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The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren.

Nearly a decade ago. Floyd C. Watkins gave a presentation on Robert Penn Warren as "A National Poet." In those years before Warren became our first Poet Laureate, the idea was new, and one capable of arousing some disquiet among an audience not quite prepared for a recrudescent Fireside Poetry. Watkins was of course not interested in making contemporary parallels with the beloved figures who became the unofficial guardians of America's mainstream values. His task was mostly descriptive, a fact that, given the nature of Warren's skeptical posture in so much of his writing generally, was insurance against any program that might want to emphasize Warren as celebrant of the patriotic mysteries. Watkins was right to show us how frequently Warren turned to our public history for his poetic matter. With a "range from 1776 to 1976," as Watkins put it, this poet's engagement with American history was both intellectual and aesthetic; and put in a tabular way (as in the printed version in the Spring 1984 issue of the Mississippi Quarterly), the relevant titles revealed how early and how persistent was Warren's compulsion to ground his art in the public record.

Watkins' model was prophetic. In those years bracketing the death of Warren in 1989, the most ambitious critical studies of this notable man of letters have sought to place him - if not to fix him - in his "American contexts." The phrase still sounds a bit odd - as if some other national interests once established norms for reading Warren. Except perhaps for the 1940s, when Understanding Poetry was at the peak of its pedagogical influence, the more perceptive of his commentators have always noted Warren's instinctive pull toward our own social history, from John Brown: The Making of a Martyr to Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back. But his writing has always been more than social or cultural notation, which is why the "Americanizing" wave of criticism initiated by John Burt and Hugh Ruppersburg has importance for Warren studies. For a body of work that engages large philosophical issues of governance and human liberty, loyalty and self-interest, the urgency of egalitarianism and responsible leadership, it is appropriate that the poet's death coincided with the appearance of Burt's Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism (1988) and Ruppersburg's Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination (1990). Writers' deaths do not always provide the best occasions for critical revaluation - later anniversaries are usually better - but in the case of Warren, whose final assessment must wait, these critics have supplied a necessary comprehensiveness and contextualization that will be invaluable for that future enterprise.

William Bedford Clark's The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren now takes its place conceptually beside these predecessors. Emphasizing the writing from 1925 through 1955 - the period in which Warren's vision "assumed its clearest focus and sharpest definition" - Clark rehistoricizes the crucial texts in order to clarify the dynamics of Warren's obsession with America. For an artist who always found his most congenial art clustering around "ideas," Warren set himself both with and against the grain, celebrating and resisting even the heroic age of the Founders. One of the reasons for Warren's prolonged fascination with Thomas Jefferson is that founder's preeminent position in establishing a nation - the only one begun as an "idea." What Clark describes as the "symbiotic balance" of Warren's vision - the dialectic play of society and the individual, fate and will, the then and the now - can be found in parallel' dramas, those within Jefferson reflected in the tensions among the institutions he helped to shape.

Clark usefully resituates Warren in a context of social and cultural actualities from the 1920s in Nashville to the chaotic postwar commodification of values - and with each phase he traces what he calls the prophetic strain, which, implicit in the early work, "grew increasingly emphatic" in the later work. Clark's most ringing chapter is his last, in which he sees Warren "renegotiating" the covenant of the Founders, toughly updating a history lesson always in danger of being forgotten: that "psychic and social amelioration depends upon establishing a dynamic working relationship with the past."

To his credit, however, Clark reminds us that Southern agrarianism, that movement that tirelessly used the past as referent, is too limited a polestar with which to orient Warren; and he enumerates the impact of the troubled 1930s in Warren's writing of that decade and the next (All the King's Men, despite its formal publication date, is, because of its affective origins, a quintessential novel of the Thirties). One of the most fascinating segments of Clark's book is a study of the first few numbers of the Southern Review, one conclusion of which is that Warren and his coeditor Cleanth Brooks consciously resisted Allen Tate's notion that the new journal should have a "proper ideological focus." The editors refused to purge their pages of "ideological impurities" because both Brooks and Warren were eager "to be part of the passionate political/cultural dialogue of the 1930s, [and] no idea, even one of their own, was too sacred to be subject to testing."

One of Clark's notable strengths in this study is his inerrant sense of specificity. He is as careful an explicator of figures, images, and rhetoric as he is comprehensive in the coverage of large cultural patterns in Warren's writing. Note especially his comments on the word proconsuls in At Heaven's Gate to gloss the commercial imperialism of twentieth-century America; his fine reading of Warren's John Brown - the most perceptive and balanced in the growing commentary on this pivotal character; and his attention to two stories rarely discussed, "Christmas Gift" and "Her Own People," as texts that demonstrate Warren's sympathetic observation on the "plight of those at the bottom of the class and caste structure."

The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren is both sensitive and sensible, a worthy study to join Burt's and Ruppersburg's. If it has a flaw, it is its author's seeing Warren in more affirmative ways than many critics would be willing to grant. It is useful to cite Warren's prophetic strain, but it should be remembered that many prophets wrote jeremiads, a form based on a profoundly unaffirmative sensibility. We could be hard pressed to name any one of Warren's dark works as a true jeremiad, but the stubborn note of irony, skepticism, and old-fashioned pessimism infects most of his work. We should not nevertheless dispute Clark's choice of humanistic to describe Warren's orientation, even though the term has fallen on a bad press of late. In his diverse voices and in different moods, writes Clark, Warren told humbling and often agonizing truths, and the message of his life's work is "ultimately one of hope." Warren described himself as a "yearner," a word that comports well enough with Clark's terms as long as we understand the long haul involved in "ultimately."
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Author:Justus, James H.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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