By J. T. Keller
November 29th, 2009
Allen Tate was heartened to see the inaugural issue of VQR. The Fugitive, the magazine he had helped found in Nashville in 1922, was struggling and would publish its final number in a matter of months. Tate was hopeful that VQR would succeed where others had failed. On June 26, 1925, he wrote editor James Southall Wilson:
I suppose you can’t precisely please everybody but the Virginia Quarterly Review is such a pleasant adventure after the many preliminary “little magazines” of the so called renascence in the South, that it certainly ought to engage the attention of all Southern writers, among whom I have the pleasure of numbering myself.
From 1925 to 1970, Tate submitted over twenty poems and a dozen essays to VQR. Over the course of this long relationship, the magazine published five of his poems (some of which number among his most discussed verse), five of his most famous and frequently quoted essays, and one book review. Tate’s personal correspondence with VQR’s editors through the years reveals a passionate and sometimes confrontational writer who wanted most of all to be recognized as a penman of the South.
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1925–1930: “A Southern poet and essayist living in New York”
Tate’s first contribution to VQR was his poem, “Idiot,” a portrait of a provincial man of the time, published in the Summer 1927 issue. Wilson liked the poem very much, calling it “trenchant.” He also confessed to Tate:
Some people thought I was an idiot for publishing it, others thought it was the best thing in verse line that I had ever used, some disliked it very much at first and grew to like it very much.
Upon its acceptance, Tate specifically requested that his biographical note read: “Allen Tate is a Southern poet and essayist living in New York.”
In February of 1928 Tate sent three poems to Wilson. Of the selection, Wilson chose “Idyl” for the Summer issue. Tate wrote a one-sentence letter to VQR on April 23, 1929: “I herewith continue my bombardment of the Virginia Quarterly: I am offering you more verse.” However, after “Idyl,” the magazine rejected five of his submissions before accepting his next poem, “The Oath.” The poem describes a conversation between Tate and his friend, fellow writer Andrew Lytle. The friends sit by the fireplace, and as they admire the relics that furnish the room, they discuss their own generation. The same underlying theme weaves through “Idiot,” “Idyl,” and “The Oath”—the decay of tradition in modern society.
Stringfellow Barr, who took over as editor of VQR in 1931 and whom Tate affectionately addressed as “Winkie,” very much enjoyed the “The Oath,” and agreed with its theme. “By God it’s true!” Barr wrote. “I like it a lot; and accept it at our usual rates, payable on publication.” Tate responded to his praise, “I’m glad you liked it, accepted it, and joined Lytle in swearing it is true. It’s the only kind of truth I’m willing to swear to.”
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1931–1935: “Do you happen to know the Virginia Quarterly is famous for rotten poetry?”
VQR, recognizing Tate’s insistence on his identity as a Southerner, often solicited him for essays on the topic of Southern literature. The first request came in 1928, when Wilson asked him for an essay on “The Young Southern Intellectual.” Tate expressed interest in the idea, but continued to send along only poetry. Even after Barr’s acceptance of “The Oath,” Tate’s record with the magazine remained hit-or-miss. Eventually, after one too many rejections, Tate became frustrated and his correspondence with Barr turned caustic. On November 24, 1931, he wrote to Barr:
I am disturbed by your policy as it has affected certain of us over here . . . In my own case you have steadily rejected my best poems – The Idiot is the sole exception – only to print very second rate work . . . Do you happen to know the Virginia Quarterly is famous for rotten poetry? Well, it is, and if you haven’t heard it before this, it’s because I’m the first person rude enough to tell you . . . The general body of your magazine is notoriously poor . . . In general the opinion of the Quarterly is this: it is a place to sell facile stuff . . . I remember how much I liked your statement that your purpose is to air the Southern tradition. It seems to me that the best way to do that is to do it specifically by printing Southern writers . . . I was amazed you had no conception of what kind of writing is being done in this country.
Barr responded promptly:
When I pick a poem or what not, I consult not only my own taste (first and foremost naturally) and the judgment of my associates, but the intellectual interests of the persons who pay three dollars a year to read the Virginia Quarterly . . . “Airing the Southern tradition” is only one of my purposes. I always prefer to print things by Southerners – but my taste frequently leads me to print things by other people instead.
