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Robert Penn Warren’s Enormous Spider Web

by Robert Drake

Robert Drake is professor of English at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 22, 1989, p. 1089. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


These are familiar themes in the works of Robert Penn Warren who died on September 15, 1989 -- these and the frequently recurring motif that "nothing is ever lost." Or as Jack Burden goes on to say, "There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed." History is real too -- not, as Arnold Toynbee has suggested it can be for the misguided, just something unpleasant that happens to other people; perhaps, as Warren himself once observed, it is also a continual rebuke to the present. And history -- and the world -- does make sense.

These are disturbing propositions for many moderns to contemplate: it would all be so much easier if one could simply shrug one’s shoulders and say, well, you just never know, do you, and who, finally, can tell anyhow’? But Warren never lets us off that easily. In an early poem, "Original Sin: A Short Story," he asserts that, no matter how far from home (in this case, Omaha) we wander, the Old Adam is still with us, even in Harvard Yard. And in "The Ballad of Billie Potts" he implies that we never outrun our "luck," not even when we assert that great American prerogative and go west, where all is "motion," all is "innocence." We’re still inside our own skins, we still have the identifying birthmark under the left tit: ironically. there’s still no place like home.

So time and place -- history and geography -- are sanctified for Warren, a poet. novelist and critic whom Allen Tate called the most gifted person he had ever known. But time and place are strong medicine for many in our world, where, to quote Flannery O’Connor, many people "ain’t frum anywhere," and where a contemporary writer like Warren’s fellow Kentuckian Bobbie Ann Mason finds a sobering story in the lives of many of her characters who can’t think of anything to do with themselves. They can always go from their mobile homes to that modem cathedral the shopping mall, but that’s about it. How indeed to write about such matters for readers who aren’t really at peace -- at home -- with themselves? This was "Red" Warren’s challenge. He wasn’t trying to convert anybody to anything, either -- except perhaps to the truth about ourselves, the truth about the world, which Joseph Conrad said was always the writer’s prime responsibility.

Willie Stark, the protagonist of All the Kings Men, puts his own diagnosis pretty well. He tells Jack Burden, the smart-aleck, wisecracking narrator (to whom the story equally belongs) , that he himself went to an old-fashioned Presbyterian Sunday school where in the old days they still taught some theology. There he learned to believe that "man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud," For every one of us "there is always something" of sin and sorrow, no matter how well concealed -- and that something can always be discovered and ultimately made to stick. (Could St. Paul himself have put it any better?) Furthermore, says Willie, you don’t ever have to frame people: just leave them alone and they’ll do it themselves, "because the truth is always sufficient."

Yet Willie is not all that egregious a villain: he’s the modern man of fact, as contrasted with that modern man of the idea, Adam Stanton, the brilliant, idealistic surgeon whose view of both past and present seems singularly inadequate: he really thinks you can make bricks without straw and that history is all Technicolor and hoop skirts. Neither view alone is good enough, as Jeremiah Beaumont concludes in World Enough and Time, though his terms for the conflict are the world versus idea. We must live, Warren implies, as whole people in time, which comprehends past, present and future; we must live inside our own skins; and we must take responsibility for our actions. We can’t just lay it all on what Jack Burden calls the Great Twitch; even Willie Stark dies believing that "it might have been all different." But the wages of sin is still death. This world is wonderful but flawed and humankind the greatest wonder -- and greatest shame -- of all. Warren never gets very far away from these themes in any of his work.

"Piety" and "connectedness" are words one inevitably thinks of here: they’ve been important for many another Southerner and many another traditionalist confronting the modern world. I think of Warren’s great reverence for the sheer wonder of American geography, nowhere more nobly displayed than in his great poem Audubon: A Vision, where he remembers:

Long ago. in Kentucky, I, a boy,
stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and
heard
The great geese hoot northward.

Nor could he tell then what the spectacle signified for him: "I did not know what was happening in my heart." But it all comes together at the end, when he asks his listener to tell him a story. "in this century, and moment, of mania." The name of the story will be Time (though you mustn’t say so) -- this story of "deep delight." And Audubon and his vision, composed of love and knowledge, perhaps become one with the speaker and his.

I also think of the often sublime meditative passages of the parenthetical sections of "The Ballad of Billie Potts," in which Warren celebrates the "land between the rivers," the Cumberland and the Tennessee, in western Kentucky where the action is laid, then goes on to hymn the very idea of the American West. (Not for nothing did one critic suggest that Warren was "the most western" of the Vanderbilt Fugitives. In a darker mood, there are the "western" sections of All the King’s Men, where Jack Burden sings much the same song, but in a minor key, during and after his flight westward (on discovering Anne Stanton’s affair with Willie Stark) : he was "drowning in West," he says. But Warren always comes home -- to Kentucky or elsewhere, wherever he or his characters are rooted, connected.

Even at the end of the original (1953) version of Brother to Dragons, the "tale in verse and voices" which dramatizes the brutal murder of a slave by two of Thomas Jefferson’s nephews and constitutes a meditation on sin, guilt, history and much else, the narrator (this time called R. P. W.) replies to his own father, who has inquired whether, having visited the murder site so many years later, his son has now finished with his purpose: "Yes, I’ve finished. Let’s go home." This comes just after he has declared, "I . . . was preparedfl’o go into the world of action and liability." This may remind us of Jack Burden’s concluding words in All the King’s Men: "Soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time." That’s what it always seems to come to in Warren’s world: home, connectedness and all that goes with it -- commitment, accountability.

Warren could be hard on his own: he doesn’t let the South off in either Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South or The Legacy of the Civil War (subtitled Meditations on the Centennial) The latter work, with its concepts of the Great Alibi (Confederate version) and the Treasury of Virtue (Union interpretation) , ranks up there with Shelby Foote’s great three-volume history of the war. There were other acts of piety too: the affecting long essay Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, first published in the New Yorker (as were many of his later poems) , and the memoir, "Portrait of a Father," which first appeared in the Southern Review only two years ago. But it’s all of a piece with the "creative" Warren: you look at the world -- and yourself -- hard and long. You don’t forget where you came from. And you tell the truth about it all, with all the resources your discipline and your art can muster, until finally you make us see (Conrad again) and make us believe.

This is no less true of Warren’s literary criticism, whether in such ambitious works as the famous essay on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ("A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading") , the more modest but nonetheless incisive essays on such writers as Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, or in the textbooks themselves -- just hardheaded practical sense for anybody who loves literature and believes it is an autonomous discipline and not a substitute for anything else. You can call it the New Criticism or whatever you like, but that’s what it all comes down to in the end.

We must leave him to history now. But we rejoice in his vision and his legacy -- unflinching, honest and beautiful and full of great joy. As he proclaims in the "Colder Fire" section which concludes "To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress:

For fire flames but in the heart of a colder
fire.
All voice is but echo caught from a sound-
less voice.
Height is not deprivation of valley, nor
defect of desire.
But defines, for the fortunate, that joy in
which all joys should rejoice.

And like everything else Warren ever saw, everything else he ever wrote, it’s all of one piece, all part of that enormous spider web -- always his own and finally now all the world’s.


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