Sorting Your Inheritance: An Interview with Marion Montgomery
It had been almost eighteen years to the day that I last had the opportunity to sit with Marion Montgomery at his home in Crawford, GA for our first interview. When I arrived, he and his wife, Dot, and I sat in the living room and talked for almost an hour before conducting the interview. They told stories, recommended books to read, spoke of music, and reminisced about friends—many of whom were among the literary giants of their time. They regaled me with one story in particular when literary critic, Cleanth Brooks, was visiting their home, and their grandchildren asked Mr. Brooks to read to them. Brooks had never before read Dr. Seuss, but as he went along reading, he pointed out to the children the wonderful meter and poetic nuances in the verse—things the children didn’t understand but that Brooks found notable. As Brooks was reading, the children sat away from him, but then moved closer and closer until they were sitting in his lap listening to him read Dr. Seuss.
Marion Montgomery was born in 1925 in Thomaston, GA. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946 in the field artillery in Europe with the 16th Armored Division. He was educated at the University of Georgia and the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, then taught at the University of Georgia from 1954 to 1987. He has published three books of poems, four novels, and twenty-two volumes of criticism and ideas. His most recent books include Eudora Welty and Walker Percy: The Concept of Home in Their Lives and Literature, and John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate: At Odds About the Ends of History and the Mystery of Nature. His subject matter encompasses The Fugitives and Agrarians, as well as St. Thomas Aquinas, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Dante, Wordsworth, Flannery O’Connor, Poe, Hawthorne, and Dostoevsky. His most recent books include Essays on Matters Southern and Flannery O’Connor as Hillbilly Thomist: Art’s Echoes of The Revelation. Mr. Montgomery died in November, 2011.
This interview, conducted in the Montgomery home in 2006, was originally published in The Istanbul Literature Review in 2007.
Walsh: Talking a little while ago with you and your wife we touched upon several ideas, one of which was life and art. A universal question many people seem to ask has to do with the idea of art reflecting life or life reflecting art. Students often think it cannot be answered or reconciled, but I have always felt that art must reflect life if for no other reason than the logical progression of the two entities. What is your opinion on the matter?
Montgomery: I would answer it out of the tradition that stretches from Aristotle into St. Thomas, remembering that Aristotle in his Poetics makes the distinction between art and history. Art is concerned with the possible or probable, whereas history is concerned with the actual. But as St. Thomas would argue, the possible or probable necessarily depends upon the actual because, for one thing, the artist is not the Creator. He is a maker, and therefore, he makes with givens, and what is given is first of all his own existence, an existence in history as this natural creature. And so, therefore, what art does is imitate nature but not in the simplistic sense that is often taken. Thomas says what the artist does is imitate the action of nature and the action of nature is where you engage the probable as it depends upon the action. So, the maker is action, imaginatively, in the making of things. The parallel to this, remembering Thomas’ argument, is that man is created in the image of God, and the image of God making the thing out of givens is related to the actions of God creating. Thomas says what’s possible to the poet is form, but form is drawn speculatively out of the given. Therefore, it depends in some respect on the given. What I argue is that which is an antecedent given most immediate to the poet, dramatist, or novelist is himself as a person. It’s out of this reality that the possible or probable is drawn.
I would think that the given in relation to the argument of life versus art is that the most important given would be life.
It is created existence in all that is—multiplicity, the many. It’s given. It’s already antecedent. What you begin to realize, reasonably reflecting upon your own experience as a poet or as a person, is that at the point of self-awareness that self-awareness is already dependent upon antecedent things, antecedently known before reason acts—you already know things. There is already knowledge there. Thomas’ Epistemology makes a great deal of sense to me when he says that by our very nature, by our existence as intellectual souls incarnate, the intellect itself acts in two modes. One is intuitive. The other is rational. Intuitive reaction to the pre-existent, to the actual, to the reality, is out of an openness. It’s a gesture of love to something because it is. It exists. It is out of that knowing that you begin to reason, to have a larger understanding of why the thing in itself, in so far as it is, is necessarily good. And evil is a diminution of that good. When you have the propensity of the will to that diminution, that’s the dramatic arena for the poet.
I have always espoused the idea that without life, you cannot have art. It’s quite simple. Art is available as a reflection to that life and it can influence the life but never replace it. It has to be that life dictates art. You can have life without art, but you cannot have art without life.
