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Nashville Scene Man of Letters

Collected missives give insight into great author's early years

By Diann Blakely

MAY 8, 2000:  In one of the most unexpectedly poignant moments at last month's Millennial Gathering of Writers of the New South, a renowned literary trio -- fiction writer Walter Sullivan, poets Dave Smith and David Bottoms -- ascended the winding staircase of Vanderbilt's Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and paid tribute to the great 20th-century man of letters for whom the center was named.

Appropriately, that tribute took the form of reading excerpts from Warren's work, not a discussion of his politics. Yet Warren's association with the Nashville Fugitives gave the moment a certain and near-tragic irony. The Fugitives' best-known contribution to 20th-century letters, the literary and cultural manifesto I'll Take My Stand, began as an attempt to attack the stereotypes that fluttered across the pages of 19th-century moonlight-and-magnolias novels and stood mud-bespattered in the columns of regionally elitist Northern journalists. But the 12 Southerners appearing in I'll Take My Stand, which was subtitled The South and the Agrarian Tradition, succeeded primarily in creating a new mythos that was as agenda-ridden, smug, and eventually calcifying as anything concocted by now-forgotten romance writers or satirists like H.L. Mencken.

As any Southern lit buff can tell you, the Fugitives' domain offered women, African Americans, and members of the white working class no place to take their own stand--unless they happened to find a kitchen stool or a cast-off rickety bench. Yet Warren, a native of Guthrie, Ky., recognized and was increasingly troubled by his brethren's racism. If "The Briar Patch," his contribution to the 1930 volume, is now condemned for its defense of segregation, it was equally objectionable to various other Fugitives because of its insistence on complete social equality for Southern blacks. Indeed, one of the most fascinating undercurrents of Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren: The Apprentice Years, 1924-1934 eddies between Warren's growing consciousness as a Southern writer along the lines set down by the Fugitives--along with their later spin-off group, the Agrarians--and his primary scholarly research project, a biography of abolitionist John Brown, famed for his disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry.

In these letters, ably edited and introduced by William Bedford Clark, we see a physically and emotionally frail young man both thrilled by his acceptance into the Vanderbilt clique and deeply depressed as its members begin to leave the campus. "Red" feels with particular keenness the absence of Allen Tate, who, six years his senior, becomes a worshipfully regarded mentor and surrogate big brother. "Your two delectable letters," Warren begins a 1924 letter to Tate, "arrived simultaneously and transfuse me with glee for the very simple reason that I had scarcely expected to hear from you so promptly."

By the end of the volume, Warren has dropped the schoolboy unctuousness from his tone and stands beside Tate as an equal in protesting the decision to title the Fugitive/Agrarian essays with a phrase from "Dixie." Clark's judicious selection of letters allows us to view Warren's process of self-discovery and definition without feeling voyeuristic or prurient. An early suicide attempt, for example, is neither glossed over nor psychoanalyzed: Clark allows us to draw our own conclusions from the correspondence of the era.

The letters mostly portray Warren during his gypsy scholar days, wandering from Nashville to Berkeley to New Haven to New College at Oxford, this last courtesy of a Rhodes Scholarship. Clark concludes the book as Warren decides, almost on a whim, to move to Baton Rouge and take up responsibilities as a faculty member at LSU. The move will be, of course, one of the most important events of the writer's life: All the King's Men, perhaps the best political novel of all time, will result from his proximity to Huey Long; and he will launch the Southern Review (now edited by Dave Smith) with the help of Cleanth Brooks.

Future editions of Warren's letters will tell, one hopes, an even more interesting story: how "Red" Warren became the much-laureled author of 10 novels; a stellar book of short stories; 16 collections of poems; five books of historical and social criticism, including Who Speaks for the Negro? in 1965; two groundbreaking textbooks, which established the means for "understanding poetry" and "understanding fiction" for several generations of American students; a biography; four books of literary criticism; and the verse play titled Brother to Dragons, which in some ways is an achievement even more lasting and notable than All the Kings' Men.

This last work wrestles with the ongoing American paradox of democracy and racism through the story of Thomas Jefferson's family, which included a white nephew who married into the Meriwether Lewis clan and eventually murdered a slave. Set beside Brother to Dragons alone, the collected works of Warren's fellow Fugitives John Crowe Ransom and Tate seem, respectively, academically twee and torturously pedantic.

Whether Warren's greater achievement resulted from his decision to move north, his divorce from his Zelda-esque first wife and later remarriage to the ferociously intelligent and progressive Eleanor Clark, or his stubborn refusal to become any sort of ideologue will doubtless become clearer as successive volumes of his letters become available. For the moment, we have Joseph Blotner's 1996 biography and, even better, a complete volume of poems and the revised edition of Brother to Dragons, both recently published by LSU. And we can fantasize about what work of literary genius Warren might have created from his birthplace's recent and ugly claim to fame: the shooting death of a white teenager by a black teenager, the latter enraged by the Confederate flag flying from the former's pickup truck. The briar patch, in other words, continues to spread--at least in certain corners of our country, some far away and some very close to home.

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