The Magazine

Marion Montgomery, 1925-2011

Joseph Bottum on Marion Montgomery

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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I was at the clock-repair shop when a friend called with the news that Marion had slipped away—Marion Montgomery, the great Southern critic and teacher. I was dropping off my grandfather’s broken watch when the call came. I was standing at the counter, holding a run-down timepiece, when my friend told me. And the clocks on the wall ticked, and ticked, and tocked. 

Photo of Marion Montgomery

Marion Montgomery

Courtesy of the montgomery family

The pocket watches on faded velvet pads beneath the scratched counter glass. Wristwatches, too: whole armfuls of old Timexes and Rolexes, Omegas and Cartiers. That pseudo-Swiss cuckoo thing on the back wall. The battered case clock looming in the corner. The table clocks, with gilded feet and little pillars on the sides, like miniature temples to forgotten gods. The tarnished-brass butterflies of clock keys, fallen in a clutter on a dusty wooden tray. 

I was waiting at the counter when a friend told me, and the noise—the push of it, the intrusive beat, that ceaseless smug tick—suddenly seemed unbearable. And all I wanted, when I learned Marion was gone, was for it all to stop. Just stop, for a little while. Stop, for a moment. Stop, for a time.

A longtime teacher at the University of Georgia, Marion Montgomery was perhaps our last link to worlds of American thought now so distant they seem almost a dream, a fantasy just beyond the horizon of memory. A Southern writer, he came of age among the likes of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren: the Fugitive Poets who dominated the South. A literary figure, he grew to know the Southern Agrarians, from Donald Davidson to Richard Weaver—know them well enough both to cherish and to mock them in his novels, especially his masterpiece, Fugitive (1974), a comedy about a country-music songwriter from the big city who moves to rural Georgia in an attempt to find authentic country life: the real country life of homespun characters spouting cornpone wisdom that city slickers are certain still abides in the hollows and the backwoods.

For that matter, like his friend Flannery O’Connor a Catholic in the South, Marion lived through the peak of the Neothomists, and his intellectual formation was dominated by the writings of the thinkers who seemed so essential back in the 1940s and 1950s. All those names one could conjure with in those lost days—Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson—appear throughout his writing like guide ropes, keeping him centered in the maze of modern philosophy.

Mostly, though, he was a critic. His poetry is good, his fiction excellent (especially his 1971 story “The Decline and Fall of Officer Fergerson”), and his philosophical sense was as fine as an essentially literary mind could manage. But it was as a critic of modernity that he blossomed, particularly in The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age (1981), with its demand for piety as the most deeply human response to the experience of being.

A soldier during the war and afterward a guard at the Nuremberg Trials, Marion Montgomery came home determined to find a unity in it all: the unified-field theory of conservative thought that seemed almost there for the grasping. T.  S. Eliot’s traditionalist turn in Modernist poetry, the compelling simplicity of Richard Weaver’s ideas-have-consequences thesis, the God-haunted South of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, the adamant brilliance of Etienne Gilson’s neoscholastic Catholicism—even a homegrown libertarianism and self-reliant agrarianism: It all looked as though, at that moment, it might come together in a grand conservative package, the West’s truest answer to the lure of communism.

It didn’t. The pieces were too disparate, the whole thing a mirage. But that’s not Marion Montgomery’s fault. By all reports, he died of cancer in his home at age 86 much as he had lived: with a wry sense of human absurdity, a feeling for the family that surrounded him, a deep faith in the life of the world to come.

The point is simple enough, I suppose: The importance of life comes from the future, while the richness of life comes from the past. We look ahead, we plan, we scheme, and all of it matters because we can see the future roaring down upon us and our children like a freight train. 

The past, however—that’s what extends us in time, thickens us with memory, and enfolds us in the human parade. I was having a watch repaired when a friend called with the news that Marion Montgomery had died. And there, in the ceaseless clacking of the clocks, all I could think was that another vital connection to the past was broken. Another linkage gone, lost in maddening tick and tock.

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