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Wireman, Barry T.
The abyss in Allen Tate's The Fathers :
b what can be seen in the darkness of American literature?
h [electronic resource] /
by Barry T. Wireman.
[Tampa, Fla.] :
University of South Florida,
ABSTRACT: There is a thread of darkness that seems to run through much of the canon of U.S. authors. There are, at the heart of us all, the questions we ask ourselves about who we are and what we mean to ourselves and others and to the places where we have lived. I believe that most of the body of writings produced in this country attempt to answer these questions in some form. Allen Tate wrote The Fathers in 1932, nearly seventy years after the Civil War, or the War Between the States. Perhaps one of the most critical moments in the process of how we became modern Americans, this period of history still resonates within our understanding. Tate, who was a Virginian and a Southerner, sought to understand what the South was and what it meant to modern America. The South became Tate's literary construct, a construct that included the abyss he would have to search. My belief is that Tate's South is an abyss which contains the answers to our questions of identity. The Fathers deals with identity through family and social structures in a changing South. Many may not be familiar with the world of the Civil War South that Tate was examining. Tate shows that depths of blackness can be found in the institutions of humans as well as in the natural world.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2008.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
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Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 32 pages.
Adviser: Rosalie Murphy Baum, Ph.D.
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
The Abyss in Allen Tates The Fathers: What Can be Seen in the Darkness of American Litera ture? by Barry T. Wireman A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Rosalie Murphy Baum, Ph.D. Elizabeth Metzger, Ph.D. Michael Clune, Ph.D. Date of Approval: April 11, 2008 Keywords: Tate, South, Chasm, Self, Family Copyright 2007, Barry T. Wireman
Dedication This manuscript is dedicated to those who have stoo d at the edge of the abyss and peered into the darkness, looking for an answer to why we feel so isolated, even when surrounded by a sea of people.
Acknowledgments The inspiration for this study came from a discussi on about Allen Tate in Dr. Baums American Literature class in 2003. The ideas we tal ked about took root deep in my head and gnawed at me continually until this thesis was born. I would like to thank Dr. Baum for the divine germination. I would also like to th ank Dr. Metzger and Dr. Clune for their invaluable input, without which this study would ne ver have been completed.
i Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Chapter One The Concept of the Abyss and Survey of the Critic ism of Tates The Fathers 4 Chapter Two The Abyss of Darkness in Tates The Fathers 13 Conclusion 27 Works Cited 31
ii The Abyss in Allen Tates The Fathers: What Can be Seen in the Darkness of American Litera ture? Barry T. Wireman ABSTRACT There is a thread of darkness that seems to run th rough much of the canon of U.S. authors. There are, at the heart of us all, the que stions we ask ourselves about who we are and what we mean to ourselves and others and to the places where we have lived. I believe that most of the body of writings produced in this country attempt to answer these questions in some form. Allen Tate wrote The Fathers in 1932, nearly seventy years after the Civil War, or the War Between the States. Perha ps one of the most critical moments in the process of how we became modern Americans, t his period of history still resonates within our understanding. Tate, who was a Virginian and a Southerner, sought to understand what the South was and what it meant to modern America. The South became Tates literary construct, a construct that include d the abyss he would have to search. My belief is that Tates South is an abyss which conta ins the answers to our questions of identity. The Fathers deals with identity through family and social struc tures in a changing South. Many may not be familiar with the w orld of the Civil War South that Tate was examining. Tate shows that depths of black ness can be found in the institutions of humans as well as in the natural world.
1 The Abyss in Allen Tates The Fathers: What Can be Seen in the Darkness of American Litera ture? Introduction American Literature is an expansive phrase that ea sily encompasses more than can be considered in this study. But there is a thread of darkness that seems to run through much of the canon of U.S. authors. There are, at the hea rt of us all, the questions we ask ourselves about who we are and what we mean to ours elves and others and to the places where we have lived. I believe that most of the bod y of writings produced in this country attempt to answer these questions in some form. Thi s is true whether you were born in the United States, or you chose to move here from s ome other country. The land and water here can move in individual ways through our veins, filling us with curiosity about who we are and what it is we actually see looking i nto the faces around us. As John Matteson writes in his excellent article The Littl e Lower Layer: Anxiety and the Courage to Be in Moby-Dick, This anxiety [search for self] has become a cent ral theme for modern artists and writers, whose works have fr equently depicted humankind and society as teetering on the brink of an ontological and spiritual abyss (97). To find these answers we must sometimes stand over a gaping chasm of doubt and peer into a darkness. The danger lies in what we may find when the images in the abyss begin to come clear. Some international literature may attempt to provi de safety from this ledge over the abyss, but I am concerned with how U.S. authors hav e attempted to answer the riddle of
