For 37 years, Ashley Brown taught English and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina. His friends and contemporaries included: Flannery O’Conner, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald as well as Allen and Caroline Gordon Tate. He edited among other works, Allen Tate’s Reviews 1924-1944 and The Achievement of Wallace Stevens. Ashley Brown’s papers and correspondence can be found at Emory University and thirty-eight of his and Flannery O’Connor letters are located at Princeton University. The following interview took place in 2008 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Lord: I thought we could start by talking about how the Fugitives came into being.
Brown: After the Great War, around 1920, there were groups of literary people in various Southern cities. They were operating not in the countryside, but in cities. I want to come down rather hard on this city idea because the greater part of Southern Literature, especially fiction, is based on plantation society. When you read Faulkner, you suppose that everyone lived in a society such as the one he depicts but that’s not quite true.
Lord: And the Fugitive writers all gravitated to the city of Nashville.
Brown: Yes, the Fugitives were the most famous because they were not only poets, but also critics. They were all associated with Vanderbilt either as students or teachers.
Lord: I know Robert Penn Warren was a student. Who were some of the others?
Brown: Donald Davidson had been a student. Allen Tate was a student. Robert Penn Warren was a very young student. He was just a teenager. Another poet in the next generation at Vanderbilt was his friend Randall Jarrell. He was a Tennessean. He was born in 1914 and was just a bit older than Robert Lowell. The Fugitives, as you know, also published a magazine.
Lord: Titled The Fugitive.
Brown: Another important example of a literary magazine was T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion which ran from 1922 to 1939. The Criterion provided a kind of center for some people’s work.
Lord: What can you tell me about the Fugitives’ teacher, John Crowe Ransom?
Brown: Ransom was born in 1888. He was first a poet and then became a critic and later the editor of the Kenyon Review. He’d also been an officer in the war.
Lord: He wrote a book titled The New Criticism which later suggested a dominant trend in American literary criticism.
Brown: Yes, the title is his own.
Lord: And it meant you should focus on the text and reject criticisms from other sources?
Brown: Basically, yes. They really are quite correct. Nobody can deny that. It’s ridiculous to have studied a poem only through its biographical sources.
Lord: You should study the poem, not the poet. Why was Ransom so important to the Fugitive movement?
Brown: Ransom was a first rate critic. He had a very good idea about what was worth preserving in literary matters.
Lord: Ransom has been called by some a “major minor” poet.
Brown: The French have a phrase for that—”un petit maitre.”
Lord: A small master.
Brown: Yes, Ransom was a master on the small scale whereas T.S. Eliot thought in somewhat larger terms. Eliot’s “Prufrock” is far more ambitious than any poem by Ransom.
Lord: Were there other cities besides Nashville to which writers gravitated?
Brown: Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans. Poets tend to be in there first in modern literary culture.
Lord: What does “in there first” mean?
Brown: They got there ahead of prose writers. The trouble with the Charleston writers in the 1920’s is that they didn’t have a critic. There was nobody there to direct them. I think the three most prominent poets were DuBose Heyward, Josephine Pinckney and Hervey Allen. They were the three leaders in the poetry group in 1920-1922. They published several volumes of poetry amongst themselves.
Lord: That’s interesting you say they didn’t have a critic. How would a critic have helped?
Brown: There was no Ransom among them to direct them. Somebody with a critical intelligence to rise above local things. The Charleston poets meant well, but they fell back on local color. That’s just death.
Lord: Tell me more about that.
Brown: That’s a big subject. People who cannot get beyond the places where they live. It’s fatal. You understand I favor a great deal of regional literary culture because I grew up with that. Flannery O’Connor is a perfect example of how one can be an extremely loyal local writer. Everything she wrote about she could see from the front porch or hear about in the local community.
Lord: But she was able to transcend that.
Brown: Absolutely. You have to be able to have the regional within something universal. It makes all the difference. But the people in Charleston, at that time, were never able to transcend it. They were just sitting there writing about their ancestors.
