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This article is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

With the Topnotch Tates at Benfolly, 1937 Tony Roberts
It is a potentially disastrous situation – one almost wills it to be: Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, are furiously busy with their novels; their house guest, Ford Madox Ford, is dictating to his secretary (the wonderfully named Wally Tworkov) while her sister, his companion Janice Biala, sits painting. Out on the lawn of ‘Benfolly’ the young and callow Robert Lowell intones his own Miltonic sonnets in an olive-green tent. ‘It’s awful here’, writes Biala. ‘In every room in the house there’s a typewriter and at every typewriter there sits a genius. Each genius is wilted and says that he or she can do no more but the typewritten sheets keep on mounting. I too am not idle. I sit in the parlor where I paint on three pictures at once in intervals of killing flies.’

The reason that this was not one of the great literary combustions, with five simmering egos in a hothouse summer and unreliable basic amenities, has a lot to do with their individual preoccupations – and mutual respect. Irritability seems to have been largely suppressed, intellectual wrangling muted. As Allen Tate wrote in a late ‘New York Review of Books’ piece, ‘It was a situation perversely planned by fate to expose human weakness. There were no scenes.’

The nineteenth-century Benfolly – ‘one of the damnedest houses in the world to my notion’, wrote Caroline Tate – sits on a hill above the Cumberland River three miles from Clarksville, Tennessee. It had been bought with the aid of a generous $10,000 ‘loan’ from Tate’s ...

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