from PN Review, January–February 2016
It is a potentially disastrous situation—one almost wills it to be: Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, are furiously busy with their novels; their house guest, Ford Madox Ford, is dictating to his secretary (the wonderfully named Wally Tworkov) while her sister, his companion Janice Biala, sits painting. Out on the lawn of 'Benfolly' the young and callow Robert Lowell intones his own Miltonic sonnets in an olive-green tent. 'It's awful here', writes Biala. 'In every room in the house there's a typewriter and at every typewriter there sits a genius. Each genius is wilted and says that he or she can do no more but the typewritten sheets keep on mounting. I too am not idle. I sit in the parlor where I paint on three pictures at once in intervals of killing flies.'
The reason that this was not one of the great literary combustions, with five simmering egos in a hothouse summer and unreliable basic amenities, has a lot to do with their individual preoccupations—and mutual respect. Irritability seems to have been largely suppressed, intellectual wrangling muted. As Allen Tate wrote in a late 'New York Review of Books' piece, 'It was a situation perversely planned by fate to expose human weakness. There were no scenes.'
The nineteenth-century Benfolly—'one of the damnedest houses in the world to my notion', wrote Caroline Tate—sits on a hill above the Cumberland River three miles from Clarksville, Tennessee. It had been bought with the aid of a generous $10,000 'loan' from Tate's brother Ben, a coal executive who alone in the Tate family had made money. To the improvident Tates it was Ben's 'folly' and in an irony that could not be escaped—as Allen Tate told Malcolm Cowley—a man who had famously 'taken his stand' against industrialisation had been one of its beneficiaries.
To her friend Sally Wood, Gordon described the house as being in 'the old neighborhood' near the Kentucky border where her ancestors the Meriwethers had settled when they came westward from Virginia. Benfolly stood in eighty-five acres, partly worked by what Lowell called a 'token tenant' farmer. The two-storey brick house stood somewhat weathered and given to a number of privations and failings, but with its two tall chimneys, its columns and porch it had stood almost a century. Until they filled it with guests, as they did habitually, the eight-roomed mansion added an eccentric spaciousness to the living experience of the nomadic Tates.
Some suggestion of the oddity of the internal design of the house comes from a remark made by Gordon to Wood about Ida the cook, who 'often goes upstairs when she means to go downstairs—she says this house baffles her—as it has me these many years'. In fact the lowest floor was the basement at the hill end and the ground floor where the back of the house looked over the Cumberland ('deadwood-bordered' and 'the color of wet concrete' at the time of Lowell's visit). Aside from the kitchen and a small bedroom, the floor was one long dining room from front to back, boasting a long table and a central fireplace where the guests met to eat and talk under a Confederate flag. To Sally Wood and others the room resembled their memories of Parisian cafes. The other two floors had bedrooms and parlours, negotiated by narrow stairs.
Although the depressed economic climate meant that even the Tates could afford servants, they nevertheless found Benfolly a demanding residence, being determinedly encouraging in their Southern hospitality. In September 1936, Gordon was declaring ruefully, 'We will probably never open Benfolly again till one of us writes a best seller.' Then the success of None Shall Look Back, Gordon's excellent novel of the War Between the States, would allow them to live there for a year, she decided.
The house suited Caroline Gordon especially. A country girl born in Todd County, Kentucky in 1895, she grew up at Merry Mont, near Clarksville, at her family's plantation home known as 'Woodstock'. Although the family itself did not have to work the land, Gordon nevertheless grew up with keen appreciation of the outdoors. Her romanticism was perhaps more immediately sensuous than her husband's. Gordon's South was both historical and vividly immediate, as we see in her wonderfully lively letters ('The miasmal mist rose from the river in great clouds. It actually curled up over the back porch. It was almost like being on a boat in a storm').
Tate was equally fiercely Southern, but in other ways. This poet and polemicist's early life had been infused with his mother's mythology of the South. Apparently a native of Fairfax County, Virginia, Eleanor Custis Parke Varnell Tate had made much of her side of the family's connection with 'Chestnut Grove', an old farm house built on the land of 'Pleasant Hill', a mansion burned in the Civil War. Tate was to use this as the setting for his novel of the South's decline, The Fathers. For Tate, whose early life had been lived in a succession of homes, rural life had not the same attraction. Gordon wrote to Wood in 1926 that Tate 'has the strangest attitude toward the country—the same appreciation you'd have for a good set in the theatre. I think Allen feels toward Nature as I do toward mathematics—respectful indifference. He walks about the garden hailing each tomato and melon with amazement—and never sees any connection between planting seeds and eating fruit.'
