‘I intend to support white rule’
- Allen Tate: Orphan of the South by Thomas Underwood
Princeton, 447 pp, £21.95, December 2000, ISBN 0 691 06950 6
When Allen Tate died in 1979, Simon and Schuster speedily commissioned a biography, to be written, they announced, by Ned O’Gorman, a poet of some reputation and a friend of two of Tate’s three wives. O’Gorman, it would seem, got going in the usual way, writing to all the obvious Tate contacts and attempting to interview key intimates. He also trawled through at least some of the vast cache of Tate material (57 boxes, 30 cubic feet) that sits in Princeton’s Firestone Library – sold to the university by Tate in 1967. By the mid-1980s, O’Gorman felt ready to put pen to paper: ‘So one day the biographer has enough to begin. And he begins to write and discovers, as I have discovered, that lies, deceptions, half-truths, fake truths, family loyalties, friendships, literary feuds get in the way and render even a birth date suspect.’
This could be any biographer bemoaning the pitfalls of his trade. With Allen Tate, though, there were more pitfalls than plateaux. Tate was a quarrelsome type and deeply self-important; he had a taste for feuds, for laying down the law, for scolding friends who fell short of his elevated standards – both personal and literary. Many saw him as a somewhat comic figure, forever tinkering with the details of his Southern ancestry or putting a superior gloss on even the most mundane of his self-advancements. But it was not the high-horse pretentiousness of Tate that put paid to the O’Gorman project. The problem, it emerged, was to do with Tate’s complicated love-life. In his youth, as an ambitious young literary blade, Tate was known to have enjoyed some indiscretions (vide his ‘discovery’ of Laura Riding) but it was not until his later years – post-1940; he was born in 1899 – that he achieved Great Lover status. This randiness of Tate’s was not, O’Gorman has testified, ‘a phase, a period’, or even a mere ‘flash of libidinous fever’:
It was a quality in his life that assumed in his marriages a fragmenting power and dealt to his creative life a sundering loss of energy. He lived out a literary ‘soap opera’; the tales are infinite, all of them true, most of them scandalous. Many of the ladies with whom Allen slept are alive. Many of them are distinguished, and some of them are celebrities.
Oh really? Who? And this, of course, could be any publicist trying to inject a bit of vigour into a dull literary life. One does recall the stories, though – well, some of them. And it is certainly true that Tate’s entanglements were the source of some amusement to his literary friends, and particularly to those who had experienced the lash of his high-mindedness. In many American literary biographies or collections of letters, Tate appears in clownishly satyric aspect: the comedy sometimes sharpened by comments on his physical appearance (he had a strangely bulbous head and as a child was reckoned to be hydrocephalic), his intense and platitudinous solemnity, his late-won and unsmiling Roman Catholicism. Tate once said that all his poems sprang from the suffering that comes from disbelief, and perhaps his love pursuits were similarly energised.