2 this darkness, more particularly with a piece of li terature with a character who teeters precipitously on the edge of an abyss as he explore s the question of what it means to be a human being and an American. Allen Tate wrote The Fathers in 1932, nearly seventy years after the Civil War, or the War Between the States. Perhaps one of the most cri tical moments in the process of how we became modern Americans, this period of history still resonates within our understanding. The way the South both treated and i s treated by regions outside its geographical confines continues to clarify and obsc ure our thinking to this day. Tate, who was a Virginian and a Southerner, sought to underst and what the South was and what it meant to modern America. This search caused not a l ittle conflict for Tate, who wanted to identify himself as a Virginian, and Southerner, wi thout attaching all the darkness of the past and the present surrounding the South. But he had to look deeply into everything the South was and had been for answers on how to accomp lish this. He had to attempt to establish an identity in the intellectual and moral abyss of his land and heritage in a changing world. Early in his career, Tate lived abr oad. He spent time in France, writing among the expatriates, writing about cosmopolitanis m and a detachment from the tradition of locales and culture. Having been born in Kentucky, however, Tate considered himself a Southerner. And being a Southernerin the past--meant adhering to certain codes of conduct that governed the unknown, the emo tional, the irrational. The South became Tates literary construct, a construct that included the abyss he would have to search. Having been raised in the Midwest, surrounded by t he culture of the dark corn fields of autumn, I am fascinated with the examination of the abyss of the U.S. canon of
3 literature. My belief is that Tates South is an ab yss which contains the answers to our questions of identity. Tate is staring in, propped up by the Southern conventions and traditions of his culture. He is looking for answer s. He created a narrator--Lacy Buchan who would undertake the search for him. The focus o f this thesis, then, is on the search in Allan Tate for an American self. The Fathers deals with identity through family and social structures in a changing South. Many may not be familiar with the world of the Civil War South that Tate was examining. Most of us would more likely associate an abyss of unknown darkness with images of the ocean like those found in Herman Melville or Edgar Allan Poe. Tate shows that depths of blackness can be found in the institutions of humans as well as in the natural wo rld.
4 Chapter One The Concept of the Abyss and Survey of the Criticism on Tates The Fathers What is the abyss? In order to fully understand wh y Allen Tate is searching this unknown blackness, the abyss must be defined. A loo k at the words history and definitions, along with usage, will provide an unde rstanding of the term and the reason why it is really the only concept that can be emplo yed in this discussion of American Literature. Evolving from the Greek Abyssos, through the Latin derivation Abyssus, meaning bottomless, early forms of the word in English incl uded Abyme and Abysm. The Latin term was adopted for scholarly works around the fou rteenth century. The word then went through several variations before Abyss became standard usage. Certain archaic versions of the word are still used in creative writing. The re are several dictionary definitions for the word, focusing upon both spatial and other meas urable concepts and bodies of water. This study will consider how some of the modern usa ges are present in Tates novel. Early literature contained examples of the abyss a s that primordial darkness from which life sprang. Foundations for this come from B iblical sources. The Bible begins with In the beginning when God created the heaven and earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, whi le a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Gen.1.1). The creation account of the earth from this formless void
5 was present in much of early literature in which th e creation myth was present. Many of the early examples of the concept of the abyss appear in the Bible, both as references to the formless void out of which the earth was formed and as the darkness of Hell. The word abyss appears directly in the text of the New Oxford Ann otated Bible. Romans 10: 7 reads, Who will descend into the abyss? Abyss here is used to mean the bottomless pit of Hell. The word is used again in the book of Revelation 9:11, reading, They had as king over them the Angel of the abyss. And agai n the word appears in Luke 8:31: They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. The first definition of abyss that appears in the OED reads, The great deep, the primal chaos; the bowels of the earth, the supposed cavity of the lower world; the infernal pit. The primal chaos was the world before meani ng was present. God came to this chaos with light, bringing knowledge into creation, knowledge that was given to people, through which they could attempt to define the worl d around them. Websters online dictionary mirrors this OED definition with A bott omless or unfathomed depth, gulf, or chasm; hence any deep, immeasurable, and, specifica lly, hell, or the bottomless pit. What is striking is that most dictionaries list cha os, or bottomless pit, as their primary meanings. How does this relate to Tate? While Tate s narrator does not necessarily struggle with the vast bottomless gulf as presented in the creation myth, he does constantly peer into an abyss of chaos. Entry numbe r two in Websters Online Dictionarys definition of abyss identifies the word with thought. This entry desig nates meaning as infinite time; a vast intellectual or m oral depth. Tates novel is concerned with both the intellectual and moral abyss of t he South (specifically Virginia) in an attempt to classify its place in the United States and in human history.
