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Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives

Edited by Neil Nakadate
Copyright Date: 1981
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Robert Penn Warren
    Book Description:

    Long recognized as one of America's foremost men of letters, Robert Penn Warren continues to dazzle us with his many-sided genius. In the haunting images of his poetry, the narrative power of his fiction, the revealing insights of his essays, we find literary achievement of the highest order.

    Warren's writing has merited the close attention of literary critics. In this book Neil Nakadate brings together the most important critical essays, including a new essay written for this volume, to give a comprehensive view of the range of Warren's work. A list of Warren's published works, 1929-1980, and a useful checklist of critical works on Warren's writing supplement this rich and balanced collection of essays.

    Contributors: A.L. Clements, Chester E. Eisinger, Norton R. Girault, Robert B. Heilman, H.P. Heseltine, James H. Justus, Richard Law, Frederick P.W. McDowell, Neil Nakadate, Ladell Payne, M. Bernetta Quinn, John Crowe Ransom, Victor Strandberg, Walter Sullivan, William Tjenos, Simone Vauthier, and Robert Penn Warren

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5702-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[v])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vi]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    In recent years it has been said more than once that Robert Penn Warren is America’s foremost man of letters. But while such pronouncements are meant to honor the man and his work, it is not always clear what burden of meaning is sustained in the title. Perhaps it is useful, in talking about Warren, to have a practical sense of what a man of letters is.

    In 1952, six years after the publication ofAll the King’s Menand five years before the publication ofPromises, Allen Tate ventured a definition which seems right. The man of letters, he...

  4. The Works of Robert Penn Warren, 1929-1980
    (pp. 7-8)

    • Robert Penn Warren: The Conservative Quest for Identity
      (pp. 11-37)
      Chester E. Eisinger

      The conservative southern imagination may be best summed up, for the 1940’s, in the work of Robert Penn Warren. He belongs to this period, as Faulkner does not. But, like Faulkner, he is a writer of such considerable achievement that he cannot be totally contained within a formula. Or perhaps it would be better to say that Warren reveals, better than any other writer except Faulkner, the potentials for a universal interpretation of experience that lie in southern conservatism.

      The particularities of Warren’s revisionist and conservative position may be framed in a dialectic of affirmations and repudiations. Such a formulation...

    • Night Rider and the Issue of Naturalism: The ‘Nightmare’ of Our Age
      (pp. 38-53)
      Richard Law

      A year prior to the publication ofNight Rider(1939), Warren was working on the materials which eventually becameAll the King’s Men. Among the many elements which shaped the early versions of those materials were a series of related issues which he later characterized as “…the theme of the relation of science (or pseudo-science) and political power, the theme of the relation of the science-society and the power state, the problem of naturalistic determinism and responsibility.…”¹ The links suggested here between a “pseudo-scientific” world view and the huge dilemmas of the modern world not only inform Warren’s famous Pulitzer...

    • All the King’s Men: The Matrix of Experience
      (pp. 54-59)
      Robert Penn Warren

      When I am asked how muchAll the King’s Menowes to the actual politics of Louisiana in the ‘30’s, I can only be sure that if I had never gone to live in Louisiana and if Huey Long had not existed, the novel would never have been written. But this is far from saying that my “state” inAll the King’s Menis Louisiana (or any of the other forty-nine stars in our flag), or that my Willie Stark is the late Senator. What Louisiana and Senator Long gave me was a line of thinking and feeling that did...

    • The Narrator’s Mind as Symbol: An Analysis of All the King’s Men
      (pp. 60-76)
      Norton R. Girault

      If we are to judge from many of the reviews,All the King’s Menis a very difficult novel to “explain” — difficult, it appears, mainly because of the oblique first-person narrator point of view. There have been many comments about the irrelevance of Jack Burden, as if he were a sort of displaced person who had found his way into the novel through the servants’ entrance, or an exhibit guide with an annoying habit of stopping in the middle of his discourse upon the exhibit to digress on his domestic problems. Actually the novel is a dramatic monologue on...

    • Willie Stark and Huey Long: Atmosphere, Myth, or Suggestion?
      (pp. 77-92)
      Ladell Payne

      In the twenty years sinceAll the King’s Menwas published, Robert Penn Warren has repeatedly denied that Willie Stark is a fictional portrait of Huey Long. And by his own account, his denials have been “almost invariably greeted by something like a sardonic smile or a conspiratorial wink.”¹ His two essays on the subject — an “Introduction” toAll the King’s Men(1953) and “All the King’s Men: The Matrix of Experience” (1963)² — have certainly met with the written equivalents of a smile, a wink, and a nod. The most notable early disbeliever was Hamilton Basso, whose “The...

