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More than a snapshot: Allen Tate's ironic historical consciousness in The Fathers.

We do need history, but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge, however grandly they may look down on our rude and unpicturesque requirements.

--Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History

IN THE EARLY MONTHS OF 1932, ALLEN TATE ABANDONED WORK ON HIS biography of Robert E. Lee for reasons that, according to both Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and Radcliffe Squires, involved a blurred relationship between author and subject. Tate had previously written biographies of Stonewall Jackson (1928) and Jefferson Davis (1929), but with Lee as his subject, he encountered a new difficulty, which, as Rubin states, "came much closer to home" (298). The relationship between Tate and Lee was "much more complex, more personal" than it had been previously with Jackson and Davis (298). Squires notes that for Tate, the Lee biography "had begun to turn into a species of autobiography or even of fiction" (128). Unfortunately, work on the biography was never resumed. Tate did, however, begin writing Ancestors of Exile, a genealogy of sorts that he expected to finish quickly, within the next few months. It, too, would finally be abandoned--interestingly enough, for reasons which echo those of the Lee biography--but Ancestors did provide the creative impetus of much of the material which eventually became Tate's first and only novel, The Fathers, published in 1938.

In his recent biography, Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, Thomas Underwood suggests that the problem may have been as simple as inspiration. For Tate, Underwood explains, "Years of frustration over his inability to write any kind of family history seemed to evaporate in an instant" (264). That remarkable instant was the drafting of the first sentence of The Fathers, which Tate wrote upon a return to Monteagle, Tennessee, the site of his mother's death: "It was only today as I was walking down Fayette Street towards the river that I got a whiff of salt fish, and I remembered the day I stood at Pleasant Hill, under the dogwood tree" (Fathers 3). What the narrator, Lacy Buchan, remembers, the reader soon learns, is his mother's funeral.

In The Fathers, an elderly Lacy Buchan--now a retired physician--looks fifty years prior, back to the events of his youth and his genteel Northern Virginia family during the early stages of the Civil War. The first-person narrative form of the novel came about because of two important factors: 1) Tate looked to writers he admired for models--Proust, James, Ford; and 2) it was a natural decision, for it is no secret that Tare "derived" the characters and much of the story itself from his family history (Underwood 265). The novel involves the story of two families, the Buchans and the Poseys, both of which were transposed from the maternal line of Tate's own family: the Bogans and the Varnells. The narrator, of course, is a projection of Tare himself. (1) The Fathers is thus a novel of memory not only for Lacy Buchan, the narrator, but for Allen Tare, the burgeoning novelist.

Lacy explains the difficult task of recollection in what is perhaps the most important passage in the novel:
 In my feelings of that time there is a new element--my feelings now
 about that time: there is not an old man living who can recover the
 emotions of the past; he can only bring back the objects around
 which, secretly, the emotions have ordered themselves in memory,
 and that memory is not what happened in the year 1860 but is rather
 a few symbols, a voice, a tree, a gun shining on the wall--symbols
 that will preserve only so much of the old life as they may, in
 their own mysterious history, consent to bear. (22)

In order to avoid his own symbolic preservation in a "mysterious history," Lacy chooses--is compelled--to act, to speak, to tell his story. "I have a story to tell," Lacy announces to the reader at large, "but I cannot explain the story" (5). The central burden of Lacy's story is the existence of choice between fathers--or as R. K. Meiners describes them, fatherly "visions" of Major Lewis Buchan and George Posey. These fathers--now duly ordered in the elder Lacy's memory--are themselves symbols, much like the voice, the tree, and the gun; and Lacy, I will argue in this essay, is choosing not only between fathers but between various forms of historical consciousness described in Friedrich Nietzsche's The Use and Abuse of History.

Accordingly, Lacy proffers his tale as a series of memories. He relates the story of the destruction of his traditional Buchan family and their plantation, Pleasant Hill (also the name of Tate's mother's family estate); and the infiltration, which was a catalyst to the destruction, of the nontraditional Posey family--specifically, George Posey, who marries Lacy's sister, Susan. The destruction of the Buchan family culminates with the suicide of Major Buchan, the family's patriarch, when at the hands of Union soldiers the Major refuses to evacuate his property.

