General Lee and the Siren: Allen Tate's failed biography.
Why did he not finish it? Indeed. Tate's struggles to find a way beneath Robert E. Lee's impeccable surface led him to a paralysis analyzed by various commentators, beginning with Radcliffe Squires in 1971, who argues that "Tate himself had perhaps begun to displace Lee in the biography," so much so that the book "had begun to turn into a species of autobiography or even of fiction" (Squires 128). Lewis Simpson and Thomas Underwood largely agree, with varying emphases, and Michael Kreyling adds the intriguing suggestion that, if Lee had not been simply a substitute father, but God Himself, then Tate was unwillingly engaged in the act of deicide (Kreyling 115, 123). Both from his letters to friends and from the manuscript itself, it becomes apparent that Tate's troubles with Lee stern from large moral and religious quandaries symptomatic of a culture in an uneasy relation to its heroic past. How could it be that a man like Lee--"a character that in its kind stands supreme in all history" ("Untitled," Princeton MS 30)--was so historically close, yet inaccessibly distant? The more one looks at Tate's failure, the more it becomes a major interpretive crux, and not simply because his inability to write the book changed his career. The problem was worse than the inability to enter the "immoderate past" that Tate had memorably elegized in his "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Not only did Lee not fit the Agrarian model he was supposed to embody, but his magnanimity and the nature of his ambition took on an increasingly repellent, even monstrous form in Tate's imagination--so much so that the revered General increasingly became a character out of Dante and Poe at once, both the Siren for the South and the son of Ligeia, a philosophical problem whose central metaphor was sexual--certainly the last thing one might associate with Robert E. Lee.
In the fall of 1930, Allen Tate was riding the success of two biographies, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (1928) and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (1929). He had a contract with his publisher, Minton, Balch, to write the biography of Lee, for which the expectations were high. In November, his wife Caroline Gordon wrote to her friend Sally Wood about various book projects underway at Benfolly, the home that Tate's brother had bought for them near Clarksville, Tennessee: "We have no company now except Andrew Lytle who has settled down here for a long stretch--until he finishes his biography of [Nathan Bedford] Forrest. I am struggling with Shiloh and Missionary Ridge and Allen is on the verge of starting Lee" (Wood 64).
Who was General Lee if not the finest example of the integral man produced by the agrarian order of the South? He was the one man who embodied in his own character those qualities that Southerners could hold up as universally admirable, even for those who disliked the Confederacy itself. In his book on Davis, Tate had scrutinized the president of the Confederacy as the type of modern man already afflicted by what T. S. Eliot had called the "dissociation of sensibility" (64) and all too typical of Tate's own age, but Lee had no such inner separation of intellect from feeling. Reluctant to join the Southern cause, Lee had never been an advocate of secession, but he famously could not fight against his own state, Virginia. The local bond of land and kin overrode the abstraction of loyalty to the Union. In the war, always against larger armies than his own, he kept the Confederate cause alive between the day he was first named head of the Army of Northern Virginia in May of 1862 and the day he surrendered at Appomattox three years later. His victories in the battles of the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville drove President Lincoln through general after general in search of someone who could outlast Lee, if not outwit him. Always magnanimous, courteous to a fault, Lee became in defeat the image of what was noblest and best about the South. And who better to write about him than Tate? A founding member of the Fugitive group, a modern poet who embraced irony and difficulty, he was the most brilliant of the Twelve Southerners who had just published I'll Take Tate and: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, and he seemed ideally positioned to bring Lee before a new generation, not least because he was incapable of being uncritical. This would be Lee from the Southern perspective, but not in the worshipful vein of those who had idolized the Lost Cause in the generations immediately following the Civil War.
A bestseller, which was clearly Balch's hope, would mean that Tate could find a little ease from the poverty he and Gordon always labored under. But by July of 1931, when the biography was due, Tate had still written almost nothing. He used Lytle as an emissary to Balch to try to gain more time, which was necessarily granted, but Balch wrote to Tate that Minton, Balch had already advertised the book as its major nonfiction title for the fall, and salespeople were promoting the biography in bookstores across the country (Underwood 174). The first deadline passed, and the bitter negotiations with Balch continued. A year after that first letter to Wood, Gordon's frustrations with her husband spilled out. Wood had invited her to visit her in Rochester, New York, and Gordon could promise nothing:
It all still hangs on Lee, of course. The book is delayed publication this fall after Balch had persecuted us for weeks with long distance telephone calls. "It's just Mister Balch, I reckon," Beatrice [the cook] would say easily as she moved to the telephone. God knows when Allen will finish that damn book. We could do almost anything this winter if he only would--he can get a sizable advance on another book he has in mind the minute he finishes Lee. (Wood 87)
What Tate faced should not be underestimated. Writing a biography of Lee in eight months (between November of 1930, when he still had not started it, and July of 1931, when it was supposed to be finished) was a daunting prospect in itself, even had he worked steadily. Tate told John Peale Bishop in June of 1931 that "the Davis book was relatively a success, but the Lee is a failure" (36). Clearly, though, he did not want to use the world failure with Balch (or Gordon), and he kept making a show of writing the book for another year. But he would never finish the biography, the forty-seven pages of which exist today only in a single typescript in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division of Princeton's Firestone Library (not far from James Oliver Tate's letter). Nor would he complete the next book he had in mind, a family chronicle called Ancestors of Exile. The popular success he might have achieved never materialized.