I think that is undoubtedly so, at least, so for St. Thomas. But then he is quick to say that art is reason in making and your reason tells you that art does not merely reflect as a camera does, art moves from the recognition of life to the possible or the probable in relation to life. This is the Aristotle that Thomas picks up and uses.
Of late, I have been studying the social changes—political or otherwise—upon the artist, be it the writer, poet or novelist, and how the social changes of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, (the issues of the day—the Atom bomb, Civil Rights, space travel, and the E.R.A.) influenced poets and writers. It seemed to be a circular motion with the artist then influencing a society, to a degree, that had influenced them. I was young during this time, and not yet born in the 1950s, so I don’t remember them too well, but you would have been very well aware of these social changes, I assume, as they were occurring. How did you view what was happening at the time?
I don’t know if I can answer in less than two volumes. (laughing) When you are in the middle of it, you respond to it; however, you don’t always respond to it in a self-conscious way—in a rational way. Oftentimes you respond to it intuitively. It’s in you as it were, and as a rational creature you try to deal with it as you can. But the danger there is in not having some constant against which to measure the change. I believe we have lost the constants needed to measure the change, and quite deliberately out of distortions of thinking that go back to at least the late Middle Ages.
In dealing with my current Flannery O’Connor book, I talk about that a good bit. The direction I go in is to take up something Etienne Gilson said about Abelard as a scholastic. What Gilson says is that Abelard concentrates on logicism as exclusive in philosophy—with an intellectual, rational command of reality. That sort of emphasis—in de-emphasizing of the intuitive—leads to William of Ockhams’ Nominalism. You see, I don’t sound like a poet talking this way, but Nominalism appears as a way of controlling that which is by an action of the intellect—by naming it, you can control it. With this idea, we move on down to Descartes and Bacon as concomitant philosophers and scientists, as were both of them, with a logicism centering upon the self-consciousness, in the direction of intellect’s being autonomous, and therefore, the center of creation. It’s kind of an ironic version of the old Medieval idea that the earth is the center of the universe. We think, “Oh, no, it’s not. Look, we rotate around the sun.” But, in that emphasis upon the sun, we begin to go toward an empiricism that turns radically centripetal—to the convenience of the autonomous self. What happens is that the center of the universe becomes more and more the sovereign self-consciousness alienated from all else. Descartes, then is suddenly shocked, because if this is the reality of the self, then by what authority may my self-awareness declare that it even exists? Indeed, do I even exist? There builds a terror of solipsism whose deepest terror of all is that self-awareness clings to a center which may prove only a nothingness—a terror of striking deeper into self-awareness than can be comforted by any psychological analysis. Descartes is reaching out from the terror of nothingness, trying to seize upon something real to escape to his own consciousness as an illusion—his own sense of what we have come to call alienation. “I do exist,” he shouts out of and against a void in which his words echo self-pity—disguised as angry authority by Descartes himself. “I exist because I think; therefore, I am! “ (He might have been comforted by St. Augustine, who said long before him that even if I am mistaken in this as the Academics declare me to be, I am, since I must be before I can be mistaken.)
Immanuel Kant takes up Descartes’ problem, arguing for pure reason as a vehicle transporting self-consciousness beyond an entrapment in self-awareness—a self-induced transcendentalism. (This is a theme of dissent between John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—Ransom’s aesthetics is Kantian, Tate’s intuitively Thomastic. The philosophical divergence between them as poets leads to a continuation of my recent argument, for instance, over Eliot’s The Waste Land. That is the concern in my recent John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, At Odds About the Ends of History and the Mystery of Nature. Out of Kant, 19th century Romantic philosophy leads to Jean-Paul Sartre, who declares himself into existence out of nothingness—Sartre seems at first a hard-nosed rationalist, but in truth he is a self-loving sentimentalist. From Abelard’s logicism to Sartre, then, an evolution of the self by rationalistic process self-declared—with considerable effect upon a gradual dissolution of community. Indeed, ideas do have consequences, as Richard Weaver reminded us, invading cultural, social, political spectacles of community. We breathe ideas daily, unaware of a possible contamination of our thought. All sorts of violence, public and private, are spawned in our unthinking feeling that each is an autonomous, sovereign self whose inviolable rights center in a self-love. I as a self am empowered to a control of impinging reality (that reality which Descartes tries desperately to seize upon with thought.) I will impose form. I shall refuse to concede that my form is drawn from a reality not created by me.
