In Flight from the Fugitives
Here’s a story about never becoming a Southern poet, even after 40 years of living and writing poetry in the South. It is also about loving the poetry of the Fugitives, the poets who in the 1920s lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and formed a private workshop for themselves, where they could share their poetry and speak seriously about being modern and not throwbacks to the nineteenth century. There is no doubt that they were Southern poets, born and raised in the South, two conditions which to this day define a Southern poet, whose regionalism, white or black, is essential. The Fugitives included Vanderbilt University faculty John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson, and Vanderbilt students Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. These four are the most famous of the group, but those whose names are not as well-known were as serious as they about writing mainly in classical meter and rhyme, like W. B. Yeats and Thomas Hardy, while recognizing the innovations of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. That such a group existed in Nashville in the 1920s is notable in itself. This essay, part memoir, is about knowing their poetry and admiring them as poets long before I knew I would live where they lived and teach where they taught, while recognizing they left a particular legacy to the South and Southern poetry that I would never be able to claim. Now that I am about to retire from Vanderbilt University, the school where some of them taught for many years, I think I owe it to the Fugitives and to whatever we might call Southern poetry to declare my love and my outsiderness. Never having been of them, I think I can speak about them in a way others from the same background may not be able to. The Fugitives are not so close to me that I have to apologize for them, but they are close enough as poets that I can express my gratitude.
My first encounter with the Fugitives was in my senior high school English class in 1969, in greater Los Angeles. The teacher who led that class, Mr. James Van Wagoner, also led me to modern poetry and the daily practice of poetry writing. He had studied in college with the poet Brewster Ghiselin, editor of The Creative Process, a collection of essays about the uses of inspiration, in science and in writing. The collection included a piece by Allen Tate about writing his famous poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Ghiselin’s book was important to Mr. Van Wagoner, and it was my own introduction to the Fugitives, via Allen Tate. Mr. Van Wagoner was himself a great fan of the poet James Dickey from Georgia and considered him, rightly, as a kind of Fugitive offspring. I did not know or care where Nashville was, but I did care what Mr. Van Wagoner thought was good poetry, and many of the modern poems he thought were good were by John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate, as well as Dickey. One of these poems was John Crowe Ransom’s “The Equilibrists.” This poem which, to this day, can baffle me, immediately captured my imagination. Anyone reading the first stanza may be able to see why, when I was 17, this was so.
Full of her long white arms and milky skin
He had a thousand times remembered sin.
Alone in the press of people traveled he,
Minding her jacinth, and myrrh, and ivory.
So in response to the poem I set about to write a close reading of it. The New Criticism, as Mr. Van Wagoner taught it, was also related to the Fugitives, and my paper paid close attention to the poem’s quatrains, its rhyme scheme, its metaphysical conceits, its representation of this adulterous couple (Did I know what that was? I’m not sure), and the difficulty of their relationship, of its delicate, perilous balance. I wrote a paper, I am glad I do not still have a copy, but I know that except for the poem’s form (iambic pentameter couplet quatrains), I did not have a clue. As usual, in those days, I probably made the poem something more theological than it was. My father, a minister, had returned to school to earn his doctorate in religion at Claremont Theological Seminary, a very hip place at the time in Southern California. He would share with me some of what he was learning in hermeneutic study of the Bible. But I managed also to recognize in the poem the allusion to the sad story of the lovers who seemed like Paolo and Francesca (I’d read some Dante). But how they were I wasn’t sure.
But still I watched them spinning, orbited nice.
Their flames were not more radiant than their ice.
I think I may have received an A for Effort on the paper. It was my first taste of the metaphysical modernism of the Fugitives. As for ironies of coincidence, only 15 years later I would, like Ransom when he wrote the poem, be living in Nashville and teaching at Vanderbilt University. I would be teaching creative writing and introduction to poetry classes with colleagues who had taught alongside Donald Davidson and Allen Tate and had even been their students. Men, they were all men, who called John Crowe Ransom, Mr. Ransom. And called Robert Penn Warren, Red. Today of course fifteen years is nothing. To a 17-year-old, even one who was making his commitment to poetry, as if it were religious vows, it was an inconceivable span of time. Los Angeles was the world. Nashville was the outer dark.
