Essay on "A Southern Mode of the Imagination" and Thomas Wolfe

Essay on "A Southern Mode of the Imagination" and Thomas Wolfe

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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 ...

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...versation without regard for his audience. One might allow, then, that Wolfe is perhaps not the example Tate would use to support his own theory.
Tate could hardly object, however, to the application of the rhetorical/dialectical model to his own writing.

Works Cited

Tate, Allen. “A Southern Mode of the Imagination.” In Essays of Four Decades. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1968; (Third Edition) Wilmington, De: ISI Press, 1999.

_____. “Longinus.” In The Hudson Review 1, number 3 (1948): 344-361.

Wolfe, Thomas. “Boom Town.” American Mercury 64, number 125. Reprinted in The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner’s, 1987.

_____. “The Child by Tiger.” Saturday Evening Post 210, number 11. Reprinted in The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Francis E. Skipp. New York: Scribner’s, 1987.

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