A demanding book on a demanding subject. Glass attempts to give us a general biography of Tate, the problems of various readings of both his biography and his work, a coherent vision of Tate’s thought and intellectual/aesthetic labours, and a set of detailed close readings of a very wide range of Tate’s poems (and, to a lesser extent, his prose works). In so doing, Glass takes the best from previous Tate scholarship and deals with the consequences and shortcomings of other earlier scholarly works, and provides one of the most comprehensive and in-depth (often times intimidatingly so, but such is an unavoidable consequence of reading and studying a profoundly complex man) single-author studies one is apt to find, not just of Tate, but generally.
Glass systematically shows that Tate was no Southern reactionary, no nostalgic romantic, no ironically-detached modernist. Rather, he was an individual who profoundly understood a single, unifying idea throughout his long career–which encompassed practically his entire adult life–that modernity offers us with a means of being human which is, at best, profoundly disintegrating, if not dehumanizing. Glass argues that Tate goes through a period of trusting in art, then in the South, Southern history, and his family history, and then finally in a coming to terms with God, the transcendent Divine, and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church as a way of dealing with, reacting to, and finding purpose within this disintegration. Tate was, in Glass’s portrayal, a man who was constantly seeking what was true, and thus was aware of his own foibles, self-contradictions, and those of art, the South, his family, and all those other ways of finding meaning. Thus, it was only in the Church and its dogmas and transcendent Truths that a coherent vision of resisting modernist disintegration could occur.
To a non-Catholic (or even an irreligious person), Glass’s emphasis on Tate’s eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism seems perhaps a bit too heavy-handed or too neat of a teleology. But this is perhaps the only substantial negative criticism I can make of the book. His exploration of Tate’s relationship with the South is nuanced and full of truths and revelations that make me examine my own relationship with the South. And Glass’s expository readings of Tate’s works are incredibly strong; the book’s centre–and heart–is appropriately made up of two chapters studying Tate’s most well-known works, one chapter devoted to “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” and another to “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” Tate’s contribution to the Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand. Glass deftly explains the problem with conflating Tate’s speakers and the poet himself, and also helps us to make sense of Tate’s (in)famous call to “violence” at the end of his “Southern Religion,” positing it as a call to existential, spiritual, and psychic warfare within the self contra those things within ourselves that contribute to our disintegration.
Anyone interested in Tate needs to read this book, difficult as it may in places, and anyone interested in understanding how the South functioned (and arguably still functions) as a site anti-modern critique–a critique that is not necessarily painted with the claims of racism and reactionary-ism that are often asserted (with obviously some merit)–will also find much value here.