Looney combines racism, hell, and poetry in University lecture


Dr. Dennis Looney. Photo courtesy of google.com


Sydney Leibfritz
Contributing Writer

As students and professors crowded into Gailor Auditorium, Dr. Dennis Looney began by jokingly saying, “Thank you all for coming, although some of you may not have had a choice; in which case, thank you for not telling me.” However, once Looney began his lecture, any trace of disinterest within the audience subsided, and all were tuned in to listen.  

Dr. Looney currently serves as the Director of Programs and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages at the Modern Language Association and is also the author of Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy. Looney’s recent lecture “Allen Tate’s Flight from Racism: Dante and The Swimmers” primarily focused on the symbolic use of Dante as an emblem for activists, specifically in terms of Tate’s poem “The Swimmers.”

He first dedicated a lengthy portion of the lecture dissecting the multiple uses of Dante, author of The Divine Comedy, as an activist figure, going as far as to call him “as much as a fixture for abolitionists as Lincoln.” One such example was Cincinnati’s “Infernal Regions” wax exhibit from 1828 to 1867, in which Dante’s Inferno was used to depict an integrated hell.

Looney then described the multiple contemporary versions of Dante, including Poet Dante, Black Dante, and Radical Dante. Looney claims these multiple characterizations expand the lens through which people can apply Dante to examine contemporary issues.

After giving this bit of context, Looney shifted his focus to Allen Tate, who holds a personal connection to Sewanee. Tate was not only the longtime editor of The Sewanee Review but also taught at the University in later life, eventually being laid to rest in the University Cemetery.

However, before his time on the domain, Tate attended Vanderbilt University, where he was a part of a group of Southern poets known as The Fugitives, collaborating in a series of controversial essays titled “I’ll Take My Stand.” He went on to publish a wide array of work but by the end of his life, tried to distance himself from much of it. As an admirer of Dante’s work, Tate looked to Dante for inspiration as he began to face the harsh reality of his past. Thus, “The Swimmers” was born.

“The Swimmers” was one of three autobiographical poems Tate published as retellings of Dante’s Inferno, mirroring it in both style and themes. This specific work focuses on a moment from Tate’s childhood in which he witnessed the lynching of a black man by the town Sheriff and his cohorts. The narrator, known as “Tate with water on the brain,” is loosely based on Tate himself and reflects the duality of Tate’s past and present in its style.

Because the poem opens with Tate running away and ends with him standing alone at the scene, Looney argued that the poem was a reflection of Tate’s struggles in coming to terms with his troublesome past and his ultimate realization that “the private citizen must take responsibility for the collective group.”

However, a number of artistic liberties were taken in crafting the poem, ranging anywhere from changing the number of children present to altering the events leading up to the lynching, which Looney ended his lecture exploring.

After examining how these changes impact the narrative, Looney concluded, “The fiction of the fiction is that it is not fiction.” In other words, Looney asserted that while the details of fiction may not be entirely truthful, it does not invalidate the text.

The lecture was presented by the Lectures Committee, the Departments of English and Italian, the Humanities Program, the Medieval Studies Program, and the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium.