This Side of Grace: Allen Tate and the Consolation of Catholicism

T. W.Stanford, III*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 2, 1997 © National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]

Allen Tate and the Catholic Revival: Trace of the Fugitive Gods, by Peter A. Huff. Foreword by Belden C. Lane. New York: Paulist Press, 1996. 159 pp. Notes and index. $14.95.

When smug people asked with wonder or disdain (as they frequently did) why he converted to Catholicism, Southern writer Walker Percy would often quip in reply, "What else is there?" When more serious, Percy was careful to define any answer he gave about his conversion as an answer "this side of grace, which leaves one unclear about who does the choosing" (307, 314). Though the final explanation must always lie in the heart of the converted, on this side of grace the "Why?" about famous conversions—specifically, the conversions of prominent intellectuals—offers scholars plenty of room for fruitful analysis and debate about both personal and cultural issues related to the conversion. With regard to the study of intellectual converts to Catholicism during the Catholic Intellectual Revival in the first half of this century, Percy's humorous rejoinder "What else is there?" may have special significance, as it suggests an investigation which ends in a compulsory, obligatory choice—a spiritual choice rooted in logical reasoning. While logic functions as part of any choice of conscience, religion might become an "intellectual counterfeit" when the logic of the choice for conversion supersedes or supplants altogether the spiritual dimension. Intellectualism and religion have always had a complex relationship, perhaps never more so than in the modern period, when religion (through movements like the Catholic Revival) battled positivism in the public sphere. As Peter Huff shows in Allen Tate and the Catholic Revival: Trace of the Fugitive Gods, the conversion of Allen Tate, Percy's fellow Southern intellectual, offers a fascinating example of the problematic nature of "intellectual conversion" during the modern period. Huff notes that the traditional pattern of conversion moves from instability and division to stable unity and peace achieved through faith; however, faith in a system of structures instead of a theology causes difficulties when that system changes, as it did after Vatican II for Tate and other intellectual converts to Catholicism. The Church ultimately proved evasive for Tate, but the intellectual allure of Catholicism for the questioning modern intellectual does not prove an evasive concept in Huff's book.

Like the personae of many of his poems, the early Tate could be understood to exemplify the modern wanderer searching for meaning in the wasteland. A brilliant mind, Tate admittedly came to belief through an a posteriori intellectual quest; Huff quotes Tate's statement that his was "the progress from intellectual to intuitive belief" (78). But Tate's public career as a "man of letters" gives the intellectual qualities of his conversion special cultural, not simply personal, significance. Prior to conversion, Tate worked tirelessly in his poems, fiction, historical biographies, and literary and cultural criticism to outline the dangers within modernity. Huff suggests that Tate's search for an ideal system with which to criticize and endure modern culture led him to the Catholic Church. Significantly, the inability of Tate's system to evolve with the structures of the Church which inspired it introduces issues requiring attention by anyone interested in cultural renewal or improvement. Huff's work raises important questions about how the reduction of religion to an intellectual structure—divorcing religion from lived experience—threatens to render religion an ideology, an inflexible system exploited for intellectual ends rather than believed and lived for the end of personal salvation. Did Tate enter the Church to save the West, or to save himself? Was his a "true religion" or an "intellectual counterfeit"? While only Tate can know the answer, Huff's work offers insight into the particular intellectual appeal of Catholicism for the Southern Agrarian, New Critic, high modernist Tate. But Huff's book also provides a perception of the ambivalence in Tate's relationship with the religion he adopted at the age of fifty. Through Huff's focus on how the Catholic Intellectual Revival influenced Tate, the book presents for consideration a particularly valuable case study with a familiar and timeless pattern: how one man chooses to forge alliances and to fight his own distinctive battle within the larger, ever-continuing conflict between the friends of tradition and the forces of progress, between the preservation of mystery and the march of positivism.

Huff synthesizes ideas from a remarkably extensive and diverse collection of sources to present a coherent and enjoyably readable portrait of Tate's spiritual journey, set firmly within the rich environment of the rise and fall of the Catholic Intellectual Revival in Europe and the United States. Huff's book is, as its author states, "an exercise in both intellectual biography and in the burgeoning field of Catholic cultural studies" (6). Due to its intellectual emphasis, the portrait is two-dimensional and lacks the fullness which an investigation of Tate's personal spirituality and private sentiments would afford. Yet a presentation of the more intimate elements of Tate's biography might necessitate speculation, obscuring the clarity of the illustration of intellectual development which Huff provides. Indeed, Huff marks the actual conversion of Tate in 1950 with very little scrutiny of the inner man that letters and personal accounts might have provided. Huff gives his reader few glimpses of the spiritual Tate, praying his beads or struggling with the demands of his faith. However, Huff's scholarship suggests Tate's conversion as the natural end of a long and public intellectual endeavor. The paradigmatic qualities of the intellectual quest of the modern "man of letters," as represented in Tate, emerge as important features to be gleaned from the study. The focus on the intellectual elements of Tate's spiritual choice enables Huff to proceed confidently in his outline.