Although Tate might have been more comfortable indoors, he was certainly not without practical skills. Gordon wrote of 'a most elegant desk, a combination book case and desk which he has built'. When Lowell visited, Tate explained to him that a poem is a work of craftsmanship, exhibiting some of his carpentry, 'a tar-black cabinet with huge earlobe-like handles.'
In May 1937, the Tates were back at Benfolly after two years away, with their twelve-year-old daughter Nancy, moving furniture and settling their work spaces. Gordon had the servant's room, since their cook lived out. Tate held fast to that desk ('his masterpiece') pushed into a dank corner of the dining room. They were each at a critical juncture with their work, Gordon trying to finish her latest novel, The Garden of Adonis. She had been particularly hard pressed with the autumn deadline ('I think it's absurd for me to get out another novel so soon but Scribner's insist that the iron is hot and must be struck quickly'). None Shall Look Back, recently published, had sold about ten thousand copies ('Of course Margaret Mitchell has taken all the trade', she wrote. 'I think I might have made some money but for her').
Tate, too, had eventually been making headway with his novel, though he was not a novelist by instinct, according to Gordon. Also, the Benfolly atmosphere had hardly been conducive to his writing ('Allen has never been able to work there'). The bulk of the one hundred and forty pages of The Fathers that Cleanth Brooks was to be impressed with later in the summer of 1937 had been written at 'Monteagle', while visiting with Andrew Lytle, his fellow Agrarian.
At this point in his career, Tate was still involved, at least in the literary public's mind, with Southern Agrarianism and his Fugitive past. As a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, the young Tate had established a reputation as a hard-headed, highly talented student with an emerging understanding of European Modernism that had some impact upon his teacher, the poet John Crowe Ransom. Taken along to meetings of an off-campus group that called themselves the Fugitives, who met to discuss philosophy and then poetry, Tate had shone. When the group produced a magazine their influence began to spread. In 1930 a number of the Fugitives published together a collection of essays, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. This conservative, anti-industrial 'manifesto' (which often makes uncomfortable reading today) held together for a while some disparate talents. Benefiting from the skills of Ransom, Tate, and the young Robert Penn Warren in particular, the movement made its mark nationally and contributed to the notion of a Southern Renaissance in literature, contextualizing the work of other notable writers like William Faulkner, Ellen Glasgow and James Branch Cabell.
However, fame can be a lean provider. The Tates were itinerant of necessity. Their fierce commitment to their art was highly impressive but never particularly rewarding financially (unlike the prose and poetry of their close friend Warren). Tate had achieved critical success with his Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas in 1936, a collection of his essays and reviews that adopted a position indebted to Eliot ('Modern poets are having trouble with form, and must use "ideas" in a new fashion that seems wilfully obscure to all readers but the most devoted', it began). Among impressive reviews, the caution of Tate's friend Malcolm Cowley was shrewd: 'it almost seems that his essays are being written by three persons,' he wrote in New Republic, 'not in collaboration but in rivalry.' He explained that 'Tate is a Catholic by intellectual conviction (though not by communion), he is a Southern Agrarian by social background, he is a man of letters trained in the Late Romantic or Symbolist tradition—and these are three positions that cannot be reconciled anywhere short of Nirvana.' The consequence, according to Cowley, was that he responded to 'the civil war inside his mind by the process of reducing everything to abstractions.'
Tate was be less successful with The Fathers and with his poetry collection The Mediterranean and Other Poems (1936) which had been privately printed but not distributed. Given his high profile as an essayist and reviewer, and as the author of books on Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, Tate had finally arranged with Scribner's Maxwell Perkins for the 1937 publication of his Selected Poems, which would assure his status as a leading poet (and contain almost all of his best work). To augment his precarious income from reviewing, he had also recently turned to teaching (at Southwestern University in Memphis) and embarked on a lecturing tour, returning to Benfolly in late spring, having invited the Fords to join them there.
Ford, the English modernist, editor of The English Review and The Transatlantic Review, had mentored Gordon in New York, for which she was permanently grateful. She had met him at the age of twenty-seven and acted briefly as his secretary (though a little disconcerted at the heavy Ford dictating in his underwear and sweating in the summer heat). When he found out that she had a novel in poor shape, she recounted how, 'He heaved another sigh and said, "You had better let me see it.''' An effort to encourage her led to Ford 'taking my dictation for three weeks'. The resulting novel, Penhally, was the beginning of Gordon's long career as a novelist.
