However onerous history’s burdens become, history itself grinds on. Even amidst the ruin wrought by a catastrophe like war, what’s left behind is already transforming itself into new ground, a kind of alchemy that turns ashes into earth. By such cycles nations and cultures renew themselves, their recreation often arriving with a new patina of sorrow, the inevitable heritage of war. The scourge that was the American Civil War produced such a fracture in the young country’s history. The literature that was part of its new culture was profuse but mainly the factual record of its disasters, whose eventual telling was to produce more books than any other subject in the national lexicon.
The serious fiction of the Civil War, however, has been a thin and lonely genre. At its best—in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, for instance, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain—it’s a literature that takes the near destruction of an entire region as a backdrop, and pores over its manifold consequences. A generation and more was usurped not only from their families, but their anchoring traditions, and plunged into wrenching change. Before it was finished, the four years of killing would darken the American heart as it had never been darkened before. The Civil War’s victims and survivors would require, in the end, more from it than a mere chronicle. They would need touchstones that carried the force of myth and symbol, powerful, imaginative creations that had the ability to reveal the truths underlying the aberration of internecine conflict. They needed great novels.
That syllabus of great Civil War fiction, tiny though it is, must have near its head Allen Tate’s almost forgotten novel, The Fathers. Tate was a native Kentuckian who grew up with a strong consciousness of the South, its unique traditions and its history. It was not only table talk at dinner, it was an obsession, especially for Tate’s mother, who spooned up a version of the family genealogy that she constantly fed to her son. By the time he sat down to write what would be his only novel, he did it, among other things, to untangle the truths and fictions of what he’d been told. He was already a celebrated poet and critic by then, known by his contemporaries as a man given to contention and polemics. He relished a good literary fight. In appearance he was lean and dapper, with an immense cranium that made him stand out physically, a fitting distinction for one whose obvious brilliance had to come, it seemed, from a well deep within. (In a poem, his friend Robert Lowell described him as having “an enormous brow,” the “cannonball head of a snowman.”)
His early marriage to novelist Caroline Gordon began as a knockabout affair in which the two, often literally penniless, moved from place to place and situation to situation, making their living as writers by their wits and their gifts. Finally, Tate’s brother Ben, a successful businessman, bought a house for the couple in Tennessee which they teasingly dubbed Benfolly, simultaneously imitating the habit of the gentry for naming their estates and gently poking fun at the practical brother for investing in the future of a poet. Of all the Southern writers who were his contemporaries, Tate was possibly the most Southern in his temperament and in his sympathies. In politics he drifted further and further to the right as he aged, sometimes championing ideas, especially about race, that caused even his friends dismay. In childhood, his mother had led him to believe that he came from a line of Southern aristocrats. That notion, which turned out to be his mother’s illusory effort at self-dignity, caused him to think of himself as remarkable and thus to carry himself in the world as the issue of patricians.
The realization that a lie was at the heart of his sense of self turned Tate into a kind of orphan, as his biographer, Thomas A. Underwood, put it. Though the loss of his fictional ancestry was not the same as actual loss, it was a loss to his ego, and it made him wonder who he really was. It was not until he was a student at Vanderbilt in Nashville that he felt the stirrings of a true self. At Vanderbilt he recklessly threw himself into the life of the mind, distinguishing himself as a student and as a young poet, ultimately exchanging the illusory pedigree of high birth for a Phi Beta Kappa key.
Whatever the validity of his own lineage, Tate had come to identify strongly with and to profess the world view of the Southern aristocrat. He believed that bloodlines were the most reliable test of human character, that family must act at all times as both bulwark and ark, that the possession of land is a matter of husbandry and perpetuation, not a vehicle for commerce and wealth. The Civil War had sounded the death knell for that way of thinking, and Tate believed that only an artist—in his opinion, a novelist—had the tools to expiate and redeem a doomed inheritance. He put that melancholy belief into service when he sat down to write The Fathers, a task he had long delayed and would frequently abandon. The finished novel was highly autobiographical, calling on his own family’s history and the history of its relations. The novel’s narrator and central character, Lacy Buchan, was a version of Tate himself, the thinker in a family whose members valued action over thought.
The Fathers is set in 1860, at Pleasant Hill, the family seat of Major Lewis Buchan, in Fairfax, Virginia, though by means of an intricate interior design, Tate makes the novel traverse half-a-century and the breadth of an entire state in its telling. The opening scene takes place on the day when Sarah Semmes Gore Buchan, the mother of Lacy Gore Buchan, is to be laid to rest. Lacy recalls the day’s events—he was a boy of fifteen then—from the vantage of fifty years later, by which time the old doctor he has become will have weighed the novel’s story and asked of it the satisfactions a teller of tales expects. The funeral of Sarah Buchan has drawn family members from far and wide, called to attendance by ancient funerary rites, making them the players in a ritual that stresses the communal importance of family and its dance of progenitor and progeny. It’s to be the last time young Lacy will see his family in assembly. “A year later came the war,” Lacy ruefully notes; “We were uprooted from Pleasant Hill, and were never together again.”
George Posey is at the funeral, too, Lacy’s brother-in-law, a dashing interloper on horseback who’s forged his way into the Buchan clan as the husband of Susan, the Buchan’s only girl child. But Posey has no use for the Buchans and their outdated ways. To him, the only respect due a thing was its monetary worth. A horse was as good as what it could fetch in a trade; land was valuable only for the marketability of the crops it produced; a slave was worth the selling price of his back. At Sarah Buchan’s funeral, George Posey shows disrespect for the Buchans by arguing with his wife, and then riding off in a disdainful whirl, leaving the gathered mourners, including some of the Buchan’s slaves, scandalized. Old Major Buchan, Tate’s embodiment of the Old South, is scandalized, too, offended by his son-in-law’s impudence.
The plot that follows is essentially a gloss on that opening scene, an extension and explication of the manners and motives of characters poised at an abyss they don’t know is before them, an elegy to what became the dissolution of the fabric of the Old South. “Why,” Lacy Buchan asks himself, “cannot life change without tangling the lives of innocent persons? Why do innocent persons cease their innocence and become violent and evil in themselves that such great changes may take place?” Tate bravely if reluctantly documents the change that flows from that moment on Pleasant Hill, taking a panoply of characters through war, making them confront slavery and its attendant evils, including miscegenation. He also shows us the warfare within a family rocked by sudden change, an old guard being destroyed from within.
The Fathers is anything but a schematic treatment of good versus evil, old versus new. It witnesses both and allows each to have its moment at center stage. Complex and demanding, the novel wants the full attention of its readers. It’s also a deeply formal work whose design and writing borrows from the style of another century. (A reader first dipping into it might think it written by Melville or Hawthorne). At one point he ingeniously employs classical mythology, magically bringing in pieces of the legend of the Golden Fleece as a plot device. Tate does not hesitate to take the reader into dark places, whether it’s the battlefield or the human heart. Some of book’s most moving moments are filled with presentiments of the disaster it tells so brilliantly:
At dawn next morning I heard a big forest tree fall, the trunk breaking the branches off the other trees with a crackling thunder. Another tree fell and I turned over in bed. Then another and still another until the entire big woods…had fallen down. I put my feet upon the floor and listened. There was a lull and it began all over again. In a few minutes as I put on my clothes I ceased to hear it, being aware of it as one occasionally acknowledges after awhile the presence of a storm.