When Tate wrote to John Beale Bishop that his Lee book was a failure, the remark came at the end of a long critique of Dr. Burwell, one of Bishop's fictional characters. Tate writes that "impersonal" judgment can come only from those who best understand the circumstances in which a character lives. Otherwise, what results is merely personal.
And it is, of course, as you say, very different from Dante's kind of judgment, which becomes impersonal for the very fact that Dante himself had the virtues and vices of the people he condemned. In this, it seems to me, there is a general lesson for writers; they must never attempt to judge characters outside their own "culture," except at the risk of making the judgment trivial. (Bishop and Tate 35).
Tate criticized Bishop's portrayal of Dr. Burwell for not achieving impersonal judgment: "Probably this is all due to the fact that like most of us you are both inside and outside the old tradition, that in a word you are a modern and divided mind. You are right in this matter; the Davis book was relatively a success, but the Lee is a failure" (36). As Bishop had failed with Dr. Burwell, so Tate was failing with Lee, and for the same reason--that he himself possessed a "modern and divided mind," very much unlike Lee.
But the word failure cannot be accurately understood outside its context. Earlier in the same letter, Tate writes, "the older I get the more I realize that I set out about ten years ago to live a life of failure, to imitate, in my own life, the history of my people" (34). His point is that American "success" has a Yankee vulgarity that any Southerner of noble sensibility should eschew. "The significance of the Southern way of life, in my time, is failure: those Southerners who leave their culture--and it is abandoned most fully by those who stay at home--and succeed in some not too critical meaning of success, sacrifice some great part of their deepest heritage" (34). Tate had succeeded to some extent with the Davis biography because he had written it from within the same kind of division that Davis himself suffered, but to "succeed" with the Lee biography would mean presenting Lee on some basis other than "impersonal judgment." Such a success would be a pyrrhic victory at best, since he would be earning a "not too critical" approbation by distorting a figure of Southern reverence.
But the complications deepen: the Lee book was also "a failure" because Tate saw that Lee was a success among the Southerners who revered him as an integral man suffering defeat in the worldly sense more or less as Christ had, but who hallowed his cause in doing so. "The whole Southern incapacity for action since 1865 is rationalized in the popular conception of Lee," he wrote to Bishop in a later letter. "It is time this was broken down" (64). Lee's real failure in losing the war was vexing to Tate, however, because he understood Lee's refusal to venture into the political sphere (where he might really fail) as evidence not of modesty but of an almost immeasurable ambition. Yet he hesitated to say so, because, as he told Bishop, "I can't 'prove' a word of it. Of course, the facts do not in the least prove the current notion of him: they don't prove one thing or another. But the facts have got into an emotional association with a certain conception of his character which will be very difficult to break down" (64). One reason that Tate could not prove his view of Lee was that he recognized it as a personal judgment on his part, not an impersonal one that could emerge of itself from his presentation of Lee's deeds: "To be most effective my treatment should be direct and cumulative, not argumentative; yet I am obliged to show that the popular notion is not inevitably true. I can't just assume that it is false" (65).
What stymied him, in part, was the formal problem of getting Lee to reveal unpleasant dimensions of his character through the ironies of narration alone. Lee tormented him, because the man in his manners and his deeds so instinctively and perfectly suppressed all evidence of anything other than what appeared on the surface. As Underwood puts it, "he grew annoyed by Lee's asexuality, his priggishness, and his apparent lack of a personality.... The same humorless preoccupation with self-control and propriety that he found grating in John Ransom, Tate found insufferable in Lee" (Underwood 175). In an essay on Ransom published in Memoirs and Opinions, Tate spoke of his "dislike" in his student days for the man who became a lifelong friend:
My dislike of John was my fear of him. He had perfect self-control; I could see him flush with anger, but his language was always moderate and urbane. I was just the opposite, and some of my dislike came of my exposure to his critical glance. His patience with my irregular behavior only made his disapproval the more telling. What disturbed and challenged me most was my sense of the logical propriety of his attitude towards his students. He never rebuked us; his subtle withdrawal of attention was more powerful than reproach: he refused to be overtly aware of our lapses. (40)
Little about the mature Lee suggests quite the priggish humorlessness that Tate found in Ransom, but if Underwood is right about the parallel in Tate's imagination--as I think he is--then Tate had a corresponding fear of Lee that led to dislike. Many men in Lee's presence felt the implicit reproach of his high demeanor. Tate had already described it in 1929 (a year before he began writing the biography) as "the egoism of self-righteousness" which "was absolutely unassailable" (Lytle and Tate 21).