Always eager to support new talent, Ford had also promoted Tate's work, as well as lending the two of them his Paris apartment. As Tate later remembered, 'This homme de lettres, who had been a great editor and was now the greatest living British novelist, lived in Spartan frugality. His flat consisted of a petit salon furnished with a divan.' Ford had helped Tate secure a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1928, while attempting to find his poems a British publisher. Always a generous critic of those whose work he liked, Ford liked Tate's poems, especially the one he had helped inspire on a day-long Cassis picnic, where he had mentioned to Tate how some of Troy's refugees may once have paused there:
Where we went in the boat was a long bay
A slingshot wide, walled in by towering stone—
Peaked margin of antiquity's delay,
And we went there out of time's monotone
(from 'The Mediterranean')
From Toulon Ford wrote to Tate in September 1936:
I have just got your MEDITERRANEAN—and it's lovely. I suppose I may be pardoned for liking the first poem best since it brings back the occasion [ ... ] which was a happy one [ ... ] And after that AENEAS AT WASHINGTON and then PASTORAL and SHADOW AND SHADE; and then TO THE LACEDEMONIANS and THE MEANING OF DEATH in, I think, that order. But they are all astonishingly level in quality. You have got hold by now of a sort of lapidary sureness and hardness that puts you, I should think, alone among the poets [ ... ]
Like the Tates, Ford Madox Ford was no stranger to hard times, despite an exceptionally prolific writing life. By the mid-1930s his reputation guaranteed only a hand-to-mouth existence, punctuated by necessary travel ('It would be impossible to find any three English people connected with books who would not automatically put a spoke in any wheel of mine that passed them by', he wrote to Hugh Walpole in December 1930).
In October 1935, he and the polish-American Biala took a short trip to Geneva, where Ford worked on his latest book, Portraits from Life, before returning home to Villa Paul in Cap Brun, Toulon. Here their ground-floor rooms overlooked the sea, its beautiful views and their garden compensations for the basic amenities. There he wrote his autobiographical paean Provence ('where I have lived for nearly all my spiritual as for a great part of my physical life'). Although Provence had been published in March 1935 to 'the most enthusiastic notices Ford ever received' in America and his Collected Poems appeared in October, the Fords were penurious again by Christmas, which led to a return to Paris and, after the failure of Ford's thriller, Vivre le Roy, some much required journalism.
By November of 1936 they found it necessary to return to America, where Ford could find work more easily, though neither he nor Biala really wished to stay there. In January the American edition of his Great Trade Route, a sort of travel book and autobiography, appeared to some acclaim. In February Biala's second art exhibition took place at the Gallery Passedoit in New York, while Ford busied himself with a radio broadcast and public speaking engagements. The two travelled to Boston for the March publication of the entertaining Portraits From Life and then, at the end of April, they took up the invitation from the Tates to stay with them at Benfolly, where they were to live and work until they all decamped for Olivet College and the 1937 Writers' Conference in July, after which Ford was to remain there teaching until December.
At Benfolly Ford completed dictating The March of Literature, his idiosyncratic survey of its history 'From Confucius' Day to Our Own'. He described the book to publisher Stanley Unwin as 'covering, comparatively, the whole of Literature from the Chinese to, say, Mr. Hemingway in a not too, but yet sufficiently, erudite manner'. While Ford worked on his book, Biala focused on her 'cryptic, lusciously painted' canvases 'that hovered between abstraction and representation' (according to Roberta Smith in a New York Times obituary).
Ford loved the Tates but, according to Tate's biographer Radcliffe Squires, 'He found "consorting" with them "an exhausting intellectual undertaking'" and consequently reacted negatively at times to his surroundings. 'This is one of the noisiest spots in the world,' he wrote to George F Bye, 'what with children and chickens and birds and cows and steamboats and Tennessean voices and doors slamming in the wind.' Not only was his exhaustion a consequence of his extremely poor health and the effort of completing the book; he was also involved by Tate in the academic politics of Vanderbilt University. Here, Tate's teacher John Crowe Ransom, aggrieved at being undervalued, had been considering a move to Kenyon College, Ohio. 'Consorting with the Tates', Ford wrote in a letter of June 11, 'is like living with intellectual desperados in the Sargoza [sic] Sea.' Yet, always the professional, Ford could nevertheless boast of having completed his thousand words a day.
The Fords exerted their own pressures on Benfolly life that summer. Their arrival had been preceded by the arrival of 'eighty pounds of Janice's pictures'. Then Ford turned out to be suffering from 'insomnia, indigestion and gout'. Then there were the bathetic moments. With Fordian flourish, on one occasion, he attempted to solve the problem of the house cistern running dry by sinking a washtub containing twigs (a Sussex dew pond) into the ground. It proved a dismal failure.
