Our Tradition: Southern Conversions

Shortly before the Civil War, Henry Timrod lamented the fate of the “poor scribbler so unfortunate as to be born south of the Potomac,” for it was a firm conviction in the North, he said, that genius “is an exotic that will not flower on southern soil.” His judgment, of course, was premature, for it is well known that despite the presence of what H.L. Mencken called the illiterate “Ur-Confederate,” the South has dominated American letters throughout our century. In the recently published The History of Southern Literature (L. S.U. Press, 1985), one will find dozens of essays attempting to explain the flourishing of this “exotic” on southern soil. Cleanth Brooks probably represents the majority opinion on the subject in his essay “The Southern Renascence,” where he attributes its emergence to the region’s sense of the concrete, to an awareness of conflict, to a belief in human imperfection and the tragic, and to a conviction that nature is mysterious and contingent.

To the modernist critic, it is surely interesting that those who enjoy a settled point of view — even on such things as the ontological hierarchy between monkeys and men — could produce great literature. Great literature, after all, would seem to require introspection and alienation, and, above all, an ability imaginatively to grasp the contingent possibilities of human agency. Settled points of view, a sense of place, and piety to ancestors are not supposed to be the soil of creativity, whether in literature or in any other serious endeavor.

Robert H. Brinkmeyer, in the introduction to his excellent study Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South (University Press of Mississippi, 190 pp., $20), treats what he regards as yet another “odd fact”: namely, that in the heartland of evangelical Protestantism, where the settled convictions are seemingly quite antagonistic to Catholicism, there has emerged a significant crop of Catholic writers. Flannery O’Connor is the best known. Since the publication of her letters in a book entitled The Habit of Being, which represents very good Catholic literature in its own right, and the publication of Marton Montgomery’s Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home (which is arguably the best thing written on Miss O’Connor), there has been a re-discovery of Flannery O’Connor’s genius, though she died only twenty- two years ago. But there are other Catholic writers as well:

Katherine Anne Porter, Alan Tate, Caroline Gordon, and more recently, John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy. The three writers treated in Brinkmeyer’s book — Tate, Gordon, and Percy — were converts to Catholicism.

In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor pointed out something very interesting about the intellectual situation of the convert: “The convert does not get to experience his convictions in the years that experience forms the imagination.” The convert’s imagination is already formed by the time he explicitly assents to the ratio of the Church to which he converts. Here, in the Southern writer, we find something rather different from the generations of extraordinary European converts (or reconverts) who flourished since Newman — writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Maritains, Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, C. S. Lewis, and many others. Despite the militant anti-theism of their cultural elites, and despite the deeply set prejudice against “Romanism,” the European converts could not help but imaginatively imbibe Catholicism. It was, after all, everywhere about them. One could scarcely cover an acre of European soil without encountering some reminder of the religion upon which the culture was built — not whitewashed Baptist and evangelical churches nestled in cotton fields and in stretches of pines, but castles, medieval churches, and other gothic reminders of the Catholic past. As Christopher Dawson remarked in his autobiographical essay, “Tradition and Inheritance”: “The house where I was born was a Tudor building constructed in and out of a medieval castle originally built in the twelfth century.” Dawson attributed his own conversion, in large part, to having his imagination formed by the beauty of Catholic culture, long before he came to assent to the ratio of the faith. The apologetics, poetics, and intellectual work of the converts of Dawson’s generation were rooted in the imaginative soil of Catholicism.

Such, however, does not seem to be the case for the Southern Catholic writer, and it is his fascination with this problem that prompted Brinkmeyer’s book. In Three Catholic Writers, he treats Alan Tate, his wife Caroline Gordon, and Walker Percy. He promises a subsequent volume on Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O’Connor.

Of the three writers treated in this volume, Brinkmeyer is at his best in his analysis of Alan Tate’s career. Tate was born in Winchester, Kentucky in 1899. His mother, a Virginian, led him to believe that he was born in Fairfax County, Virginia — a descendant of the squireocracy of the Old Dominion. Like many other Southerners, his piety toward the ancestral was deeply ingrained, functioning for all practical purposes as a religion. Writing about his early religious instruction, Tate observed: “In my boyhood there was no religious influence that I felt impelled to accept or reject. In so far as we had a family religion, it was my mother’s, and it was less Christian in daily practice than Chinese; for she worshipped her father and by a kind of genealogical sorites arrived at the veneration of the remote, invisible forbearers.” Despite the waves of evangelical enthusiasm which wax and wane throughout Southern history, the hyperdulia toward ancestors was not uncommon, and indeed constituted a religion of its own sort. One might read, for instance, William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941). Will Percy (the uncle and stepfather of Walker) was raised a Catholic in Greenville, Mississippi, but gradually lost his faith to the stoical religion that prevailed in many families throughout the South. Read for instance, the last chapter of his book, entitled “Home,” which is an account of his visit to “one of the pleasantest places” — the graveyard.