There is a palpable tension throughout the novel--between siblings, families, regions, and ideologies--that is fundamental to Tate's demystification of a social structure (the Old South) that lacked the necessary historical imagination to facilitate the cultural transmogrification that accompanied the War and Reconstruction. The Fathers, Richard King writes, is "an elegy for a lost way of life" and a "subtle but devastating dissection of the historical inadequacies of the Virginians" (105). Lacy explains the problem with living in such a timeless state of tradition: "People living in formal societies, lacking the historical imagination, can imagine for themselves only a timeless existence: they themselves never had any origin anywhere and they can have no end, but will go on forever" (183). And in a favorite passage, Lacy facetiously correlates this timelessness with his mother's ritual of dishwashing after dinner every night:
 If this little ritual of utility--not very old to be sure but to my
 mother immemorial--had been discredited or even questioned, she
 would have felt that the purity of womanhood was in danger, that
 religion and morality were jeopardized, and that infidels had
 wickedly asserted that the State of Virginia (by which she meant
 her friends and kin) was not the direct legatee of the civilization
 of Greece and Rome. (184)

George Posey, the counterpoint to that "historical inadequacy" of the Virginian Buchan clan, is a man "of considerable energy and charm" (King 107). Thomas Daniel Young describes him as "the prototypical modern nontraditional man who is dominated by the means of life" (50). From Lacy's complex ideological struggle in deciding to which father he will devote himself, the nontraditional but imaginative George Posey emerges as an attractive alternative to Major Buchan's traditional ethos bereft of historical imagination.

The Buchan family represents a society wherein the public life and the private life are essentially one form. And though the family represents the "best" of such a traditional society--where emotion and action are coupled and thus become cathartic, active ritual--Major Buchan (the figurehead of the family) could not act, paradoxically, even when faced with a self-forgetful opportunity. Their plantation, their family, and their society are in turn destroyed. Through this drama Tate uniquely demonstrates that such an inability to face change--a lack of historical imagination--is indeed folly.

It is a wondrously complicated construction: "The first section contains an extended memory on the part of the boy and it seems his memory, not that of the old doctor, even though one is finally aware that it is the memory of what it was like to remember just at the age when memory first becomes an important dimension of life" (Squires 136). The elder Lacy, simply put, is remembering remembering. Radcliffe Squires, a fine poet in his own right, captures the various complexities of Tate's unique storytelling better than most: "the old narrator enters, like old paint bleeding through new, to comment from time to time from his distance with the purged consciousness that cannot belong to the young narrator.... For the boy himself becomes a rememberer" (136). This structure has proved too subtle for most reviewers, as witnessed by the fact that the wonder of Tate's creation--the examination, not only of memory but of distinct modes of historical consciousness embodied by characters in the novel--remains largely ignored.

Cleanth Brooks's essay, "The Past Alive in the Present," seems to hint at the situation, but ultimately (and purposefully) denies any repercussions of deeper probing. (2) Brooks asks a good question: "Did

[Major Lewis Buchan] have, as a Southerner, a 'peculiar historical consciousness'?" (223). But his answer--that he did not--is only correct if one agrees with Brooks's spartanly inadequate definition of historical consciousness: "an awareness of change and the need to cope with it" (223).

Better ways to approach Major Buchan--and Grandfather Buchan, Lacy Buchan (young and old), and George Posey, for that matter--are first to assent to the idea that there are several types of historical consciousness, and, second, never to forget that the Major, like everything else in the novel, is a memory, born of Lacy's perception of the past: that is, born of his own historical consciousness. The probing question, then, is not whether the characters in The Fathers "have" an historical consciousness but rather which type of historical consciousness they represent. For memory, as Lacy tells us in the quotation above, is not what actually happened "but is rather a few symbols" (22).

Squires, who has written what is still considered the definitive biography of Tare and his work, states that "No one is likely to improve on Arthur Mizener's reading of The Fathers" (127). Indeed Mizener's essay, "The Fathers and Realistic Fiction," was the first significant critical study of the novel, appearing in Accent in 1947 (nearly a decade after The Fathers was first published in 1938). In 1960, a slightly revised version of the essay became the introduction to the Alan Swallow Press edition of the novel and has since become a touchstone for virtually every critic. Due to Mizener's substantial, almost inescapable influence, most scholars are apt to perceive an iconoclastic cultural battle between Major Buchan and George Posey, a fracas between the polar opposites of a traditional and a modern society, between North and South, between conservative and nihilistic ideologies.

Mizener's insights into the work are certainly plentiful, but without question the novel (out of print since 1995) deserves another look--from a different perspective. Other than Richard King's A Southern Renaissance, there has been very little scholarship addressing Tate's dynamic exploration of a prototypical historical consciousness in its various forms. Through the characters' notions of history in The Fathers, Tate demystifies the set of contradictory attitudes and beliefs--referred to by Richard King as the Southern family romance--in the literature of what is now known as the Southern Renaissance.