This can’t but lead to the arbitrariness of selves in conflict, evident in the multiplicity of ideologies at work in whatever spectrum of social or political or cultural manifestations. My ideology becomes an idol, reflecting my self-worth as autonomous consciousness. Though out of Kant most recently, the self can hardly be characterized in its intellectual act as acting with Kant’s pure reason. It is reason sentimentalized by distorting the truth of things in themselves. St. Thomas’ phrase requiring a severity of feeling disguised as reason distorting reason itself. In that sort of desperation, we consent to violence against impinging circumstances—creation itself becomes the antagonist to my sovereign autonomy.
St. Thomas also said that our first movements toward God are through the senses out of the experience of things. We move, he says, intuitively through the senses out of intellectual inclination to the good, recognizing it as self-evident in things in themselves because they are. That’s a starting point, if not the end. That’s also a seeming indirection with reason in support of what we intuitively know. What you discover is that it really isn’t an indirection but a direction toward and through and beyond. It has happened to us that in our Modernist thought where the indirection becomes our absolute—we become, to put it in an abandoned term, worldly. What is the authority of the absolute? It is my own intellect; therefore, my own intellect is the God that can control being to my immediate convenience.
I recently watched a documentary on Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Adrienne Rich, poets who came into prominence in the second half of the 20th century, each having a separate but crucial social influence. Ginsberg with the Beats, Baraka and the Civil Rights Movement, and Rich with the Feminist movement. There were a number of writers at the same time who fell to the wayside but out of this, these writers survived and rose to the top. How do you view the poet and the social changes conjointly?
I’m smiling in part for this reason—if you remember the famous Chicago convention where there were riots in 1968… at that time, I remember thinking if only someone was there to hand out copies of I’ll Take My Stand. What it seemed to me was that they [the rioters] lacked an orientation of their natural inclination to the good—that is, they were trying to get back to the good of things in themselves but they lacked a reason sufficient to sort out proportionality in the good. It led them to that kind of sentimentality of excess—flower children turning into bomb throwers, some of them. When you move in that direction without reasons and careful control, what happens? You inevitably become the most important creature in existence, the god of truth. So, what you’ve got is two versions of the most important creature existing: the self. On the one hand, the sentimentalist desiring the good, and on the other hand, the gnostic director being the Establishment as it was pejoratively called. Ironically, you’ve got that conflict always interior to the self, in my human nature as fallen—as St. Augustine or St. Thomas would say. What you have is a separation of, an exacerbation of the importance of, the intuitive or the rational in conflict—in a civil war of the self—in which either is made into an either or. Thomas insists they are complementary modes of intellectual action—the rational as extension of the intuitive. If they are not resolved by will as complementary, then you get into trouble as an autonomous self.
It is ironic that here are all these people at the convention rioting and for whom (and they don’t realize it) the most important thing is the self, and of course, you have 100,000 selves vying to be the most important thing in the world, all competing to be the number one self.
“We’re number one”is a popular phrase, usually meaning I’m number one—by association. It’s a shadowy imitation of what we object to as the so-called Establishment. What happens, or I suspect happens, is that when the sign, the image, the metaphor is made in that perspective it becomes a mirror to reflect the self to itself as self-important. We are encouraged by pseudo-scientific terms like id and ego. When we are reflected to our self by such signs we begin to all look alike in whatever mirror. We’re number one becomes a shibboleth of self-promotion, not a witness to any community of person as a body.
What was the special gift Shakespeare had that Keats envied, given his dissociation of intuitive and rational? It was the ability to be a variety of I’s. Shakespeare could be Othello. He could be Hamlet. It is that gift of intuitive openness in Shakespeare—his negative capability difficult to the poet’s full surrender—which Keats recognized as having somehow become freed of reason in the interval between him and Shakespeare, becoming lost as Eliot said, looking at 19th Century Romanticism as evidencing a disassociation of sensibilities. That is, a separation of thought and feeling Eliot says. I put it as mistaking feeling for thought. Our reason has gone awry in separating itself from valid intuition, or intuition goes awry in denying reason. I use Eliot to this point quite often—partly metaphorical—and remembering that Eliot started out as a self-confident highly sophisticated intellectual dandy. Perhaps he was more skeptical about all existence than Descartes dared to be. As Eliot later recognizes, as a young intellectual he has been something of an intellectual poseur—not an uncommon cozy mask among his peers. In that pretentious deportment, he had been drawn immediately into the French Symbolists. What’s the position perhaps most typical of the French Symbolists? A sophisticated pretense of superiority over existence (pace Kant) whereby the thing they make, their poem, reflects themselves. That is a dead end of the self, Eliot remarks this later in his essay “From Poe to Valery.” I’m not analyzing Eliot—just paraphrasing his later judgment of himself.