After entering Vanderbilt in 1919, Alan Tate became associated with the so-called Fugitive movement, a group of litterati led by John Crowe Ransom, but which included such other notables as Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle, and the young Robert Penn Warren. The Fugitives viewed the problem of modernity according to a North-South axis: the abstracted Yankee civilization of machines and unsettled convictions, versus the agrarian culture of the South, which retained, in their view, a sense of place, hierarchy, and a respect for nature and ancestors. At first, Tate was much taken with the Fugitives. In 1927, shortly before the publication of his Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (1928), Tate wrote to Donald Davidson: “I’m convinced that the South would have won had Jackson not been killed . . . The Stars and Bars forever!” Others in the movement would also employ the historical imagination to invoke the “fathers” of the War. The period saw a spate of biographies on Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Lee. Robert Penn Warren, whose credentials at Yale are otherwise impeccable, is still haunted by the fact that his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929), was written from a decidedly Southern point of view.

Tate, however, began to entertain doubts about the Fugitive perspective. In fact, although the movement was extraordinarily fruitful from a literary standpoint, its focus was never clear. Some regarded it as primarily poetical, others political (few of the Nashville crowd were cut out to be farmers or politicians). Tate was suspicious of both, for it occurred to him that the effort to resurrect the “fathers” by sheer force of the imagination, or to conceive of the problem simply in terms of political power, represented the very sort of modernity that the movement despised. In the chief literary manifesto of the, movement, I’ll Take My Stand: By 12 Southerners (1930), he contributed an essay entitled “Remarks on the Southern Religion.” Here, Tate reached the conclusion that the South did not lose the War because of the death of Stonewall (the Southern preoccupation with the “loss” is not unlike speculations among conservative Catholics regarding what went wrong after Vatican II). Rather, he concluded:

The South would not have been defeated had it possessed a sufficient faith in its own kind of God. It would not have been defeated, in other words, had it been able to bring out a body of doctrine setting forth its true conviction that the ends of man require more for their realization than politics. The setback of the war was of itself a very trivial one.

In effect, what Tate was suggesting is that whatever goods the South wished to defend against the Yankee, the South lacked a coherent and explicit metaphysic. Though rich in what could be called the pre-philosophical, it was poor in philosophy and religion. The problem, as Tate conceived it, transcended the political and the military issues, and thus transcended the question of the War itself; indeed, it transcends the power of the poet. In his poem “The Mediterranean” (1932), Tate explains: “We’ve cracked the hemispheres with careless hand!” The enigma of American history, and the South’s defense of, and search for, its own roots, is no longer viewed according to the North-South axis of the War, but rather as a struggle between the Mediterranean as the center of Western culture and religion, and the New World, which is luscious and fecund, but tired and disappointed; for the New World has endeavored to escape from the religion which gave form and meaning to the culture inherited by the fathers. Tate writes:

Now, from the Gates of Hercules we flood

Westward, westward till the barbarous brine

Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,

Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine

Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.

Brinkmeyer notes that Tate had radically undercut the Agrarian dream. A return to the land and to the sepulchers of one’s fathers does not answer the question of prior order; nor does it answer the more profound question of genealogy.

In 1952, shortly after his conversion to Catholicism, Tate wrote in Shenandoah: “What I had in mind twenty years ago, not too distinctly, I think I see more clearly now; that the possibility of the humane life presupposes, with us, a prior order, the order of a unified Christendom.” From a philosophical standpoint, one of the most important steps in Tate’s move toward Catholicism was his distinction between “regionalism” and “provincialism,” elaborated in The New Provincialism (1945). Here, he defines regionalism as limited in space, but not in time; whereas provincialism locks itself within the present, pretending, though it be only a part, to be the whole. (In this regard, it seems fitting to recall the old saw about Unitarianism: “The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.”) Regionalism; in other words, is prepared to accept the “given” as heterogeneous and limited, but as open to the universal, which can only be found from definite, concrete points in place. Flannery O’Connor, and more recently, Marion Montgomery, would point out the consonance between Tate’s conception of regionalism and St. Thomas’s teaching that we first come into communion with being through the senses, and there find the “forms” from which to discover the more basic and universal ratio.