"The prototypical historical consciousness of the modern period," King writes, "is obsessed with the past and the precarious possibilities of its survival" (18-19). This obsession produces a uniquely Southern predicament in which the preoccupation with the past (and its survival) includes manifestations of the ambivalent spirit of a cultural modernism. This extreme ambivalence and ambiguity, according to King, defined the Southerner's attitude toward the relationship between present and past. He interprets the historical consciousness at work during the Renaissance as a period of emerging "self-consciousness in Southern culture, a quasi-Hegelian process as it were" (8). During those years (approximately 1930-1955), and in novels such as The Fathers, the inherited traditions of the culture were not only "raised to awareness"; they were "demystified and rejected" (8).

While exploring the historical consciousness of the Southern family romance, King is quick to explain that historical consciousness is not the same as "philosophy of history." "William Faulkner," King explains, "was neither an interesting thinker nor a profound philosopher" (8). Thus, for King, the historical consciousness is not "a philosophically rigorous discussion of the ultimate constituents of historical reality, the driving force(s) of the historical process, or the telos of that process" (8). Although it is not a strictly philosophical position per se, it is, however, admittedly a position leaning towards Freudian psychoanalysis:
 For the way Freud went about his explorations of the psyche--his
 own and others'--exemplifies the difficult role of the historian
 and the vicissitudes of historical consciousness in general. As in
 Freud and his patients, so in the writers of the Renaissance:
 repetition and recollection, the allure of the family romance, the
 difficult attempt to tell one's story and be freed of the burden of
 the past, and the desire to hold onto the fantasies of the past,
 were all powerfully at work. (10)

For King, there were three movements or modes of the historical consciousness which present analogies to the "unfolding" and "transformation" of memory in psychoanalysis. In both the unfolding and the transformation, the past, King writes, is "problematic" (18). The past is debilitating in its oscillation from completely overpowering to completely absent in one's memory. This burden, according to King, must be transferred from a perception of "mine" to "other." And when memory is in this stage of "otherness," King writes, "it is demystified and reassimilated after having been worked through" (18). It is "incorporated into a new synthesis" (18).

King ascribes particular literary texts and distinct characteristics of the historical consciousness and its stage of "reassimilation" to three distinct movements. The first, or beginning movement, includes Faulkner's Flags in the Dust and Light in August and William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee. It is a movement of historical consciousness focused on a cultural melancholia embodied in "figures of death, at once idealized and feared because of their powerful hold over the present" (King 17). This initial consciousness, King writes, is the "monumental or reactionary form of historical consciousness" (17). It is not wrong in any "moral or substantive sense," because there are traditions which one might wish to be revitalized. It is wrong, though, "insofar as it desires the impossible--repetition--rather than the necessary recollection and working through of the past" (17).

The second movement includes Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Tate's The Fathers and "Ode to the Confederate Dead." This form of historical consciousness, King writes, "ends in a tragic confusion between past and present, fantasy and reality" (18). The recollection involved in this stage of historical consciousness reveals "the violence and horror at the heart of the tradition itself, or its weakness and contradictions" (18).

In a third and final movement of the historical consciousness, the past, according to King, makes its final move to self-consciousness. It is a movement toward "a reconstitution of 'reality' after having carried through on a demystification of the family romance" (18). It incorporates the Southern tradition as previously conceived. Faulkner's "The Bear" and the writings of W.J. Cash and Lillian Smith are examples of this movement in the way that recollection triumphs over repetition. "Not only the impossibility," King explains, "but the undesirability of resurrecting the tradition become clear" (18). The third movement King describes is, essentially, a sort of transcendence:
 The movement is from incapacitating repetition to recollection and
 then to self-consciousness, from identity to estrangement and back
 to incorporation at a higher level.... One awakens from the
 nightmare of history. (18)

The higher level, King explains, is clear of "Nietzsche's monumental and critical forms of historical consciousness" (18). It is a new form: an ironic form.

