The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate
edited by John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young.
Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1974. $15.00

Of those sources ordinarily consulted by literary historians and critics, letters are surely among the most suspect. In the first place, we all write lines that are no more than the accepted conventions of social intercourse: “I apologize for not writing sooner, but I have been too busy to spare a moment, what with an unusual number of cold weather illnesses and other problems which . . .” A gently self-serving untruth; anyone can find half an hour to scribble a note. Yet on such evidence a biographer may construct a whole winter of domestic tragedy and a critic interpret a major work in the light of the author’s consequent despair.

Aware of these possibilities, the poet or novelist often will write cautiously, even slyly to his friends and associates, ever mindful of the place a particular phrase or sentiment might occupy in his Collected Letters as edited by some obtuse scholar of the future. The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, however, contains few examples if any of a finical awareness of the larger audience. Indeed, anyone who has known these men only casually will be surprised at the open-hearted and warm affection which the two expressed to each other through the precarious medium of the U.S. Post Office; for both seemed to be models of brittle reserve, two old-fashioned Southerners whose courteous aloofness is mirrored in their poetry, where they often hide behind irony or the mask of a persona. Yet in these letters they reveal themselves to each other without restraint or embarrassment, thus belying a contemporary belief that “meaningful relationships” can only be “communicated” through sensitivity training, public nakedness, and passionate bumper stickers. These letters, then, provide us with a remarkably intimate exchange of ideas, moods, and affections; and true intimacy is a rare quality, even among friends, an art to be cultivated: for today people meet in a rhetoric devised for them by the ideological hucksters of the times, and the result is not intimacy at all but a mawkish familiarity of the sort one used to find only in bars around closing time.

Thus this volume is particularly valuable because it admits the reader into the privacy of a friendship which survived almost a half century of separation, controversy, and disagreement; and these letters—admirably edited by John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young—stand as a vital testament to the continuing possibility of a communion in words. Indeed Tate and Davidson understand and affirm in their correspondence the importance of language to “the sum of things.” They were consciously serious about their professions as men of letters, and it is on this subject that they descant and yet again descant.

As each man probes his own mind and sensibility to respond to the other, the dynamic of their emerging social and esthetic theories provides for us a fascinating spectacle of conservative diversity which is all the more engaging because their dialogue is conducted within the context of events important to literary and social history: the meetings of the Fugitive poets in Nashville; the publication of their “little magazine” in the early Twenties; the later activities surrounding the Agrarian symposium, I’ll Take My Stand.

What is important in this correspondence, however, is not the specific formulation of each man’s esthetic and philosophical position; these stances are much better articulated in such essays as “Poetry as Tradition” and “The Man of Letters in the Modern World.” Nor can one legitimately argue the overriding importance of the volume as literary history; the material collected herein has already been carefully sifted by the likes of Louise Cowan and Virginia Reck. To be sure, the book will provide a few surprises for those readers unfamiliar with the inner workings of the Fugitive or Agrarian groups. Some people, for example, may be disconcerted by the harsh words both Davidson and Tate exchange concerning John Crowe Ransom (the Fugitives were not, as were the Three Musketeers, “all for one and one for all”). But insiders have known the complexity of these relationships for a good many years. Thanks to editors Young and Fain, the “secret” is now a matter of public record.

In this respect the letters assume some importance as convenient source materials, but to emphasize their instrumental value is to miss the true measure of their worth. Together they form a complicated and intriguing portrayal of the conservative creative imagination in conflict with itself and with the other-than-self, the antithetical artist who challenges and provokes but neither possesses nor destroys. Whatever their affection for each other, Tate and Davidson best define themselves in thrashing out their differences; their considerable area of agreement—the common ground on which they stand to do battle—is always assumed, even when the blows rain hard and thick. The book is best understood, then, as a drama, more akin to the transcript of a socially significant court trial than to the dialogues of Plato.

From the beginning, Tate, the younger of the two assumes with ease the role of tutor, with Davidson as his somewhat diffident pupil. Thus as one sees the two begin to exchange poems and criticism, Davidson is largely complimentary, even deferential in his comments, while Tate is often the jaunty surgeon, whistling as he slices away on his friend’s vitals (such is the prerogative, indeed the duty of intimacy); and for awhile we understand the “give and take” characteristic of the Fugitive meetings, with Tate mostly giving and Davidson mostly taking.

