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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)

[4730] Marion Post Walcott, Political poster on sharecropper’s house, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-020570-M3].

A prominent member of the Southern Agrarians as well as an accomplished poet and novelist, Robert Penn Warren was born in southern Kentucky and educated at Vanderbilt, the University of California, Yale, and Oxford. While at Vanderbilt he became one of the “Fugitive poets” and later contributed a somewhat reluctant defense of “separate but equal” racial segregation to I’ll Take My Stand, the political manifesto of the Southern Agrarians, who were also associated with Vanderbilt. (Like many southerners, Warren later changed his mind about segregation.) He began teaching English at Louisiana State University in 1934 and there co-founded the Southern Review, which published provocative essays by the “New Critics,” passionate advocates of “close reading,” as well as fiction by emerging southern writers such as Eudora Welty. Warren’s influence on the New Criticism was considerable; Understanding Poetry–which Warren co-authored with Cleanth Brooks while both were at Louisiana State–helped revolutionize the teaching of literature within the American university. That volume was followed in 1943 by Understanding Fiction. Warren left Louisiana State that same year.

Much of Warren’s own prose and poetry grows out of his critical engagement with the history of the American South. That engagement was evident in his biography of abolitionist John Brown, which he undertook while at Yale and published in 1929. Warren’s third and best-known novel, All the King’s Men, which chronicles the rise and fall of a southern politician, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. Like Warren’s second novel, Heaven’s Gate (1943), All the King’s Men was concerned with power and the way its pursuit and acquisition can destroy both the powerful and those around them. Warren returned to the theme in his fourth and perhaps second-best novel, World Enough and Time, published in 1950. Though he went on to write six more novels over the next thirty years, none would equal the power and eloquence of these earlier efforts.

The mid-fifties onward were fruitful years for Warren the poet. His long poem Audubon (1969), one of his most significant works, reveals a writer who celebrates the necessity that humans must face the darkness in their natures and forge ahead. Warren advocated a poetry “grounded in experience” and declared that the goal of the artist should be to stay within the limits of his/her gifts and, to the extent that those gifts allow, “to remain faithful to the complexities of the problems with which [he/she] is dealing.” Warren’s volumes of poetry include Incarnations (1968), Now and Then (1978), Being Here (1980), Rumor Verified (1981), and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983).

Teaching Tips

  • “Bearded Oaks,” one of Warren’s early poems, provides a good starting point for students. You might begin by trying to get students to think about the somewhat incongruous imagery within the poem: Where is the poem set? Who is the poem about? What doesn’t seem to fit with this description of people “waiting” in the grass? Break your students into groups. Ask one group to describe the characters in the poem–who are they and what are they doing? Have the other group describe the poem’s settings in their own words–what are the different settings, and how do they affect the meaning of the poem? Finally, have the groups work together to match the characters with the settings to arrive at a better idea of the meaning of the poem. Try to guide your students toward the poem’s metaphysical concerns, its meditation on the inevitability of decay, and its fear that true human communication may not be possible. What does the allusion to an underwater setting suggest? What happens to organic matter under water? What is the significance of the “debate” that is “voiceless” here?
  • In poems such as “Audubon,” Warren turned his lifelong interest in history into an exploration of the human condition. After they’ve read “Audubon,” ask your students to recreate the poem in prose, paying attention to the dual nature of the poem. What history does the poem recount? What is the story of human nature it seems to be telling? Have your students write a short (one-page) prose story that attempts to capture these histories.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Much of Warren’s poetry is grounded in particular places and relies for its effect on specific descriptions of landscape. Compare the setting of “Bearded Oaks” to that of “Mortal Limit.” What settings and what kind of “mood” does each evoke? If we consider that both poems are concerned with the journey of life, how do their different settings help Warren create different variations on this similar theme?
  2. Context: In “American Portrait: Old Style,” the speaker tells us that his childhood friend, K, who was known as a good baseball pitcher in his youth, has grown old and thin. Review lines 105-09, in which K considers the passage of time. Compare K’s actions to the position taken by the Southern Agrarians with regard to “modern progress” in the South. What might “the big brown insulator” symbolize? Also consider the speaker’s conclusions in the final stanza of “American Portrait.” How do the speaker’s feelings about time and “progress” compare with K’s, above? What might Warren’s poem be saying about southern history and the passage of time more generally?
  3. Exploration: In the late 1920s and 1930s, Robert Penn Warren expressed support for racial segregation, but he later changed his mind. Like Warren, other prominent writers of the early twentieth century expressed controversial views that later became very unpopular. For example, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (Unit 10) were attracted to fascism and some of their writing has been called anti-semitic. Yet, despite these unpopular views, writers like Warren, Eliot, and Pound are considered among America’s best authors. As readers and critics, how should an author’s political and social views affect our reception of his or her works?

Selected Archive Items

[4730] Marion Post Walcott, Political poster on sharecropper’s house, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-020570-M3].
Campaign poster for Joe Hidgon, chancery clerk. Living conditions for sharecroppers were generally poor as they rarely made large profits and often had enormous debts. African American sharecroppers were also barred from voting and often received no education.

[7284] Lewis Wickes Hine, Starting Card in Motion, Picket Yarn Mill, High Point, North Carolina (1937), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-69-RP-230].
Young man working in factory. Southern Agrarian writers expressed mixed feelings about industrial development and extolled the region’s rural, agricultural traditions.

[7611] Ralph Clynne, Gloucester, Lower Woodville Rd., Natchez Vic., Adams County, MS (1934), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [HABS, MISS, 1-NATCH. V, 1-1].
This photograph depicts the same plantation house shown in [4735] and [7654]. The house’s dilapidated condition echoes the degradation of the myths of the South.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6