Marion Montgomery (1925-2011)
Poet, novelist, intellectual, and literary critic, Marion Montgomery taught composition, literature, and creative writing at the University of Georgia for thirty-three years. He also wrote hundreds of poems, dozens of short stories, three novels, one novella, and more than twenty books of literary and cultural criticism. Montgomery received numerous awards for his fiction and verse in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 2001 he received the Stanley W. Lindberg Award (named for longtime Georgia Review editor Stanley Lindberg) for outstanding contributions to Georgia's literary heritage.
Marion Hoyt Montgomery Jr. was born on April 16, 1925, in Thomaston, the son of Lottie May Jenkins and Marion H. Montgomery. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946 and married Dorothy Carlisle in 1951; the couple had five children. He received his B.A. (1950) and M.A. (1953) at the University of Georgia and did postgraduate work in creative writing at the University of Iowa (1956-58). During this time he also began his long teaching career at the University of Georgia, from which he retired in 1987. For the next two decades he continued to write, publishing his last book, With Walker Percy at the Tupperware Party: In Company with Flannery O'Connor, T. S. Eliot, and Others,in 2009. Montgomery died at his home in Crawford, in Oglethorpe County, on November 23, 2011, at the age of eighty-six.
Montgomery's three novels, all set in twentieth-century Georgia, focus on conflicts between the Old and the New South. The Wandering of Desire (1962) takes its title from Ecclesiastes as well as its themes: "all is vanity" and "that which has been will be again." Two ambitious men, a self-made yeoman farmer and a progressive farmer, fight for control of "the Hill," a tract of land in fictional Waring County. Both ultimately are defeated by the forces of nature and human depravity. Faulknerian in style and scope, The Wandering of Desire powerfully captures the history, geography, and culture of the region.
His second novel, Darrell (1964), combines comedy, satire, and tragedy in its depiction of the misadventures of a country-born boy and his grandmother as they attempt to adjust to life in an Athens neighborhood. Darrell's longing for an even more exciting life in Atlanta is counterbalanced by his grandmother's common sense and longing for the country.
Montgomery's most ambitious and experimental novel is Fugitive (1974). In it country music writer Walt Mason flees from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to a small village in northeast Georgia, where he seeks "the good life" in the country. Hugh Akers, his guide to genuine country ways, and other residents in the community envelop the narrative with bawdy, comic, tragic, and wise stories and sayings. Authentic country wit and idiom is one of the strongest features of the novel.
Several of Montgomery's short stories have been anthologized: two notable ones are the comic "I Got a Gal" and the poignant "The Decline and Fall of Officer Fergerson," which appeared in Southern Writing in the Sixties (1966) and The Best American Short Stories: 1971.
Montgomery's verse has been collected in three volumes: Dry Lightning (1960), Stones from the Rubble (1965), and The Gull and Other Georgia Scenes (1969). The culture of the South and the roles he has played in his own life—poet, teacher, husband, father—form the bedrock for traditional and free-verse poems illuminating universal human experiences and human nature. Lyrical, ironic, satirical, and reflective, Montgomery is also occasionally philosophical, as in his long poem "At Al Johnson's Lake," a tense, engaging celebration of the mystery of being.
With the exception of a few poems, most of Montgomery's later writing was critical, yet the poet's insights and language illuminate the theological, philosophical, and literary issues he examined. In The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age (1981-84), a three-volume study of Western modernism, Montgomery calls his readers back to traditional and orthodox truths that are central in all of his work: namely, that spiritual concerns are compatible with realism in literature; that reason and imagination are gifts that should be carefully exercised in life, faith, and art; that ideas have consequences; that intellectual errors should be traced to their root in time and place; that being should be celebrated rather than subjugated; that piety and openness to creation are the proper responses to existence; and that mind and heart, reason and feeling are companionable faculties. The trilogy and such later works as Possum and Other Receits for the Recovery of "Southern" Being (1987), Liberal Arts and Community (1990), and Romantic Confusions of the Good (1997) defend a Christian vision of the world and decry modernity, an intellectual attitude that Montgomery contended divorces man from both tradition and transcendence.
In both poetry and fiction Montgomery made his subjects palpable, giving the reader a keen sense of the flora, fauna, geography, and human culture of his region. His work, both creative and critical, is informed by his distinctive intellectual heritage. Like Flannery O'Connor, among other writers, Montgomery was influenced by the Southern Agrarians, while in theology and philosophy he was a neo-Thomist (advocating the thought of thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas). This combination formed his traditional conservatism. The starting point in all of Montgomery's work is piety: a reverent awareness of the physical creation, moral and spiritual realities, individual gifts such as reason and imagination, and cultural life (values, customs, and traditions inherited from the past). Piety and a recovery of reason are constant themes in his writing.