Are we a mirror image of the French Symbolists where the thing that is most important is not just me, but “me, me, me?”
Oh yeah. Exactly. Self-centered, the rest of existence held orbiting the I as center. And for the popular spirit where it is most emphatically destructive of culture is in the Hollywood syndrome in which some species of virtual reality catering feeling replaces actual reality. What is the great thing they had last night, the awards ceremony, the Golden Globe Awards. Happen upon that ceremony celebrating virtual reality on specialized TV, and you may begin to tune into reality—it is not truly ceremonial because true ceremony is a sacramental lifting up of all creation beyond the self. In the Hollywood ceremony it is all me, me, me.
This is something I have been thinking about and I finally wrote this down a few weeks ago and your idea triggered it—when we look at the individual or what the individual says to the world (and I am thinking of the individual placed in view for the world to observe), the individual says, “Look at me, look at me, see what I can do to outrage you. Now look away and do not criticize me for what I have just done but try to understand me. Even though I have done all these horrible and obscene things, you should forgive me and blame yourself because you were the one watching and listening to me.”
That is our age’s version of St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul, popularized as acceptable by the magic of virtual reality, a billion–trillion dollar industry. You know, what you said also sounds like a pretty good summary of Camus at a spiritual impasse in contrast to Sartre. Sartre would never beg for that sort of attention. But it’s a point of beginning for Camus, who tries to escape this and he can never quite do it.
We cannot escape this, and we are all guilty, because we have that yearning for recognition. That’s one of our faults. That is why we create, because we can never be as great as the Creator. We are only an imitator. The true Creator does not need superficial recognition. But man does.
That’s right. We are in the image of. The truth of the matter is, for me, at any rate, that this is true and always has been true of humanity. We tune into it and here and now, it seems local and immediate—as if unique to us because we are local and immediate persons. But I was thinking of Sartre and Camus as our celebrated Existentialists, who finally fell out as close friends—largely because Sartre was insistent upon his own godhead. Camus was less and less sure of his authority as autonomous self-consciousness.
One of my favorites anecdotes is about Camus as reported by Julian Green in his diaries. Green, that brilliant French novelist (born in Savannah, Georgia), went to a lecture by Camus, in an abandoned nunnery, as I remember, just after the end of World War II. Some of the underground French Resistance was present. The war was just over and questions were being raised in France about what next to do. Camus gave his lecture, apparently leaving uncertainty about his own existential intellectual circumstances in this strange new world. One old grizzled Resistance fighter, an old Resistance writer, rose and said, “Monsieur Camus, I tell you very humbly that you are not in a state of grace.” Camus smiled, but said nothing at first, Green reports. But a little later came his reply: “I am your Augustine before his conversion, I am struggling with the problem of evil and can’t get to the end of it.”
It has been, almost to the exact date, eighteen years since you and I sat down for our first interview, and one of the subjects we talked about was obscenity. At the time, obviously, I was much younger and thought I understood the idea of obscenity in our culture and literature. I understood the literal definition, but I have come to realize the destructive nature of obscenity. As you get older, either the nature of obscenity changes or your views on obscenity change.
Your view changes, not the thing itself—as when we read Huck Finn as a teenager and then read it to a grandchild.
I look at our modern society, and I guess I am not shocked, but disappointed perhaps at how we are allowing ourselves to become more and more obscene, not simplistically with pornography, but with what appears to be the corruption of the mind on all fronts. How do you view what is occurring in our society at this time?
Well, I think you are exactly right. But remember—I would enlarge obscenity from its popular sense beyond pornography which is a violation by pseudo-art. I notice particularly in the news media distressing obscenities that intrude upon the grief of a person. “How did you feel when he shot your son?” Some variety of that question is almost a necessity to the reporter, who is himself completely removed and cannot really be open to personal grief, to the violations of the good in any aspect of it—whether it be a sexual violation or just sheer murder. We as readers or viewers are titillated by that, and because we are there develops an industry dependent upon titillation. In the name of what? Everybody has a right, one, to his own opinion, and any media has a right to whatever there is to report to everybody else. But, it’s self-destructive. What is really lost is where the most destructive effect lies in catering to obscenity. It lies in the reporter and the diminution of the reporter—in the diminution of himself as a person. Not to realize that is to destroy his self, his gift, what good he has. He caters to our inclination to self-destruction.