Tate’s own understanding of this was helped along by his friendship with the Maritains at Princeton in the late 1940s. In fact, it was the following passage in Maritain’s Dream of Descartes that profoundly moved Tate: Human intellection is living and fresh only when it is centered upon the vigilance of sense perception. The natural roots of our knowledge being cut, a general drying up in philosophy and culture resulted, a drought for which romantic tears were later to provide only an insufficient remedy.” For Tate, then, it became all the more clear that the Fugitive reaction to modernity had but half the truth. The poet requires a “prior order,” and the fecundity of Southern letters is explained somewhat by the Southerner’s connatural sense of the particular, the sensual, and the regional. But in lacking an explicit metaphysic, and in particular, a true religion, regionalism would bear no further fruit, and would remain an enigma to itself. Southern writers have a real knack for describing the particular, even grotesque, habits of their neighbors, but as Flannery O’Connor observed: “A view taken in the light of the absolute will include a good deal more than one taken merely in the light of house to house surveys.”

Finally, what Tate came to see, and what Miss O’Connor seemed to understand without the travail of conversion, is that sanity requires both the regional and the universal, just as man requires nature and grace — not the abstracted nature of the Transcendentalists (nature which is always an antagonist in the literature and mind of the Transcendentalist), nor the mechanized nature of modernity, but rather nature as it is at least partially intelligible in its particularity, and dependent upon a deeper source of order. Simply put, Catholicism was the only religion that could explain this problem for Tate, and for the other writers treated in Brinkmeyer’s book.

The reader might wonder how any of this bears upon contemporary Catholicism in this country. I would suggest that the problem of the Southern convert is not altogether different from the situation of many Catholics in our country today. Many, if not most, Catholics in America are only two generations distant from their immigrant fathers, and from a kind of ethnic regionalism which, although primarily urban, was coherent precisely in Tate’s sense of the term. Is it not true that American Catholics have, for the most part, lost their “places” — their parishes, their universities, and other institutions which provided a foothold in the world, and which nourished a sense of settled habits and convictions? Have we not seen our native religious tongue, by which we expressed latria for our God and dulia toward our ancestors, ridiculed and banished? Indeed, in the name of regionalism and pluralism, our religion has been provincialized and “reconstructed,” not by the accursed Yankee, but by our own spiritual kin. The problem, of course, is not merely whether or not vernacular is fitting for the liturgy, but rather whether one can go about changing and reconstructing all of the particular habits and practices of a people without thereby losing any meaning to the vernacular itself: a context less vernacular is not a vernacular at all. Vatican H has called for a greater sensitivity to an “enculturation” of the faith, but one requires, after all, some place in which to acculturate.

Whereas the Southern convert still enjoyed his “place” but lacked a true religion, the loyal Catholic today in this country resembles a Flying Dutchman who retains the true ratio within the boundaries of his own skull, but searches for some humane way by which to incarnate himself. The Southern convert like Tate, and perhaps even more so Walker Percy, alerts us to the impossibility of recovering the true order simply by force of poetry or political action. In Love in the Ruins (1971), Walker Percy envisages the Church split into three segments: the American Catholic Church, whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois (the motherhood of God, the personhood of ‘persons, and the neighborhood of Saul Alinsky?); the Dutch Church, which subscribes to relevance, but not to God; and the remnant of the Roman Catholic Church, a tiny scattered flock “with no place to go.” Percy suggests that even the loyal flock is subject to the modern disease of “angelism.” We can’t all move to Rome or Fatima any more than the progressives can seriously pogo stick from Chicago to Nicaragua.

Brinkmeyer’s study of Southern converts recounts how they moved from “place” to the Church, and in this regard one envies their dilemma, for it seems resolvable. Now, what are we to make of those who hold to the true religion but have, as Percy argues, “no place to go”? Theological sanity requires that there be some “place” before we go to heaven, just as there must be something to do in the meantime besides merely reiterating our assent to the true doctrines and bushwacking “liberal” Catholics. The problem of Christian remains.


  • Russell Hittinger

    Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...