The novel, which spans fourteen months from 1860 until 1861, is divided into three parts: “Pleasant Hill,” “The Crisis,” and “The Abyss.” The first is set at the Fairfax County plantation of the Buchan family, modeled after the childhood home of Tate’s mother, Eleanor Parke Custis Varnell. As The Fathers opens, sixty-five-year-old Lacy Buchan recalls his mother’s death fifty years earlier, as well as the occasion of George Posey’s engagement to Lacy’s sister, Susan. Major Lewis Buchan, Lacy’s aristocratic father, opposes the match, and here Tate establishes the story’s most important conflict—between the old order, represented by the Major, and the new, represented by George Posey.
Informed by a traditional code that exists outside of himself, the Major resists change. Not so George, who acts according to personal whims that are incomprehensible to almost everyone around him. “They don’t understand George,” Lacy’s brother, Semmes, observes, with extreme understatement. Change does come, of course, and like a whirlwind it blows the House of Buchan down. “Why cannot life change without tangling the lives of innocent persons?” Lacy wonders. “Why do innocent persons cease their innocence and become violent and evil in themselves that such great changes may take place?”
In the second section, “The Crisis,” the action shifts to Washington, D.C. Amid the capital’s preparations for war, the families must choose sides. Semmes and later Lacy both join Virginia brigades, and again the Major’s protests are useless.has rendered his inborn sense of reason and moderation moot. “Your pa is still living before he was born—in 1789,” one of Lacy’s cousins tells him. “He thinks the government is a group of high-minded gentlemen who are trying to yield everything to one another. Damn it, Lacy, it’s just men like your pa who are the glory of the , and the surest proof of her greatness, that are going to ruin us.” Disenchanted and defeated ideologically, the Major returns to Pleasant Hill without his sons. Lacy, meanwhile, relocates to the Poseys’ Georgetown home. So begins the novel’s final section, “The Abyss.”
Drawing on the macabre world of, The Fathers descends into darkness. Lacy compares George Posey’s “Mad Uncle Jarman” to Poe’s haunted artist Roderick Usher, but the rot of madness has spread throughout the family. Posey’s mother and aunt have sealed themselves in their rooms while George’s wife, Susan Buchan—overwhelmed by a world floating free from the rigid codes of her youth—slowly loses control. The end comes when both Lacy and Semmes fall in love with George’s sister, Jane. Susan, aghast that anyone else should come under the Poseys’ spell, conspires to have George’s former slave and half-brother, Yellow Jim, rape Jane. Semmes shoots Jim, and George—for reasons that strike those involved as mysterious—shoots his old friend Semmes.
In a state of shock, Lacy returns to Pleasant Hill, where Union troops surround the plantation. When Posey impulsively strikes their, the man burns Pleasant Hill to the ground—but not before the Major, who has refused to vacate the premises, hangs himself. With “a wisp of smoke hanging in the air,” the novel’s devastation is finally complete.
When The Fathers was released in the autumn of 1938, reviewers were largely receptive. In the New York Times, Charles Poore praised the novel’s “subtle skill and insight” and wryly noted that “the Civil War can’t do much more harm to the Buchans after George Posey has finished with them.” Poore wondered how Lacy Buchan can manage to so thoroughly admire everyone—Semmes, Susan, and, above all, George. That Lacy might have looked up to George in his youth makes sense. “But that he should still admire him so much, half a century after that same George Posey had smashed his family to pieces, is not so easy to believe.”
Herschel Brickell, also writing in the New York Times, called The Fathers “a beautifully written and profoundly searching story of the Old South” in which Tate dramatizes “the conflict between a strong man who is not rooted in the peculiar Virginia culture of the period and the ancient traditions of the culture itself.” Brickell further asserted that “there is nothing at all of the melodramatic in Mr. Tate’s protagonist, any more than there is in the scenes of violence.”
The Washington Post, however, had no qualms labeling The Fathers “a melodrama,” one that, though told “with a fine balance and a delicate sympathy for varying shades of conflicting Southern loyalties,” nevertheless fails in its approach to African Americans. “Where it concerns the relations between black man and white [Tate] loses all his sensitivity,” Lewis Gannett wrote. “Negroes to him are mere racial types; the subtleties of motivation which give a real distinction to most of Mr. Tate’s book fade out and disappear.”
Time argued that the book “exhibits a Border-State mentality,” referring to states like Virginia, Kentucky (Tate’s birthplace), and Tennessee that in the months before the Civil War “vacillated, compromised, stood on one political foot and then the other, kept the country on pins and needles till the last moment.” Although Tate’s novel might suggest a comparison to the work of, “in a Faulkner novel the portrayal of decadence would have left no room for Tate’s wavering conclusion. Between Novelists Tate and Faulkner the gulf is as wide as that which separated the Border States’ champion compromiser, Henry Clay, and the Deep South’s champion non-compromiser, Jeff Davis.”
In fact, Tate, who lived until 1979, authored a biography of Confederate president(1929) as well as the Confederate general (1928). (He later abandoned a biography of the more conflicted , a project that the writer Radcliffe Squires suggested “had begun to turn into a species of autobiography.”) Tate was a conservative who associated with the so-called Fugitive writers of his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, including John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. He also was a leader of the twelve-man Southern Agrarian movement and a contributor to its manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand (1930), which called for a return to a simpler, more rural way of life. A critic and poet, Tate is best known for his frequently anthologized “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” While both the poem and his only novel mourn the loss of the antebellum South, they also acknowledge and analyze its flaws, melding nostalgia for an old order with an understanding that return is impossible.
“It is an old country, I thought, as my toes sank into the rusty clay, powdered by the sun,” Lacy Buchan muses in The Fathers, “an old country, and too many people have lived in it, and raised too much tobacco and corn, and too many men and women, young and old, have died in it, and taken with them into the rusty earth their gallantry or their melancholy, their pride or their simplicity … and too many people have loved the ground in which after a while they must all come to lie.”
In the decades following its publication, The Fathers did not disappear, but it did suffer from critical neglect. A 1960 American reissue of the book, now armed with an admiring essay by scholar Arthur Mizener, marked a comeback of sorts, so that in 1966 the critic Richard J. O’Dea could report that “with the passage of time the novel has come to be appreciated and understood, and now enjoys a certain modest success.” Over the years, critical approaches have not wandered far from the basic questions The Fathers provoked on its initial release, with critics scratching their heads at George Posey’s motivations and digging deeply into the book’s historical context. Some have pondered the ambiguity surrounding Jim’s apparent rape of Jane (circumstances that recall the almost-rape in‘s 1940 novel, ). Nevertheless, discussion of The Fathers has largely avoided the arguments over race that have marked, for instance, considerations of William Styron‘s (1967) or Cather’s book.
The critic James T. Bratcher, meanwhile, argued that Tate’s physical description of “Mad Uncle Jarman” Posey—in particular, “the pallid face, the high bulging forehead under the metallic white hair, the pale blue eyes that did not focus on anything”—was actually a description of Tate himself. “Tate’s intrusion into his story may be playful only,” Bratcher wrote, “but possibly, too, as a southern author and apologist, he planted evidence that he did not exempt himself, a product of southern upbringing, from the scrutiny leveled in The Fathers.”