In confidence to Lytle, "in a whisper and at present for your ears alone," he wrote that Lee had been in the "sole position" of being able to achieve the independence of his country if only he could have set aside his "personal honor," which Tate identifies with Lee's "creed," his "Sunday School morality" (21). What he meant became more explicit in his Jefferson Davis biography, published the same year as his letter to Lytle and clearly projecting the direction his biography of Lee would take. Tate made public the difficulty he saw with Lee, namely, that when he had a chance to take over the entire Confederacy, he refused to do so: "The South, at the end of 1864, had a great leader whom the people would have followed to the death--Robert E. Lee. The previous agitation to make him dictator now rose to a clamor" (Davis 160). But of course Lee refused even to notice the commotion. Tate's implicit question was why Lee refused the ultimate command that might have saved the Confederacy. From all appearances, Lee's deference to Davis kept him from seizing upon the opportunity. In the same letter to Bishop in October of 1932 already cited, he wrote,
Lee did not love power; my thesis about him, stated in these terms, is that he didn't love it because he was profoundly cynical of all action for the public good. He could not see beyond the needs of his own salvation, and he was not generous enough to risk soiling his military cloak for the doubtful salvation of others. I personally feel very much this way; but then I am not at the head of a large army and I have no political position. You know Lee pretended all along that he had no connection with politics--a fiction that won him applause because it seemed to mean that he was above intrigue; but no man should be above the right kind of intrigue. This is what I feel about Lee. Yet is it true? That is what keeps me awake at night. (Bishop and Tate 64)
Squires finds it revealing that Tate identifies himself as being, like Lee, cynical about action for the public good, and he surmises that the Lee biography has become "a species of autobiography or even of fiction" (128). But it is important to surmise what Tate meant by intrigue. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as one meaning "exertion of tortuous or underhand influence to accomplish some purpose; underhand plotting Tatecheming." Such intrigue would have required Lee to put aside personal honor--in the sense of perfect openness and good conscience--- for the sake of some larger cause, much as Shakespeare's Brutus does. It is impossible to imagine Lee participating in the kind of intrigue that a Huey Long or Franklin Delano Roosevelt (those contemporaries of the biography) would not hesitate to pursue.
But why should Tate fault him? In the Princeton manuscript, Tate spells out what he means at more length. The virtue of Lee, which seems to be the perfection of Aristotelian moral virtue crowned by magnanimity, begins to take on a vaguely monstrous feel:
There was a force in Lee's character that drove him into a definite role superior or at least different to the aims of his society as a whole. Settled as Virginia society was at that time, there was still a large pioneering impulse that created the old West. Lee had none of this: he was a finished product, a man whose views were bounded and fixed within an already old society. There were thus open to him only the conventional opportunities. There was the law, but that involved politics which meant agitation of a sort; this was out of the question for a terrifically reserved young man. There was the church; but as we shall see, Lee was a born man of action, whose speculative and dialectical powers possibly could not have been developed. He would have made a pure and exemplary clergyman, but not, perhaps, a distinguished one. And I think one must confess that Lee's ambition was towering, that his family history, its immediate example of failure and the strong, remote tradition of distinction and success, impressed upon him the necessity of being a great man: an ambition so perfect and, if you will, so pure, that it could not stoop to take advantage of circumstance to force his merit. A weaker ambition would have been satisfied with wealth, notoriety, or conspicuous place; Lee must set out first of all to be a perfect character, perhaps negatively to redeem his blood from the stigma that his father had put upon it, and being such a character, he could wait for the great moment that might or might not ever come. (29-30, my emphasis)
The military allowed Lee to avoid the moral agitation and intrigues of politics, on the one hand, and the intellectual demands of theology, on the other. Lee instinctively recognized that his "towering" ambition could not be satisfied in either pursuit. Because of the Lee name, he had to be great, but because of his father's more "immediate example" of bankruptcy and dishonor, he had to be great only in the mode of purity. Why could Lee not participate in the intrigue of politics? Not because he lacked ambition, but because he possessed "an ambition so perfect and, if you will, so pure, that it could not stoop to take advantage of circumstance to force his merit." Other men might take the initiative to satisfy their ambitions, but only because theirs were inferior to Lee's: "he could wait for the great moment that might or might not ever come."
For those who revere Lee, this reluctance to put himself forward looks like Christian humility. (1) For Tate, it was something else altogether, because he saw Lee the man as inseparable from the ambition that constituted his very being:
In biography only those secret springs of character that we can never know are worth knowing. What pattern of fact and moral influence in Robert Lee's childhood issued in a character that in its kind stands supreme in all history? We cannot know this. And the reason is not hard to find: he was, even from childhood, the kind of character that concentrating all of his resources in every act and judgment, never committed himself to incomplete actions or uttered himself in careless opinions. When he acted or spoke, the whole Lee was present, and there is left to us none of the revealing evidence of a man who existed in parts through which we may see their relations and the imperfect fashion in which they work together. Lee had no parts, from the day he was born: he was born a perfect specimen of human integration. And so it is impossible for any analyst to say this influence did that with him, or this other threw him into a military career. All influences worked together as one on a mind that constantly reformed and controlled them. He was so complete a character that his capacity for action mystifies us until we reflect that his repose and seeming passivity, his perfection in inactivity, was as typical of him, was as much Lee, as the Wilderness Campaign. In whatever position he found himself he was always completely Lee, and by an infallible instinct he avoided those situations that might make demands upon him which would take him out of his true character.
