catholic.
The man of letters in the modern world “must discriminate and defend the difference between mass communication, for the control of men, and the knowledge of man which literature offers us for human participation.” Yet such discrimination requires a standard which in a secularized, egalitarian culture is constantly being refused. This he said stems from an “internal crisis” in the West, a crisis in “a society that multiples means without end.” Tate argues that secularized societies proliferate communication, but every act of communication, indeed every action, is orchestrated along the lines of a “plotless drama of withdrawal.”
As with his metaphysical and theological critiques of the old South, so does Tate diagnose American society’s ills as fundamentally tied to a certain forgetfulness about the religion which gives rise to the West. He writes, “A society which has once been religious cannot, without risk of spiritual death, secularize itself.” There is no longing for the restoration of some idealized Catholic state in these observations. The criticisms work at the level of culture—which he views as prior to the political—and the criticisms cry out for modes of communication which precede and transcend the merely political, and extend, “explode” even, through a chain reaction, “in a whole society.”
What he fears is dehumanization through mechanized power, through a social machinery that substitutes means for ends, and thus multiplies communication (he could have predicted the Internet) in such a way as to deprive people of communion. As Tate put it, “Communication that is not also communion is incomplete.” In his view, communication is a means, not an end. And the problem with a secularized society is that it refuses “the end of social man” which is, as he puts it “communion in time through love, which is beyond time.”
As Roger Scruton has pointed out in the most recent issue of First Things, our secularized societies seek to eradicate such discriminations and standards, and prefer “to replace distinction with equality.” Tate argued the same, and deserves to be better remembered—perhaps not as the American Newman (he was not so saintly) but as a Catholic critic of American culture who held up just what we all Christians should hold up: an image of man that can be judged by a standard that helps us to discriminate between truth and falsehood. Forgetting Allen Tate is, in part, about forgetting standards and distinctions that need to be remembered now more than ever.
C. C. Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.