What is the resolve?
I think the resolve is always at the most immediate and approximate level of a person’s reactions to his circumstances in this place at this time—here and now. The minute you try to establish a system to recover every person, you move in the direction of that gnostic destructiveness that Eric Voeglin talks about where good is to be declared and established by a system. What happens is process, by which we separate positive law from natural law. For Thomas, the positive law is to be subservient to (because depending from) the natural law. Natural law, says St. Thomas, is specific to each existing thing. In respect to this person, it exists in relation to his intellectual soul, within intellect. Natural law is in intellect, stirring.
In this person, it is an action in likeness to the Creating action of that Cause of things, whereby things are—as St. Thomas would have it. Thus rises in this person his intuitive inclination to the good of things in themselves—a self-evident knowing to be verified by reason (given the finitude of man’s intellect). By reason, then, experience is sorted in relation to the proportionate good of things in that confluence called creation. There is a proportionate order of the good between a stone or a tree or dog or a person. Proportionality of the good is a most considerable challenge to reason out of which [derives] all our poetry and philosophy. In reason’s sorting of the good, therefore, (so Thomas argues) this person may discover the action of this own finite reason to be an image of that full action of Eternal Reason whereby things are.
There is a sort of coincident effect (again, St. Thomas) out of finite reason in its act toward understanding—at least a possible effect. For reason by a proportion echoing Eternal Reason orients the person toward Eternal Reason. The person, in this perspective, may come to understand that by his response to the good of things, he has all along been moving toward, moving through, moving beyond the proximate good of things he has experienced in his own becoming. If we lost vision of such possibility through illusions of our autonomous sovereignty as intellects, that failure might throw a light on our age’s social, political-cultural-problems. Not unique to our age, since in any time or place this person is challenged because he exists as an intellectual soul incarnate. I’m arguing Thomas’ position here, of course—which I accept. The challenge to this person always is to bring together—in a simple unity as person—intellect, soul, body. The intellectual soul is the form whereby the person exists as incarnate, Thomas reminds us—not a duality, save by our fallenness of sin. Plato sees himself a duality—body and nous, body and mind. But Thomas sees a chasm in the person’s simple unity caused by Adam’s sin in justifying willfulness. Such talk as this—philosophical speculation with theological implications—is talk discovered crucial to any intellectual action if we think about it, especially if a poet thinks about it but the philosopher and scientist as well. Not that any person by will turned willful may not demur. But such questions are implicit to reason’s concerns. Questions agitate will and some degree of consent or dissent that affects the art of making—a poem or a metaphysics or a lab experiment. As for the poet’s concerns, we were talking about Flannery O’Connor earlier—she knew almost from the cradle, understood this from the beginning and that is why she could stay home and be comfortable at home and not think that she had to be in Yaddo, New York City, or wherever.
There is a duality of our society—one sector reports and provides to us what they feel we want, we need, what we will pay for, and most of that falls to the wayside as being garbage. Then we have what we can truly take with us as good and what we need, but for so many people they do not reach that level of understanding or intellect. That’s our society now, but as you said, we are not much different from what we were one hundred years ago or one thousand years. We continue to struggle with those same issues.
Since Adam and his naming of things in the garden, properly naming them. Always in one sense it is the self that’s at the center but if the self becomes obsessed with its centrality, the self becomes the center of its poem obscuring the naming of things as they are. What is to be discovered is the action of sacramentally lifting up the good to the source of the good, finally. And how do you do that? Josef Pieper has that wonderful little book called In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity where for one thing he counterposes a statement by Rousseau who said, “All you have to do to have a fête is to erect a pole of some sort and get the multitude together and you have a festival.” That just doesn’t do it. That’s what the romantic thinks sufficient out of sentimentality.
Pieper demurs emphatically: “To celebrate a festival means to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” That is why community as a body-festive by its inclination often makes the poet welcomed—he is welcomed for his uncommon manner uncommon by his particularity in lifting up creation sacramentally through his signs.
I think our society is in a massive struggle with the idea of the self being here only by virtue of the Creator—a part of society against that idea and a part for it. Has our society always been this divided?