Lord: I want to go back to the Fugitives. One of the Fugitives you knew very well was Allen Tate as well as his wife Caroline Gordon Tate. Didn’t they live for some years in Clarksville, Tennessee?
Brown: That’s right. It was a beautiful house built around 1820 and perched up above the river about 35 miles from Nashville. The house was pretty much their headquarters for ten years in the 30’s.
Lord: Was Tate mainly known as a poet or a critic?
Brown: Both. Allen Tate was the best poetry critic in this country between the two wars. By 1945, he was a well known figure.
Lord: Didn’t Allen Tate help Andrew Lytle with the Sewanee Review?
Brown: Andrew was the editor briefly during the war. The Sewanee Reviewwent all the way back to the 1890’s. It was not an important literary magazine at the time. It was certainly not in the same class as The Southern Review edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in Baton Rouge in 1935 for several years.
Lord: You told me the other day that you once interviewed Walker Percy for Shenandoah as you all were driving across the bridge to New Orleans. How did that come about?
Brown: Well, I’d already met him.
Lord: That’s a good simple answer.
Brown: Flannery knew him but not very well. I doubt if Flannery met him more than once. He wasn’t the letter writer that some people were. Actually, Percy’s friend Shelby Foote was a better letter writer. I wonder if people are still reading Percy’s work? I think The Moviegoer holds up quite well.
Lord: I was at a dinner the other night and someone mentioned The Moveigoer.
Brown: Sometimes a single book fixes a writer’s reputation in a way. It’s not quite fair. Some of Percy’s later novels were far more ambitious and deserve attention. I wrote an essay about Percy called “The Novelist as Moralist.” I was able to quote at some length from a letter he sent to Caroline Gordon in which he wrote his heart out. He really felt he wasn’t a writer in the way that she was. He followed Pascal and Kierkegaard and a line of such philosophers.
Lord: That’s a high bar to set for oneself.
Brown: That’s right. I think Caroline Gordon Tate would have been dubious of all that. She felt expicitly Christian writers, like Francois Mauriac—the Catholic novelist of that period—were completely off track.
Lord: In The Habit of Being, Flannery writes to Betty Hester about Francois Mauriac.
Brown: Oh yes, and Caroline and Flannery would argue back and forth on that subject as well.
Lord: Do you consider Flannery to be a religious writer?
Brown: Of course. She took it very seriously, no doubt about that. Even Elizabeth Bishop asked me once, “Did Flannery really believe in God?” And I said, “Well, I think so, yes.” That’s one thing I never try to speculate on—other people’s religious beliefs or lack of. It’s not for me to judge.
Lord: Do you think Flannery’s stories were stronger than her novels?
Brown: Only in the sense that by temperament she was a short story writer. But that’s an American tradition. It goes back to her first masters who were Poe and Hawthorne. All you have to do is read Poe’s famous review of Hawthorne’s short stories to see the distinction. Short story writers tend to be intense, and they seem to work out better in shorter forms than in longer ones. Katherine Anne Porter was certainly that way. She was a great model for Flannery.
Lord: They had a long correspondence.
Brown: Oh yes.
Lord: I want to go back to something you said the other day. You told me that when New York intellectuals would come to visit Flannery at Andalusia, they were expecting dinner conversation to be highbrow and it wasn’t always at that level.
Brown: Oh yes. I mean not with somebody like Regina O’Connor, Flannery’s mother. I was completely at home with ladies like that. I’d known them all my life.
Lord: How would you describe her?
Brown: Her mother? Let me think. How would I summarize her? I got along with her very well. She liked me, I think. I used to visit her after Flannery died.
Lord: Did she have a strong personality?
Brown: Yes, she did. But the strongest personality in the whole family was Regina’s older sister, Mary. The family included Flannery’s mother, Regina, whose family name was Cline. There was a brother, Uncle Lewis. Uncle Lewis lived in Atlanta. He was in the hardware business, but every weekend he came to visit. He’d turn up on Friday and leave at the end of the weekend. That was a very regular thing; I usually visited them on weekends.