Barr’s explanation did not mollify Tate, and he quickly jabbed back,
You succeeded beautifully in evading every point I made. You make one, however, that I am willing to face – your confession that you consult the taste of your public. I had always supposed that a quarterly’s duty is to form the public taste by publishing the best according to its lights. I must conclude then that what I had taken to be an effect is an intention – your lack of seriousness. I think you may be Governor of Virginia someday, and I wish you well.
Tate’s indignation eventually subsided, and when managing editor Lambert Davis contacted him in 1935 about offering an essay about Southern literature in honor of VQR’s ten-year anniversary issue dedicated to Southern writers, Tate happily obliged. He wrote to Davis:
I should like to say something about our lack of the professional instinct in literature . . . I suppose the general point is that we can’t have a literature until we have a criticism, and we can’t have that until we become professional – instead of being just geniuses, or perhaps ladies and gentlemen.
Davis responded, “Your essay could well be the keynote address in an issue devoted to Southern letters; and you are perhaps better fitted to write it than any man alive.”
Tate wrote “The Profession of Letters in the South” in one sitting. In it, he declares Southern literature of the time to be unacceptably weak, and blames the aristocratic preoccupation with politics for preventing Southern artists from fostering a relationship with their region, and developing an authentic Southern identity. The essay is a precursor to his theory on Regionalism, which he continued to develop over the course of his whole career.
About the essay, Davis wrote to Tate,
I like it better for its incidental insights than its structure at a whole . . . I doubt very much that any mechanization of publication in the South could solve any problems at all. After all, a “reading public” is a creation of bourgeois society, and I cannot envisage such a public large enough to support a professional class of writers under any other circumstances than a much more industrialized South.
Even when solicited to write “The Profession of Letters in the South,” Tate couldn’t help but sneak some verse along with the essay. Davis accepted the accompanying poem, “To the Romantic Traditionists,” and it appeared in the same issue as the essay, Spring 1935. Tate had hoped a poem by his friend Robert Penn Warren would appear alongside his own work, but Davis confessed that there wasn’t enough space to include it. Tate responded, “I wish I had known that you had to cut down the poetry. I should have suggested that you use Warren’s instead of mine . . . his is very fine; but mine is only so-so, certainly not one of my best.” Despite Tate’s reservations about this poem, it is one of his more discussed pieces of verse among critics. The thinly veiled attack on Southern sentimentalists is considered to be one of the most challenging poems he ever wrote.
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1936–1945: “The views expressed are those of the author.”
Over the next ten years, Tate published two more works in VQR: the poem “Light Interval” (originally titled “Pastoral,” appearing in the Winter 1936 issue) and an essay, “Narcissus as Narcissus” (Winter 1938), an analysis of one of Tate’s best-known poems, “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Lambert Davis couldn’t help but confess a bit of trepidation about Tate’s inherently quarrelsome tone in the essay: “I am not sure that I don’t think you are a little bit too truculent in the opening pages . . .” It appears that Tate had grown to respect Davis’s opinion because Tate then rewrote the essay’s introduction.
On December 7, 1944, Charlotte Kohler, managing editor at the time, wrote to Tate,
This spring, 1945, issue of Virginia Quarterly will mark the beginning of the magazine’s twenty-first year and we are planning to celebrate it with writers who have appeared in the magazine before. We feel very strongly that you should be included among them.
Tate was thankful and excited about the opportunity, although the request made him a bit wistful. He wrote back, “Alas, it stirs melancholy thoughts about time and age! Just ten years ago I was writing the essay which became the leading article in your tenth anniversary number.”
The essay, “The New Provincialism,” reads like an unofficial sequel to “The Profession of Letters in the South.” He returned to the topic to which he was most devoted: the shape of Southern tradition in modernity. After finishing the essay, Tate wrote to Kohler, “At this moment it occurs to me that the views expressed in the essay may be so repellent to you and Mr. Wilson that you may not want to print it. Please do not hesitate to send it back.”
