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"A Southern Mode Of The Imagination" And Thomas Wolfe

2273 words - 9 pages

Over the course of his decades-long career as a respected and influential man of letters, he also wrote an extensive collection of critical essays. In such piece, “A Southern Mode of Imagination,” he argues that the renascence of Southern letters occurred because of a shift in the way Southerners thought; a change from what he termed the extroverted “rhetorical mode” of tall-tales and politicking, to the introspective and hitherto primarily Northern “dialectical mode.” From his unique position as both a critic of the Renaissance and one of its vanguards, Tate posits that the antebellum Southern mind lacked the self-consciousness necessary to produce great writing because it was wholly occupied with defending slavery against the attacks of the North upon the ‘peculiar institution.’ The mind of the South focused outwards in response to those attacks, seeking to justify itself with one foot “upon the neck of a Negro Slave” ; that is to say, Southerners were rhetorical in defense of the indefensible. Their all-consuming and unwinnable defensive stance absorbed any potential for great literature even well after the cause was lost: Southern literature was practically non-existent prior to the publication of the first issue of The Fugitive in 1922. According to Tate’s theory, it was not until the South underwent a shift in its “mode of the imagination” that it was capable of producing writers like those of the Renaissance. Tate theorizes that this change occurred in part because the South ended its self-imposed isolation with the advent of World War I and “saw for the first time since 1830 that the Yankees were not to blame for everything.” The South’s mental energies were no longer entirely engrossed in resistance to Northerners and this freed them to turn their gaze inward.
Tate’s argument about the conditions that created the Southern Literary Renaissance is compelling, not least because of his own involvement in the renascence, yet it bears further examination. “A Southern Mode of the Imagination” was published in 1959, when Tate was at a considerable remove from the period covered in the essay. His theory may have benefitted from an objectivity increased in proportion with this distance; however Tate’s representation of the historical facts was not all that it could be. For instance, several of the Fugitive poets, including Tate’s mentor and friend, John Crowe Ransom, had been meeting informally since 1915, two years before the United States’ entry into World War I. This ‘informal phase’ of the Fugitives was actually put on hold by the war; the Great War could then hardly be said to have enabled the Fugitives to break out of the rhetorical mode and begin writing. This anachronism does not necessarily negate the critical value of Tate’s thesis. He may yet be correct in asserting that the literature of the New South is devoid of the sectional and self-limiting rhetorical mode of the Old South. ...

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