Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950–1978,
edited by Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers.
Random House, 1980.
Hardcover, 289 pp., $12.95.

In the six decades since he began attending meetings of the Fugitive group as a seventeen-year-old Vanderbilt sophomore, Robert Penn Warren has become one of America’s most versatile and prolific writers. He has published thirteen volumes of poetry, ten novels, a number of short stories, two studies of Southern race relations, a volume of selected essays, a play, and book-length treatments of various literary and historical topics. In addition, he and Cleanth Brooks founded the Southern Review and have collaborated on a number of textbooks, including the vastly influential Understanding Poetry.

As one might expect, there has been a tremendous amount of critical work done on Warren’s writing (an annotated primary and secondary Warren bibliography published by G. K. Hall in 1977 ran to 396 pages). Surprisingly, however, little of what has been written by or about Warren deals with his life. While many lesser artists have engaged in constant self-promotion, Warren’s natural modesty has kept him from writing memoirs and from cooperating with would-be biographers. As a result, his works are far better known than is the creative personality behind them.

In an attempt to make that personality more accessible to the reading public, Professor Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers have published a series of conversations with Warren in a single volume called Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950–1978. The scholarly value of such a book should not be underestimated. While literary historians of the past would study a writer’s letters and journals, the impact of modern technology has caused letters and journals to be replaced by more ephemeral modes of communication. As T. Harry Williams points out in his biography of Huey Long, those interested in preserving the history of the recent past must rely increasingly on “the tape-recorded interview with persons still living.”

On several occasions during these interviews their subject was asked to account for the abundance of first-rate Southern literature in the period between the two World Wars. Like his old friend Allen Tate, Warren arguesthat when an insular and traditional subculture begins to be assimilated into the outside world, a sudden flowering of literary creativity often occurs. Not only was this true of the South during the Twenties and Thirties, but also of the Jewish and black populations after World War II.

One of the most important by-products of the so-called Southern Renaissance was a new approach to literary criticism. Through their textbooks and various critical writings, Warren and Cleanth Brooks have, with some modifications, applied and propagated the theories of their old teacher John Crowe Ransom. Sometimes called ontological or formalist criticism, but most frequently known as the “new criticism,” this approach replaces the emphasis of older scholars on historical and biographical research with close textual reading and a more purely aesthetic analysis of literature.

Speaking of the opposition elicited by his critical methods, Warren maintains that the new criticism “is a term that belongs to the conspiracy theory of literary history.”

A lot of people—chiefly aging, conservative professors scared of losing prestige or young instructors afraid of not getting promoted—middle-brow magazineeditors—and the flotsam and jetsam of semi-Marxist social significance criticism left stranded by history—they all have a communal nightmare called the New Criticism to explain their vague discomfort.

Warren displays his own critical acuity in various comments he makes about literature, whether he is discussing Melville’s poetry, Dreiser’s novels, or the contrasting concepts of time in the works of Faulkner and Hemingway. Among other things, Warren finds that his favorite American writers share his own critical affection for this country. To illustrate his point he tells of an Italian soldier who defected from Mussolini during the Second World War. According to this man, the fascist government made a serious blunder in translating novels critical of the United States (“The Faulkners and God knows who”) for their presumed propaganda value. Reading these books convinced him not of the decadence of American life but of the strength of American freedom.

Some of Warren’s most perceptive observations concern the creative process itself. Like Yeats, he sees literature as belonging to the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” “Whoever wants to tell a story of a sainted grandmother,” he says, “unless you can find some old love letters, and get a new grandfather? In heaven there’s no marriage and giving in marriage, and there’s no literature.” For Warren it is the function of literature to call us back to the things of this world.

An implicit sacramental unity underlies Warren’s view of life and of art. He sees concept and image not as antagonistic modes of perception, but as complementary aspects of a single reality. As a case in point, he cites Kekule’s attempt to find a formula for the benzine ring. One night while trying to solve this problem intellectually, the chemist fell asleep and had a nightmare about snakes biting each other. He woke up with this image in his mind and spent the rest of the night working out the formula suggested by it. The writing of poetry involves a similar dialectic: “The dream work is done on the material that is already available in the man. There can be no revelation to a man to whom the revelation would not be a summing up of his own experience.”