6 The word abyss is also associated with water, particularly when u sed to describe the deep aspects of the worlds oceans. Chambers Refere nce Online provides the following as part of its definition of abyss : a deep part of the ocean, generally more than 20 00 meters below the surface. While this is specific a bout the depths involved, the word abyss is often associated with any deep body of water. M elvilles ocean in Moby Dick is both a watery abyss and an unfathomable intellectu al darkness. Ishmaels soul is not at rest; rather, he explains, it is locked into someth ing just outside the edge of understanding, an abyss he sometimes equates with t he ocean: There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about t his sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneat h [. .] for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams somnambul isms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, s till; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness. (442) That the stirrings are gently awful speaks to the pervasiveness and effect of the sea in Ishmaels life. Matteson explains, He is, in Tillichs existential terms, divided fro m his essential being. In his yearning to recapture his essence, Ishmael compare s himself with Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild ima ge he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same imag e, we ourselves see in all
7 rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspab le phantom of life, and this is the key to it all. (100-01) The ocean does not appear in Tates work, but The Fathers is a work centered on the darkness that is associated with not being able to see into the depths that surround human existence, the mystery, the ungraspable. Studying such depths can lead to insanity. If we stand on the deck of a ship far out on the Atlan tic and gaze overboard, what will we see? But what concerns us is not what is seen; what is not seen is what enraptures the viewer. What is looked upon can be comprehended, bu t whatever it is that lies beyond our sight is what we want to most understandwhethe r we are gazing into the watery depths of the ocean or a measureless chasm of the u ndefined and mysterious. There are surely concepts in those depths which must be known because our lives are built around the ideas of existence. When these concepts cant b e fathomed, we are confused, endangered. Definitions of being come to us through thought, both in words and actions. Writing in Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggest that metaphor controls our day to day movements. We can control what is known. But the metaphors that control us arent always easily mani pulated because they arent always in our conscious thought. According to the authors, T he essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another (5). When trying to determine what the South means to Lacy, Tate has his narrator look into the abyss of his culture in order to try to understand the compl exity surrounding him. The social structure of the South is not just a metaphor for h im to live by; the social structure is what defines his existence. The abyss is a concept that underlies the understanding of a group of people, and the code they live by requires that they ignore this abyss. Lacy (the
8 narrator) and George Posey, however, cannot ignore the abyss; instead they commune with it. Creating the form of the earth out of the void giv es the world a God who is in control of all aspects of life, including the decisions we make. Catherine Keller tackles this argument in The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, a work that deals with creation in terms of what is set forth in creation myth. She discusses the idea of who we are through tehomic theology, tehom being Hebrew for abyss as it is used in the creation myth of Genesis. Under this theology, God is the om nipotent creator of everything and, as such, has complete power over all things. God th en holds power over all social and cultural structures. Keller seeks to provide an alt ernative creation out of the abyss, a creation of bottomless potentiality through which God is the creator, but one who provides unlimited possibilities for us to have som e control over ourselves, our questions, and our answers. She bases part of her theory on th e abyss in literary works by Melville, James Joyce, and Jacques Derrida. The Bible is replete with references to the abyss, with most completing either a creation or apocalyptic vision of existence. But th ere are passages that seem to reach beyond these into the realm of thought and contempl ation. Jonah peers into the surrounding sea much as Ishmael does when he cries out, You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounde d me[. .]the waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around m y head (Jonah 2:3-5). But there is more to these verses than Jonahs simply crying out to God from the belly of the whale. Part of the darkness, the sea he has been cast into is that of ignorance of Gods commands and of his place among the people whom he is a part of. His is a question of
9 identity involving social and cultural structures, much the same as the question of Tate through Lacy Buchan. It is from this abyss of ignor ance that I want to look upon The Fathers. And it is this thesis through which I wish to stand and peer into the abyss of The Fathers. In pursuing this study I will draw upon the works o f several literary critics. Only a couple dozen essays have been written since 1938 on Tates The Fathers. Since the book enjoys little popularity outside academic settings, it is important to explore possible reasons for this. Richard ODeas The Fathers A Revaluation, written in 1966, provides some insight into the novels neglect. He points out that when The Fathers was published, both reviewers and critics had little ta ste for it, with many expecting something similar to Gone With The Wind. Many critics found Lacys narration and point of view clumsy and difficult to follow. ODea bel ieves that even those who gave faint praise to the novel upon publication did so only b ecause they acknowledged Tate as a poet, not necessarily as a novelist; but he notes t hat the novel now enjoys modest popular and critical acclaim (87). After acknowle dging the critical attention the novels plot and symbols have received, ODea turns to his purpose: to discuss the two main characters, Lacy Buchan and George Posey (and thus to respond to the view that the characters are mere abstractions). In one of the b est passages of the article ODea writes about the way of life of the Buchan family: Lacy prepares the reader for the ultimate destructi on of that society (symbolized in the burning of Pleasant Hill) by indicating its deficiencies. Pleasant Hill is a civilized world controlled by a strict public code of honor which so subordinates
10 personal emotions to custom that the individual no longer acts or feels outside the ritual of society. Antebellum Virginia presents a s tatic society that carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. (89) ODea then concludes that the tragedy of the Buchan s and George Posey is that they do not recognize the existence of evil within humans ; the universal tragedy of man is that humans do not recognize the abyss of evil wi thin humans. He thus sees The Fathers as a significant part of the American tradition of Hawthorne, Melville and Twain (94). Seventeen years later, Richard Law approached the n ovel in much the same manner as ODea, focusing on the characters of Lacy and George Posey. He looks at the novel as the culmination of Southern thought as exp ressed through Agrarianism. He begins his article, titled Active Faith and Ritu al in The Fathers with this idea, writing, The antebellum Virginia of his [Tates] novel repre sents a version of this concept, a traditional society which, though imperfect, is nonetheless illustrative. Such a society, Tate thought, was capable of transmuting a large part of human experience into social ritual, so that economic rea lities and religious life, love and rivalry, personal mortality and social continuity w ere all subsumed into ritualistic forms (345)
