Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Allen Tate (1899- 1979)

Allen Tate was born John Orly Allen Tate in Winchester, KY on November 19, 1899 to parents John Orly Tate and Eleanor Varnell Tate. Because of his father’s precarious financial problems, Tate grew up in an unstable environment. By 1911, his father’s business ventures and his parents’ marriage had failed. The youngest of three boys by almost ten years, Tate found himself in “perpetual motion” with his mother, a native Virginian whose family seat in Fairfax County later became the “Pleasant Hill” of Tate’s only novel, The Fathers.

He began attending Vanderbilt University in 1918, where he met fellow poet Robert Penn Warren. Warren and Tate were invited to join a group of young Southern poets under the leadership of John Crowe Ransom known as the Fugitive Poets and later as the Southern Agrarians. He contributed to the group’s magazine The Fugitive and to the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, published in 1930.

A brush with tuberculosis forced Tate to withdraw from Vanderbilt in 1922. After some months of recuperation in the mountains of North Carolina, he returned to the university in 1923. With a diploma dated 1922, Tate received his bachelor’s degree from the University in 1923.

In 1924 Tate married fellow writer Caroline Gordon, and the couple moved to New York City, both determined to become professional writers. There he undertook, but failed to complete, a biography of Robert E. Lee and a memoir about his own ancestors. Tate was subjected to, and also perpetuated, fictional interpretations of his ancestry. He alternately abandoned and championed Southern culture. Viewing himself as an orphan from a region where family history is identity, he developed a curious blend of spiritual loneliness and ideological soundness. His greatest challenge was transforming his troubled genealogy into a meaningful statement about himself and Southern culture as a whole. A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 took Tate abroad–to London, where he met Eliot, and to Paris, where he took tea with Gertrude Stein, established a friendship with Ernest Hemingway, and cemented his relationships with Ford and Bishop.

In 1930 Tate returned to the United States. His works that were published immediately after his time in Europe were mainly essays, many of which were included in the publication I’ll Take My Stand (1930) in which Tate defended the Southern United States’ traditionally agricultural economy.

Tate became a poet in residence at Princeton, where he remained until 1942. In 1943 he became the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress, in 1944 the editor of the Sewanee Review, and in 1946 editor of Belle’s Lettres at Henry Holt in New York. In 1948 he served on the jury that awarded, in February 1949, the controversial first Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound for his Pisan Cantos. Tate resumed his academic career in 1948 when he accepted a three-year appointment at New York University. In 1951 he accepted an academic appointment with tenure at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his retirement in 1968.

The last twenty years of Tate’s life witnessed his divorce from Gordon in 1959, his marriage also in 1959 to the poet Isabella Gardner, and his divorce from her and marriage to Helen Heinz, his former student at Minnesota, in 1966. In 1967 he became the father of twin sons, one of whom died in an accident in 1968 after the family’s move to Sewanee, Tennessee. A third son was born in 1969 and ten years later Allen Tate died in Nashville, Tennessee.

Selected Bibliography


Mr. Pope and Other Poems (1928)
Three Poems (1930)
Poems, 1928-1931 (1932)
The Mediterranean and Other Poems (1936)
Selected Poems (1937)
The Winter Sea (1944)
Poems, 1920-1945 (1947)
Poems, 1922-1947 (1948)
Two Conceits for the Eye to Sing, If Possible (1950)
The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems (1970)


Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (1929)
Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (1928)
Robert E. Lee (1932)
Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (1936)
The Fathers (1938)
Reason in Madness (1941)
On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-1948 (1948)
The Hovering Fly (1949)
The Forlorn Demon (1953)
The Man of Letters in the Modern World (1955)
Collected Essays (1959)
Essays of Four Decades (1969)
Memoirs and Opinions, 1926-1974 (1975)

Selected Links

Allen Tate in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture:
Allen Tate at The Poetry Foundation:
Allen Tate at Modern American Poetry:
The Fathers entry in the Virginia Encyclopedia:
More Sonnets at Christmas by Allen Tate:
Winter Mask by Allen Tate:
Sonnets of the Blood by Allen Tate:
Retroduction to American History by Allen Tate:
Jonathon Yardley’s review of The Fathers in The Washington Post:…