In addition to being a major critic and writer, Warren is also one of the finest teachers of our time; and as such, he has some provocative insights about higher education. He speaks, for example. of the value of small schools and of the direct contact which they afford between teacher and student. The opportunity which a large university provides for students to encounter a large number of first-rate thinkers can sometimes be self-defeating, because “the students didn’t learnhow to think …, they didn’t follow one man closely enough to see how his mind worked, for better or for worse, on a problem.”

Although he is not a professional historian, much of Warren’s creative and critical writing has been concerned with history. He shares the conservative’s fundamental distrust of abstraction and reductionist theory. At age thirteen, he read Buckle’s works on geographic determinism and thought that he had an adequate explanation of human behavior. Warren’s subsequent disillusionment with Buckle bred a skepticism about monistic historiography. He was thus inoculated against the Marxism which many of his contemporaries embraced during the Great Depression.

The one abstraction which does seem to fascinate Warren is that in which the American nation itself is grounded. Alone among nations America was forced to define itself overnight, a task accomplished by “one man in an upstairs room, Thomas Jefferson.” Paraphrasing the Polish historian Adam Gurowski, Warren notes that America is unique in being based not on accidents of geography or race, but on an idea. “Behind the comedy of proclaiming that idea from Fourth of July platforms,” he observes, “there is the solemn notion Believe and ye shall besaved. That abstraction sometimes does become concrete, is a part of the American experience.”

Time and again in these interviews Warren comments on the acceleration of change in recent history. He cites Whitehead’s observation that prior to the industrial revolution the world experienced disasters but no fundamental change. Since about 1800, however, we have acquired what amounts to a new sense of time. Warren’s father was twenty-one when the Battle of Wounded Knee was fought, and his grandfather was in the Civil War. In a sense, the author feels closer to the world in which these two men lived than to the one which his son inhabits.

One of the defining characteristics of our age is the sort of intellectual fragmentation which C. P. Snow discusses in The Two Cultures. A byproduct of this fragmentation is the increasingly peripheral role assumed by poetry. Warren notes with amazement that Tennyson was able to get married and set up housekeeping on the money he made from “Maud.” With the exception of Rod McKuen, however, no contemporary poet would dream of similar financial success.

Warren contends that in an era of specialization poetry is no longer called upon to serve the same function as in previous times (“if you talk about science in the modern world, you don’t write a poem like In Memoriam”). The persons who interpret our present culture to us are not poets, but journalists, polemicists, and pop sociologists—all of whom write in prose. The social-consciousness poetry of the Thirties and Sixties, Warren argues, was merely the exception which proves the rule.

One of the other casualties of our current mania for specialization, according to Warren, is the loss of a sense of the past. Ignorant of history, modern man is limited not by space but by time. (This condition Allen Tate has called “the new provincialism.”) The historian as humanist has been replaced by the social scientist as technician. Whether it be cause or result of this process, a corollary development is man’s decreasing sense of human community and his increasing reliance on mechanism and technology.

Although not as specific as Virginia Woolf—who said, “on or about December, 1910, human nature changed”—Warren seems convinced that we live in a time of more than ordinary transition. “My guess is that nothing has happened like this since the rise of Christianity,” he says, “—a fundamental change. Human sensibility, human instinct for value, is changing. Now to what, nobody knows yet.” He suspects, however, that this change may be the apogee of a cumulative process rather than the result of some apocalyptic event. If the end is near, it is likely to come not with a bang but a whimper.

One could continue cataloguing Warren’s views on various issues and still not convey the flavor of this book. Like other great literary conversationalists (Samuel Johnson and Samuel Coleridge immediately come to mind ), Warren impresses us with the eclectic nature of his intelligence and with his passionate commitment to ideas. The play of mind with concept and the emergence of new insights are frequently more apparent in the flow of an interview than in the more formal cadences of a finished essay. It is perhaps a commentary on our times that for Warren the tape recorder should serve as his Boswell.  

Mark Royden Winchell (1948–2008) was a biographer, essayist, historian and literary critic. At the time of his death he was Professor of Literature and European Civilization at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he had taught since 1985.