Lord: How did Sally Fitzgerald acquire complete access to Flannery’s papers?
Brown:Because Flannery’s mother gave it to her. It went on for years like this. It’s quite a subject of conversation among people who knew Flannery because Sally died without ever finishing the book.
Lord: Had she been actively working on the book?
Brown: Yes, she’d been working on it for years and years. She used to come every year and spend some time at Emory.
Lord: To do research?
Brown: Yes, Emory has a lot of the papers. There is a person who, as far as I know, is writing a biography of her now. I was quite startled when I heard about it. I’ll tell you why. You see, the Fitzgeralds had a fairly large family. Five or six children and Flannery was very fond of them. One of the children, Maria, who I think lives in Minneapolis, was quite literary, and I thought she might step in and take over but that’s not going to happen.
Lord: Do you know the name of the person writing the current biography?
Brown: His name is Brad Gooch. He wrote a biography of a New York poet named Frank O’Hara who was almost an exact contemporary of Flannery’s. O’Hara was born a year later and died two years later. O’Hara was killed in a freak accident on one of the beaches in New York. Flannery was just short of forty when she died. Both were Irish Catholic.
Lord: Have you read Gooch’s book on O’Hara?
Brown: Yes, it’s well written.
Lord: Does Emory have all of Flannery’s papers?
Brown: No, there is a great deal at other collections. All of Flannery’s letters to me are at Princeton. The letters to the Cheneys are at Vanderbilt. They’ve been published. A graduate student at the University of Maryland had the idea to publish them. He did a very good job. He must have realized that the correspondence between both the Cheneys and Flannery was going to be rather valuable.
Lord: Tell me a little bit about the Cheney’s.
Brown: The Cheney’s were good friends to writers all of their lives. When I was a graduate student, they befriended me. They were good friends of Tate and Warren and everybody. They entertained in a beautiful antebellum house in Tennessee. Brainard or “Lon” was a politician, journalist and novelist and Frances Neel was an eminent librarian. I was amazed when the big volume of letters, The Habit of Being, came out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux that there were hardly any letters from Flannery to the Cheneys.
Lord: I wonder why?
Brown: I thought, “What’s happened? This is ridiculous.” I still do. I don’t know. There must be a reason for these things. There were no letters to Caroline Gordon either.
Lord: Do you think Sally Fitzgerald had a reason for this?
Brown: She was able to do whatever she wanted. Sally edited The Habit of Being.
Lord: How did you first get to know Flannery?
Brown: I’d met her in the American way through letters. In 1953, I got to know Flannery very well through correspondence.
Lord: What prompted you to write to her?
Brown: These things happened rather gradually. Flannery left Georgia and went to Iowa State which was quite a literary mecca in those days. She was in Iowa for about three years and she made some very good friends. While still a student, she was also intent on being a published writer and people at Iowa, including Andrew Lytle, were very encouraging. She published three different stories that later turned out to be chapters from the first novel, Wise Blood. The stories were published in the Sewanee Review and Partisan Review. The Partisan Review was a fairly high-powered literary magazine at that period. So I discovered this person Flannery O’Connor. But I wasn’t sure if male or female but the stories seemed to published under quite good auspices.
Lord: You mentioned Andrew Lytle. Were there other writers who helped her as well?
Brown: Caroline Gordon Tate met her and went to bat for her in a big way. When Wise Blood was first published in 1952, it had a quote from Caroline on the cover.
Lord: What did the quote say?
Brown: Caroline wrote on the jacket of Wise Blood, “Kafka is the only one of our contemporaries who has achieved such effects.” I thought “Wow.”
Lord: That’s a nice blurb to have on the back of one’s book.
Brown: Yes, it certainly is, because Kafka was a literary hero of the period. I went out and bought it immediately, and I suddenly realized I’d read three chapters of the book over several years in the late 40’s. I read the novel with great admiration and got her address and wrote to her. We’re now in 1953.
Lord: Which was when the novel was published.