A man so self-contained may, in a sense, be said to be without ambition, yet in another sense, a more realistic one, his ambition is inexhaustible. No worldly reward can satisfy it; it feeds upon its own perfection, and drops its participation in affairs the moment this inner integrity is threatened. (Princeton MS 30-31, my emphasis)
If Lee would not enter politics to save the Confederacy, then, it was because he could not make the distinction between the good of the larger cause, which Tate consistently identifies in the manuscript as the defense of the "property-system" upon with the landed tradition of the South rested, and "the needs of his own salvation," as he put it to Bishop, or the "personal honor" of his earlier confidence to Lytle.
In Lee the fastidiousness of a "Sunday school morality"--Tate describes it late in the Princeton manuscript as "Victorian humanitarianism" (39)--unnaturally joins the perfect self-control and large ambition that Aristotle would describe as megalopsychia, greatness of soul. The conjunction suggests to Tate a quality that he took from his mother:
Mrs. Lee seems to have been one of those sweet ladies who abhor the world and who, when they are invalids, achieve a perfect and soft-spoken tyranny over their families. It is recorded that the sympathy between Robert and his mother was perfect, and if this means anything, it doubtless means that they were very much alike. She taught him to "practice self-denial and self-control, as well as the strictest economy in all financial concerns." What mother has not taught these virtues? And what son has ever listened to mere teaching as such? Yet it is true that Robert had the virtues of self-denial and self-control to a stupendous degree. It is probable that both mother and son learned them at the feet of the same master, Henry Lee, who grievously lacked them both. (Princeton MS 28, my emphasis)
His oddly feminine restraint and solicitude--"It is said that Mrs. Lee more than once remarked that Robert was to her both a daughter and a son" (28)--combine with "his almost excessive masculine nature" (41) to produce "the most perfect and the most mysterious of men" (27), whose reserve keeps him out of the ugly world of politics.
This scrutiny of Lee, had it appeared in 1931, would have added considerably to understanding the aura of the man, and it might have affected the reception of Douglas Southall Freeman's monumental but entirely orthodox portrait of Lee, published in 1934 and 1935. The analysis continues to deepen, as we shall see in a moment, but in ways that appeared to make it impossible for Tate to finish the biography and make it public. Even if he had finished it, the success of Freeman's biography would have eclipsed it. (2) Freeman had been working on his biography of Lee since 1915, and his massive text had packed every available letter and record into the cellular density of its documentation. On a typical page, Freeman might have ten or eleven footnotes, any one of which represented hours of research. (3) One cannot imagine Allen Tate writing one such note, much less the thousands in Freeman's biography. Tate was interested in Lee's character and the inferences that he might draw from his actions, not in fastidious factual accuracy. Those who now read Tate's books about Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis do so because Tate wrote them. Tate would never have been willing to undertake the truly painstaking historical scholarship that would guarantee his book authoritative status like Freeman's, but neither would he have been willing to subscribe wholeheartedly to the "popular notion" of Lee's character as Freeman does.
Tate argues that Lee could have saved the South if he had become dictator in 1864. Given the choice between a possibility, the political independence of the Confederacy, and an achievable end, the symbolic righteousness of the cause embodied in his own purity, Lee unhesitatingly chose the latter. If he had attempted to save the political South, he would not have been General Lee. Even after the war, Lee eschewed any political involvement that might have used his name to exacerbate sectional differences. The title of Tate's biography was to be Robert E. Lee: The Man Who Could Not Fail (Underwood 174). Tate thought that Lee would not risk sullying his fame with political failure as the Federal pincers of Grant and Sherman closed late in the War. Unlike a Caesar or a Napoleon, Lee would never have taken any power he had to seize. Was he a Cincinnatus, then, like George Washington, often taken as Lee's model? Would Washington, in Lee's position, have acted differently? Tate and Freeman agree in distinguishing between the two men. Tate remarks sardonically that "For years popular history, under the influence of Parson Weems, gave to the character of Washington all those undeviating and humorless virtues of boyhood which were in literal truth possessed only by Lee" (Princeton MS 39); Freeman acknowledges a near-fatal weakness in Lee's character that Washington did not share. He writes of Lee's early mistakes with General W. W. Loring, when Lee deferred to the ruder man and thus lost the chance for victory:
All his life Lee had lived with gentle people, where kindly sentiments and consideration for the feelings of others were part of noblesse oblige. In that atmosphere he was expansive, cheerful, buoyant even, no matter what happened.... Now that he encountered surliness and jealousy, it repelled him, embarrassed him, and well-nigh bewildered him. Detesting a quarrel as undignified and unworthy of a gentleman, he showed himself willing, in this new state of affairs, to go to almost any length, within the bounds of honor, to avoid a clash. (I. 552-53)
Despite his understanding of this tendency on Lee's part, Freeman has no sympathy with Lee's unwillingness to use his rank to enforce his will, especially when he saw the better course. He points out that Washington would not have hesitated to use his authority over a subordinate. With others, Freeman writes, "one might have to ask whether they were drunk or sober on a given day," but with Lee, "it became necessary to ask, for two years and more, whether his judgment as a soldier or his consideration as a gentleman dominated his acts" (I. 553).