Besides, the tireless, diminutive Gordon had a combative streak easily raised in anticipation of any potential confrontations. She had written to Sally Wood (in November 1927) of Robert Penn Warren's first wife, 'I would have thrown her out of the window the first week but for my deep affection for Red.' Now she stood ready for the painter, a 'hellion' on their previous visit. Part of the problem had no doubt been the clash of temperaments, but part was the matter of food. Ford's health was not good and his preference for French cooking could not be accommodated. 'Ida, with the occasional assistance of her mother Electra, the washerwoman, could not even cook Tennessee, much less French', wrote Tate. Fortunately on this visit things went better from the start, according to Gordon,
but not without strife. I took Janice by the horns last night before she'd had time to get really obnoxious and explained to her that while I seemed very feckless I had in my way a system and that it didn't include French cooking by a Tennessee negro or by me either........... It's dreadful to feel that way about a guest but I knew she would run me nuts and ruin my book if I didn't smack her paws off the bat.... I just made up my mind I wouldn't take any of her damn nonsense... She takes a spanking well, is extremely amiable this morning and resolved to be good.
It was into this company that Robert Lowell stumbled in late April, having driven through 'plains of treeless farmland, and an unnatural, unseasonable heat' from Nashville to Benfolly, his bumper 'mashing the Tate's frail agrarian mailbox post', as he described it in a short essay, 'Visiting the Tates'. 'Wearing last summer's mothballish, already soiled white linens, and moccasins, knotted so that they never had to be tied or untied', the young man climbed out and turned his back on the 'peeling, pillared house', to disguise the damage.
To Caroline Gordon, who thought it 'the strangest visitation we ever had', the event had its own weird comedy. With characteristic zeal she recounted how she and Tate had been out enjoying the lemon lilies when the young man arrived and proceeded to urinate with his back to the house:
We stood there eyeing him sternly and were on the point of shouting 'defense d'uriner' when he came up to Allen, regarded him fixedly and muttered something about Ford. Something made us treat him more gently and ask him into the house. He is a young man named Lowell from Massachusetts who heard Ford lecture in Boston and as he wasn't getting on well at Harvard decided to come south to learn how to write. We kept him overnight and sent him on to Nashville to learn further about writing. I think Ford really rescued him from a bad situation. His family decided he was crazy because he wants to be a poet and had him in a psychopathic sanitarium. He does have a queer eye on him but he is very well behaved and affable, but imagine a Lowell (yes, the poor boy's mother is a Cabot)—imagine one coming all the way from Boston to sit at Southern feet.
Just as Lowell didn't remember the urinating, Gordon did not choose to comment on the postbox. Then again, with the deadline pending, she had plenty to occupy her mind beside the genial young man and her house guests.
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV had made hard weather of his life to date. The single and unhappy child of a union between the Winslows and Lowells of Boston, 'Cal', as he was known from boarding school days, enrolled at Harvard in 1935 but dropped out in spring 1937. He found the environment did not sufficiently engage his interest, plus there were family difficulties consequent on a premature engagement to Anne Dick, a distant cousin of one of Lowell's friends. At twenty-four Dick was a little older than Lowell and his infatuation with her was, to his mother's mind (Mrs Charlotte Winslow Lowell), a symptom of his difficult relationship with her.
The situation exploded at Christmas 1946 when a note from Lowell's father about Dick's visiting Lowell in his Harvard room without a chaperone caused Lowell to strike his father. His irate mother contacted the psychiatrist Merrill Moore, a family friend, with a view to having her son treated. Moore, however, had a more profitable idea. Since he was also a Tennessee poet and a Fugitive, Moore instead gained approval for engineering a social meeting for Lowell with Ford Madox Ford and a leave of absence from Harvard. The twenty-year-old could journey South to meet Ford and Moore's friends, the Tates, and possibly study with John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt, thereby maintaining his commitment to poetry while simultaneously removing him from Boston and his fiancé.
It turned out that Ford was not speaking to the young man who arrived with his tenuous invitation, but by then the Tates had invited him in. To Lowell he had, as he recounted, 'crashed the civilization of the South', and he was to stay much longer than one night. As he remembered that first visit to Benfolly, the conversation with Tate had been highly stimulating to him:
After an easy hour or two of regional anecdotes, Greenwich Village reminiscences, polemics on personalities, I began to discover what I had never known. I, too, was part of a legend. I was Northern, disembodied, a Platonist, a puritan, an abolitionist.... He quoted a stanza from Holmes's 'Chambered Nautilus'—'rather beyond the flight of your renowned Uncle.' I realized that the old deadweight of poor J. R. Lowell was now an asset. Here, like the battered Confederacy, he still lived and was history.