11 Law views this hypothesis (his word) as the best example of tradition and civilization of the South. He reads Tates novel as providing th e best insight into the reasons for living in an established, civilized society. By exa mining both the novel and select pieces of Tates poetry, Law offers the basis for his stat ements that although Tate had difficulties seeing the South as the purest example of traditional society, Tate still believed that tradition was necessary for all aspec ts of life, including the arts. In Laws estimation, it was Tates intention through all of his work (Law focuses on the novel in this article) to show that the function of a tradi tional society is closely analogous to the function which he claimed for poetry: both provide a means of apprehending and concentrating our experience in the mysterious limi tations of form (348). Lewis Simpsons article The Ferocity of Self: His tory and Consciousness in Southern Literature provides a different look into why Southern writers have examined the South. Using works from different authors as th e basis of his argument, Simpson believes that Southern writers have been more conce rned with how they viewed themselves as related to the Old South than how fam ily and tradition were related. He uses three writers--Thomas Jefferson, Allen Tate, a nd Robert Penn Warren--to lend support to his argument. He believes Tates novel, and some of his essays, point to a shift in focus from Civil War Southern literature to ante bellum Southern literature. This shift was one of moving from the rhetorical to the diale ctical mode of conceiving life (68). The reason for this shift, according to Simpsons r eading of Tate, was that Southern writers realized that the North was not to blame fo r the condition of the South. This is why the Southern writer began to focus more on how the self fit into Southern society.
12 The study of the abyss in this thesis will focus upon the darkness of the undefined, the chaotic in The Fathers. This is a darkness that is confronted on land, in t he South. Americans who have no family history in the South m ay not have an understanding of the abyss into which the cultural and social structure of Lacys family and religion leads him. This is an isolated darkness that few outside the S outh know. It is not a universal experience but can be visited through the work of A llen Tate.
13 Chapter Two The Abyss of Darkness in Tates The Fathers What are the differences between the Old South and the New South which Tate might have been thinking about when writing The Fathers? He addresses the issues of the social codes of the South and the industrial base of the N orth in his examination of family in the novel. Robert S. Cotterill discusses these possible differ ences in his article The Old South to the New. Cotterill believes that the old South was already industrial. He believes this was evidenced by the fact that the re gion produced millions of dollars worth of cotton every year. This size economy would, of c ourse, have to be supported by industry. The South had this industry, but it was n ot as large as industry in the North. Any change would simply have been a matter of degree. H e writes about the idea of the drastic change in the South after the War: One of these [ideas of change in the South] is the glorification of the War Between the States and the emphasizing of the ruin and devastation it brought to the South. Denied the pride of victory, the souther n people developed a pride of suffering. And the thought was an inevitable one th at in a tragedy so terrible and a ruin so complete no previous pattern of life could possibly have survived. Therefore, the Old South must have died. (3)
14 He believes that the view of a changed South was m ythologized by some in the North and supported by others in the South as a way of dealing with the outcome of the War. Cotterill writes of those in the South who fel t this way, There were some people then (and there have been more since) who viewed th e development of manufacturing as a surrender of Southern ideals and the adoption of a low, Yankee culture (4). Numan Bartley also considers the internal changes the Sou th went through after defeat in the Civil War. He feels the change was somewhat natural from an agrarian to industrial economy and that the divisions discussed came from within the South. He writes of this division, The pre-capitalist planter class promoted industria l self-sufficiency prior to the Civil War, and, following that unpleasantness, elem ents of North Carolina's landed upper class provided postwar leadership in t extile manufacturing, banking, insurance, railroad building, and other large busin ess enterprises. In so doing they transferred agrarian social relations and planter i deology into industry, especially in the important case of the mill village. (153) Bartley then points out that the lesser landholde rs could neither provide the leadership, nor make the transition as easily as those who were more propertied. The difference in power caused those with less power to organize poli tical parties and contribute to the idea that the South was indeed changing more than it act ually was (153). The realities of the changes that occurred from pre to post Civil War wi ll always be debatable. If these changes began to occur while the War was still bein g fought, this may be why Tate
15 places Lacy in the middle of the transformation. An d it is through these changes that Lacy begins to look into the abyss of who he is, an abyss of the unknown and undefined that his family and community have avoided through adherence to Southern social constructs. The Fathers centers around Lacy Buchan, part of an old aristoc ratic Virginian family. The story is told by Lacy as an old man, a doctor recounting the early years of his life and the eventual destruction of his family. Ti me progresses quickly through the three sections of the novel, beginning with the death of Lacys mother in the opening section, Pleasant Hill. Lacy is fifteen years old and beco ming aware of the code his family lives by; he is also introduced to the manner in which Ge orge Posey lives his life. Each section of the novel presents more of the slide that Lacys family takes as Virginias secession from the Union approaches. In Pleasant Hill we ar e provided with a small portrait of the system within which Lacys family lives. The se ction ends with George winning the tournament of the rings and challenging the value s ystem that Lacy has known up to that point. The Crisis begins a year later. Lacy is no w sixteen and considers himself a man. The tension between the states is growing, and the conflict looms. Lacy begins to deal with his struggle between his fathers belief syste m and Georges differing views about what opportunities the coming conflict will bring. The section ends with the beginning of the war. In the final section titled The Abyss, L acy begins his descent into the darkness of the conflict of his old self and new self. The v alue system he has lived by in his youth has been shattered with the conflict. The Abyss i s full of the darkness that the sixteenyear-old Lacy searches in his struggle to find bala nce in the man he is and the man he will eventually become.