Kohler responded, “The essay as a whole is a clear-cut and hard-hitting one . . . There is however, one generalizing sentence that we should like, with your permission, to omit.” The sentence in question reads, “Their influence is no longer very much felt by anybody who seriously writes” and is a direct attack on three prominent literary critics of the time: Van Wyck Brooks, Alfred Kazin, and Bernard De Voto, each of whom had been arguing with Tate for years over the state of American literature. Tate’s response to Kohler read, “If you don’t mind I’d like to keep my mean-spirited remark about Brooks, Kazin, and De Voto; I’ve had a running feud with them for several years and I don’t want it to lapse. Besides, I think the remark is in the strict sense true.” The sentence remained in the published version, but Tate was offended by the editor’s note in the front of the journal regarding his essay:
When the Quarterly invited Allen Tate to write an essay to follow the theme of his earlier article, “The Profession of Letters in the South” (anniversary number, 1935), it was left to him to present his own ideas in his own manner as he has done in “The New Provincialism: with an Epilogue on the Southern Novel.” The views expressed are those of the author.
Offended, Tate bypassed Kohler and wrote directly to Wilson, who was serving as an advisory editor at the time:
I am sure that The Virginia Quarterly Review would not deliberately offer to me . . . an insult; and am sure that no Virginian could inadvertently do so. I am therefore at a loss to explain what seems to me the discourtesy of your note on me in The Green Room of your current issue. Had I insisted (there was no occasion for insisting) that Miss Kohler comply with the letter of her invitation and publish my essay, I should see some reason for a public disavowal of the views expressed in it. I asked Miss Kohler explicitly to send the essay back if for any reason she did not like it.
The note in The Green Room was not intended as an insult to you in any sense . . . I felt the sentence in your article, “Their influence is not longer very much felt by anybody who seriously writes,” was an opinion that might be taken as an insult by at least one of the Quarterly’s contributors. I was unwilling to have any responsibility for the statement and suggested to Miss Kohler that you be asked to omit it. You preferred to keep it. The editorial statement, it seemed to me, did no more than make specific the general disavowal of “responsibility for views expressed by contributors.” It did, I thought, relieve the editors of responsibility for what I considered a discourteous comment, without insisting upon editing the article as we should have done if it had not been written on invitation.
Tate did not accept this explanation, and followed up with a sweeping comment on literary criticism:
I am sure you will allow me to point out to you the existence of certain conventions in literary controversy. My remark about Mr. Brooks, Mr. Kazin, and Mr. De Voto, judged by my relative standards, was far less severe than things said by both Mr. Brooks and Mr. Kazin about me; and I did not take their remarks as a personal discourtesy. From any strict point of view, all literary criticism is discourteous, particularly in its more immediate phases of evaluation of current books and minds; but it is just here that the convention of impersonal discourtesy applies, and always has applied. There is a reasonable limit beyond which this convention is violated. My remark did not exceed this limit. Your statement about me in the Green Room, not being within the frame of literary controversy, did exceed it; and in spite of the kind intention of your letter, I shall have to ask you to let me continue to think that it did.
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1946–1970: “If I make it, I shall be exactly twice 35 this November!”
Tate made only two more contributions to VQR: an essay, “Faulkner’s Sanctuary and the Southern Myth,” published in the Summer 1968 issue (twenty-three years after the publication of “The New Provincialism”), and “A Note on Paul Valéry.” This essay originated from a solicitation for VQR’s forty-fifth anniversary issue. Kohler wrote to Tate:
We are seeking out for spring the writers and thinkers who in the past have helped to give the VQR its distinctive character and style and we should especially like to present some of your work once again. Will it be possible for you to send us an essay? I think you know the high regard in which we hold your work. It has been both a pleasure and privilege for us to publish it. All of us here hope that in this special celebratory issue we may once again present some of your best work.
In his response, Tate expressed deep nostalgia and even offered a quote from Virgil:
I’ll try; but I’m not sure I can manage an essay. Perhaps a section of a long literary memoir I’m trying at intervals to write. Or a longish poem. I was in your tenth anniversary issue, with an essay that has been referred to many times, somewhat to my embarrassment. I was then 35; if I make it, I shall be exactly twice 35 this November! Your flattering invitation brings back sunt lacrimae rerum!
Tate managed to deliver the essay, but just missed the deadline. And so his final contribution to VQR (nine years before his death), appeared in the following issue—Summer 1970—instead. About his last essay, Tate wrote to Kohler, “It isn’t very good, so a last reading tells me. The writing is rather tired.” Old age may have finally dulled his characteristic sharpness, but Tate’s long and complicated relationship with VQR is a rich account of not only his work, but his life, the development of his ideas, and his character.
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