Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

General Lee and the Siren: Allen Tate's Failed Biography

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

General Lee and the Siren: Allen Tate's Failed Biography

Article excerpt

IN A FOLDER OF CORRESPONDENCE IN THE MANUSCRIPTS DIVISION OF Princeton's Firestone Library is a handwritten letter dated January 1967 to Allen Tate from a young man named James Oliver Tate, apparently no relation. After expressing his admiration for all of the elder Tate's work, the younger man asks him an apparently innocent question: "I have read several old references to a biography of Lee that you were working on about 1930. Why did you not finish it (if indeed you started it)? Your essay on 'A Southern Mode of the Imagination' tells more about Lee than the whole of Southall Freeman" (J. O. Tate).

Why did he not finish it? Indeed. Tate's struggles to find a way beneath Robert E. Lee's impeccable surface led him to a paralysis analyzed by various commentators, beginning with Radcliffe Squires in 1971, who argues that "Tate himself had perhaps begun to displace Lee in the biography," so much so that the book "had begun to turn into a species of autobiography or even of fiction" (Squires 128). Lewis Simpson and Thomas Underwood largely agree, with varying emphases, and Michael Kreyling adds the intriguing suggestion that, if Lee had not been simply a substitute father, but God Himself, then Tate was unwillingly engaged in the act of deicide (Kreyling 115, 123). Both from his letters to friends and from the manuscript itself, it becomes apparent that Tate's troubles with Lee stern from large moral and religious quandaries symptomatic of a culture in an uneasy relation to its heroic past. How could it be that a man like Lee--"a character that in its kind stands supreme in all history" ("Untitled," Princeton MS 30)--was so historically close, yet inaccessibly distant? The more one looks at Tate's failure, the more it becomes a major interpretive crux, and not simply because his inability to write the book changed his career. The problem was worse than the inability to enter the "immoderate past" that Tate had memorably elegized in his "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Not only did Lee not fit the Agrarian model he was supposed to embody, but his magnanimity and the nature of his ambition took on an increasingly repellent, even monstrous form in Tate's imagination--so much so that the revered General increasingly became a character out of Dante and Poe at once, both the Siren for the South and the son of Ligeia, a philosophical problem whose central metaphor was sexual--certainly the last thing one might associate with Robert E. Lee.

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In the fall of 1930, Allen Tate was riding the success of two biographies, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (1928) and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (1929). He had a contract with his publisher, Minton, Balch, to write the biography of Lee, for which the expectations were high. In November, his wife Caroline Gordon wrote to her friend Sally Wood about various book projects underway at Benfolly, the home that Tate's brother had bought for them near Clarksville, Tennessee: "We have no company now except Andrew Lytle who has settled down here for a long stretch--until he finishes his biography of [Nathan Bedford] Forrest. I am struggling with Shiloh and Missionary Ridge and Allen is on the verge of starting Lee" (Wood 64).

Who was General Lee if not the finest example of the integral man produced by the agrarian order of the South? He was the one man who embodied in his own character those qualities that Southerners could hold up as universally admirable, even for those who disliked the Confederacy itself. In his book on Davis, Tate had scrutinized the president of the Confederacy as the type of modern man already afflicted by what T. S. Eliot had called the "dissociation of sensibility" (64) and all too typical of Tate's own age, but Lee had no such inner separation of intellect from feeling. Reluctant to join the Southern cause, Lee had never been an advocate of secession, but he famously could not fight against his own state, Virginia. The local bond of land and kin overrode the abstraction of loyalty to the Union. …

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