16 The Fathers is presented this way in order to detail the slide that Lacys family takes as the secession from the Union approaches. E ach section presents a more detailed view of the abyss into which Lacy peers for answers about these changes and how to handle and adapt to them. His views of his family s tructure become murky when he considers all the changes. As mentioned in the open ing chapter of this thesis, entry number two in Websters Online Dictionary defines abyss as infinite time; a vast intellectual or moral depth. Lacys forward progre ssion in life is affected by his staring into the abyss of the intellectual and moral depth of the two Souths in which he struggles. There are numerous passages with images and themes of darkness and the absence of light; others describe the social struct ure of the Old South and how Lacy views himself as moving from his current family str ucture to that of the Poseys. These images and themes lend themselves to the idea that Lacys search is into the intellectual and moral abyss of the 1860s South, not knowing whe re he will find himself in the struggle between his desire to identify himself wit h both his father and George Posey. Tate uses the word abyss several times in the The Fathers but there are three examples that provide substance for the definition of abyss as used in this chapter. In Pleasant Hill Lacy states, Our lives were eterna lly balanced upon a pedestal below which lay an abyss that I could not name (44). Thi s is Lacy describing his familys existence. The intricate game that his family mus t play in order to live by the code of their South becomes a difficult game when Lacy cons iders the intellectual or moral depth (Websters) of how his familys lives compar ed to the Poseys. Lacy further describes this abyss as it relates to George Posey when he states, Excessively refined persons have a communion with the abyss; but is not civilization the agreement, slowly
17 arrived at, to let the abyss alone? (185-86). Geor ge is the refined person who can examine the abyss, while the Buchans are those in civilization who have agreed not to examine the abyss. This is where the Southern code of conduct comes from. The code allows the Buchans and those like them to exist wit hout examining the dark mysteries that the Poseys (and later Lacy) will actually look into. Pleasant Hill sets up the daily life and belief s ystem of the Buchans. Ritual sets the family structure. Lacy muses, The name of Buch an, obscure in origin, became assimilated to that unique order of society known l atterly as the Virginian aristocracy (4). From the beginning Tate is crafting the import ance of name and where it fits in his South. Lacys voice is removed from his childhood, but the reader is not fully aware of this yet. The idea of change begins to grow when ju st a page later Lacy hints at the pending changes he feels, saying, Why cannot life change without tangling the lives of innocent persons? Why do innocent persons cease the ir innocence and become violent and evil in themselves that such great changes take place? (5). Lacy had grown up in a family that upheld and lived by the agrarian rules of the South. Family, devotion to God through working the land, and adherence to the soci al code are what have kept his society intact. Lacys family and the people of his communi ty all understand this code, paying strict attention to the social rules necessary to k eep their customs in order. George Posey and the Civil War brought change into this defined world. While others were fearful of this change, Lacy was ready to embrace it. Lacy men tions that his father, The Major, has to maneuver through his life by making moves of an intricate game. The intricate game is adherence to all the social codes. Making a mistake in the Buchans society would have grave consequences: members would have t o face the abyss and peer into the
18 mysteries of life, without the structure of their c odes. Lacy sees in George the boldness to engage in communion with the abyss. The Major is a man of letters and reason and coded behavior; George is willing to embrace his em otions and let them guide his actions. Lacy sees the delicate, societally determi ned living in not only his father, but also his brother Semmes. Semmes is a man of ritual like the Major. He clings to what Lacy sees as a waning social order but, like Lacy, admir es George. The mythologized South was not simply cotton fields and tobacco farms; it was a genteel world of old graces and manners, a chivalri c haven against the commercialism and industrialism of the North. Richard Law explain s, in Active Faith and Ritual in The Fathers that Tate believed a traditional society like Antebellum Virginia could ritualize the difficult and painful passages of lif e: economic realities, religious life, love and rivalry, personal mortality, and social co ntinuity (345). Thus, the traditional agrarian Southern society governed behavior through well-defined rituals. But what about the issues of a changing agrarianism, slavery, and states rights? How best can Lacy reconcile these with his need to accept the code of his chosen social structure? The Fathers shows the progression of Lacy from boy to man in t he Civil War South. His family shares different beliefs about the state of the country, with the father clinging to hopes of continuing unionism, and the sons believin g that conflict is inevitable in order to protect and preserve their way of living. Mixed in with these problems is George Posey, Lacys brother-in-law. George represents a new man, seeking something outside region or tradition. He represents humanity outside the so cial code of the Old South. He doesnt adhere to the old code; he is self seeking, concern ed only with what he can make out of his place in the worldfor himself and his family. There is no established social ritual in