Still, Tare was immeasurably harsher with Lee's weaknesses. In July of 1931, the month the book was due, he asked Lytle to intercede for him with Balch, and he had to reveal his difficulties in writing it. He gave Lytle a glimpse into the depths of his misgivings about this icon of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause:
[T]he longer I've contemplated the venerable features of Lee, the more I've hated him. It is as if I had married a beautiful girl, perfect in figure, pure in all those physical attributes that seem to clothe purity of character, and then had found when she had undressed that the hidden places were corrupt and diseased. Can any man alive write this way about Lee? No. Nor can I easily get my consent, overwhelmed as I am by this vision, to write a facile discussion of Lee as the exemplar of the Virginia virtues, or to keep my hands off him in order to write a tract for the cause. (Lytle and Tare 46)
This bitter passage, often cited, has never to my knowledge been adequately analyzed, despite its startling trope. What could he possibly mean, not only by imagining Robert E. Lee as "a beautiful girl, perfect in figure, pure in all those physical attributes that seem to clothe purity of character"--the feminine Lee, as it were--and then imagining syphilis beneath his exemplary looks? Tare was obviously right that he could not voice such slanders about Lee publicly, but the question is why such an extreme trope would ever occur to him in the first place. Perhaps Tate had an experience of sexual disillusionment comparable to his discovery about Lee, but the comparison seems merely hypothetical, and a little desperate--a wedding night, an undressing, the bond already publicly sealed. In other words, Tare was suggesting to Lytle, he had signed the contract with Balch believing in Lee's purity of character, but once he "undressed" him, he discovered disease and corruption.
But the "beautiful girl" requires more justification. In an essay many years later, "A Reading of Keats" (1945), Tate quotes one of Keats's annotations to Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. "there is nothing disgraces me in my own eyes so much as being one of a race of eyes nose and mouth beings in a planet call'd the earth who all from Plato to Wesley have always mingled goatish winnyish lustful love with the abstract adoration of the deity" (Essays277). Because Keats speaks of a "horrid relationship" between the two kinds of love, characterized by Burton as the Uranian Aphrodite and the Pandemic Aphrodite, Tare describes the poet as a young man with "a strong compulsion towards the realization of physical love, [who] could not reconcile it with his idealization of the beloved" (279). Tate understands in Keats another symptom of "a shrinkage in the range and depth of Western man's experience" (280) since the English poets of the seventeenth century, who had been able to join physical and spiritual love without denigrating either. Tate's extreme figure, in other words, transposes this loss of integrated sensibilities and this phenomenon of dismay at the female body--Caddy Compson's "muddy drawers," as it were--onto the moral life of Lee.
The figure also strikingly resembles Dante's dream of the Siren in Purgatorio XIX. Tate's interest in Dante grew in intensity later in his career, culminating in his great essay "The Symbolic Imagination" (1951) and his three poems in terza rima, "The Maimed Man" (1952), "The Swimmers" (1953), and "The Buried Lake" (1953). But he read the Divine Comedy early, and references to it, including those in his letters to Bishop in 1931, run throughout his work. This is not to say that he deliberately refers to the image of the Siren in his letter to Lytle, nor even that he explicitly thinks of it any more than he thinks of the Uranian and the Pandemic Aphrodites in imagining the bride. As Tate wrote in his essay "Our Cousin, Mr. Poe" two decades later, "An imagination of any power at all will often project its deepest assumptions about life in symbols that duplicate, without the artist's knowledge, certain meanings, the origins of which are sometimes as old as the race" (Essays 394). At the very least, Tate projects the Siren symbol when he thinks of Lee as a beautiful girl. In the dream of Purgatorio, when the Siren begins "to sing so, that it would have been / most difficult for [him] to turn aside" (171), another lady appears, "alert and saintly" (171), and chides Virgil for allowing Dante to become so transfixed. With his eyes on the saintly lady, Virgil
seized the other, baring her in front, tearing her clothes, and showing me her belly; the stench that came from there awakened me. (173)
This exposure of her belly or womb (ventre) shows that the Siren's "hidden places" are "corrupt and diseased," like the beautiful girl's.