Huff's work suggests that Tate's movement toward Catholicism, far from being a flash of light on the road to Damascus, actually resulted from a series of smaller steps, gradual recognitions by Tate of both the common ground and the important differences between Southern traditionalism (with which he had an ambivalent relationship) and the tenets of Catholicism as expressed in the Catholic Intellectual Revival. As his central thesis, Huff proposes that Tate's "cultural antimodernism . . . was the feature of his thought that functioned as a crucial link to the values and representations of the Catholic Revival" (6). Huff argues that the Church's opposition to modernism functioned as the main attraction for Tate, who embraced Catholicism as a "medium for anti-modernist critique" (37). As the young Tate sought for a more coherent system with which to confront positivism, he recognized that the Southern tradition of his experience shared an antimodernist stance with Catholicism, though he also realized that Catholicism—offering a more coherent system grounded in metaphysics—provided a stronger foundation for cultural argument. Huff makes plain that another reason Tate felt a predilection for Catholicism was the common ties of the Southern tradition and the Catholic Revival to agrarianism as a critique of industrialism. However, Catholicism gave agrarian principles religious sanction and provided a vital, living tradition which could better sustain a systemized anti-modern critique. As Huff points out, Tate's essay "Remarks on the Southern Religion" in the Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, shows he recognized as early as 1930 that the South lacked the "body of doctrine" that would anchor its political economy and sustain its mythos (64). Tate's desire for that doctrinal bedrock as an instrument for cultural renewal would lead him, almost inevitably, toward intellectual conversion.

Huff points out that Tate was predisposed toward Catholicism not only because of its anti-modern stance, but also because of the formalist philosophy, Neo-Thomism, which nourished the Catholic Revival. Huff even credits Neo-Thomism, especially as represented by scholars like Jacques Maritain, with ultimately making Tate's conversion possible (72). The threat of anti-intellectualism associated for so long with the Catholic Church had diminished somewhat through the Church's approval and promotion of Neo-Thomism for dealing with modernity in modernity's own rationalistic terms. According to Huff, "Thomism's adroit mediation between sacred and secular" provided interdisciplinary adaptability that stimulated and supported intellectual activity, most noticeably in the Catholic Revival (77). Huff explores the common ground between Tate's Aristotelian, formalist New Criticism and the Catholic Revival's Neo-Thomism to show how comfortable Tate would find the "official philosophy" of the Catholic Church during the modern period. Huff shows how Tate adopted Neo-Thomism as an informing paradigm for his criticism, and how the philosophy bridged the conversion gap for Tate by assuaging his fears of anti-intellectualism and by offering itself as a cogent, solid intellectual and cultural framework sanctioned by both tradition and religion.

Though he continued to oppose modernism's corruption of culture, Tate nevertheless remained, throughout his pre- and post-conversion career, an advocate of high modernist aesthetics, and Huff suggests some of Tate's friction with the Catholic Church could be traced to his uncompromising views on art. Tate's insistence that the writer must represent what is, rather than what should be, reflected his faith—reinforced by the Catholic Revival—in the incarnational reality of truth. Tate argued against both censorship by Catholic authorities and what he termed the literary "angelic imagination," which Huff describes as the imaginative desire to flee reality, escaping into abstraction. Tate advocated the Dantesque "symbolic imagination," which was characterized by its attempt to fuse the ideal and the real, working with "the body of the world" as it is given (98). The reader of Huff's work should benefit from this discussion of religion and aesthetics because the difficulties raised by Tate remain timely. The problem of a Catholic aesthetics seems to arise for each generation of Catholic authors; both Flannery O'Connor (like Tate, an acquaintance of Maritain) and Walker Percy insisted upon the importance of using the world-as-it-is, of grounding their works in fallen concrete reality. Huff aptly identifies Tate's ideas as a distinctive form of religious criticism and makes an important connection between Tate's literary and cultural criticism, showing how Tate came to understand the modern cultural imagination's tendency toward disembodiment, its flight from an understanding of the concrete world. Huff explains that, as a religious critic, Tate felt he had a social responsibility to function as cultural prophet and gadfly. To the end of his days, Tate actively criticized modernity's unrestrained faith in reason, in capitalism, or in totalitarianism as blatantly disregarding the concrete evidence of human nature's capabilities and limitations.

Huff argues that Tate's firmly held views on art would inspire him to attempt to forge a synthesis between high modernism and Catholicism, resulting in the project of Christian Humanism which absorbed so much of his critical energy, and which represented for him the best cultural hope against positivism. Monroe K. Spears suggests Tate believed that the "deep illness of the modern mind" which he labels Positivism has deprived modern man of tradition and of the religion upon which tradition ultimately depends. Positivism (scientism, pragmatism, instrumentalism), assuming all experience can be ordered scientifically, reduces the spiritual realm to irresponsible emotion, irrelevant feeling (63). Positivism could be thought of as the product of the angelic imagination at work in culture. Huff introduces an important term, Gnosticism, which Tate also used in his criticism to symbolize the characteristic modern devaluation of the concrete, as well as the secular tendency toward the anti-traditional and anti-communal. Huff shows how Tate argued that religion functions as a "universal scheme of reference" which grounds humanism (93). For Tate, humanism must be rooted in the metaphysical system provided by religion, or it risks degenerating into relativism and certainly would not have the potency necessary to support culture. In a notable, protracted debate in print, Tate faulted Irving Babbitt and the New Humanists for what he saw as their program's reliance on an ephemeral tradition which might be found in the nebulous Western canon of great books. While Huff provides Tate's side of the argument, the New Humanists are left undefended, and Huff only gives his reader a gloss of this subject. However, important insights regarding Tate's pragmatic approach to religion emerge from his debate with the New Humanists.