Although the dissection of historical consciousness in the writings of the Southern Renaissance is not a "philosophically rigorous discussion," King's paradigm for the three movements of historical consciousness is clearly Friedrich Nietzsche's The Use and Abuse of History. (3)

The Southern Renaissance has given us grand examples of the predicament that results when writers cannot find "the dominant causal principle in operation in the kind of society being studied" (White 202). In attempting to relieve the burden of the past, writers employed a monumental (or aristocratic) historical approach to lift the burden, but in reality, that approach is the very burden itself. Hayden White explains:
 If I want to explain the decline of an aristocratic society, I will
 not be enlightened very significantly by the application of that
 society's own conception of the true nature of historical reality
 to the phenomena to be analyzed.... After all, Tocqueville's
 problem was to explain to a displaced aristocratic class why it had
 been displaced, a problem which the spokesmen for that class had
 been unable to solve satisfactorily by the application of the mode
 of historical consciousness that was "natural" to it by virtue of
 its "aristocratic" nature. (202)

To reveal the true nature of a society, Tocqueville needed some way of "translating perceptions" from one social system into comprehensible terms to men of a completely different perspective and set of loyalties. Mediation was required between two modes of consciousness. As White explains, "the ground on which this mediation had to be effected was Irony" (203).

The writers of the Renaissance faced a similar situation. In a largely agrarian social system, deeply rooted in a monumental historical consciousness, these writers needed some mediation or transformation that would allow them to view the past with an ironic detachment. As the social system was transforming itself--from agrarian to industrial in a conquered state of Reconstruction--the writers of the period, in an effort to relieve themselves of the burden of the past and its glorious hero-figures, must themselves transfer perception. This burden, as King writes, must shift from "mine" to "other." Anything less will be a stationary position in one of King's three movements of the historical consciousness. A movement of transcendence is needed: from the monumental to the ironic form of historic consciousness. Here, in the ironic form, the Southern family romance is "demystified and reassimilated" (18).

Of course, as King admits, Freud and Nietzsche play a large part in these ideas. The very conceit of the family romance, Freudian in principle with the Oedipal power struggle between father and son, is also hugely Nietzschean in its progress through a monumental historical consciousness. Hayden White writes, "Nietzsche noted with considerably more insight than Freud, each generation feels a sense of juridical obligation to the ancestors that is much stronger than any emotional one" (366). This sense of obligation seems tailor-made for a Southern historical consciousness. And as Nietzsche observed, the ancestors could never, of course, be fully repaid (366-67).

In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche writes that "man is always resisting the great and continually increasing weight of the past; it presses him down and bows his shoulders" (13). For any small bit of happiness to exist for a man, he must learn the "power of forgetting," or more specifically, "the capacity of feeling 'unhistorically'" (14). Man must, in other words, be more like the wild beast--unhistoric and experiencing each moment of life as an all-new phenomenon. Otherwise, according to Nietzsche, man "loses himself in the stream of becoming."

For Nietzsche, "History is necessary to the living man in three ways: in relation to his action and struggle, his conservatism and reverence, his suffering and his desire for deliverance" (20). These three "relations" echo the three kinds of history: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical (20). While comparing Nietzsche's three kinds of history with King's three movements of historical consciousness, one might expect to find that they are congruent. If this were true, then King's reading of Tate's The Fatherswould situate it in what Nietzsche defines as "antiquarian history." However, the categories are not, to King's credit, congruent. King's three movements of historical consciousness are, I believe, levels of progression within monumental history.

Nietzsche, in explicating monumental history, demonstrates why Southerners in particular are likely prey to the "preoccupation with the rare and classic" (22). "It is knowledge that the great thing existed and was therefore possible, and so may be possible again," Nietzsche writes (22). This particular mode of historical conscious, although attractive, is specious:
 Monumental history will never be able to have complete truth; it
 will always bring together things that are incompatible and
 generalize them into compatibility, will always weaken the
 differences of motive and occasion.... Sometimes there is no
 possible distinction between a "monumental" past and a mythical
 romance, as the same motives for action can be gathered from the
 one world as the other. (Nietzsche 23)

In this context, Richard King's three movements of historical consciousness are an interesting delineation of monumental history. The result of this delineation is that once the past is identified, estranged, and incorporated, the historical consciousness becomes something new. It becomes something "ironic," in fact. King explicates this ironic historical consciousness:
 The unmasking of illusions and ambitions is not the exclusive
 province of the ironic consciousness. The monumental form of
 historical consciousness can demystify present realities in the
 name of past greatness. The Agrarians showed that quite well. And
 the critical view of the past exhibited in the work of the
 Regionalists, Cash and Smith, demystified past claims to
 achievement by showing their inadequacy measured against the needs
 of the present and future. What is different about the ironic
 historical consciousness is that it dissolves certainty, questions
 achievements, in the name of consciousness itself. A certain
 detachment becomes an ideology itself rather than a strategy in the
 service of some higher value. (288)

According to King, The Fathers is, surprisingly, something other than ironic historical consciousness. It is, according to his description of the second movement of the historical consciousness, something that "ends in a tragic confusion between past and present, fantasy and reality" (18). I disagree with that assessment. I believe The Fathers is much more than a snapshot of a progression from monumental history to ironic historical consciousness. The novel is, in fact, much more complex and complete than that.