By 1969, the Fugitives were known also as the Southern Agrarians, a misnomer because some of the Fugitives were not Agrarians and many of the Agrarians were not Fugitives. The Fugitives were harbingers of modernism and saw themselves as bringers of its light to the benighted South. If that can be thought of as forward looking, it should be. The Agrarians, however, were reactionary and backward looking, pining for a South that never existed, except in the sour-saccharine fantasies of figures like Margaret Mitchell. The year I met the Fugitives I also bought a copy of the seminal anthology Naked Poetry at The Either/Or Bookstore in Hermosa Beach, a seedy little town on the Santa Monica Bay, near my seedy little town. I wanted to convince Mr. Van Wagoner, who believed that Ransom, Tate, and Warren were pinnacles of modern poetry, that Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Patchen and Sylvia Plath were just as important. James Dickey was not in that anthology nor were any of the Fugitives. But of course not, they did not write anything like the free verse promoted by Naked Poetry, though some of those in that anthology, like John Berryman and Weldon Kees and Theodore Roethke, didn’t write free verse either! Little did I know of the poetry wars, the lines of battle, the legacy of modernism in America. Also forty years, the time between me in the 1960s and the Fugitives in the 1920s, really was a long time; it still seems like a long time, and that is almost as long I’ve taught at Vanderbilt. But the Fugitives, with their Southern location and peculiar name, made me think they must be running away from something—the Confederacy? The name as I have learned was suggested by the least known of their group, Sidney Hirsch, whose brother-in-law’s house served as their meeting place. No one seems to know quite what he meant by the name. It reminds me of the origin of the name for another famous group of poets, the Beats. I think it was Jack Kerouac who once claimed that Beat was short for Beatitude. Both groups have at times seemed uncertain of their names, and that uncertainty has helped with the sense of legend and myth associated with them. But the Fugitives could definitely have been in flight from past Southern history, and also since they existed as a group less than ten years, they may have seen themselves ultimately as transient. Their famous little magazine, The Fugitive, itself lasted only five years. Still, for Mr. Van Wagoner, the Fugitives, and therefore for me, were some kind of gold standard. I knew that I loved John Crowe Ransom’s poems and came to see that “The Equilibrists” was hardly the classic that “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” or “Philomela” was, and I came to see that Robert Penn Warren was also a good poet. I actually read his fiction before I read his poetry; his short story “Blackberry Winter” was a favorite of another of my English teachers. And there was the example of Allen Tate talking wonderfully about writing his “Ode to the Confederate Dead” in the Ghiselin anthology. What did these writers have in common? I couldn’t have told you then, though I was also reading Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, who stirred the little theologian in me and whom my father was also reading in seminary. Now I think I can say it was a regard for the classical proportions of poetry and fiction, as they reflected a society in decline, a decadence that seemed vividly alive and very possibly resisting its own dying. I can see that now in Ransom’s “Dead Boy” as in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Ransom’s poem begins, “The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction, / A green bough from Virginia’s aged tree.” I loved the echo of “foul” and “bough.” And Faulkner’s story, too, as we all know, begins eulogistically, “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral.” Southern literature seemed perennially about the end of things and the loss of ancestral vitality. These are not novel insights, but they do remind me of my uncritical love for writing, especially poetry, which at that time I did not understand.
But though Nashville seemed like a foreign place, I have to say that Southern-ness did not seem so foreign. In fact, I had grown up with stories of the South, especially from my mother. My mother’s mother was from Stone County, Mississippi, and supposedly a descendant of Jefferson Davis. I had myself been born in Kentucky, when my father was in seminary at College of the Bible, now Lexington Theological Seminary. My parents, both from Los Angeles, lived in Kentucky for three years, 1950–1953. My dad was serving a little church in Sharpsburg, a town of 400, when I was born in Mount Sterling. My parents never forgot the country lore and manners of their congregation. My dad was a good amateur photographer and had so many slides of those days and stories about the people in the church, I could almost convince myself that I remembered everything, too, though we returned to California when I was one. So, like Robert Penn Warren, I was from Kentucky. Like all the Fugitives, I had Southern roots. My mother’s mother, who lived in San Diego, was a reader. She had read Warren’s great novel of Southern politics, All the King’s Men. She had stories about the novel’s subject, Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana. I remember her stories, especially about Long’s assassination. She admired Long, but she also loved President Kennedy. None of this was organized clearly in my mind, except that the South was a place to be appreciated, replicated, in our lives, from dinner time to church time. All except for one thing, and that was its racism. That was something we talked about only when we were not there, and we were often there in the presence of my grandparents on both sides, from Missouri on my father’s side and Mississippi on my mother’s side.
