Allen Tate had the misfortune to have The Fathers published two years after Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) appeared, with the result that his novel soon became a dinghy bobbing in the wake of Mitchell’s overwhelming popular success. The reappearance of Tate’s book in a slightly revised version twenty-two years later was an event of considerable importance. The Fathers, as Gone with the Wind does not, provides an occasion for defining the idea of the South and for critical reflection on the moral significance Tate was able to extract from his social scene and his historical perspective. That the novel failed to evoke any such critical response is shown by the reviews written at the time.
Reading these reviews is an illuminating experience, as much for what they do not say as for what they do. The critics were, on the whole, sympathetic toward the book and generous in their comments, but one takes away the impression that many had not read it carefully and almost none understood the writer’s intention. Many readers saw it only as a moving story of one family’s tragic collapse during the Civil War; certainly this reading testifies to the richness of the narrative if to nothing else. Others thought that Tate was dramatizing within a family unit the fatal clash of two social orders—that of the traditional society of the South, symbolized by Major Buchan, and that of the industrial society of the North, represented by George Posey, the major’s son-in-law. This conflict was viewed in all its dramatic tensions and implications, but with a feeling on the part of the reviewers that Tate had failed to prove the superiority of the Buchans’ ancestral code over George’s antitraditional conduct. It is possible to read The Fathers in this way, as one can read much of William Faulkner’s works in a similar fashion, but to do so is to miss the point, so to speak, of a novel remarkable for its realistic detail, thematic extensions of symbolic reference, moral intensity, and passionate historical sense.
The Fathers presents a philosophical view of society and history within a framework of particular events. It is only natural that these events should center upon the Civil War, for to the Southern writer concerned with the life or culture of his region, the war is central. It is no longer enough to know what happened in that conflict; it is also necessary to know what the conflict meant. For this purpose, the Civil War provides a vast controlling image that gives meaning to the facts of the regional experience, not only to the structure of Southern society but also to the code of morality on which it was based.
Before The Fathers appeared, Tate had already defined his position on the South in a series of essays written between 1930 and 1936. In one of these, “Religion and the Old South,” he outlines his theory of history in terms of the long view and the short view. Within the perspective of the latter, all history reduces to a variety and confusion of images out of which it is possible for readers to make choices in reconstructing the scene or the period. The long view sees history as idea or concept, not as an account of the particular lives of particular people in a setting that often bewildered them, but as a record of events without accident, contingency, or personal involvement. Tate’s own choice between these two ways of historical vision and thinking is as apparent in his fiction as in his poetry. The reviewers who found no real meaning in his novel were looking at history as an abstract concept of principles and causes. The Fathers incorporates the short view.
The novel is spacious in outline, as any work must be that attempts to contain within its limits the picture of a whole society. It is beautifully selective in attention to the detail with which people and places are described, habits of speech and manners are recorded, and the impressions made by events upon the mind of the narrator...
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