Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 112 / Number 1
"Take Him East Where Life Began": The Role of Virginia in Shaping the Early Writings of Allen Tate
- By Anthony Stanonis, pp. 36–61
Allen Tate, the noted author and literary critic, struggled with his identity as he came of age during the 1920s and 1930s. Though
born in Kentucky, Tate was deeply attached to the supposedly superior culture of Virginia. His mother, until her death in 1929,
regaled him with exaggerated stories about his Virginia ancestry. Tate used his writing to explore the meaning of place,
particularly the values he associated with Virginia.
The earliest works by Tate glorified Virginia. In the poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead," Tate laments the
temporal and spatial barriers that prevent him from joining his Virginia forebears. Subsequent biographies of
Confederate general Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, a native of Virginia, and Confederate president
Jefferson Davis, a Kentuckian by birth, allowed Tate to explore how place shaped each man's character as
well as his own. He concluded that Virginia fostered a stable agrarian society based on aristocracy and
religion. The rest of the South, in rabid pursuit of wealth through cotton, was tainted by democratic
principles that disrupted social order.
By the 1930s, however, Tate began seriously to question the nobility of Virginians. Tate was unable to
overcome the human imperfections he encountered during a genealogical study. An attempt to write a
biography of Confederate general Robert E. Lee also faltered. Increasingly doubtful of the virtuous
Virginia described to him in his youth, Tate wrote his only novel to address the mythology propagated
by his mother. In The Fathers, Tate reconstructs his mother's ancestors to humanize them—flaws
and all. The novel allowed Tate to come to terms with his identity as a Kentuckian. In turn, Tate
lost interest in defending his mother's fictitious, idyllic Virginia.