Around me, like a penumbra, was a sense that the South should mean something, and its presence continued throughout my childhood, into high school. It was made clear to me at home that the South was totally backward where race was concerned; as a child when we visited Kentucky and I met some of my parents’ congregation, I was under strict orders not to talk about race. We visited Sharpsburg several times while I was growing up, but I knew enough not to say anything about race relations. It was strange, except that I knew my parents loved these people and were saddened by their beliefs. The racism endemic to American society, and in particular Los Angeles, is not another story, really. I became aware of it as, in the 1960s, my father tried to introduce his congregation to the work of Civil Rights. The vein of bigotry might look different in a church in Redondo Beach, California, from the same thing in Sharpsburg, Kentucky, but really the depravity was not just a sin of the South. Again, this is not a novel insight, but it is how I learned that the South shared more with the non-South than I had been taught to believe. Though I recognize that, especially in poetry, there may be complicated strata of prejudice, race, and class, these in fact are related. Basically, whether they are hinted in the poetry of the enlightened modernists who formed the Fugitives or present in the apologies for Southern racism I would hear from my beloved grandmother in San Diego, they are the same.
The first year I taught at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference at The University of the South, in 1991, I had already taught at Vanderbilt for eight years. A conference tradition at that time was to stand at midnight at the grave of Allen Tate (he is buried in the cemetery at Sewanee next to his son who died in infancy) and read “Ode to the Confederate Dead” by flashlight.
Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament . . .
I was honored to be asked to read at Tate’s grave. Though I had known the poem for years, still I studied up on it in the library of the University of the South beforehand. Nobody was going to quiz me, but I knew that the poet and critic John Hollander might be standing there too in the shadows. He and I had already had a disagreement about which was the greater poem, Robert Lowell’s ”The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” or Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” I knew Lowell’s association with the Fugitives and his complicated relationship with his mentor Allen Tate, and I knew that his poem was in part an homage to Tate’s. There in the dark with my flashlight I was going to make sure that I read Tate’s poem as well as I could to the surrounding dimly lit faces, while knowing why I preferred Lowell’s. A few years later, probably for good reasons, the tradition of reading Tate’s ode at his grave was abandoned by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. However, I learned this past summer, from a Sewanee student in my workshop at the conference, that the tradition continues among some in the student body at the University of the South.
These are complicated issues, made simple for some by the cast of history and the need to make reparation for past wrongs. Allen Tate’s poem is the poem he is famous for, but once in a talk about Southern poetry to a group of older Vanderbilt alumni, I said “The Swimmers,” Tate’s terza rima about witnessing a lynching when he was a child, was a better poem.
My breath crackled the dead air like a shotgun
As, sheriff and the stranger disappearing,
The faceless head lay still. I could not run
Or walk, but stood. Alone in the public clearing
This private thing was owned by all the town,
Though never claimed by us within my hearing.
Tate’s widow Helen was in the audience and told me afterwards that her husband had agreed that “The Swimmers” was his best poem. An interesting aspect of that class which I taught once a week for about six weeks was that many who attended it waited, during the Q & A at the end of each of my lectures, to share their stories of studying with Mr. Ransom, Allen Tate, Red Warren, or being in class with James Dickey or Eleanor Ross Taylor, even of knowing Randall Jarrell’s family here in Nashville where he grew up. I am talking, then, about a group of poets who had passed into legend and gossip and ghostliness. The class itself met a decade ago. Many who sat there and shared their stories about Jim Dickey and Mr. Ransom are probably gone by now. Though I had agreed to talk about Southern poetry, from Ransom to my contemporaries Kate Daniels and Andrew Hudgins, most who took the class believed I would be talking only about the Fugitives or poets closely associated with them. One evening I received a phone call at home from a woman in South Carolina whose great uncle had been one of the lesser known members of the Fugitives. She had lost his books in a fire and wanted to know where she could obtain copies, either from me or one of my colleagues. Legends always exist in an eternal present, and for some, the Fugitives remain, or remained at that time, legends.
