Monday, October 17, 2016

The Fathers

Long ago, I had heard of Allen Tate's novel The Fathers as very good. Yet though I read a fair bit of Tate's criticism and poetry,  I had never bothered to find and read the novel. This past week,  it turned up at Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan. After a first reading, it seems to me to justify the reputation.

The Fathers is set in the years 1858 through 1861 in country more or less familiar to me: Fairfax County and Alexandria in Virginia, Georgetown in the District of Columbia. Of course, both sides of the river have changed greatly in the last century and a half, the farms of Fairfax now all suburb, and  Georgetown built up the hill beyond the small town it had been. Anyone trying to follow the path of Lacy Buchan's afternoon walk of May 6, 1861 up from what I take to be M St. would walk through some very expensive yards. The only features of Georgetown I could reasonably identify were the towpath, the college, the Convent of the Visitation, and Holyrood Cemetery. The streets named in Alexandria retain their names; but Georgetown has been assimilated to the Washington system, and my identification of the streets there is conjectural.

The social territory is still more changed, of course, than the physical. Apart from the presence of slavery, there is the society of Virginia, where, in the words of the disruptive Georgetown resident George Posey, "They do nothing but die and marry and think about the honor of Virginia." Some of the older men, like the narrator's father, are unionists and conservative, living in a Virginia that they have imagined:
"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."
Yet their codes and customs give the Virginians a framework that George Posey lacks; they know what to do in a given situation, be it courting, dueling, or secession. Repeatedly, Tate's narrator, Lacey Buchan points up the difference:
In the sense of today nobody wrote personal letters in our time: letters conveyed the sensibility of of society, the ordered life of families and neighborhoods. George Posey was a man without people or place: he had strong relationships, and he was capable of passionate feeling, but it was all personal...
Posey has for his resources on the one hand mere business and money-making, on the other violent impulse, bringing death to his own family, death and madness to the Buchans. The older generation, Major Lewis Buchan and his cousin John Semmes simply cannot understand Posey: the younger generation look to him for something they are missing. The Posey family of Georgetown is turned in on itself and, George apart, feckless and self-absorbed.

The last word might be left to a Virginian in another novel, John Carrington in Henry Adam's Democracy:
"And would you bring the old society back again if you could?" asked she.

"What for? It could not hold itself up. General Washington himself could not save it. Before he died he had lost his hold on Virginia, and his power was gone."
 (Adams gets a small, off-stage cameo as "a great snob even then" who sometimes attends the "levees" of Charles Buchan's ambitious wife. Well and good; but was it for Virginia to judge the pretensions of Massachusetts?)

I finished the book, Tate's only novel, with something of the feeling I had after reading Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It: I wish I could next read his second novel.


  1. Replies
    1. Given your daughter's interest in the American Civil War, it might interest her, too. As far as I can tell, The Fathers is no longer in print, but not that hard to find.