Places: The Fathers

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1938

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1860-1861

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedPleasant Hill

Pleasant Fathers, TheHill. Buchan family plantation in Virginia’s Fairfax County. Because author Allen Tate sees people and place as interconnected, his narrator, Lacy Buchan, explains how his father identifies his family as the “Buchans of Fairfax County” to underscore their roots and generational connection to the land. In contrast to magnificent opulence of many antebellum romances, the Buchan family home is depicted more as genteel farmhouse than mansion. From its peeling paint to its tobacco-depleted soil, Pleasant Hill’s elegant shabbiness reflects the Buchan family’s gradual decline in the face of modern mercantile society, which is represented by Lacy Buchan’s brother-in-law George Posey. Tate locates the plantation near the first Battle of Manassas (also known as the Battle of Bull Run)–which is dramatized at the novel’s end–to make it a microcosm of the causes of the Civil War and its long-lasting political, social, and moral effects.

To Tate, slavery is a symptom rather than root of the conflict. Lacy’s father owns some twenty slaves but refuses to sell them, even though his failing fortunes can no longer maintain them. In contrast to this ideal of the Southern paterfamilias, the merchant George Posey sells his own half-brother, Yellow Jim, in order to buy a fancy horse. However, Tate is no simple apologist for slavery. He lays bare the Old South’s delusions of grandeur by juxtaposing a neighboring plantation’s “Tournament of Chivalry” with a pathetic scene of slaves who have been “sold down the river.” He also critiques the casual brutality attendant upon the Southern code of honor. The Tournament of Chivalry ends with a fist-fight that foreshadows the thoughtless violence the Buchan clan perpetuates in the final section of the novel, in which Lacy’s brother summarily executes Yellow Jim–who may or may not have raped young Jane Posey. Similarly, the Buchan household is redolent with family secrets and sexual tensions that the adolescent narrator Lacy hints at but cannot openly address.

*Georgetown

*Georgetown. Famous Washington, D.C., neighborhood that lies across the Potomac River from Alexandria, Virginia. Georgetown’s proximity to both the Union capital and Confederate Virginia graphically illustrates the novel’s central conflict between federal and states’ rights. Georgetown is the symbolic antithesis to Pleasant Hill. After turning over their estate to George Posey, the Buchans move first to Alexandria, Virginia, then to Georgetown, residing in houses that lack both sense of place and tradition. Stripped of his duties in maintaining Pleasant Hill, Lacy’s father idles away the hours with his devoted slave Coriolanus.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Lacy moves to the Posey house in Georgetown. Half stone and half brick in construction, the Posey house symbolizes the transition between an older landed gentry still connected to the land and the modern capitalist class divorced from its traditional values.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. Federal capital. Tate uses Civil War Washington as a symbolic backdrop of his antifederalist philosophy. He notes, with historical accuracy, that both the dome of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument are only half-finished–symbols that the national government has not yet consolidated its power over the states. He also satirizes the self-perpetuating, artificial aristocracy made up of Washington’s political and social elite. Even the Northern writer Henry Adams makes a cameo in the novel–not as the future author of Democracy: An American Novel (1880) but as a intellectual blowhard who affects the grace and camaraderie of his Southern counterparts. However, the axiom that bad places give rise to bad literature is best illustrated by the fictional character Jarman Posey. George’s Uncle Jarman is a kind of antebellum Marcel Proust, a neurotic aesthete who never leaves his room and wastes his life writing an unreadable history of the Ice Age. He symbolizes both the modern dissociation from life-giving connection with the land and a new barbarism of the modern world built upon the forces of laissez faire capitalism as practiced by his nephew George.

BibliographyCarpenter, Lynette. “The Battle Within: The Beleaguered Consciousness in Allen Tate’s The Fathers.” Southern Literary Journal 8, no. 2 (Spring, 1976): 3-23. Asserts Lacy Buchan is the central character in Tate’s novel and his confused narration is representative of the book’s theme: the ambiguity of experience and memory.Holman, C. Hugh. “The Fathers and the Historical Imagination.” In Literary Romanticism in America, edited by William L. Andrews. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. This renowned critic provides a useful review of earlier criticism of The Fathers. Discusses the work as a Bildungsroman that reviews a family’s events through a historical viewpoint.Law, Richard. “ ‘Active Faith’ and Ritual in The Fathers.” American Literature 55 (October, 1983): 345-366. Posits that part of the novel’s greatness lies in its questioning its own thesis: the value of tradition and community. Asserts that it is not a tract, although it represents Agrarianism.Mizener, Arthur. “The Fathers and Realistic Fiction.” Accent 7 (Winter, 1947): 101-109. Reprinted in Sewanee Review 67 (Autumn, 1959): 604-613. Says that Tate’s book is “A novel Gone with the Wind ought to have been,” and that it presents a contrast of public and private life.Young, Thomas Daniel. “Allen Tate’s Double Focus: The Past in the Present.” Mississippi Quarterly 30 (Fall, 1977): 517-525. This respected scholar asserts that The Fathers shows the likelihood that the antebellum South would have destroyed itself even if the Civil War had not occurred. Quotes Tate extensively.
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