19 his new world to hold ideas and people together, to guide intellectual and moral decisions. The Buchans, and other families of Virginia and the South, use social ritual to safeguard their way of life. Tate demonstrates disr egard for social ritual through George and the manner in which he is introduced to the rea der. George declares his intentions towards Susan to Major Buchan without considering t he proper steps to do so in the South. He then makes his disregard known to Virgini a society at the tournament of the rings. His brash competition and ultimate embarrass ment of John Langton do not follow the etiquette of the code. As Law expresses it, the burden of Tate's case for tradition in the special sense in which he uses the word rests u pon the alleged psychological advantages to be derived from living within a commu nity of intact belief, especially where those beliefs have become formalized in socia l ritual (346). George doesnt understand the code that Lacys fami ly lives by. George is a man of commerce and opportunism, concepts opposed to So uthern Agrarianism. Georges way of life is one which Lacy finds himself wanting to emulate, telling us, I admired George Posey even when I did not understand him for I shared his impatience with the world as it was [. .]" (44). George does not foll ow ritual. And Lacy begins to deeply admire Georges handling of his own life. Lacy grow s into a man attempting to follow Georges example. Even after George kills his broth er, Lacy still continues to be drawn to Georges disregard of ritual. But what is the cost of reversing beliefs? Part of this cost must involve losing some sense of where we came fro m, or where were going. The life around us begins to grow dark, and we find that we are staring into the darkness of the abyss, searching for answers and direction. As Lacy himself says of George, Looking
20 back through the cloud of George Poseys life and s ister Susans, I think that he [George] too saw as a world, as a strange place, the home of his wifes family, as if he had never seen it before (7). The Buchan world is foreign to George because he cannot understand or function within it, and Lacy is conscious of cha nging values and behavior. He wants to love his father and hold on to the old ways, yet he admires George, and comprehends the changes that are coming. And this is what tears at him and his family. What could be more damaging to who a person is than the understan ding that his world is ending and that its replacement is one that may be opposed to its value system? Humans become comfortable through familiarity. Tate s characters had only the traditional system of the Old South to search for m ethods of comfort as their world changed. Major Buchan does not completely agree wit h slavery, but he understands how the slave system fits into the social structure of Virginia. Accepting slavery is part of the Majors adherence to Southern society. Questioning this issue too much would be looking into the abyss of intellectual or moral de pth (Websters) of the unknown and undefined that the Buchans avoid. This is tantamou nt to Georges behaving boorishly at the tournament of the rings. George sees slaves as commodities which he can use to support his version of the world. And Lacy wants to follow both. He wants to live in Georges world while holding on to his fathers. He is alone in a world that had been created by George Posey, out of the dead world of his mother (13). His mothers death symbolizes the demise of Lacys principal structure The world created by George Posey is more alive to Lacy than the one in which he has been bred. There isnt much difficulty in seeing how this could damage Lacys being. What Tate is trying to do in this novel is wonderfully expressed by Law when he states,
21 In keeping with most of his [Tates] essays, The Fathers advances the claim that social rituals such as were historically present in the Old South were capable of conferring immense moral and psychological advantag es, among which were wholeness of being, complexity of vision, and freed om from crippling self doubt. (348) Some of Tates poetry also builds on his support f or the traditional systems of Southern Agrarianism. The agrarian farmer acquires virtue, moral integrity, and honor through the act of working the land. Tate believed in this philosophy, forming a group of poets who held the same belief, The Fugitives. Ag rarianism holds that the farmer is closer to God, bringing order out of chaos by creat ing things that grow. Writing in Agrarianism in American Literature M. Thomas Inge states that the farmer "has a sens e of identity, a sense of historical and religious tr adition, a feeling of belonging to a concrete family, place, and region, which are psych ologically and culturally beneficial" (127). Framing agrarian values in verse could draw upon established pastoral and lyric traditions, but what about an attempt to frame it i n a novel? The very philosophy of Agrarianism itself was antithetical to capitalism, which was a large component of the slave trade. The buying and selling of slaves produ ced large profits for the cultured Southern land owners. How could Lacy live within th ese two opposing Southern belief systems? He could take the step the Buchans were af raid of; he could emulate George and engage in communion with the abyss.
