The Southern Agrarians contributed to the revival of Southern literature in the 1920s and '30s. They wrote a collection of essays titled I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, that serves as a manifesto of the tradition. Tate met Warren and Ransom when he started at Vanderbilt University in 1918.
Originally they were known as the Fugitive Poets and they published a literary magazine called The Fugitive, once considered one of the most influential publications in American letters. Also among the Fugitives were Merrill Moore, Donald Davidson and William Ridley Wills. The group eventually morphed into the Southern Agrarians and included a dozen American writers, novelists, and essayists as well as poets. Their roots were in the agrarian South.
Tate moved to New York City in 1924 and met poet Hart Crane. Tate contributed to The Nation magazine, the Hound and Horn, Poetry magazine and, eventually, the National Review. The writing didn't pay the bills, however, and Tate worked as a janitor to support himself.
He married writer Caroline Gordon and they lived in Greenwich Village and then for a time in London and Paris but after 20 years they divorced only to remarry after a year and then divorce again. They remained close for the rest of their lives.
In early adulthood, Tate espoused atheism but eventually became a Roman Catholic. He married poet Isabella Gardner in the 1950s but began an affair with a nun enrolled in one of his classes, divorced Gardner and married the nun, Helen Heinz. They settled in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he helped transform The Sewanee Review into a prestigious literary journal.
Tate's best known poem is Ode to the Confederate Dead (1928), a long poem set in a graveyard in the South in which the narrator contemplates his own mortality.