On the Porch with Marion
Recently John Larkins, Marion Montgomery’s lawyer friend from Atlanta, told me that he had often urged Marion to write something personal about his life and his religious faith. In response, Marion sent him a long essay (87 pages in typescript) titled “Credo.” John Larkins tells me it was not what he wanted: “It is definitely not the gossipy thing I was frankly hoping for (for example, I remember sitting on his porch one afternoon, and he said something like, ‘When Cleanth Brooks was sitting where you are….’)”
My guess is that most of Marion Montgomery’s readers are generally familiar with his work and the intellectual history behind it: the men of letters (St. Thomas, the neo-Thomists, Fugitives, Agrarians, New Critics, and others) who influenced his criticism of modern literature and culture. The “Books, Books, Books” essay included in this issue of The Christendom Review would be a good place to trace out some of that intellectual history. However, in the spirit of lawyer Larkins’ interest, this essay offers a few anecdotes and other memories about Marion himself which I hope will at least partially reveal Marion, along with the circle of students, friends, and associates who were attracted to him and recipients of his and Dot’s generous hospitality at their wonderful home in Crawford.
While studying for the MA in literature with Russell Kirk in Mecosta, Michigan, I had the good fortune to meet Marion and Dot Montgomery, two Southern “Fugitives from Progress” (Kirk’s term for the many traditionalists who visited him). The Montgomerys came up to Piety Hill, Russell and Annette Kirk’s home, for an Intercollegiate Studies Institute seminar on the question, “Can Virtue Be Taught?” Dr. Kirk and Mr. Montgomery took turns addressing the topic, and all lectures were in the Kirk library. On a hot Saturday afternoon following a large lunch, Marion was lecturing, and his lecture went on, and on, and on. Along with the afternoon sun, all the warm bodies in the library made the room hotter and hotter. Dr. Kirk, seated at his desk in the corner, and in full view of the assembled audience, began to nod and doze. Annette sent her daughter Andrea to gently and unobtrusively awaken Dr. Kirk—more than once, while the lecture went on some more. Finally, when Marion paused for a moment to catch his breath, Dot cried out: “Marion, have mercy on these people!1
Like Homer, Mr. Montgomery liked to ramble. Also like Homer, he was never in a hurry to say what he had to say. Those who wonder why Mr. Montgomery’s lectures, periodical essays, and books are long and digressive should consult Gerhart Niemeyer’s excellent Center Journal essay “Why Marion Montgomery Has to ‘Ramble’” (Spring 1985).
Despite Mr. Montgomery’s very long and somewhat dense lectures at this Piety Hill/ISI seminar, I was so taken by his learning and perception--and by his down-to-earth attention to the local, the particular, the concrete, the personal--that I began to read his books and essays, particularly his three-volume trilogy The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age. I later followed Mr. Montgomery back down South, to the University of Georgia, where I studied with him for the Ph.D. Under his tutelage, I wrote a dissertation on “Donald Davidson’s ‘Agrarian Creed of Memory.’”
As Mr. Montgomery’s student, I discovered that he was extremely devoted to those he taught and mentored. He himself was very serious about the literature he read, taught, and wrote about, and he expected his students to be as well—to respond imaginatively and intelligently to what they read in his classes. The attention and the time he gave to student writing astonishes me. How could he spend so much time editing and commenting on it? I have before me two essays I wrote for him: a fifteen-page essay on T. S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture and an eight-page essay comparing and contrasting Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” The first essay has appended to it four and a half pages of single-spaced commentary from Mr. Montgomery’s pen; the second, four pages of his single-spaced commentary. Mr. Montgomery also edited both essays for style, suggesting ways to make the argument more clear, forceful, or graceful. In my nearly thirty years of teaching at the collegiate level, I have never seen anyone give so much careful attention to student writing.