22 How could Tate construct the Buchans world with h is own knowledge as the base? Law answers these questions, writing, The na rrator's exploration of the contents of his memory, the form which his story takes in the t elling of it, becomes similarly an instrument for knowing the world, for understandi ng his own life and its larger historical context (352). The 65-year-old Lacy exp lores his world in order to understand it. It is memory through which Lacy creates his ord er out of the chaos. Lacy says in Pleasant Hill, There is not an old man living wh o can recover the emotions of the past; he can only bring back the objects around which, se cretly, the emotions have ordered themselves in memory [. .] (22). These objects c reate a sense of what our world is. If these objects remain unseen, or difficult to see in the darkness of experience and remembrance, then the world we want to know remains dark, especially if that world involves major changes. This darkness creates more than just problems of sight; it creates difficulties with perception of family, trust, beli ef and social structure. While the Civil War may not have been the sole reason the Southern social code began to crumble, it was the catalyst Tate used to demonstrate the changes o f the Old South to the New. The Buchans avoid ideas that question their social stru cture, but the war brings these ideas into their world. In the section of the novel title d The Abyss, Lacy comments, To hear the night, and to crave its coming, one mus t have deep inside ones secret being a vast metaphor controlling all the rest, a b elief in the innate evil of mans nature, and the need to face that evil, of which th e symbol is darkness, of which again the living image is man alone. Now that men c an not be alone, they cannot
23 bear the dark, and they see themselves as innately good but betrayed by circumstances that render them pathetic. (219) Prior to the war, men in the Buchans world can be alone. They have the ritual and codes of the South to live by and govern their lives. Aft er the war when this code has been weakened and is no longer in effect, men cannot iso late themselves. This is Lacys struggle. He is comparing his life as a young man w ith the life he lives now as a doctor who is 65 and living without his old social structu re. When he was fifteen, Lacy could listen to the night, but as an older man he does no t. When his life was full of structure, the night was a welcome place where he could isolate hi mself with the code, helping him to cope with chaos and potential evil. As a child he c ould ignore the abyss because he had had the code to protect him from its darkness. As a n older man he has been in the abyssboth into darkness and weeks of coma when he was sixteenbut he no longer has a code to protect him. And he no longer welcome s the night. Sometimes moving impatiently from one method of liv ing to another proves disastrous. Susans attempt to live in Georges wor ld causes the deaths of her own brother and Yellow Jim. Lacys attempt leads Rose i nto a state of mental disarray. Lacy will discover later in his life that in the new wor ld he wants, there are few Men of honor and dignity--where are they now? I knew gentlemen i n my boyhood but I know none now, and I know that I am not one (210). Which is better for Lacy? The old South that allows human beings to own other human beings, yet holds strongly to a certain standard of conduct, or the new South that frees the slaves but forces others to forsake the grace of living under a chivalric ideal? Leaving his old wor ld begins a long descent into memory
24 that causes him pain for the rest of his life. Anot her realization that Lacy comes to when he is older, long separated from who he once was, i s that There is not an old man living who can recover the emotions of the past; he can on ly bring back the objects around which, secretly, the emotions have ordered themselv es in memory [. .] (22.). The emotions of the past are gone, swallowed up in th e abyss. But why the abyss? What is it in Tates South that represents our search? Can someone not from the region understand this abyss? We do not know what is there, but we strain to gain some glimpse of it. And when we d o see some small speck in that abyss, we are usually reminded of who we were. Lacy descri bes this beautifully, stating, Our lives were eternally balanced upon a pedestal below which lay an abyss that I could not name (44). Lacy no longer has this abyss to look i nto in his old age. Tates vision of the Old South is what remains in Lacy after leaving tho ught, memory, and tradition behind. What, then, do humans become from this leaving? Fur ther into his article Simpson says that Emerging out of the lapsing culture of class and family, hierarchy and degree, the modern self tended to be portrayed by the poetic im agination as the victim, often as a prisoner [. .] (70). When he is 65, Lacy is a pr isoner to his thoughts of wanting to live again in the old ways he knew as a child. Having m oved away from the values established within us when younger, we often become prisoners to who we are, looking out of the cell of our current lives into an abyss that includes the past. Lacy knows this struggle too well, remembering, Are we together? W hat was together? I did not know, and I decided that this time I would go with him [G eorge], because it was so simple to go and leave behind all the things that I would have t o think about if I stayed (150). Eventually he realizes that leaving these things be hind causes more pain than dealing
25 with them. And as an older man, all that Lacy has l eft is an abyss that now includes what he left behind. The 65-year-old Lacy knows the South. He has emerg ed from its old culture, a product of its old code. But he had begun to abando n the South he knew when he decided to take on the life of George Posey, a life foreign to his earlier ways. This abandonment of social structure causes no small amount of suffe ring to Lacy as he grows older and toward the scenes in which he is choosing to become a new man. He cannot recognize that he has been losing hold of his old life until much later. He cannot see the change That ought to have been ominous but was not: omens are those signals of futurity that we recognize when the future has already slid into the past (207). Part of this suffering also comes from the fact that what Lacy has seen in the abyss has not been comforting. The problem becomes one of knowing how long to look into the darkness without the past structure of family and heritage to support hi m. Sometimes the answers are worse than the questions. What good is it to leave things behind only to look for them later if nothin g is learned from the experience? There is a balance that must be understood when we peer i nto the abyss. There must be an understanding of what may be gained and how this un derstanding can be used, if it should be used at all. In the key passage in the no vel, Tate writes (this seems to be the narrator Lacy speaking in his most direct manner to the reader), Excessively refined persons have a communion with the abyss; but is not civilization the agreement, slowly arrived at, to let the abyss alone? (186). Lacy, h owever, cannot dwell too long in this abyss because of the chaos that may ensue. Too cons tant a communion with the abyss will cause far too much breakdown in civilization. Occasional communion with the abyss
26 can give us the push needed to get through our ques tions. Lacy does just this, telling us, Then I was light and smothered as I sank into the suck of black water and didnt feel anything anymore (262). Lacy is an old man as he n arrates the novel. He understands now that what he has lost by letting go of his old ways has caused him to lose his desire to peer into the darkness. His people welcomed the night because they had tradition to stand on. Lacy does not have that anymore because h e has let go of his tradition. It is only a memory.