The longer I have lived and taught in the South, the more I have seen these legends fade away. A friend of mine who attended Vanderbilt in the 1970s told me that even when he was a student there, the university regarded the Fugitives as some colleges regard famous winning football teams. But Vanderbilt as an institution never really supported the group; it was entirely local. Even in 1956 when the school hosted a reunion for the surviving Fugitives and published transcripts of their meetings and talks, the reunion itself was made possible by an outside grant. In 1980, the university posted an historical plaque outside the house on Whitland Avenue where the Fugitives often met. In subsequent years new faculty invited to join the English department, while knowing the history of the Fugitives, have not felt particularly devoted to their memory. I taught poems by Ransom, Tate, and Warren in my introduction to poetry classes when I was a junior member of the department, but they were the poems everybody taught and acknowledged, Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” Tate’s “Sonnets at Christmas,” a favorite of mine, and just about anything by Warren, but mainly the last part of “Audubon: A Vision,” which includes the simple and profound request, “Tell me a story.”
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
Warren possibly understood better than any of his fellow Fugitives that story is the heart and soul of Southern literature, in poetry as well as in prose. Those of my colleagues who worked in the field of Southern letters were more interested in the construction of Southern literature, of professional Southernism as it might be dismissively called, and how the Fugitives were part of that cultural phenomenon, than they were in the actual literature itself. But this has been the direction of literary scholarship and criticism for decades now.
The Fugitives as a group had ceased to be taught by the time I arrived at Vanderbilt in 1983. I had students in my first five years who explained that they had come to Vanderbilt to study the Fugitives, and I felt their reproach. I was there to teach poetry, of course, but especially to develop the creative writing program. The scholars who might have taught the Fugitives had other interests, mainly in fiction. No one was teaching the Fugitive poets, not as a group, not in a class about them. Our Southern literary critics felt no allegiance to them and were in fact interested more in the broader sense of a Southern tradition which, like regional literature generally, was bleeding through its boundaries. It was the New South and its diverse literature which was being examined, being critiqued for its commercial values and the remarkable ways Southern literature was changing. When I was joined in creative writing by two writers, the novelist Tony Earley and the poet Kate Daniels, who identified with and understood the South as I never would or could, I was grateful. Let them speak to the administrators who had started to ask why we never had white Southern writers of Dickey’s generation to read anymore and why our visiting writers’ series was filled with non-Southerners or younger Southerners. Once we proposed to have a gathering of writers of the New South, and when we identified as keynote speakers the novelist Lee Smith and the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, both Southerners, we were asked why we were not asking Miss Eudora Welty. Because she was deceased did not wholly appease the individual who had the purse strings; as for Komunyakaa, this particular administrator would not even try to pronounce his name. I like to think those days are long gone, but in fact they were not that long ago.
In poetry itself the classicism which was associated with the Fugitives, its formalism, its precise and dry diction, its ironic detachment considering the most wrenching of subjects (Ransom’s dead boys and girls, Tate’s acknowledgement of lynching, Warren’s depiction of the violence and depredations of the poor), these remained as crisp and defined as anything by Thomas Hardy and T. S. Eliot, though rarely in Eliot’s vers libre. The influence of the Fugitives in that regard extends into the 1960s in American poetry and has enjoyed some revival among the New Formalists. But it is also the Fugitives themselves who have had an impact. Special Collections at the Vanderbilt Heard Library contains files which include the typescripts of poems, some on canary seconds and manila paper that would crumble in your hands, on which the Fugitives penciled suggestions for each other. It is enlightening to see their judiciousness and humor and perception, to find a comment, possibly from Allen Tate, on a typescript of a new poem by John Crowe Ransom claiming something like, “There goes John again, doing what he does.” Or making a particular note about a balky meter or a bad rhyme. You can see where the modern workshop begins, but you can also see what poets and writers have always done for each other.