    • The Case of the Vanishing Narratee: An Inquiry into All the King’s Men
      (pp. 93-114)
      Simone Vauthier

      While the narrator inAll the King’s Menhas received much critical attention, his partner in the act of communication has been rather neglected. Yet not only are the two images of narrator and narratee¹ always dependent on each other but in Robert Penn Warren’s novel the polarity is all the more marked because, contrary to common usage, the addressee is first to appear on the scene:

      To get there you follow highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was that day we went up it. You look up the...

    • Tangled Web
      (pp. 115-125)
      Robert B. Heilman

      InWorld Enough and TimeRobert Penn Warren again tackles the theme which was the core ofAll the King’s Men— the failure of a private, subjective “ideal” realm to come to terms with, to be integrated with, to be married to a realm of public life and activity, the realm of politics and society and group action, of law and justice. Warren’s fourth novel is less neat than his third (not that neatness was a prime virtue of it), in the sense thatHamletis less neat thanOthello:it is longer, and its length springs from a...

    • The Mariner and Robert Penn Warren
      (pp. 126-137)
      James H. Justus

      Robert Penn Warren’s virtuoso piece of criticism, his analysis ofThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is well known. That poem, Warren says, posits as its primary theme man’s necessity for repentance and reconciliation after crime and punishment:

      The Mariner shoots the bird; suffers various pains, the greatest of which is loneliness and spiritual anguish; upon recognizing the beauty of the foul sea snakes, experiences a gush of love for them and is able to pray; is returned miraculously to his home port, where he discovers the joy of human communion in God, … [and the meaning of] the notion...

    • The Historical Novelist and the Existential Peril: Band of Angels
      (pp. 138-147)
      Walter Sullivan

      I want to begin my consideration of Warren as historical novelist not withBand of Angels, which is the subject of this paper, but with the story of Cass Mastern, which is told in the fourth chapter ofAll the King’s Men, It will be remembered that Mastern, the intended subject of Jack Burden’s master’s thesis, was a rich young man from ante-bellum Mississippi. He went to Lexington to attend college, there met Duncan Trice, seduced Trice’s wife Annabelle, and survived long enough to observe the vast burgeoning of his sin and to expiate his guilt through suffering. He learned...

    • The Deep, Twisting Strain of Life: The Novels of Robert Penn Warren
      (pp. 148-161)
      H. P. Heseltine

      Robert Penn Warren’s is one of the most varied careers in modern American letters. He has achieved distinction as short story writer, poet, critic, sociologist: most of all, perhaps, as novelist. Yet it is in fiction, the form in which he has found his widest audience, that Warren’s performance can go most disturbingly awry. Only one of his novels,All the King’s Men, has been accorded universal praise; the rest have sustained criticism which ranges from nagging doubt to straight-out condemnation. Books likeWorld Enough and Time, Band of Angels, andThe Cave, it is frequently felt, are irreparably damaged...

    • The Uses of Gesture in The Cave
      (pp. 162-174)
      James H. Justus

      In his essay onNostromo, Robert Penn Warren observes that Conrad was more interested in the kind of experienced humanism typified by Emilia than he was in the more flamboyant “radical skepticism” of Decoud or Monygham. Such a humanism, he concludes, emerges only out of character-in-action, when the human will meets the hard, sometimes intractable facts of other human wills in particular situations. From the clash, the recoil and clash again, comes that reward of the active consciousness: an understanding of “the cost of awareness and the difficulty of virtue.”¹ The observation is useful for our reading ofNostromo, of...

    • Identity, Dream, and Exploration: Warren’s Later Fiction
      (pp. 175-190)
      Neil Nakadate

      It is too easy to make generalizations about the writing of Robert Penn Warren: He is a “Southerner” and a Formalist; his writing is that of the critic as novelist, as poet. His work is philosophical and intellectual; it is the literature of irony and ambiguity and the search for self-knowledge. In the case of Warren’s fiction, the temptation to generalize is particularly great, given the early and enduring success of his third novel: The corpus isAll the King’s Menand “the other fiction,” all of which manages to exist in a critical midregion somewhere between the austere judgments...


    • Irony and Orthodoxy: Robert Penn Warren
      (pp. 193-206)
      Hyatt H. Waggoner

      Even Robert Penn Warren’s early poetry is much less well described by Ransom’s theories than Tate’s “Ode” is.¹ It is often ironic, but not constantly so. It is full of paradoxes; indeed paradox is at the center of it, but it moves generally toward the resolution of paradox. It is dense with specific images of “the world’s body,” but it wants always to do more than “see” the world more sharply, it wants to understand it. It is never patrician in tone or manner, as Ransom’s is. It is regional only in the sense that Warren, born in Kentucky, returns...

    • The Inklings of “Original Sin”
      (pp. 207-211)
      John Crowe Ransom

      Of more than seasonal magnitude is the literary event which gives to the public the whole staple of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry. For ten years my head has rung with magnificent phrases out of the five poems which he contributed to a Special Poetic Supplement inThe American Reviewof March, 1934. I felt they must have made a great commotion (as I knew they had not) and established him at once as a ranking poet; they were so distinctive, those poems of twenty lines each, with their peculiar strain of horror, and their clean-cut eloquence and technical accomplishments. But...