27 Conclusion An abyss is a vast, formless, and dark place that is little understood. The darkness of new social constructs is part of the abyss which we search everyday for constructive meaning about who we are socially in this country a nd who we are individually. Lacy struggles with his identity as a Virginian (and a S outherner) by examining his familys traditional values and social systems and examining new, incongruent social constructs. The answers dont always provide him with the level of comfort about being a Virginian (and an American) that he needs, but he looks nonet heless. Looking into the inky blackness of his past, the history of his family an d their beliefs, leads him to new understanding of who he has become. Growing up in t he transformational period in which Tate sets the novel, Lacy feels that whoever he once was as a young Southerner can not mesh with the old man he has become. But af ter all his searching of the abyss that, as he enters manhood, includes both the tradi tional social code and pre and post Civil War changes, he is still a Southerner, and no amount of looking into the blackness of his past can change that. His solution is to acc ept the dangers and violence of this change. Lacys search may seem universal, but his desire t o know who he is among the people of the South makes his a search which is iso lated to that region. And this is a region unlike any other in the world. The history o f the South is distinct in that it encompasses two histories: one of the region itself and one as part of a greater country,
28 an American country. The consciousness of the South is distinct among the numerous locations that were available to Tate, yet he chose the South because only that region could capture the search for identity he was undert aking through Lacy. This was a uniquely American search through a specific set of family and social codes and a transformational period in the South. These codes p rovided all the necessary parameters for Lacy to live under, and these could be found in no other place than the South. The Fathers comments on the loneliness of humans as they search for who they are. In this quotation, Lacy is speaking of the dar kness which his family did not have to commune with when they had their code to follow: To hear the night, and to crave its coming, one mus t have deep inside ones secret being a vast metaphor controlling all the rest: a b elief in the innate evil of mans nature, and the need to face that evil, of which th e symbol is darkness [abyss], of which again the living image is man alone. Now that men cannot be alone, they cannot bear the dark, and they see themselves as in nately good but betrayed by circumstances that render them pathetic. (219) Man is the living image of darkness, and he is al one. Because Lacy can no longer be alone to commune with the darkness, he ca n not bear the dark. Throughout the novel Lacy considers looking into the abyss, finall y doing so in his attempt to live his life as George Posey does. But what does it mean to look into the abyss? The Buchans live by a code that governs all aspects of their lives. Thi s code details how each situation they are presented with must be handled. Because of this, th eir lives are very rigid and structured.
29 By following these rules they can avoid the darker aspects of living. The rules shield them from the abyss by requiring strict adherence t o the social codes. They live their lives through reason, whereas George lives his by followi ng passion and emotion. Lacy sees this type of living through George. He sees George communing with the abyss by not following a prescribed social code and living his l ife the way he wants. Lacy feels that following Georges example of living will open his own life to new and unknown possibilities. And these are possibilities he would never have through adherence to his familys code. Stated simply, reason guides the Buc hans actions, emotion and passion guides the Poseys. Lacy has his customs, family be liefs, the Poseys and the Civil War to examine. He looks into the mysteries of their darkn ess in order to understand what, for him, it means to be a Virginian and an American. So me of what he finds there leads partly to the destruction of his family and what he thought was his old way of life. Plunging into the abyss requires Lacy to remove him self from the protection of his code and follow his emotions. The danger in thi s is that he doesnt know what the outcome for this will be. He doesnt know what lies in the abyss he wants to peer into. He has to follow an intricate balance in order to live by the code; to live outside the code requires none of this balance. The abyss is a place once controlled by Lacys inherited codes and rituals. When he removes himself from the se he is looking into the darkness and confusion of his life without them. By desiring and following Georges example of living, Lacy does begin to live outside his known s ocial ritual. But doing so produces consequences which cause him considerable pain as a n older man. Through his examination of the abyss he begins to feel self dou bt about his decisions to abandon the old code. And this doubt has a crippling effect on Lacys life when he is an older man.
30 For Lacy to question his belief system means he mus t to look into the abyss. He must look into the darkness for ways to exist outside th e world he had known in his youth. Lacy does this, and the results are disastrous. He loses family, friends, and part of his dignity. Lacy the older man laments losing the dign ity men knew when they followed the code; he mourns for the fact that he no longer know s any gentlemen as they existed before he peered into the abyss and abandoned his r itualistic living. And in a most revealing display of insight into who he has become by looking into the abyss, Lacy realizes that he himself is no longer a gentleman. In The Fathers, Lacy searches for, and ultimately finds, his identi ty through the juxtaposition of his familys social codes and a tr ansformed South in the abyss. The idea of Lacy as an American is expressed through this ex amination. The code he lives under and fights to escape defines who he is. He realizes late in his life that he was a better man when he lived under the code. And this code is uniq uely Southern. And as the South is a part of America, this code is uniquely American.
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