Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478
John Orley Allen Tate was born in Winchester, Kentucky, the third son of John Orley and Eleanor Varnell Tate. His early life foreshadowed the gypsy-like wanderings of his later years; because of his father’s various business interests, the family moved frequently. These moves resulted in Tate’s rather sketchy education. As a teenager, he wrote a few poems, but his real love was music. He studied the violin under excellent teachers at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music but left when his teachers concluded that, while he had some talent, he had no exceptional gift for music.
Tate, his musical ambitions thwarted, was accepted at Vanderbilt University and entered in 1918. He had no particular interest in literature when his college career began. He was, however, strongly influenced by some of his teachers, especially Walter Clyde Curry. The medieval and Renaissance scholar lent him books, encouraged him to write poetry, and introduced him to John Crowe Ransom, with whom he later studied. Under the influence of these two gifted teachers, Tate joined Vanderbilt’s Calumet Club, a literary society whose membership also included Donald Davidson. Davidson invited Tate to participate in a discussion group that evolved into the Fugitives. Tate was an eager participant in this group of teachers and students and contributed many poems to its literary journal, The Fugitive. He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1923 after having taken a year off from his studies because of poor health; his diploma was dated 1922, so that technically he graduated “with his class.” In his last year at Vanderbilt, he met Robert Penn Warren, a sixteen-year-old sophomore, who became his lifelong friend.
Tate had envisioned New York as the literary mecca of the United States, and he visited the city in 1924. He met Hart Crane, whose work he admired, as well as other authors. Upon his return, he visited the Warrens, and there he met Caroline Gordon, the first of his three wives. After their marriage, they moved to New York, where Tate worked as an editor and continued to contribute to The Fugitive until it ceased publication in 1925. The Tates remained in New York until 1930, except for two years spent abroad on a Guggenheim Fellowship; then they moved back to Tennessee.
In Tennessee, Tate was able to enjoy the company of almost all his old friends again. From this “reunion” arose the Agrarian movement. In 1934, Tate, seriously in debt, turned to college teaching. He taught at a number of colleges, but not until 1951 was he offered a tenured position, at the University of Minnesota, where he taught until his retirement in 1968. After his retirement, he returned to Sewanee, Tennessee.
Tate was a southern poet in every sense of the term, but he was not limited to regional issues and popularity. His circle of literary friends included T. S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, and John Peale Bishop; his fame was international.
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