By degree, at any rate, I think that is so. All you have to do is read St. Paul’s Epistles and you see that’s the way it was then, too. I think that is true of us. Read St. Augustine’s Confessions which I call the first modern novel. Or Dante’s first modern poem, The Divine Comedy. In the sacrament of baptism, the self is named, named within the family but as this self. At that point begins, possibly, the recognition that by our very nature as being created, we are traditionalists, and as traditionalists our responsibility is to separate those things we inherit from nature and history. We have to engage the contingent realities sorting those realities with reason and taking what is viable from our inheritance and lifting from present experiences—and then lifting them up. And that’s not an easy thing to do. But it never has been an easy thing.
This is a tough one and the temptation is to ask you to be a prophet, but have you thought about where we are headed as a society and the direction we are moving?
You can’t help but be concerned for society when you have children and grandchildren. You tune into that. The direction that seems to be the general flow of things now is counter to the virtues necessary to our children and grandchildren in surviving and keeping their heads above our intellectual waters. I don’t know that we can prophecy any particular cataclysm out of that, but what you can believe is that you must, in so far as you can, bear witness to that which can help keep your head above water. And that’s one of the reasons poets write poems. (laughing) Eliot finally discovered what he was supposed to be doing as poet—“purify the dialect of the tribe,” he said. That’s what it is. In purifying that dialect—that’s the sorting I am talking about, as a traditionalist. Remember that very famous essay by Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Individual talent was what Eliot was interested in at that point of his journey. Tradition was a complication that Eliot thought he had to overcome, but he finally comes to see that inescapably he was already a traditionalist, and as such, his responsibility as a poet was to sort that tradition, to rescue what has to be kept above the flood.
I like that idea of purifying the dialect because essentially that is what writers should be doing. That by definition, I would think, should create Art.
For Eliot, this realization occurred after he wrote The Waste Land. That’s when he realized this. The Waste Land is a personal catastrophe. He said it was a personal grouse, not an epic about the lost generation which was what everybody wanted it to be. You mentioned Allen Ginsberg—he thought The Waste Land was just such an epic of the 1920s moment. Ginsberg was going to answer it with his own epic, the “Howl” out of the “self.” That was very deliberately against Eliot.
Isn’t that ironic?
Yes, and I don’t think Ginsberg knew what he was intending to do. What it says about Ginsberg’s sentimentality is another thing. Now, Donald Davidson has a series of poems, The Long Street, and in that series of poems, Davidson sorts tradition and he does it rather directly in opposition to The Waste Land but what he was doing was sorting toward a point in the late Twenties and early Thirties, reflected in Eliot at the time of this The Waste Land and “The Hollow Men” (a gathering of fragments left over from his The Waste Land). At the beginning of that decade, and by the time Davidson had reacted to The Waste Land, Eliot is very close to where Davidson is. It’s almost as if Davidson has not quite noticed that Eliot has come to his own understanding of tradition.
You have over the years personally known very well and written about and have been friends with numerous writers, up to and including The Fugitives and the Agrarians. I thought it would be interesting to mention a writer and for you to recall a memory of them or the first memory that comes to mind. Flannery O’Connor.
The sound of her voice and the kind of a wry smile which reflects her understanding of the circumstances that she’s in the midst of. There’s an old anecdote from a friend of Flannery’s who had gone up to Greenwich Village to be a poet. She left Milledgeville and whenever she’d come back down home she’d have to see her old friend Flannery. They were sitting there on the porch at Andalusia, the little farm, rocking and talking, and finally this young woman (just back from Greenwich Village) says, “Oh, Flannery, if only I could take you out of all this.” And Flannery’s response, in that voice which was almost an ironic whine, with wry smile, “Out of all what?” St. Thomas might have put that question less kindly.
Oh, I think of the last time I saw Walker and talked to him. He had spent a few years as a child in Athens and not long before he died he was invited to give a lecture at the University of Georgia. At that time I was persona non grata to the administration. I was a non-person at the University because I had opposed some of the idiocies of the current president. Apparently nobody knew that Walker Percy and I were friends. I was very carefully kept separate from him throughout his visit. But we happened in the men’s room at the same time and he said, “Why Marion, I wondered where you were.” (laughing) So here I was in the men’s room with Walker. I remember that.
What did you oppose?
