Acclaimed author and literature professor Gerald Duff first published his recollections of the Fugitive/Agrarian poets in the May 2012 issue of the Southwest Review. This brief and lively essay, now available as an ebook single by NewSouth Books, is less an analysis of the Fugitives’ works than a description of a young professor’s interactions with Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Andrew Lytle.
Duff served in the English Departments at both Rhodes College in Memphis and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, among others. In 1966, when he was fresh out of graduate school, he accepted a last-minute appointment to teach two sections of literary criticism at Vanderbilt. As he recounts in Fugitive Days, Duff is awestruck to discover that the other instructor of the course is none other than Allen Tate, one of the chief architects of the New Criticism, which became the dominant mode of literary analysis in the United States for most of the twentieth century. The book deftly illustrates both Tate’s humility and professionalism and his awareness of his significance to the young acolyte.
Some of these sketches seem intent on demystifying their subjects. We see Robert Penn Warren smearing butter on a dinner roll, musing on how one can detect from the butter’s taste what the cow last ate before the cream was produced, Allen Tate conferring with his young colleague about how best to engage Vanderbilt undergraduates in Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Andrew Lytle reciting a dubious anecdote about a visit to his New York publishing house, etc. The subtext, however, is the journey of a new-minted scholar as he finds his way, eager to spend any moment he can in the company of his heroes. In one anecdote, Duff arrives early at Ransom’s home to drive Warren to the airport, hoping to steal a few extra minutes in the company of both great men. On a different occasion, driving down Thompson Lane with Lytle in the passenger seat, he slows the car so as not to arrive at his destination before Lytle finishes telling his story.
The final effect of this essay is to emphasize Duff’s heartfelt reverence for a group of men who revolutionized the practice of both poetry and literary criticism, and who brought to the South the artistic and intellectual credibility that paved the way for Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, and their heirs. Even in their most human moments, through Duff’s eyes, the Fugitives remain larger than life. “The poets and novelists and essayists and editors constituting that group at Vanderbilt and Kenyon and Sewanee were onto something when they announced a desire to flee from what the world around them insisted was important and lasting and real,” Duff writes. “No, they’d said, each in his own way, I’ll be fugitive from all that for a time. And why? Because it satisfies my imagination to do so.” Fugitive Days is both a witty insight into the real lives of these monumental men and a charming reminder of the excitement anyone feels at the chance to bump up against his heroes.