In The Fathers, Tate has created a tableau vivant using Nietzsche's three kinds of history. Rather than demonstrating a stasis of historical consciousness, the novel demonstrates the three kinds of history--monumental, antiquarian, and critical--as they are embodied by the characters themselves. Lacy as both a young boy and an old man; Major Buchan; Dr. John Buchan, the Major's father; and George Posey--all embody a certain kind of history. This structure results in a more complete assimilation of the past for the older Lacy, as he develops his own ironic detachment throughout the novel.

I agree with Richard King that the ironical historical consciousness is a way of forgetting. In his interpretation of what Nietzsche meant by learning to forget as a way of progressing beyond the monumental historical consciousness, King writes:
 This movement of consciousness [from monumental to ironic] involves
 forgetting in two senses. First, it refers to the ability to forget
 the impossibility of ever doing anything new or anything different
 from the past. For as Nietzsche pointed out, if one fully
 remembers, he can never do anything. It has all been tried and
 accomplished--or failed--before. Second, forgetting involves wiping
 from memory the grievance against the past, a much more difficult
 accomplishment than the first sort of forgetting. (292)

In viewing his relatives as history types (consciously orunconsciously), the elder Lacy is able to accomplish the type of forgetting Nietzsche and King discuss. If one is unable to forget properly, the history of change "becomes a history of attempts to 'get even'" (292). The process of successfully synthesizing the past is, according to both King and Nietzsche, not only a matter of forgetting, but also of learning.

Nietzsche's three types of history--monumental, antiquarian, and critical--are embodied, respectively, by the young Lacy Buchan, Major Buchan, and George Posey. The elder Lacy, from a position of ironic detachment, uses his memory of these characters to demystify the Southern family romance and its endemic weaknesses and contradictions.

Beginning with Major Buchan, it is possible to see how Lacy, in the Oedipal sense, strives and succeeds in separating and sublimating his father with his choice for survival in the form of George Posey. The Major's lack of historical imagination--part and parcel of his inadequate historical consciousness--becomes more apparent to Lacy throughout his storytelling and reaches a climax as the conflict between the North and the South approaches. When the Major forbids Lacy to take part in any Confederate activities, Lacy envisions his father speaking to him "from a great distance, as if he were a man preoccupied with some private mystery that could not be connected with what was going on in the world" (155). Lacy felt the separation from his heroic ideal of his father intensely; he describes it in negative terms, as a "sense of loss" as if "I had forgotten something" (155).

Therefore, by rejecting Major Buchan, the young Lacy actively demonstrates not only the completion of this necessary psychological separation but, more importantly, a disavowal of what Nietzsche calls "antiquarian history." For the Major, like George Posey, seems to he lifted straight from the pages of Nietzsche's The Use and Abuse of History. Nietzsche describes the man of antiquarian history as a man
 of conservative and reverent nature, who looks back to the origins
 of his existence with love and trust; through it he gives thanks
 for life. He is careful to preserve what survives from ancient
 days, and will reproduce the conditions of his own upbringing for
 those who come after him; thus he does life a service. The
 possession of his ancestors' furniture changes its meaning in his
 soul; for his soul is rather possessed by it.... The history of his
 town becomes the history of himself; he looks on the walls, the
 turreted gate, the town council, the fair, as an illustrated diary
 of his youth, and sees himself in it all.... (25-26)

Of course, this description also applies to Lacy's grandfather, another man of antiquarian history. As he rejects the Major, young Lacy likewise rejects his grandfather. Lacy remembers his deceased grandfather (who appears literally as a "vision" to Lacy) as suddenly disappearing after an attempt to console him in the death of his brother, Semmes Buchan, by advising Lacy on the irreverent nature of George Posey. Although exhausted and suffering from thirst and sun exposure, Lacy feels somewhat rejuvenated once his grandfather's weighty presence takes leave: "I got up from the rails and turned to bid him a somewhat formal good-bye, but he was gone, and ... I knew that I was no longer tired. It is a good thing, I thought, because I have nobody to guide me now" (269).

