Turner Cassity was born Allen Turner Cassity in Jackson, Mississippi. His father, who died when Cassity was four, was in the sawmill business; his mother was a violinist and his grandmother a pianist in silent-film theaters. The family moved to Forrest, Mississippi, in 1933 and later back to Jackson, where Cassity attended Bailey Junior High School and was graduated from Central High School. Cassity was graduated from Millsaps College with a B.A. in 1951 and from Stanford University with an M.A. in English in 1952. At Stanford, he studied poetry with Yvor Winters in a program that he likens to “the strict technical training a musician would get at a good conservatory.”
Cassity was drafted in 1952 during the Korean War and spent the two years of his duty in Puerto Rico, an experience that provides the basis for his sequence The Defense of the Sugar Islands. He received an M.S. in library science from Columbia University in 1956 and served as an assistant librarian at the Jackson Municipal Library for 1957-1958 and for part of 1961. From 1959 to 1961, Cassity was an assistant librarian for the Transvaal Provincial Library in Pretoria, South Africa. Observations from his stay in Pretoria and Johannesburg frequently appear in his poems. In 1962, Cassity accepted a job at the Emory University Library in Atlanta, where he remained until his retirement in 1991.
Cassity’s travels took him to the desert and the tropics, and he spent much time in California. He referred to his poems as “tropical pastorals,” but this description conceals the sense of amusement and horror with which many of his speakers perceive the past. Cassity also described himself as “a burgher” in temperament and conviction, and this label is also somewhat misleading, for his poems seldom reveal a complacent attitude; his scrutiny of colonialism, while not obviously polemical, often reveals the flaws inherent in the underlying psychology of the colonist more than do more tendentious poems. Cassity died in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 26, 2009.