The State of Letters

Adam Ross

Winter 2017

This editorial, like many elements of the Sewanee Review, has a long history. The poet and critic Allen Tate created the State of Letters in Autumn 1944 to announce his editorship when he took over from Tudor Seymour Long, and every subsequent editor assuming the mantle—John Palmer, Monroe K. Spears, Andrew Lytle, and George Core—has employed it to reiterate the Review’s editorial policy and reinterpret its core values.

In his piece, Tate discusses what he perceived as the “collapse of American literary standards.” He was troubled, in particular, by certain popular critics who would do away with such standards altogether. It was wartime, America was in an existential struggle with fascism, and to these men, all authority, even that of intellectuals, was suspected of being anti-democratic. “If you believe in ‘standards,’” Tate writes, parroting these critics’ line of thinking, “who is going to uphold them but ‘authority’? And what other authority is there than the authority of force?” Tate knew this to be ridiculous. Without literary standards, there can be no literature. Jettison any measure of merit, and the slide into anti-intellectualism is quick.

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