Having rejected the limitations of antiquarian history, Lacy is comfortable with an assessment of present-time reality not as a delicate skein covering the undead heroes of the past but as an unfettered progression of life, a continuously evolving surfeit of choice. "My grandfather was dead," Lacy says abruptly, "dead as a herring. I started for the bend of the road, thinking only that far" (269). With much of the same detached tone Lacy remembers not his own reaction to his father's suicide but a family servant describing the incident: "'When [Major Buchan] didn't [evacuate Pleasant Hill] after half an hour, the [Union] officer waited a while and went up and knocked on the door. He went in with some of his men and they brought the major out and laid him on the grass.' He reached into his hip pocket. 'Hyar's the rope,' he said. He threw it on the ground." (305).

However, as Nietzsche writes, there is some value to the antiquarian history: "the greatest value of this antiquarian spirit of reverence lies in the simple emotions of pleasure and content that it lends to the drab, rough, even painful circumstances of a nation's or individual's life ..." (26). Although the elder Lacy would most likely agree in the limited value of an antiquarian historical consciousness--as it provides pageant-like forms of emotional release; i.e., his mother's funeral ceremony--stark limitations become apparent via the contradictions of the mythical Southern family romance. The antiquarian sense "of a man, a city or a nation has always a very limited field," Nietzsche writes. "Many things are not noticed at all; the others are seen in isolation, as through a microscope" (27). This holds true particularly for Major Buchan during the early stages of the War as he is unable (or refuses) to interpret the fierce calamity of the situation. During this time when "events came headlong one after another," Lacy "began to observe [his] father more closely than ever" for cues to what he would have considered a proper response of "unusual anxiety" (123). This, however, led "to no conclusion" (123). As Lacy's cousin, John Semmes, aptly remarks, the Major
 is still living before he was born--in 1789.... Damn it, Lacy, it's
 just men like your pa who are the glory of the Old Dominion, and
 the surest proof of her greatness, that are going to ruin us. They
 can't understand that reason and moderation haven't anything to do
 with the crisis. They won't let themselves see what's going on.

After recounting the death of Major Buchan, the elder Lacy admits (in the revised 1977 edition) to venerating the memory of George Posey more than the memory of any man" (307). This veneration is important when we consider the fact that George embodies Nietzsche's idea of critical history. The elder Lacy certainly learns about forgetting (becoming unhistorical, as Nietzsche suggests) from George Posey and from his memory of George as a man critical of history. Nietzsche describes the men who are such critical historians as "dangerous" to themselves and to others. Condemning the errors of those before us, attempting to "shake off this chain" as George does, leads to "a conflict between our innate, inherited nature and our knowledge, between a stern new discipline and an ancient tradition; and we plant a new way of life, a new instinct, a second nature, that withers the first" (29).

George was not a "motherless boy" like Lacy, but was a fatherless man, effectively having the ties of tradition permanently severed. As a result, George was endowed with a "new instinct, a second nature" that was utterly foreign to Major Buchan, as described in their initial meeting: "That papa was aghast was only due to his never having seen anybody like this young man," Lacy proclaims, "Papa had run into a panther, and he had fired a charge that had hitherto been good enough for his game; but the game had been rabbits" (36). George is presented throughout The Fathers as a tragic figure, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and operating under the spell of impulsive, yet good intention. Unlike the Buchan family, who lacked any sort of imagination at all, George "did everything," Lacy says, "by surprise" (24). This includes, of course, selling his half-brother, Yellow Jim, and shooting Lacy's brother, Semmes Buchan. "It was not the intention" of George to kill Semmes, Lacy's all-knowing grandfather observes: "he does evil because he has not the will to do good" (267). A lack of will is ostensibly George's tragic fortune. However, it is important to reiterate that the tension of the novel is not set between two utterly opposed structural systems: it is not a battle between North and South. The Posey family has its origins in the Old South, as does the Buchan clan. Thus Tate illustrates that George's lack of will is a fundamental problem not only in the Buchans' traditional world but also in the Posey's modern, nontraditional one as well. In "Religion and the Old South," Tate writes: "The South did not achieve that inward conviction of destiny that empowers societies no less than individuals to understand their position and to act from inner necessity: we do nothing without symbols and we cannot do the right thing with the wrong symbol" (Essays 569). George, then, embodying a critical historical consciousness, is an inadequate symbol for an individual's as well as a society's progression.