Then Tate begins to dissect “The Tall Men,” Davidson’s fragmentary “epic” of Tennessee; and suddenly the patient sits up, snatches the scalpel out of the surgeon’s hand, and begins to do some slicing of his own—on Tate’s famous “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

Specifically, Tate objects to “The Tall Men” because of its lack of formal unity, and he suggests that Davidson’s piety toward his subject is never fully transferred from mind to paper. Tate—with a fierce integrity characteristic of his life’s work—points out that while he shares Davidson’s view of the South, such agreement does not elicit from him any automatic esthetic response, that a poem embodying distasteful doctrines might well stir up his interest as much as one whose underlying philosophical assumptions match his own. He ends by accusing Davidson of writing many of the lines too hurriedly and urges him to undertake major revisions.

Two months later, in a letter which contains no reference to “The Tall Men,” Davidson articulates for the first time his long felt reservations about Tate’s particular brand of modernism. He condemns his friend’s severe estheticism and his use of traditional images and attitudes merely to comment on the meanness of the times. While confessing his admiration for Tate’s talent and craftsmanship, Davidson chides him for the restrictive scope of his poetry, “a poetry of argument and despair.”

In this exchange lies the crux of their differences, and the questions raised by this passionate disagreement are both esthetic and philosophical. Tate, the confirmed modernist, takes the position that twentieth-century man is caught in the trap of history and that it is futile to pretend otherwise. Thus Davidson’s poetry, he says, fails on occasion because Davidson himself does not believe in his own thesis sufficiently to render it in acceptable poetic form. As for I’ll Take My Stand, Tate argues that the symposium holds for him no programmatic implications; the Old South is beyond recovery and Agrarianism can be regarded as successful, not because it has wrought social change, but because it has reaffirmed in a time of brute chaos the best of traditional humane values.

Davidson, on the other hand, is convinced that the South is still salvageable; and for him I’ll Take My Stand is a battle cry, a call for action in behalf of a community still vital and therefore still to be defended. Thus he sees his own roles as poet and as public man to be mutually supportive, even identical; and “The Tall Men,” “Lee in the Mountains,” “The Last Charge,” and others can be understood as conceived in the belief that they might somehow rekindle in their readers the sense of an heroic and specific tradition, one around which they might rally in order to repel the ominous advance of the enemy. If Tate, the Roman Catholic convert, is later to see Dante as his master, Davidson continues to the end as a consciously modern counterpart of the Beowulf poet, urging whatever Wiglafs yet remain to come out and fight the dragon.

Lewis Simpson, in a brilliant and definitive introduction to the volume, analyzes the larger ramifications of these respective positions. As Simpson suggests, Tate’s view of his role as man of letters is derived from his sense of participation in the larger tradition of Western “high culture”—the poet as one of “the modern Priesthood of the Writers of Books.” Davidson, as Simpson explains it, is trying to recapture the older, more primitive conception of “the man of letters as bard,” the wise maker of song who sits at the center of society as historian, entertainer, keeper of ritual and lore. Surely Simpson is right in his analysis.

But who is right in the argument between Davidson and Tate? Twenty years ago the answer would have been obvious to almost everyone: the poet can no longer be law-giver and exhorter, an active participant in the public arena; and Agrarianism is nothing more than the nostalgic commendation of certain values once incarnate in a society now forever ground fine by the mills of progress. But today the answer is not so simple. The poetry of Eliot and his followers is now passé, and James Dickey has proven that even odes to the Confederate dead can still be written. Many recent poets—for better or for worse—have not only been openly polemical in their verse but have themselves joined activist movements in order to further their social ideas. And ever since Ginsberg howled, more and more poetry has been composed for oral performance, much of it by spokesmen for the Left. But even the more traditional voices have adopted an open and direct address to their audience, a tone which is more affirmative, less guarded and ironic. It is a poetry akin to Davidson’s rather than to Tate’s, though different from both.

And as for the South and the Agrarian symposium, the region is still predominately rural, as anyone who flies over it can attest; and the great urban centers of the East have begun to disintegrate for precisely the reasons the Agrarians predicted. More Americans are moving out to the country and planting gardens. Wheat surpluses have disappeared. A year or so ago cotton brought seventy cents a pound. And an increasing number of young people, disenchanted by the values of industrialism, are talking enthusiastically, (if naively) about the virtues of getting back to nature.

Surprisingly, then, in 1975 the issues that divided Tate and Davidson are still in doubt. Indeed they may be in doubt for generations to come. But never will they be more richly or humanly dramatized than in this intimate exchange between two articulate and affectionate friends, and for this reason the volume should be read and cherished.  

Dr. Thomas Landess (1931–2012) was at the time of writing professor of English at the University of Dallas.