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Allen Tate: The Fathers

The Fathers was Tate’s only novel and he had great difficulty writing it. He said he would have been happy to throw away this moment if I were not a sharecropper who must pay back the advance from his landlord. He was even critical of it before publication – They [the reviewers] will say that the narrator beats about the bush for a hundred thousand words but never comes to grips with the characters. Tate was too hard on himself for though still underestimated, this is undoubtedly one of the best Civil War novels.

The hero is Lacy Buchan, who is telling the story as an old man, though, during the story he is still a fifteen-year old boy. The story starts with the funeral of Lacy’s mother. Lacy worships his older brother-in-law, George Posey, and can only admire him when Posey rides off from the funeral. However, there is a contrast between Posey and Lacy’s father, Major Buchan, who is”old-fashioned” and conservative. Indeed, Lacy’s father feels that nothing should change and sees his home – Pleasant Hill – as a place where everything will remain the same. Posey was introduced to the family by Semmes, Lacy’s older brother, and Semmes, too, is under Posey’s spell. This divided loyalty is, of course, the key theme of the book – not only the loyalties the two sons have between their father and brother-in-law but also, of course, the divided loyalties between Union and Confederacy.

The second part of the novel is concerned with the impending Civil War. Major Buchan remains pro-Union while his sons and son-in-law are pro-Confederate. When the two older sons join the Confederates, the Major sends Lacy to the Poseys in Georgetown, in Union territory. The Poseys are a strange family. Mr. Posey is dead but Mrs. Posey is still alive. The household also consists of her brother-in-law, a writer manqué, and the recluse, Aunt Milly. Posey’s young sister, Jane, also lives there and Lacy, of course, falls in love with her, though Semmes also falls for her. Posey himself is running guns for the South, but not for profit. At this point, two other characters play an important role. Posey had sold Yellow Jim into slavery. Yellow Jim, as we find out later, is Posey’s half-brother. Yellow Jim returns to the Posey’s house and is accused of raping Jane. Susan, Posey’s wife and Lacy’s sister, discovers Jane and this further confirms her in the view that her family should not again marry into the Posey family. Despite the fact that there is no evidence for rape, Semmes and Lacy take Jim”up the river” and Semmes shoots him, while Posey, on finding out, shoots Semmes. Lacy returns to Pleasant Hill but Major Buchan hangs himself when he finds he cannot protect it from the Yankees. Posey and Lacy both join the Confederate Army but Posey has to leave after killing a man who insults him but Lacy still retains his affection for Posey. It won’t make any difference if I am killed. If I am killed it will be because I love him more than I love any man.. Of course, as he is telling the story as an old man, we know he is not killed.

This is not, of course, the first Civil War novel to show how much the War changed life both for individuals and for the country at large (Gone With the Wind is only one obvious example). Like Tara in Gone With the Wind, Pleasant Hill is a symbol of a certain view of the South – white, conservative, treating slaves as family members rather than brutally, virtually self-sufficient, loyal, independent – and when this view cannot be maintained, the owner, Major Buchan, kills himself. But The Fathers goes beyond national or sectional loyalty, delving into the issue of personal loyalty. The views of Major Buchan and George Posey are strongly contrasted and leave young Lacy Buchan torn between the two conflicting demands. It is this complex view of loyalty, what is right and what is wrong and how we react to the demands placed on us, particularly in a stressful time like war, that make this book one of the finest Civil War novels.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons