Allen Tate. A Study in Southern Modernism and the Religious Imagination

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Allen Tate. A study in Southern modernism and the religious imagination. By Joseph Kuhn. Poznan: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, 2009. Pp. 524.

It is at least as true of the world of academia as of the world of poetry--to pastiche Randall Jarrell (1955: 160)--that hastily crafted but pretentious publications, texts derivative, incidental, confused and confusing, appear with much clamour day after day--"like the cries and truck sounds from the street"--and beyond acknowledging the fact there is nothing one wishes to say about them. Bluntly put, all-too-many academic titles proclaim flamboyant feats that end in pathetic self-defeat. Once in a while, however, one comes across a daisy, a work that not only immediately garners attention and commands respect, but is a pleasure to pick up and read. Granted, Allen Tate: A study in Southern modernism and the religious imagination does not announce its genre readily. Still, even though it is really a real whale rather than a real daisy of a book--"pp. 524" is no typo--it is not marred by Moby Dick's daunting as well as formidable facelessness and unsubdividedness. The volume opens with a substantial introduction--it is, indeed, "A model of order"--and comprises of six clearly-marked sections: "Beginnings in New England", "The two masters", "A modernist metaphysical", "The historical imagination", "A modern Dante?", and "The post-Tateians"; with further subdivision into consecutively numbered titled chapters, fourteen in all. The book closes with an afterward and a concise summary in Polish.

A rather strong caveat is in place here: the study under review deals with no paltry matters. Emblematically, by way of a preview, it takes up such fundamental, inherently complex or specialized issues as discontinuity of physical and spiritual realms, angelism and cosmology, divine self-definition, animistic understanding of religion, distinction between classical and romantic irony, between myth and history, between communion and communication, between religious and devotional discourse, neo-scholastic diagnosis of modernity, comparative synchronicity, participatory model of historicism, fourfold theory of interpretation. However, the author presents and handles this erudite material not only with impressive intellectual aplomb, compelling thrust and clarity of purpose, but also with a rare narrative wit, lightness of touch and a carefully balanced turn of phrase. Joseph Kuhn's work abounds in nuggets of original academic research, critical perspicuity and stylistic finesse.

   When [Tate] was a fourteen year old boy he would stare at the
   desperate, asymmetrical daguerreotype of Poe and hope that he would
   one day resemble it. The hope came true is an unexpected way--not
   because Tate turned into the poete maudit that his adolescent self
   hoped, but because the mature Tate was to see Poe as an exemplary
   instance of the incoherent modern self. So true indeed did the hope
   become that to say that Tate was 'influenced' by Poe is to state
   the case too lightly: Poe was so hauntingly and pressingly close to
   Tate that he was like another William Wilson or a Montresor to
   Tate's Fortunato. For all of Tate's construction of a European Old
   South, when he sought in that historical period a writer who
   fulfilled the literary duty of "render[ing] the image of man as he
   is in his time" he found not a writer in the Latin tradition but
   rather one who "raised the black flag of the lower mind" and who
   formed his art out of the terror and emptiness of the new (p. 240).

As the author himself admits, Allen Tate occupies an uncertain place in the history of American poetry. In the first couple of decades following the end of World War II--during which time the stock of T. S. Eliot and the New Criticism stood probably at its highest--Tate benefited from his reputation as the "Eliot of the American South". At that time a number of important studies devoted to his work appeared, culminating in Radcliffe Squires's collection of critical evaluations Allen Tate and his work (1972). …