A sort of a mindless gnostic attempt to impose form, an academic law removed from the realities of intellect. This was the period where I had published rather prolifically and it was an embarrassment to the administration because I kept arguing that it is what is said and not how much is said that is important. I had written a lot that had been approved of by named people, so that was an awkwardness that required separating me from what was going on. At that point, the president, in fact, and I have the paperwork on it from the public relations people, instructed the public relations department that my name was never to be mentioned in anything. So you can imagine how I was amused by and appreciative of Walker’s saying he wondered where I was.
Were other people there in the bathroom?
His immediate host was there.
When I mention The Fugitives and the Agrarians, which person leaps out first in your mind?
Possibly Donald Davidson. If I had time to think about it I might give a different answer. I wrote a book on Eliot as an American Magus and Mr. Davidson read it and thought well of it and wrote me about it. So, I think of him. I remember also having written a severe review of John Stewart’s book on The Fugitives. Some student handed Allen Tate a copy up in North Carolina and he was enthusiastic about it and wrote me. Then he and I and John Crowe Ransom later had breakfast at the University of Dallas, soon after that, and had a long talk. Eliot, whom both had known personally, was a part of the subject. At that point I did not know as I now know that there had been considerable friction, and almost a fist fight between Ransom and Tate, over Eliot and The Waste Land. They were mediated and calmed down by Donald Davidson. Only in retrospect do I now hear echos of old differences between them at our breakfast conversation. I’ve engaged that recollection and their differences recently in John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, At Odds About the Ends of History and the Mystery of Nature.
Who do you think would have won the fist fight—Tate or Ransom?
I would have picked Ransom based upon size.
But Tate was a wily fellow. He once challenged the editor of the Partisan Review to a duel. Ransom was a little too hesitant and Tate was meaner when it gets right down to it.
Oh, my gosh, Caroline Gordon. I remember two things that I suppose are worth remembering—Caroline and I were to talk down in Milledgeville on Flannery at a celebrative gathering there and I remember escorting Caroline from the alumni house to where we were headed for the lectures and a panel discussion. Caroline’s half-slip began to fall down around her ankles. But, without missing a beat in our conversation she stepped out of it, wadded it up, and put it in her purse. Later in the middle of our panel discussion Caroline used some current literary shibboleth—I don’t remember what—and somebody wanted her to define it. Again, not missing a beat, she turned to me and said, “Marion, define so and so.” (laughing) Our oldest daughter was a student the University of Dallas when Caroline was out there as a writer-in-residence and our daughter Priscilla was assigned to Caroline as student aide. Two or three times at seven-thirty in the morning our phone here in Crawford would ring and I’d stumble to it, “Marion, this is Caroline. Where is Priscilla?” It would be one hour earlier in Dallas. Of course, Priscilla was in Dallas. That was sort of typical of Caroline as I knew her.
About the time her last novel had just been released I met Allen Tate for the first time, up at Sewanee [the University of the South in Tennessee]. He had just read it. Of course, they had been separated. They had some tough times together. But, he said how good he thought it was. He was proud of it.
How about Eliot, Lowell or John Crowe Ransom? Did you know them?
Eliot’s friends, Ransom and Tate, I knew rather well. I didn’t know Lowell personally, but we shared friendship with Flannery. I’m reminded that a friend sent me a download of my things offered for sale on the Internet, and one of them that was for sale was an off-print of my essay on Stewart’s book on the Fugitive-Agrarians with Ransom’s notes in the margins—exorbitantly priced. Around $200. I still wonder what Ransom said.
We talked down stairs briefly about the influence of The Fugitives and the Agrarians and their influential tentacles reaching out throughout contemporary American literature. The argument could be made that it is more far-reaching than any other literary group in the country, in existence, before and after.
It’s phenomenal as it were. They were a special gathering of the so-called new criticism but unlike the direction some of the new criticism took—toward deconstruction, the Fugitives and the Agrarians understood the importance of the relation of life to art. They really didn’t get away from that and it affects the nature of their criticism. I think critics have had trouble with John Crowe Ransom in part because he was Kantian. For him, poetry is an intellectual manner, an instrument to order an aesthetic transcendentalism that Tate rejected. There is a stylization about Ransom’s thought that I had discovered in reading his poetry. One time Ransom was here at the University of Georgia for a reading and I said, “Mr. Ransom, in reading your poetry I have decided that when you were a Rhodes Scholar you must have concentrated on 5th Century B.C. Athens.” “That’s right,” he said.
Was he surprised?
A little bit I think.