The way Tate could rip through the canon 'coolly blasting, rehabilitating, now and then reciting key lines in an austere, vibrant voice', proved beyond doubt what Lowell had thought on his journey down: that Tate was the kind of literary model he needed. 'Reading over the "Fugitive" poets on the train', he remembered, 'I decided Allen Tate is very topnotch, a painstaking technician and an ardent advocate of Ezra Pound.'
Tate was more circumspect. To Andrew Lytle, on May 19th, 1937, he wrote, 'The Lowell boy turned up twice, and we like him but feel that he is potentially a nuisance: Undaunted by his reception, Lowell took literally their comment that an extra guest would have to pitch a tent on the lawn: 'A few days later, I returned from Nashville with an olive Sears, Roebuck umbrella tent. I stayed three months.' To his mother he wrote, 'I feel convinced that I have never worked so hard or reaped such favourable results before.' He managed to secure $8 a week from her in order to live adequately through the summer there.
Though the Tates both privately admitted to first thinking Lowell was 'mad' (sadly prophetic), gradually they grew to be fond of him, urging the young man to neatness and bathing. Gordon was the first to be mollified by the uninvited guest. By July 10th she was writing:
Ford saw him in Boston and told him to go south young man and learn how to write. He promptly came. Ford was so enraged at being taken literally that he doesn't speak to him at the table. He's such a nice boy. Drives me out to Merry Mont to haul in buttermilk etc., flits the dining room—the handiest boy I ever knew, in fact. When he isn't doing errands he retires to his tent whence a low bumble emerges—Robert reading Andrew Marvell aloud to get the scansion. I've given Ford hell about not speaking to him, and he now addresses him as 'Young man.'
Ford's sensitivity to being studied in ill health was more the cause of his early rejection of the young poet. His concern turned out to be prescient:
I hear you huffing at your old Brevoort,
Timon and Falstaff, while you heap the board
for publishers. Fiction! I'm selling you short
your lies that made the great your equals. Ford,
you were a kind man, and you died in want.
(from 'Ford Madox Ford, (1873-1939)')
Conversation was perfunctory in the mornings since Gordon, the dedicated professional, hurried her writers off to work to avoid the delay rich exchanges might bring. At lunch it was a different matter. Wally Tworkov confessed herself astounded at the lunch time conversations. 'I was to discover, after a week of lunches, when visitors were most frequent, that the animated talk around the table was not about the Spanish Civil War which was then taking place and which was preoccupying most of my friends in New York, but about the Civil War between the States.'
It is not surprising in this conservative Southern stronghold where Lowell remembered seeing an engraving of Stonewall Jackson, as well as the Confederate flag over the fireplace. To the Tates, the War Between the States had become a literary as well as a military affair. Tworkov on the other hand was politically engaged, 'a rabid Communist' in Gordon's view: 'she asked me shyly the other day, "How wise would it be to have the Daily Worker sent to me here? I can't live without it?" I think she thought she might be ridden off of Benfolly on a rail if caught with a copy of the Worker.'
We have Ford's perspective on the hosts' Confederate sympathies in a much earlier letter, quoted in Max Saunders biography, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life:
all the Tates' friends are from Kentucky or Tennessee or Virginia. It is rather queer: because of the Civil War you see American history quite reversed. Lincoln is the villainous bastard [ ... ] who ruined the world & Stonewall Jackson the only hero. It is queer & rather ghostly & pathetic, being buried amongst the relics of a lost cause [ ... ] & hearing that if only Lee had not lost Gettysburg the world today wd be Elysium [ ... ] No industrial system: no Middle West: only kindly & courteous people of pure English blood! [ ... ] of course it is rather like the French royalists—but really queerer and more passionate.
Passions were held in check that summer. There was the sortie out to Vanderbilt on behalf of Ransom (who decided anyway to move on to Kenyon College). Then in mid-July, together with Ford and Biala and with Robert Lowell in tow, the Tates set off for Olivet College. On 10 July 1937, Caroline Gordon wrote her friend, 'we have lived through the summer and the Fords, too, are still breathing though a little wan. We've really got through beautifully but you can imagine how it's been.'
* * *
About the Author
Tony Roberts's fourth collection of poems, Drawndark, and his edited Poetry in the Blood were both published in 2014; his essays, The Taste in My Mind, appeared in 2015—all from Shoestring Press.
General Editor: Michael Schmidt
Deputy Editor: Luke Allan