On one of the Americans I’m most thankful for—and the moment in his life that illustrates why.
When it comes to sheer intellect and talent, Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) takes a backseat to nobody in his candidacy for the American Hall of Inspiration. His novel All the King’s Men (1946) might well merit its own blog post someday, partly for the ways in which it forces us to take a longer look at controversial Louisiana governor Huey Long than our main narratives of the man might allow, but mostly for its incredibly rich and complex perspectives on history, historical fiction, and American identity. His Collected Poems (1998, but including poems written as early as the 1920s and as late as the late 1980s) is the kind of book where you can open to any page (and it runs over 800 pages) and be blown away. And throughout his sixty-year career he was also one of America’s most prominent and important literary critics, historians of the South and the Civil War, biographers (his first book, a biography of John Brown, was published when he was twenty-four and is one of the best works on that hugely complex American life), and public intellectuals.
But Penn Warren’s most inspiring text and moment cannot, for better and for worse, be separated from what seems clear to me to be his lowest point (at least of his publications and career). During his time in college and graduate school at Vanderbilt Penn Warren became a part of a group of poets and scholars (including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson) who called themselves the Fugitives; in the late 20s they shifted to a more political and social (and explicitly conservative) focus, renamed themselves the Southern Agrarians, and published a manifesto entitled I’ll Take My Stand (1930). The book’s essays touched on a variety of interconnected and overtly reactionary topics and themes; Penn Warren’s contribution, “The Briar Patch,” was to his discredit a defense of segregation as an imperfect but still the best option through which the South could address the issue of race. Issues of prejudice and racism are difficult to define in absolute ways, without keeping in mind the specific contexts of time period and community and upbringing; and yet Warren was (and, more exactly, was already at the age of twenty-five) one of the most brilliant and well-read American writers, and so I can’t find any way to explain “The Briar Patch” away through such contexts. Du Bois had published The Souls of Black Folk over twenty years before; Penn Warren could and should have known better.
As I have argued about earlier focal figures here, however, the genuine sources of inspiration are not necessarily—or at least not just—found in ideals, but rather in realities, in attempts to grapple with the complexities of history and community and identity, both national and (more difficult still) our own. And to his great credit, Penn Warren revisited, very publicly and honestly, the question of segregation and his own ideas about it, and did so at a time when, if anything, Southern opinion in general had hardened even more fully against integration. His 1956 essay “Divided South Searches Its Soul” appeared in Life magazine, perhaps the most prominent national publication; in it Penn Warren examined his own prior beliefs, fully admitted their inadequacy, took stock of the nascent Civil Rights Movement and found it just as inspiring as we could hope, and became, from then on, a firm supporter of the Movement and of racial integration (culminating in his 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro?, which featured interviews with black leaders like Malcolm X and King). It might seem from afar as if such a reversal, coming two years after Brown v. Board of Education, is a sort of social frontrunning, but I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth—this was the era of Little Rock, of the collective white South (or at the very least its most vocal and powerful leaders and representatives, virtually across the board) entrenching its heels and resisting the Court in every way and beginning the move toward George Wallace’s 1963 embrace of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Penn Warren didn’t reexamine and radically revise his views because it was convenient or appropriate; he did so, it seems clear to me, because it was right.
Nothing in life is a zero-sum game, and so the second essay does not cancel out the first; any assessment of Penn Warren’s legacy must, I believe, acknowledge and include his connection to the Agrarians in general and his work in “The Briar Patch” in particular. Yet one of the surest ways to get a good grade in a class taught by me is to demonstrate improvement, to work hard to strengthen one’s voice and ideas, to grow as a writer and thinker and analyzer and, through them, as a student and person. And In “Divided South,” Penn Warren, in the face of imperatives of his community and region and contexts, models such growth. Color me thankful. Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Moments, figures, and/or texts you’re thankful for?
11/20 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Peregrine White, who was the first European American born in Massachusetts; and Robert F. Kennedy, who I would argue represents one of the state’s and nation’s most inspiring sons.
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