In a letter to Allen Tate shortly after the publication of The Fathers (1938), Donald Davidson observed, "I seem clearly to detect that you are talking just as much about 1938-Virginia as 1858-Virginia" (318). Davidson's reference was, of course, to the ideological feud that the Agrarians had carried on with their industrial "Yankee torturers"--the strongest rebel salvo being launched in 1930 with I'll Take My Stand. Tate did compose the novel during his Agrarian years, and to an extent the novel is dialectically engaged with the issues important to the South of the 1920s and '30s. Yet despite the current temptation to contextualize Tate's work and to privilege the ideological over the artistic, it must be remembered that Allen Tate's novel cannot be understood solely within the context of Agrarianism's or any other social or political agenda.
Of the Agrarian (and Fugitive) writers, Tate practiced throughout his career a Modernist aesthetic that was the most cosmopolitan in formulation and scope. For example, the influence of Baudelaire, Remy de Gourmont, Mallarme and others from the early years of the Modernist movement is ever present in Tate's poetry, and Tate surely took to heart Mallarme's famous demand that the artist "Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces." What is unique with respect to Tate as an American Modernist is that the catholicity of European aesthetic influences in Tate's work is deepened by the fact that nearly all of his important texts have a Southern locus in which he attempts to capture an elusive historical image by artistically connecting the receding past with the fragmented present. This is especially true in The Fathers, where Modernism and Southernness merge in Lacy Buchan, the narrator and central artistic consciousness of the book. My intention in this essay is to reconsider The Fathers in the light of its relationship to the most important Modernist techniques and insights associated with the poems and essays, and to show how Tate's Modernist aesthetic is worked out through his narrator. The process of Lacy's development is an agonistic one by means of which a mature Modern artist emerges who separates the "man who suffers and the mind which creates" (Eliot 8) and presents a symbolic vision of an irreconcilable Southern tension.
A letter from Andrew Lytle to Tate in 1938 sets the novel in an appropriate artistic context. At "every moment" Lytle noted, "the feeling of fatality which never fails is with you, and you sense that there is a meaning of terrible importance which we may never know nor dare need to know" (129). From the book's outset, the "feeling of fatality" that Lytle wrote of suggests an ineluctable confrontation between static and dynamic orders of public and private experience which Tate locates in the image of "the abyss." In "The Ancestors" (1933) Tate writes:
The bones hear but the eyes will never see-- Punctilious abyss, the yawn of space Come once a day to suffocate the sight. There is no man on earth who can be free Of this, the eldest in the latest crime. (12-16)
The synesthesic "bones hear" connotes the inscrutability of the abyss, while the general tone of the passage indicates that although one should not court it, the abyss is an unavoidable condition into which one is initiated. Such an attitude pervades The Fathers and centers on the dramatic conflict between the old order and the modern.
The Old South, Tate writes in "The Profession of Letters in the South," "came from eighteenth-century England, its agricultural half" (Essays 526). In an essay written a year later, he argues that in such a traditional society one "was clear in his belief that the way of life and the livelihood of men must be the same" (Essays 547). As a symbol of the Old South, Major Buchan mildly presides over a slave-owning Agrarian culture ever more rigidly ordered by ritual and code. In societies where "lives were eternally balanced upon a pedestal below which lay an abyss," Lacy Buchan observes that his father "knew the moves of an intricate game that he expected everyone else to play" (Fathers 43-44). Lacy recalls his father marching the family in single file into a hotel, formally announcing to the clerk, "We need rain, sir!" and giving as his address the place where he receives his mail rather than where he lives (Fathers 17). Major Buchan's natural formality in the scene exemplifies his neoclassical mannerisms, further evinced by his unfashionable breeches, house decorations in the ersatz mythic style of the eighteenth century, and his relentless writing of letters. However decorous and cautionary, Major Buchan's "agreement, slowly arrived at, to let the abyss alone," is also seriously flawed (Fathers 186). His society has ossified in believing itself eternal, and that stasis, Tate implies, is a form of death. Paralyzed, Major Buchan's world cannot survive the onslaught of the modern, represented by George Posey.
Posey, a descendent of a property-owning and mercantile family that moved from Maryland to Georgetown, arrives at Pleasant Hill in 1858 carrying a carpet bag and a gun. An accomplished rider and an expert marksman, Posey is also violent and handsome to the point of narcissism, and he exemplifies what Tate has elsewhere described as "the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society" …