"Though we condemn the errors," Nietzsche writes, "we cannot escape the fact that we spring from them" (29). The elder Lacy understands this; and I believe he demonstrates this fact by choosing to venerate the memory of George as he (Lacy) rides off to rejoin the Civil War. Lacy is able to discern memory--of the past and its inescapable errors--from present reality in the way that Faulkner's Quentin Compson, in Absalom, Absalom! could not. Quentin, in his recollection, becomes the story of Thomas Sutpen; Lacy avoids this level of bewitchment: he does not become George Posey's story; he merely tells it. Lacy does not, as King writes of Quentin, provide the story's "self-consciousness" (126). This can be seen as an important development for Lacy; it is a rejection, as it were, of monumental history.

However, if it were not for the catalyst of George Posey and the War, young Lacy Buchan would have become a victim of monumental history, like Quentin. With Pleasant Hill in fast decline, and an impatient temperament that Lacy ascribes to his being a child "whose discipline is incomplete" (Fathers 44), he might well have ended up looking to the past for a "model for imitation" (Nietzsche 23). In such a circumstance, young Lacy, like Quentin, would not have understood that such monumental views of history are half-truths at best:
 Whole tracts of [history] are forgotten and despised; they flow
 away like a dark unbroken river, with only a few gaily colored
 islands of fact rising above it.... Monumental history lives by
 false analogy; it entices the brave to rashness, and the
 enthusiastic to fanaticism by its tempting comparisons. (Nietzsche

Ultimately, Lacy Buchan seems to hold no real malice toward the past, only a true desire to learn from it. He opens his story with this explanation:
 I cannot understand why [the Posey family] came out, in the old
 phrase, "at the little end of the horn," as they grievously did.

 That, perhaps more than anything else, is the reason why an
 unmarried old man, having nothing else to do, with a competence
 saved from the practice of medicine, thinks he has a story to tell.
 Is it not something to tell, when a score of people whom I knew and
 loved, people beyond whose lives I could imagine no other life,
 either out of violence in themselves or the times, or out of some
 misery or shame, scattered into the new life of the modern age
 where they cannot even find themselves? (5)

Lacy continues his series of "whys": "Why cannot life change without tangling the lives of innocent persons? Why do innocent persons cease their innocence and become violent and evil in themselves that such great changes may take place?" (5). These questions, he says, are unanswerable. "I have a story to tell," Lacy says, "but I cannot explain the story" (5). At this moment in the narrative, the elder Lacy does not understand why the past happened the way it did. He cannot explain it. He cannot change it. He cannot become it. He can only tell the story. The elder Lacy is ironic and subdued as he expresses his feelings toward the events of his story: "What I wanted and did not get [to marry George's sister] would not have changed the events by which all these people were tortured. It would have all happened in some other way" (5).

I believe Lacy's ironic historical consciousness defines him as what Nietzsche refers to as a "super-historical" man: someone who is "against all merely historical ways of viewing the past, they are unanimous in the theory that the past and the present are one and the same, typically alike in all their diversity, and forming together a picture of eternally present imperishable types of unchangeable value and significance" (18-19). While remembering the events of his mother's funeral ceremony, Lacy points to this sort of "super-historical" knowledge as he details his progressive understanding of a "ceaseless flow" of events, a very organic, perpetual system in which particular deeds and instances themselves are not weighted commodities in time but are "new movements," distinct and idiosyncratic, which essentially do nothing more than overlap one another in their "melancholy procession" (Fathers 101). This is knowledge out of the pale--and, Tate is arguing, exactly what the endangered society of the Old South failed to learn--for it was "that piece of knowledge about life," as Lacy claims, which "permitted me to survive the disasters that overwhelmed other and better men, and to tell their story" (101). Ultimately, though, we see evidence of his "super-historical" standpoint in Lacy's rejection of the antiquarian, monumental, and critical modes of historical consciousness. Like all "super-historical" men (unlike Quentin Compson), Lacy is ultimately "cured henceforth of taking history too seriously, and [has] learnt to answer the question how and why life should be lived" (Nietzsche 18).

What Tate has done in The Fathers, with Lacy's use of memory and ironic detachment is, I believe, unique and undervalued. By ignoring certain facets of Tate's novel, by "not placing the novel in a context of emotion and thought," as Radcliffe Squires argues, critics have been unable to illuminate a worthy novel (127). The Fathers is a work which belongs in the category of "literature of memory" as firmly as Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier--a novel Tate greatly adored. As it is, previous criticism positions the text in the categorical confines of a sort of Jamesian "novel of manners," which tends to greatly undercut the work's inherent complexities.