The central members of the Fugitives did their greatest work for the larger society of literature once they dispersed, thanks in part to Vanderbilt’s incuriosity about what they did, not to mention its lack of support. Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College, which gave him the financial support for the literary quarterly he wanted, and there he founded The Kenyon Review. As editor of that magazine, Ransom did an enormous amount of good for American letters, although some unfortunate things, too, like rejecting a poem by young Robert Duncan once he learned that Duncan was gay. Allen Tate, at Princeton, urged both Frederick Morgan and Joseph Bennett, his students, to start a magazine once they were back from their service in World War II. Together they founded The Hudson Review. Robert Penn Warren began The Southern Review at LSU with his Vanderbilt classmate Cleanth Brooks, and with the textbooks they wrote, including Introduction to Poetry, had as much or more to do with making the New Criticism the literary theory of the twentieth century, holding sway until the highhandedness of deconstruction and, let us admit, the advance of illiteracy took the day. Donald Davidson is harder to talk about. He remained teaching at Vanderbilt into the 1960s, when the university completed its integration, begun by the divinity school in the 1950s. During that time Davidson took positions which were shameful. He was, however, the Fugitive who understood the roots of country music in the oral literature of immigrants from Europe, especially the Scots Irish who populated the Appalachians in eastern Tennessee; he understood, too, that Nashville which called itself the Athens of the South was and would be central to country music and even understood what was Southern about it all. After Warren, Davidson among the Fugitives was the best at writing narrative poetry. My teacher from graduate school, the poet Donald Justice, scolded me once for not getting to know Davidson’s work when he learned I still had not done so some ten years after I had arrived at Vanderbilt. But I was repelled by what I had learned about Davidson and his response to Civil Rights in Nashville, and I still am. Warren himself wrote two important books during the Civil Rights era, which were meant to educate white people like himself: Segregation and a great work of oral history, Who Speaks for the Negro, for which he interviewed everyone from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr., to James Baldwin. Still, in his verse drama, Brother to Dragons, depicting one of the horrific racial crimes of the pre-Civil War South, the murder by two of Thomas Jefferson’s nephews of a slave, Warren is not above depictions of casual racism in limning the features of small-town Kentucky from his own childhood. I have taught the book many times and cringed every time. At the heart of the book is the question of how Thomas Jefferson, this enlightenment individual, albeit a slave owner, could be related to individuals who were deliberately evil and whose evil was enacted in the butchering of a fellow human being who was little more than a child. The question that never emerges or is even raised in that book is the crime of slavery itself. For Warren the murder is a mystery of the human heart and mind. A fact of a fallen world. And not what it obviously is: an act of violence perpetrated by slavery itself, by the ownership of human beings by human beings who believe they are superior to them. I no longer teach the book. But when I have, I have had to admit that this masterpiece is flawed because it asks the wrong question. It is not how this crime could happen, but how slavery made it possible.
I think what has impressed me over the years is that younger Southern poets themselves have been in flight from the Fugitives. I’m not talking about their immediate descendants, like James Dickey or even Dave Smith or Eleanor Ross Taylor. Even these poets saw that the classicism of the Fugitives, the balanced, ironical attitudes, the formal symmetries, could not properly contain the South with its racism and violence, lush vitality and conflict between urban and rural society. James Dickey’s essay on Randall Jarrell, himself a student of Warren and Ransom at Vanderbilt, could be seen as a critique of the limitations of irony and the realism that underpins Fugitive poetry. Younger Southern poets as I have grown to know them, like Ellen Bryant Voigt and Kate Daniels, have recognized the constraints of the Fugitives’ traditional practice, which they have seen as male inscribed and insufficient. Others, like David Bottoms and C. D. Wright, have come out of a tradition that could be identifiable with Robert Penn Warren alone, who early broke out of the classical traces and drew on narrative form which he also worked in his novels. A Southern poet who has always seemed to me as original and powerful as Warren is Andrew Hudgins. But in a sense he comes to the Fugitives via the historical conduit of Robert Lowell. Lowell was the first of his generation of enormously talented poets, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, to show the driving power of the iambic line as Allen Tate wrote it. Tate became an important though ambivalent mentor for Lowell, as I have said, having shown Lowell in poems like “Ode to the Confederate Dead” how the baroque rhythms and allusive echoes of Milton could be translated into contemporary American verse. In more recent decades, the poetry of the South, which in fact is enormously various, has been shaped also by African American poets, like Yusef Komunyakaa of Louisiana and Tiana Clark of Tennessee. The expanding of diverse interests and approaches in Southern poetry has swelled up around that Fugitive group, those academics and business people, poets and poetasters, and subsumed it in an overwhelming wave. Did Southern poetry really grow from such unpromising beginnings, an enlightened person might say. Surely not, surely not there. But the historical evidence exists, even if contemporary interest has waned.