Both Tate and the New Humanists recognized trends like Gnosticism and positivism as the enemies of culture and sought to fortify culture with tradition. However, the New Humanists emphasized the importance of the discipline of the individual will and imagination as prior to any productive communal use of tradition, be it based in religion or in ideas. No religion will be effective in culture unless the individual will consents freely and actively lives the faith. If merely institutionalized in culture without belief and practice, religious values will atrophy and fossilize. Tate rightly suggests religion as a necessity for culture (even Irving Babbitt allowed that Christianity was the best repository of values in the West), but his lack of interest in the formation of the individual will reflects his pragmatic (dare I say positivistic?) view of religion. The fact that at the time of his debate with the New Humanists (c. 1930) Tate himself did not have any faith reinforces his utilitarian approach toward the tradition he advocates. Spears noticed Tate's hypocrisy in faulting the New Humanists with regard to religion:

.c.He is more logical and consistent than the Humanists in stating that the traditional view of human nature and the traditional society which embodies it are based ultimately upon religion, that religion is the core of the problem. But it is hard to see why Mr. Tate's criticism of the Humanists does not apply essentially to his own position. Lacking belief himself, he cannot derive authority for his values from religion, nor find any positive way of realizing them (66).

Perhaps Tate's own recognition that he wasn't practicing what he was preaching spurred him on at last to convert to Catholicism, but such a motivation smacks of unavoidability ("What else is there?") rather than freewill choice. Whatever the case, Tate's original approach to religion as an instrument for cultural renewal, as a means to an end, appears to be what set him up for disappointment not only after Vatican II but also in his own personal struggles to live by the code he advocated so passionately.

Huff's book foregrounds the attractive qualities of the Catholic Revival for Tate, including its antimodernism, its agrarian tradition, its philosophical structures, and its active intellectualism, but the notable absence of evidence regarding Tate's understanding of or appreciation for the theology at the center of the Church might indicate a deeper problem in Tate's public use of religion. As his essay on religion in I'll Take My Stand indicated twenty years before he became a practicing Catholic, Tate early on appreciated that the "key issue" in the culture war was religion. But religion is very much a personal issue. If Tate wanted to win the culture war, he probably should have become an apologist, for the real "cultural" battle is fought within each individual. Reduced to an intellectual system for the purpose of cultural criticism, religion becomes an inert ideology, stifling rather than encouraging cultural vibrancy. Huff notes that Tate admitted his own trouble in practicing his faith, but Huff also points out that Tate remained faithful until his death, despite being denied participation in the sacraments after his divorce and remarriage in 1959. And while he continued writing in support of Christian Humanism, after Vatican II Tate and the members of the Revival fell out of the public eye as representative Catholic intellectuals. Huff notes the Revival's general loss of momentum as well as the disabling effects of both the post-conciliar ethos of ecumenism and the growth of spiritual and intellectual alternatives to Thomism. By the time his study reaches the Second Vatican Council and the end of the Revival, Huff has admirably and ably achieved his study's goal by showing the largely intellectual attractions of Catholicism for Tate.

Noted Southern literary critic M. E. Bradford proposed that "No modern man of letters addressed himself more consistently and with greater cogency to the question of the writer's responsibility to his time and culture than did Allen Tate" (183). Huff's book makes clear that Tate indeed considered his responsibility seriously and that it drove him constantly to seek the best ideas for salvaging modern culture. Whether driven by responsibility, grace, or some combination of both, Tate's search led him to Catholicism, initially on a public, intellectual level and, eventually, on a private, spiritual level. What else was there? Huff's book offers an answer by explaining, at least from an intellectual standpoint, the inevitability of Tate's progress.

Works Cited

Bradford, M. E. "Angels at Forty Thousand Feet: 'Ode to Our Young Pro-Consuls of the Air' and the Practice of Poetic Responsibility." Generations of the Faithful Heart: On the Literature of the South. La Salle: Sherwood Sugden and Company, 1983. 183-199.

Percy, Walker. "Why Are You a Catholic?" Signposts in a Strange Land. Ed. Patrick Samway. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. 304-315.

Spears, Monroe K. "The Criticism of Allen Tate." Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations. Ed. Radcliffe Squires. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. 60-77.

*T. W. Stanford, III, is a doctoral student in English at the Catholic University of America. [Back]

Copyright © 1998 National Humanities Institute.
Last modified 27 May 1998