Lee is to Tate what the Siren is to Dante. In each case, admiration turns to disgust. The analogy would hold even if Tate had never read the Divine Comedy, but it becomes stronger still because the dream of the Siren underlies the association. Unlike Dante, Tate does not imply that his very desire to find Lee admirable had made him seem nobler than he was. On the other hand, the South and "the cause" could certainly be accused of such a transforming desire. Dante first sees a stammering woman, "her eyes askew, and crooked on her feet, / her hands ... crippled, her complexion sallow" (171) and then by gazing at her, transforms her into the figure of his own desire. Had not the South done the same thing by making Lee into what it thought it needed rather than seeing what he was? In other words, the analogy shifts a little. Lee is to the South what the Siren is to Dante. For Tate, Lee's offense was that he allowed this transforming admiration to grow while disguising his corruption--the desire for honor--from them. Tate is Virgil, the one who exposes the stench, but with no saintly lady sanctioning him to do it, no approbation awaiting him. In fact, he did not mean to expose the Siren at all, but to consummate his marriage. What was the "corrupt and diseased" secret of Gen. Lee's "hidden places"? Tate never hints at actual concupiscence. In the same letter to Lytle, Tate ends his plea for his friend's intercession with a startling claim: "In the case of a man like Davis, there is weakness but a certain purity, but in Lee, who was not weak, there is when we see under the surface an abyss, and it is to this that I do not want to give a name. I don't think any publisher could understand this, but you will, and you will know what to say" (Lytle and Tate 47).
In her essay on Tate in Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, Susan Donaldson rightly associates Edgar Allan Poe with this abyss beneath the surface of Lee--not because it was necessarily there in Lee himself, but because Poe so strongly affected Tate's imagination (507). In "Our Cousin, Mr. Poe," Tate says that the Poe story he liked best as a child was "Ligeia," which was also Poe's favorite; oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, this story seems to inform the way that Tate imagines Robert E. Lee's mother and the birth of Lee himself. In Poe's story, the narrator loses to death his beloved first wife Ligeia, who does not die without repeating the lines quoted twice before in the story: "Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will" (269). The narrator in time remarries, his second wife--the Lady Rowena Trevanion--mysteriously falls ill and seems to die, but instead, over the course of several overheated pages, her dead body begins to revive until at last her eyes open and the narrator recognizes "the full, and the black, and the wild eyes--of my lost love--of the lady--of the LADY LIGEIA" (277).
Like the narrator of "Ligeia," Robert E. Lee's father Henry Lee, the "Light-Horse Harry" of the American Revolution, lost his beloved first wife Matilda and buried her in a vault in the east garden of the Lee home at Stratford. Tate writes that Henry Lee spent the winter of 1790-91 at Stratford "brooding on the darker side of his fate and supervising the negroes as they laboriously built up the sides of the large vault in the east garden, which was to house forever the frail body of Matilda" (Princeton MS 16). To Stratford Henry brought his second wife, Ann Carter Lee, Robert's mother. During this second marriage, Lee descended into bankruptcy and shame. "The intricate story of Governor Henry Lee's decline cannot be told in full: by 1800 he was a ruined man, haunted by creditors and faced with want" (Princeton MS 18). Children kept coming as Ann Lee's melancholy at her circumstances increased. "And the last child was Robert Edward, born on the 19th of January, 1807, after his mother, weak from child-bearing and apprehensive for the welfare of her children, had decided that there should be no more" (Princeton MS 19). Tate goes on to include a passage that condenses the genesis of Lee as "a character that in its kind stands supreme in all history" into a potent symbol whose close kinship to Poe could not be more striking:
There is a legend about Ann Lee at this time, invented probably by the negroes, that is false in fact, but which conveys a deep truth about the life of Ann Lee just before her last child was born. She had been ill for several years: the story has it that she seemed to die, and placed in her coffin was being [c]arried by the servants to the great vault that her husband had erected to his first wife [the vault of Matilda "in the east garden"--Princeton MS 16]. On the way to the tomb the pallbearers saw her move, and out of a dreadful apathy she came back for a brief time in order to give the world ironically a son that she did not want but whom the world would exalt above all men of his age. (Princeton MS 20)
Was the legend "invented ... by the negroes," or was it simply invented by Tate and symbolically attributed to "the negroes" as the ones who saw things outside the "white" factual order? Almost certainly the latter. In other words, Tare invents the story that Ann seemed to die, like the Lady Rowena or Madeline Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher." There is a premature burial and a corpse that comes back to life "for a brief time," but this time in order to give birth to Robert E. Lee. Tate attributes the story itself to "the negroes," makes "the servants" the pallbearers, which suggests a burial without honor--almost a disposal of the body--in the vault built for his first wife. Tate inserts into the narrative a note of horror quite distinct from the usual legends of heroic birth. Lee is associated, not with a manger or an ark of bulrushes, but with a coffin and a secret shame.
In fact, everything monstrous and uncanny about Lee in Tate's imagination can be discerned in the symbolism of this apocryphal tale: above all, his perfect sympathy with a mother who brings him out of her apparently dead body, the deathlike trance of "dreadful apathy." Madeline Usher, also buried prematurely, is similarly described as suffering a "settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character" (Poe 323). Robert E. Lee's perfect self-control, by implication, stems from his having been born, unwanted, out of a humiliated disregard so deep that all feeling had long died. The perfection of his "almost excessive masculine nature, his enormously developed power of self-discipline" (Princeton MS 41), extends a surface of wholesome purity over the abyss which is his origin and inmost interiority.