It may be that contemporary criticism does not want to accept or recognize the fact that The Fugitives and the Agrarians, the entire movement at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, influenced and continues to influence modern letters in a manner far surpassing anything such as the Beat movement, Harlem Renaissance, or the Black Mountain poets. Not to downplay those important movements, or other groups, because they have certainly opened up the language and had an influence, but for the critics to recognize the influence of Warren, Tate, Ransom, Davidson, and the others seems to me giving validity to the South. Am I being fair and correct in this assessment?
I think you’re right. I think it tends to be a loss for the critic. It’s a presumption that if you grant their influence as valid, then you are embracing all of what The Fugitives and the Agrarians were and said. That is a sign of misunderstanding what I was talking about a while ago—a misunderstanding of what it is to be a traditionalist. As a traditionalist, you must sort through your inheritance. You don’t imitate the past, which some people would take tradition to require. Not imitate it. A valuing of tradition requires the sorting of your inheritance. Some critics would never do that, accept The Fugitives and Agrarians, because they think they must swallow the whole thing—the whole residue of cultural history. It’s another matter if the principles upon which The Fugitives and the Agrarians built were valid or invalid. You have to really go into the principles they were seeking. They were waking up to a conflicted situation that had not confronted them before. They had to discover themselves as traditionalists, as inheritors of a complex culture being rejected part and parcel.
There’s a great anecdote, incidentally, I heard about correspondences between Eliot and Ransom in which Eliot from London would write to Ransom. Ransom would read Eliot’s letter, throw it in the trash can by his desk then answer him. The anecdote is that Ransom’s daughter was thus placed in an awkward position. Does she rescue these letters from T.S. Eliot or not? As far as I know, she didn’t. But the argument between them had to do with this Kantian abstractionism as an aesthetic principle in contest with the Thomastic position that Eliot had come to in the late 1920s, about the time of The Waste Land when he had begun to read St. Thomas.
If you were to give advice to young people…
…which is a dangerous thing. (laughing)
I was just going to say that. It could be a very treacherous balance beam. Regarding writing, though, or if you like, about any aspect of life, what would you say to them?
What you are committing to first of all is a perfection of yourself as this person. By the very fact that you exist as this person, you exist with limits. It’s only through limits that we are. The responsibility is to fulfill the gifts of limit, whereby the person is this person. What you have to do then is make that fulfillment by the action of making what is peculiar to your gifts as a maker, whether as poet or philosopher or scientist—whether as gardener or accountant. A principal gift of personhood is to some making, to a calling—which is not always immediately recognized by the pilgrim person. St. Thomas is very wise in his reflections on callings, and about differences within the cultural residue of our callings—art, history, theology, philosophy. A particular calling in response to this present cultural residue allows a person’s present becoming as this person, within the limits of his particular gifts, his limited gifts. In reason’s sorting of the relation of gift to inheritance, a person discovers himself steward of his own gifts. And that calling requires this person’s surrender. I would put it as a surrender to the limits of his gifts as this person, rather than a stepping aside from them. That was the discovery Eliot made through his The Waste Land.
I’m trying to talk about a surrender in which the poet, for instance, begins to recognize a relation of form to the matter of his experience. Drawing him into the realities of things in themselves as possibly suited to art. But this is a recognition for each person to come to in his making—whatever he is called to make. And whatever “making” he does, the person’s proximate responsibility is to the good of the thing he discovers himself. You are a poet, then, when you are making a poem. That is a responsibility—to the good of the thing you are making. And that is why, for instance, Flannery O’Connor rejects the inclination among her poet peers to self-celebration—to using a capital “A” with Artist as a title—an entitlement setting one aside from common humanity. Your calling is a way of discovering the limits of your gift as this person and a responsibility of becoming through limited gifts. Any person, alas, can distort their gifts if their making overwhelms their becoming, of course. The calling is through making—into something else, into a fulfillment of the limited gifts of this peculiar life as this person. That is why the made thing—important though it seems—isn’t the most important consequence of making.
Would it be better for that calling, whatever it may be, to be an avocation?
Not necessarily. I think you have to work that out for yourself. I used to say to student writers, if I found one that was snake bit and had no choice but to write—I am not going to prophesy your success, because I don’t want you to be on my front lawn selling apples in the future. (laughing) You have to take those risks and those risks involve finding the way you can do it in your becoming in relation to contingent circumstances. You have to surrender to that labor of becoming—a most considerable challenge of course, fraught with all sorts of failures on the way.