This attention was not always comforting. I recall making a sweeping generalization in a draft of a chapter of my dissertation. Mr. Montgomery’s comment was terse: “You might spill a bit more ink on this one.” The point I made was for the most part true, but I had not earned the right to make the point by acquiring mastery of material: I had not demonstrated it by argument and example. So I had to go back to the library, and after about two weeks of reading and several more days of writing, I earned, in Mr. Montgomery’s eyes, the right to make the same generalization.
Marion took so much time with his students and with their work because he wanted to help them to get at the truth of things. One of his favorite quotations, frequently occurring in his writings, is from St. Thomas: “The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.” In his own Liberal Arts and Community: the Feeding of the Larger Body, he writes: “The truth of things, which must be our concern always, is revealed through words rightly used and rightly taken. That revelation is the art of all liberal arts.’’ While he knew that words are tools that sometimes break in the hand, he also knew they are gifts given to man by God so that we might know the world and the creatures God placed in it. In one of the finest personal essays I have ever read, “To My Son, Going Away to School,” Marion the father (or “Dad,” as he signs himself) writes to Marion the son: “I remind you once more to remember that, whether the word be German, English, algebraic, ‘To use the wrong word is to bear false witness.’ Distinguish. Discriminate.”2 I share this passage with all of my Freshman students at Hillsdale College, hoping it will startle them out of the slothful and careless misuse of words. Word choice is a moral choice, whether we like to admit it or not. By precept and by example, Marion taught this arresting and potentially life-changing principle.
One of my favorite Montgomery anecdotes Marion himself more than once told, the humor at his own expense. While giving a lecture at a literature conference, Marion had his ubiquitous Marsh Wheeling cigar in hand, flourishing it to emphasize important points in his talk. He noted someone in the audience, apparently listening to every word with great attention. Who might it be? Marion realized it was Malcolm Cowley, the great literary critic and editor of The New Republic. At the end of the lecture, Cowley immediately came up to the podium, Marion thinking it was to discuss the finer points of his lecture. Instead, Cowley asked: “Is that a Marsh Wheeling cigar? Where did you get it?”
Let me conclude my tribute to Marion (and to Dot) with one more anecdote. In 1985, Andrew Lytle came to lecture and read his fiction at the University of Georgia. I fondly remember the gathering in his honor held at the Montgomerys’ home. At this festive gathering, we took Mr. Lytle’s advice in his I’ll Take My Stand essay, “The Hind Tit”: “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” Actually, we took the guitar out of its case and sang “I Am an Old Confederate” and other folk songs and ballads. Marion himself memorialized his friend’s visit to the University and to Crawford in “For Andrew: In Celebration,” one of the pieces collected in On Matters Southern.
During those years living in Athens, I was many times a guest at the Montgomerys’ Crawford home. Years later, when my family and I headed back that way from Michigan, Dot and Marion would always welcome us and treat us as family, receiving us even when recovering from surgery, seeming to like us and our infants, toddlers, and taciturn older children in season and out. Strolls up the lane or around the yard and garden paths; meals in the kitchen or barbeques on the lawn; and many a shared story or anecdote on the porch—this means a great deal to all of us.
I have copies of nearly everything Marion published (three novels, three collections of verse, various short stories, and most of the twenty-two volumes of literary and cultural criticism). I also have manuscript copies of numerous unpublished works. I’ve interviewed him, written encyclopedia articles about him, and reviewed eight of his books, recommending them to people who are keen on getting at the truth of matters literary and cultural. Glad as I am to have his books, and to understand some of them, they do not take the place of Mr. Montgomery. Much as we have learned from his books, I suspect we have learned as much from Marion in person, or from his letters to us. Marion in the flesh, in person, sitting on his porch at the big house in Crawford—this means more to me than all of the books.
However, we do live for Eternity, and Marion in his books but also in his person (as teacher, friend, mentor, correspondent, confidant, indeed, as a father to many) has helped so many of us wayfarers to prepare for Eternity. God being with us, we shall meet him again.
Thanks be to God for Marion.