John Orley Allen Tate was an American poet, essayist, social commentator, and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1943 to 1944.
Tate was born near Winchester, Kentucky to John Orley Tate, a businessman, and Eleanor Parke Custis Varnell. In 1916 and 1917 Tate studied the violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
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; the group were known as the Fugitive Poets and later as the Southern Agrarians. Tate contributed to the group's magazine The Fugitive and to the agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand published in 1930, and this was followed in 1938 by Who Owns America? Tate also joined Ransom to teach at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
In 1924, Tate moved to New York City where he met poet Harold Hart Crane
, with whom he had been exchanging correspondence for some time. During a summer visit with Warren in Kentucky, he began a relationship with writer Caroline Gordon. They married in New York in May 1925. Their daughter Nancy was born in September. In 1928, along with others of the Village crowd, he went to Europe. In London he visited with T.S. Eliot
, whose poetry and criticism he greatly admired, and he also visited Paris. After two years abroad, he returned to the United States, and in 1930 was back in Tennesseee. Here he took up residence in an antebellum mansion with an 85-acre estate attached, that had been bought for him by one of his brothers, "who had made a lot of northern money out of coal." He resumed his senior position with the Fugitives. He devoted most of his time to promoting "the principles of Agrarianism."
Just before leaving for Europe in 1928, Tate described himself to John Gould Fletcher as "an enforced atheist". Later, he told Fletcher, "I am an atheist, but a religious one — which means that there is no organization for my religion." He regarded secular attempts to develop a system of thought for the modern world as misguided. "Only God," he insisted, "can give the affair a genuine purpose." In his essay "The Fallacy of Humanism" (1929), he criticized the New Humanists for creating a value system without investing it with any identifiable source of authority. "Religion is the only technique for the validation of values," he wrote. Already attracted to Roman Catholicism, he deferred converting. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. observes that Tate may have waited "because he realized that for him at this time it would be only a strategy, an intellectual act".
Tate and Gordon were divorced in 1945 and remarried in 1946. Though devoted to one another for life, they could not get along and later divorced again.
In 1950, Tate converted to Roman Catholicism.
Tate married the poet Isabella Gardner in the early fifties. While teaching at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he met Helen Heinz, a nun enrolled in one of his courses, and began an affair with her. Gardner divorced Tate, and he married Heinz in 1966. They moved to Sewanee, Tennessee. In 1967 Tate became the father of twin sons, John and Michael. Michael died at eleven months from choking on a toy. A third son Benjamin was born in 1969.
In 1924, Tate began a four-year sojourn in New York City where he worked freelance for The Nation, contributed to the Hound and Horn, Poetry magazine, and others. He worked as a janitor, and lived la vie boheme in Greenwich Village with Caroline Gordon, and when urban life proved too overwhelming, repaired to "Robber Rocks", a house in Patterson, New York, with friends Slater Brown and his wife Sue, Hart Crane, and Malcolm Cowley. He would, some years later, contribute to the conservative National Review.
In 1928, Tate published his first book of poetry, Mr. Pope and Others Poems which contained his most famous poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (not to be confused with "Ode to the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery" written by American Civil War poet and South Carolina native, Henry Timrod). That same year, Tate also published a biography Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier.
In 1929, Tate published a second biography Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall.
By the 1930s, Tate had returned to Tennessee, where he worked on social commentary influenced by his agrarian philosophy. He contributed an essay, "Remarks on the Southern Religion" to I'll Take My Stand, a book of essays by the so-called Southern Agrarians that served as the movement's manifesto. Later, Tate co-edited Who Owns America?, which was a follow up to I'll Take My Stand and which contained Agrarian responses to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. During this time, Tate also became the de facto associate editor of The American Review, which was published and edited by Seward Collins. Tate believed The American Review could popularize the work of the Southern Agrarians. He objected to Collins's open support of Fascists Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and condemned fascism in an article in The New Republic in 1936. According to the critic Ian Hamilton however, Tate and his co-agrarians had been more than ready at the time to overlook the anti-Semitism and pro-Hitlerism of the American Review in order to promote their 'spiritual' defence of the Deep South's traditions. And when leftist New York critics pointed out that those traditions included slavery and lynching, Tate was untroubled: "I belong to the white race, therefore I intend to support white rule...lynching will disappear when the white race is satisfied that its supremacy will not be questioned in social crises."
The scholar David Havird nicely sums up the rest of Tate's publication history in poetry:
By 1937, when he published his first Selected Poems, Tate had written all of the shorter poems upon which his literary reputation came to rest. This collection--which brought together work from two recent volumes, Poems: 1928-1931 (1932) and the privately printed The Mediterranean and Other Poems (1936), as well as the early Mr. Pope--included "Mother and Son," "Last Days of Alice," "The Wolves," "The Mediterranean," "Aeneas at Washington," "Sonnets at Christmas," and the final version of "Ode to the Confederate Dead."
In 1938 Tate published his only novel, The Fathers, which drew upon knowledge of his mother's ancestral home and family in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Tate was a poet-in-residence at Princeton University until 1942. He founded the Creative Writing program at Princeton. In 1942, Tate assisted novelist and friend Andrew Lytle in transforming The Sewanee Review, America's oldest literary quarterly, from a modest journal into one of the most prestigious in the nation. Tate and Lytle had attended Vanderbilt together prior to collaborating at The University of the South.
Tate died in Nashville, Tennessee. His papers are collected at the Firestone Library at Princeton University.