In The Fathers, which biographers Squires and Underwood both regard as his way of saving the Lee biography, Tare has his narrator Lacy Buchan reflect upon George Posey, a man very much unlike Robert E. Lee:
There is no doubt that he loved [Lacy's sister] Susan too much; by that I mean he was too personal, and with his exacerbated nerves he was constantly receiving impressions out of the chasm that yawns beneath lovers; therefore he must have had a secret brutality for her when they were alone. Excessively refined persons have a communion with the abyss; but is not civilization the agreement, slowly arrived at, to let the abyss alone? (185-86)
The word personal recalls Tate's discussion of Dr. Burwell with Bishop in 1931. By contrast, Tare writes, it was "probable that, given Lee's excessive masculinity, and the certainty of its aim, it was not necessary for him to feel anything" in his courtship of Mary Custis (Princeton MS 43). Lee was almost entirely impersonal, in other words: "He was a man who found himself completely in realizing the conventional forms, in purifying and raising their meaning.... And so, in his courtship and marriage, he must have been tender and sympathetic, but lacking in those little violations of self-control, of perfect demeanor, which distinguish a lover from an abstraction" (Princeton MS 43).
What is an abstraction in this sense but a kind of death? This is Lee, even in his courtship, reimagined as a character out of Poe. "Everything in Poe is dead," writes Tate, "the houses, the rooms, the furniture, to say nothing of nature and of human beings" (Essays 398). This Lee is dead from the outset, from the moment of his birth, and this is the secret of the fact that "he was born a perfect specimen of human integration" (Princeton MS 31). As Tare puts it, "he never quite participated in any human situation, but rather moved in it untouched, and came out of it a living criticism of other men and, at his best moments, of all men. It is this quality, perhaps, that made Lee the most perfect and the most mysterious of men" (Princeton MS 27). He was perfect and mysterious in his mastery and extension of conventionality, not because he was God, but because he was always essentially dead, which allowed him to wear the mask of life with perfect grace. He was capable of greatness in war, because it was the business of death, with which he was intimately familiar; he attracted adulation because of his dispassionate courtesy, but only because he had a perfect instinct for avoiding those situations of moral contingency that would require the risk of his perfection. The oddly feminine perfect man, he was the Siren on whom the post-war South expended its praise, and in return he gave them only a cult of the dead.
The figure of this Lee, whose monstrousness appeared only to him, haunted Tate out of his capacity to write. "Yet is it true?" he asked Bishop--and Bishop had not even seen the whole depth of Tate's suspicions, which can be inferred only from the manuscript itself. Did such a Lee exist in fact? Reading Tate, who saw with such perspicacity, one begins to suspect that he did, but if this was Lee, nothing but such inventions as Mrs. Lee's burial or such figures as the "beautiful girl"--not the anecdotes of his life--could ever make such a Lee evident. No doubt Tate welcomed Freeman's R. E. Lee, as he had welcomed Donald Davidson's poem "Lee in the Mountains," with something like relief. Freeman's description of the man emphasizes a fundamental simplicity:
In 1861, as always, he was the same in his bearing to men of every station, courteous, simple, and without pretense. Of objective mind, free of any suggestion of self-consciousness, he was considerate in his dealings with others, and of never-failing tact. He made friends readily and held them steadfastly.
Close relations never lowered him in the esteem of his associates. He was clean-minded and frank with his friends, and confided in them more freely than has been supposed. Always he was unselfish, talked little of himself, and was in no sense egotistical. Although he was slow to take offense and was not quick to wrath, his temper was strong ....
His manners reflected his spiritual life. It has been in vain that some of his biographers have asked if his calm dignity did not cover some deep spiritual conflict. It was not so. His was a simple soul, humble, transparent, and believing. (I. 451-52)
For his part, Tate questioned Lee's religion most of all: "in his impatience with theology he anticipated all those humanitarian beliefs of our own time in the strictly practical value of religion" (Princeton MS 47). Worse: "Lee's character was connected with a personal, and very obscure, mysticism that one of his ablest biographers has called a belief in 'the living God.' Whether it was the living God is beyond dispute; it is true that Lee's God was worshipped by no other man" (47). What Tate meant remains a matter for speculation. He seems to have seen in Lee an exemplar of those Southerners he had criticized in his essay for 171 Take My Stand those whose "rational life was not powerfully united to the religious experience, as it was in medieval society" (Essays 574).