Recently I was asked by my University to give a talk about the Fugitives to a group of administrators who were gathered to meet and discuss their jobs. They were from the top 25 universities in the country, and the person in charge of their meeting wanted them to have at least an hour of respite from flowcharts and business modeling. She wanted to give them some Humanistic downtime and thought that a talk about the Fugitives and in particular Robert Penn Warren would be a nice break. Robert Penn Warren is clearly Vanderbilt’s most notable alumnus, and one of its residential colleges is named for him. I agreed to put together a talk, including a PowerPoint, but I said that if I was going to talk about the Fugitives, I would also have to talk about the Agrarians and their notorious defense of the old South, I’ll Take My Stand. She balked. She knew probably rightly that it would take a lot to explain that many of the Fugitives, certainly all of the famous ones I’ve been talking about here, contributed essays that were defenses of the agrarian, local ways of the South against the coming forces of industrialization, standardization, and the advance of integration and Civil Rights. Robert Penn Warren himself had contributed an essay on race in I’ll Take My Stand, making the argument in the 1930s that the Negro was not yet educated enough to be integrated into white society but needed time to flourish “under his own vine and fig tree.” In other words, it was an argument for separate but equal racial societies. Even so, for some like Donald Davidson, Warren’s essay was too liberal. My administrator asked if I couldn’t stick to their beautiful poetry, in particular to Robert Penn Warren’s. I said no, but that I would treat Southern Agrarianism in passing and speak of it especially as Warren had taken it on without evading it later in his life. I think if I had truly been a Southern poet, growing up with a sense of what the Fugitive tradition meant to me personally, I would have had the same response.
I have then in my career been neither in flight to nor from the Fugitives. I have in a way been in flight with the Fugitives. Their dispersal from Vanderbilt was unfortunate for Vanderbilt. But their presence, certainly the presence of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, has kept the spirit of creative writing alive at the university for 100 years. My colleagues and I have been the beneficiaries of that spirit. That John Crowe Ransom taught, in the 1920s, a course in several kinds of narrative writing, including the short story, an embryonic creative writing workshop, and that Robert Penn Warren took the class and found his path, has kept creative writing at Vanderbilt as part of the curriculum throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. And I suspect that the way those dozen or so local poets and writers agreed to meet and talk about their work after World War I, into the 1920s, and start a magazine in which they could publish each other and draw international attention, was another reason that creative writing has flourished in Nashville. And the diaspora of the most talented members of the Fugitives has helped to spread the word that to make a poem is an honorable thing as a pastime and a career.
So I have spent most of my academic life in the ghostly vicinity of these poets, the Fugitives, and never really had to answer to or for them. I came to Vanderbilt with a love of Ransom, Tate, and Warren—especially Warren. When I went abroad for a year in 1978, Warren’s selected was one of the books I felt I had to take with me, along with Elizabeth Bishop’s collected. But the Fugitives, though they produced genius in Warren, and valuable goodness in the poetry of Ransom and Tate, are worth remembering not only for those poets, but for the group itself. The Fugitives, despite the reactionary and useless things some of them said as Agrarians, remained a core of like-minded talents who knew which among them stood out and yet for about ten years practiced their art together, sought a larger world with their magazine, and reassembled 30 years after their disassembly to reminisce about the most important thing in their lives. Not just literature, but the making of literature.
I remember a disagreement I had with a colleague about Caribbean literature and its place in the English department. We were about to hire a young assistant professor who would teach Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaica Kincaid, and others, all of whom formed a definitive group of writers from the Caribbean. My colleague was most definitely a descendant of the Fugitives and had studied with them at Vanderbilt. He refused to admit there was such a thing as Caribbean literature. I said to him, but it is being written. Just because it is being written, doesn’t make it literature, he said. This comment could also be critiqued for its racism, of course, but his argument was I think that it took more than identification for a local phenomenon to become a universal one. The Fugitives, who did make literature, are really most valuable if we think of them as local or regional first and foremost. They had their ambitions to change the way that Southern literature, especially Southern poetry, was defined, but they also had a sense that there was a larger movement afoot. It was classical, an old-fashioned way of being new as Robert Frost would say, and it tried to reject anything that was written in bad faith, sentimentally representing a South that no longer existed, as if it ever did. For a time they showed that a group of talented poets, some of whom truly exceeded their peers, could have an impact that was more than regional. I think we can look back at the twentieth century and see this happening in places large and small, from New York to San Francisco, the Midwest to the South. American literature has at its best always been local and has made the regional alive with possibilities for a larger view. The Fugitives were in flight from the clichéd and hackneyed, so were the Movement poets in England, so were any number of movements, like the Beats. The Fugitives managed to identify their place and time, with the help of their collaborative efforts in their magazine, and even with the departure of formidable members like Ransom, Tate, and Warren. They managed to become a name that identified the modernism emerging in the rich but flawed intellectual tradition of the South. What they did was no small thing. At this date no one would call themselves Fugitives, but the identity of the Fugitives persists and deserves understanding. I have understood my own outsiderness as a poet in the South, even as I have alighted among them and now prepare to fly off.