    • The Way Brother to Dragons Was Written
      (pp. 212-213)
      Robert Penn Warren

      You ask me to say something about the composition of “Brother to Dragons.” I don’t have much in the way of great generalization about long poems. For one thing, I reckon I am still too close to the particular problems encountered in trying to write this particular long poem. But I may mention some of those.

      About ten years ago, I got the notion of doing something with the story of Thomas Jefferson’s family in Kentucky. The story is a shocker.

      At first, I wasn’t sure what caught my fancy. Then I knew: It was that this was Jefferson’s family....

    • Psychology and Theme in Brother to Dragons
      (pp. 214-234)
      Frederick P. W. McDowell

      Warren’s novel in verse,Brother to Dragons, is most notable in its philosophy and psychology and summarizes vividly his continuing metaphysical and ethical themes. Aware in his moralist’s zeal “that poetry is more than fantasy and is committed to the obligation of trying to say something about the human condition,” Warren is in this work more than ever haunted by an anguished sense of the disparity in man between recurrent beatific vision and the ubiquitous evil which blights it. Accounting for the force of the book are Warren’s realization of character, his flair for the arresting image and apt phrase,...

    • The Function of Colloquy in Brother to Dragons
      (pp. 235-245)
      Neil Nakadate

      At the end ofAll the King’s Men(1946), when Jack Burden goes “out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time,” he is inspired by an author whose own stance toward the material of his fictions has shifted considerably from that of his earlier years. From this point on, neither Burden nor Robert Penn Warren will be as distanced from the world of liability and fact as he was before confronting the awesome presence of Willie Stark. In the case of Burden, inertia and illusion, sarcasm and disdain have given way to action and accountability in the...

    • Warren’s Osmosis
      (pp. 246-261)
      Victor Strandberg

      To thread forth a central theme out of a writer’s whole corpus can be risky business: Ernest Hemingway’s resentment of the “psychic wound” interpretation of his novels is a case in point. To isolate such a theme in a writer like Robert Penn Warren is even riskier. Author of eight novels, four major volumes of poetry, four non-fiction books, and innumerable other writings, Warren is more complex and variegated than most writers, both in form and theme. Nevertheless running through that wide scope of fiction and poetry, and even through the non-fiction studies, a central vision does stand forth. In...

    • The Stiff Smile of Mr. Warren
      (pp. 262-269)
      James Wright

      Although it is possible, generally speaking, to discover certain consistently developing themes in Mr. Warren’s work — prose and verse alike — it is nevertheless impossible to know just what he will do next. In our own century he is perhaps the only American writer who, having already established his major importance, remains unpredictable. If anyone has noted any similarity between Mr. Warren and, say, Dickens, I should be surprised and delighted. But the two authors share the power — it is a very great power, and perhaps it is the heart of the poetic imagination — of unpredictability. A...

    • Robert Penn Warren’s Promised Land
      (pp. 270-293)
      M. Bernetta Quinn

      Since his Vanderbilt days, Robert Penn Warren’s poetry has charted a movement toward that country to which everyone gives a name of his choosing, Warren’s being the Promised Land. Unfettered by adherence to schools of verse (Black Mountain, Objectivist, neo-Romantic), Warren has left behind conceits and witty ironies, “little magazine” academic pieces in the Augustan vein, ever deepening and simplifying until the present when “His years like landscape lie,”* as he once wrote of his grandfather. Whether looking backward or forward he now can view an interior terrain which need yield to no other in American writing in its power...

    • The Art to Transfigure
      (pp. 294-301)
      William Tjenos

      The effort of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry is to discover the way in which consciousness engages experience and makes it respond to human desire. In an interview of 1966, Warren describes the need for “a mental experience that gives a sense of moving from disorder to order, to a moment of poise.… It’s a liberation. Not, I should emphasize, because of particular ‘solutions’ offered, but because the process is an image of the possibility of meaning growing from experience.”¹ Warren’s poems enact the movements of a consciousness working to arrest the flow of events and to define experience. The growth...

    • Sacramental Vision
      (pp. 302-320)
      A. L. Clements

      For the abundance, range, variety, and high achievement in both fiction and poetry, one thinks back to Lawrence and Hardy for comparisons with Robert Penn Warren. There are important differences too, to be sure. Whereas Hardy wrote most of his poetry only after he abandoned novel-writing, Warren, who published his first book of poems a few years before his first novel, has continued to write in both genres throughout his lifetime, his tenth novel,A Place to Come To, being published the same year as his eleventh volume of poetry,Selected Poems 1923-1975(New York: Random House, 1977). (That this...

  7. A Selected Checklist of Criticism on Robert Penn Warren
    (pp. 321-330)