'It is an old country, I thought'

Published:February 5, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

I am reading The Fathers (1938), the only novel by Allen Tate, a poet best known for his “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1928). Tate was born in Kentucky, but his mother, Eleanor Parke Custis Varnell, was Fairfax County-bred, and The Fathers is set at Pleasant Hill, the plantation of her youth. Tate was a Southern Agrarian, a modernist who nevertheless bemoaned the passing of antebellum life. In The Fathers, a Virginia family in 1860 collapses under the weight of its own history. There’s a little Gone with the Wind here, but also Faulkner.

The book’s narrator, Lacy Buchan, takes a moment to consider all that past:

It is an old country, I thought, as my toes sank into the rusty clay, powdered by the sun; an old country, and too many people have lived in it, and raised too much tobacco and corn, and too many men and women, young and old, have died in it, and taken with them into the rusty earth their gallantry or their melancholy, their pride or their simplicity . . . and too many people have loved the ground in which after a while they must all come to lie.

Tate’s novel hasn’t received a ton of critical attention over the years, but it’s interesting to find it mentioned in this book about neo-Confederates, with the authors suggesting that The Fathers was “a contribution to the Southern cause.” I’m not sure what that cause is or was, but the excerpt above seems far too ambivalent to be much of a contribution.