Brown: Yes, Time and Newsweek had very respectable reviews.
Lord: Did you first meet her in Andulusia?
Brown: No, I met her in 1953 at the Cheney’s house in Tennessee.
Lord: Did Flannery O’Connor have a good sense of humor?
Brown: Oh wonderful. Constant. She was invited to go to colleges and various places to read. After a bit of experimentation she discovered some pieces worked better than others. It was almost like a musical composition. I heard her a number of times. Well before the end of her life, she’d become a sort of national celebrity by appearing at so many conferences.
Lord: Did she ever talk about her illness?
Brown: Never. Flannery was a very tactful person. If you saw her limping along on crutches, you got the idea something was wrong. I knew very little about lupus.
Lord: I’m curious about the birds she kept.
Brown: The peacocks wandered around. There were about 40 of them.
Lord: That many?
Brown: At first they kept me awake a little bit.
Lord: Are you familiar with this quote from O’Connor? “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be considered grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it’s going to be called realistic.”
Brown: (chuckles) Oh. Goodness. I’ve read that.
Lord: I want to jump to a period a bit later in your life. While you were living in Brazil in the 60’s, you met the poet, Elizabeth Bishop.
Brown: Yes, I had a letter of introduction from Flannery. It was Flannery’s last letter to me. I had no idea she was quite that far gone because this was 1964. She died that August.
Lord: I knew one of her last letters to you was right before she died.
Brown: That’s right. It was simply a letter of introduction. I got in touch with Elizabeth and she invited me to come and have dinner. She lived on the other end of Copa in a section called Leme. She said, “Now the way to remember that is just think, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep.’”
Lord: How long had she been living in Brazil?
Brown: Twelve years. She’d been there since 1952.
Lord: Hadn’t she originally planned to stay for just two weeks?
Brown: Yes, she was going all the way around the continent. The ship was just putting in Rio for a little while but she ended up staying.
Lord: I had read that she struggled financially and that Robert Lowell and others were instrumental in helping her get grants and funding.
Brown: Oh yes, he always was. Quite true. The poet Jimmy Merrill was certainly very helpful as well.
Lord: Someone told me there is a new book coming out in October 2008 titled Words in the Air based on Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s letters.
Brown: They knew each other very well. I mean, it was almost a kind of quasi-romantic affair at the time.
Lord: But didn’t she prefer women?
Brown: Yes, she was gay. It never became an issue. It was never stated. Elizabeth had a sense of propriety. I knew her friend, Lota, a Brazilian.
Lord: Here is a quote I found about her work: “Her poetry is distinguished by tranquil observation, craft-like accuracy, care for the small things in the world…her poems are balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles…”
Brown: I guess I agree with all of that. Incidentally, at one time Elizabeth owned a Calder mobile.
Lord: That’s a neat coincidence. I read she published 87 poems in her lifetime.
Brown: I’ve heard more than one person say that her poems don’t occupy much space. And my answer to that is that’s not really the point. The point is the quality of the work.
Lord: She had a small output.
Brown: But they were all good. As a poet, she’s like Eliot in this respect. Eliot’s body of collected poems is not that large.
Lord: She was also a perfectionist.
Lord: She would spend years on one poem.
Brown: Yes. When she lived in Rio one of the Brazilian poets names Carlos Drummond de Andrade was still alive. He used to turn out stuff every week. But Bishop didn’t write that way. She’d set herself a problem and once she’d solved it, she didn’t do it again.
Lord: What would be an example?
Brown: She wrote a beautiful ballad called “The Burglar of Babylon” and then never did it again. It’s one of her most accessible poems. It was probably influenced by Auden: “On the fair green hills of Rio / There is a fearful stain / The poor who come to Rio / And can’t go home again.”
Lord: I’d read that Bishop admired Auden.
Brown: Oh tremendously. Most everyone in that generation did. By the way, there’s a new book coming out about Elizabeth Bishop at the University of South Carolina Press called Elizabeth Bishop and Christianity.
Lord: I’ll definitely go look for it.