But the manuscript breaks off, and Tate never published any of what he had written. Others in later decades would be able to question the perfection of Lee and slowly tease him back into a believable, if highly conventional, humanity. By 1959, in "A Southern Mode of the Imagination," Tate could speak with a certain ironic equanimity of Lee as a man who had no inclination to toss "his loyalties back and forth and come out with an abstraction called Justice"; rather, he was a fairly typical Southerner who "fought for the local community which he could not abstract into fragments. He was in the position of the man who is urged by an outsider to repudiate his family because a cousin is an embezzler" (Essays586). (4) But in the early 1930s, Tate did violence to his psyche, his marriage, and his career with a failure as emblematically Southern as Quentin Compson's suicide. He avoided exposing the dark suspicions he harbored about the very center of the Southern myth: that its most exemplary figure was born from the blackest nihilism, a contemporary and cousin of Mr. Poe. Was he simply misreading Lee? Was he basely trying to besmirch a man of high ancestral lineage motivated to adopt a strict code of personal honor because his own origins lay in his father's rotted reputation and neglect of his family, as well as his mother's invalidism and shame? Biographers would continue to find reasons to doubt that General Lee could fight on the side of slavery and still be praiseworthy. But no one, it is safe to say, would experience those doubts with the anguish of Allen Tare, who had hoped to build upon Lee's rectified image the revival of an integral way of life, but who found in another lost son his generation's monstrous double and reproach.
I would like to thank Princeton University Library and the Estate of Allen Tate for graciously granting permission to cite materials in the Allen Tate Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
"After the Big Wind." 1 March 1937. Time Inc. 28 March 2011.
Bishop, John Peale, and Allen Tate. The Republic of Letters in America: The Correspondence of John Peale Bishop and Allen Tare. Ed. Thomas Daniel Young and John J. Hindle. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1981.
Dante. Purgatorio. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Classics, 1983.
Davidson, Donald, and Allen Tare. The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tare. Ed. John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1974.
Donaldson, Susan V. "Gender, Race, and Allen Tate's Profession of Letters in the South." Haunted Bodies." Gender and Southern Texts. Ed. Susan V. Donaldson and Anne Goodwyn Jones. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1997. 492-518.
Eliot, T. S. "The Metaphysical Poets." Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Mariner Books, 1975.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. R. E. Lee: A Biography. Vols. I-II. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934.
Kreyling, Michael. Figures of the Hero in Southern Narrative. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.
Lytle, Andrew, and Allen Tare. The Lytle-Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tare. Ed. Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987.
Mandelbaum, Allen. "Introduction." Dante viii-xxx.
Pieper, Josef. Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. New York: Pantheon Books, 1952.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Poetry and Tales. Ed. Patrick F. Quinn. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Simpson, Lewis P. The Fable of the Southern Writer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1994.
Squires, Radcliffe. Allen Tate: A Literary Biography. New York: Pegasus, 1971.
Tate, Allen. Collected Poems 1919-1976. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1977.
--. Essays of Four Decades. Wilmington: ISI Books, 1999.
--. The Fathers. Chicago: The Swallow P, 1974.
--. Jefferson Davis. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969.
--. Memoirs and Opinions 1926-1974. Chicago: The Swallow P, 1975.
--. "Untitled Biography of Robert E. Lee." Allen Tare Papers, Box 2, Folder 6; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. 1930-32.
Tate, James Oliver. "Letter to Allen Tate," 18 January 1967. Allen Tare Papers, Box 41, Folder 34; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
Twelve Southerners. I'll Take My Stand. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977.
Underwood, Thomas A. Allen Tare: Orphan of the South. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Wood, Sally. The Southern Mandarins." Letters of Caroline Gordon to Sally Wood, 1924-1937. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1984.
GLENN C. ARBERY
(1) Although Tate does not get past the early 1830s in his manuscript, Lee's refusal to "take advantage of circumstance to force his merit" appears everywhere in his career. Despite high praise from General Winfield Scott and a distinguished record in the Mexican War, Lee had advanced no higher than the rank of colonel when Secession loomed, though he had been in the Army since his graduation from West Point in 1829. Even when the Civil War came, Lee did nothing to advance himself; rather, he accepted the positions given him. Only the wounding of Lee's West Point friend Joseph E. Johnston outside Richmond in May of 1862 thrust him at last into the role of leadership for which he seemed destined.
(2) In 1937, a critic for Time reviewing Caroline Gordon's novel None Shall Look Back (and using a conjunction-free Time style long since mercifully abandoned) introduced the piece by getting Tate's story almost entirely wrong: "When Allen Tate, critic and poet, had written most of a long-planned life of Robert E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman's four-volume, definitive R. E. Lee appeared, blew his house down before the roof was on" (After). Tate had given up his biography well before Freeman's appeared, and he had certainly not written most of it, but the contrast highlights the crucial differences between the two projects.
(3) In a chapter on McClellan's approach to Richmond in Vol. II of R. E. Lee, for example, Freeman inserts a note about the Confederate archives being packed for removal: "O.R., II, part 3, 504, 512-13. McCabe stated, op. cit., 94-96, that Congress adjourned precipitately about this time, but actually it had adjourned on April 21" (II. 46). Many similar citations appear on almost every page.
(4) The story of Lee's half-brother, recounted in detail in Elizabeth Brown Pryor's Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters, makes this comparison rather more literal and troubling by elaborating the story of Lee's half-brother Henry who committed adultery with his invalid wife's sister and possibly murdered the child born of their union (34-38).
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|Author:||Arbery, Glenn C.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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