The conversion of southern poet Allen Tate to Roman Catholicism is a well-known episode in modern American literary history. His countercultural defense of what Lewis P. Simpson once called “authoritarian Christianity” has so fascinated Tate’s interpreters that few have neglected to speculate on the significance of the Catholic tradition in the formation of his life and artistic imagination. Yet while the “southern mode of the imagination” in Tate’s work has received extensive scrutiny, the Catholic mode of imagination in his writings has been left largely to conjecture. With the exception of studies by Paul Giles, Robert Dupree, and Robert H. Brinkmeyer, forays into the subject have proved tentative and unconvincing. “No one,” as Marquette University critic Joseph Schwartz makes clear, “has handled [Tate’s Catholicism] in a satisfactory way as yet.”
One of the “lost-generation” literary converts to Catholicism, Allen Tate entered the church in 1950, after a twenty-year quest for a satisfying faith which led him far beyond the culturally dominant evangelical Protestantism of his geographic region. Critical of the dehumanizing trends of modern life, he sought in the Catholic tradition the solution to the intellectual and social problems of secular modernity. As poetic modernist, Southern Agrarian social theorist, and formalist New Critic, Tate appropriated Catholic themes, hop- ing to synthesize traditional Catholicism and aesthetic modernism into a Christian humanism revitalizing contemporary culture. Though he is primarily remembered today for his part in the Southern Literary Renaissance, at the height of his career Tate aspired to the role of the American Catholic critic whose work would embody the highest standards of his craft and witness to the moral authority of his adopted faith.
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