Richard Law argues that "The tenuous connection between the events to be told--the actual events in which the narrator, Dr. Buchan, had some part as a youth--and his present remembrance of them in the telling of the story is the governing concept ... of the entire narrative" (350). He sees something extraordinary in Tate's development of memory and historical consciousness: "The present memory, then, is a new thing and, in a sense, a made thing, like a poem, although the making is not conscious.... In other words, through his narrator and the unfolding of his tale, Tate has tried to dramatize the process by which a culture molds the forms of perception and memory" (351). This assessment rings true, for Tate deliberately and explicitly recomposes history in order to demonstrate a "cultural truth which might win the allegiance of the people" (Gray 83). According to Richard Gray, Tare uses such myths to represent possibilities by presenting them as "an extension of fact rather than a denial of it" (83).

Thus the Southern family romance was a myth of sorts--an updated version of the antebellum plantation legend. It was an intensified Freudian family romance that involved idealization of the father, adoration of the mother, and sentimentalization of slavery. In The Fathers, Tate does more than repeat those issues; he successfully demystifies the Southern family romance, outlining the inadequacies and contradictions within the social structure, by rejecting any mode of historical consciousness other than the ironic.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. "The Past Alive in the Present." American Letters and the Historical Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Lewis P. Simpson. Ed. Gerald Kennedy and Daniel Mark Fogel. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987. 216-25.

Gray, Richard J. The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

King, Richard H. A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural A wakening of the American South, 1930-1955. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Law, Richard. "'Active Faith' and Ritual in The Fathers." American Literature 55.3 (1983): 345-66.

Meiners, R. K. The Last Alternatives: A Study of the Works of Allen Tate. Denver: Swallow, 1963.

Mizener, Arthur. "The Fathers and Realistic Fiction." Accent: A Quarterly of New Literature 7 (1947): 101-09.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Use and Abuse of History. Trans. Adrian Collins. New York: Liberal Arts P, 1949. Trans. of Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historic fur das Leben. 1874.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978.

Squires, Radcliffe. Allen Tare: A Literary Biography. New York: Pegasus, 1971.

Tate, Allen. The Fathers. New York: Putnam's, 1938. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1960. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977.

--. Essays of Four Decades. Chicago: Swallow, 1968. Underwood, Thomas A. Allen Tare: Orphan of the South. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Vinh, Alphonse, ed. Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tare: Collected Letters, 1933-1976. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1998.

White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.

Young, Thomas Daniel. The Past in the Present: A Thematic Study of Modern Southern Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1981.

(1) Thomas Underwood does well to trace the many alterations within the novel between Tate's family and the novel's characters (265-66). In addition, in keeping with the perspective of this essay--the interest in forms of historical consciousness--it is exceedingly interesting to learn from Underwood's research that Tare, like Lacy Buchan, is able to reject a certain monumentalism of the past; for after the completion of the novel, Tare underwent a noticeable transformation in attitude. Underwood surmises (correctly, I believe) that Tate was able to bring a "symbolic end" to his bitter childhood with the creation of The Fathers, and that Tare was now "Looking forward rather than backward ..." (305).

(2) In order to avoid confusion, I would like to assert here that Cleanth Brooks's opinion of The Fathers was neither negative nor ambiguous. Throughout his tenure as one of the country's preeminent scholars, Brooks repeatedly mentions the novel with firm praise. In a June 9, 1975, letter to Tate, Brooks faithfully regards the potential legacy of the novel: "p.s. I must not close this letter, however, without writing my more and more confident prediction that The Fathers is going to turn out to be one of the great novels of the twentieth century" (Vinh 260).

(3) It is interesting that Hayden White proposed something similar to King's movements of historical consciousness in his book Metahistory. Discussing Alexis de Tocqueville, the eminent French political writer and statesman, White describes the two modes of history: aristocratic and democratic. The aristocratic historian tends to focus on a small number of individuals who control their own destinies. This mode of history, and its respective historian, is "insensitive to the force which general causes exert upon the individual, how they frustrate him and bend him to their will" (201). The democratic mode takes the opposite approach by discovering a larger meaning in the "mass of petty details which [the historian] discerns on the historical stage. He is driven to refer everything ... to great, abstract, and general forces" (201). These two opposing modes, or ideas, of history are what White calls Formist and Mechanistic. They operate under two different modes of historical consciousness: Metaphorical and Metonymical. As the two forms of historical consciousness were found inadequate, Tocqueville proposed a third form, or as White writes: "not a third form but rather a combination of the aristocratic and democratic forms" (202). A most relevant and interesting fact is that this necessity for a new form of historical consciousness applies to the Southern family romance as well, when difficulties arise with the interpretation of historical events.


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Author:Cagle, Jeremy
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1U600
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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