A Question of Class: The Redneck Stereotype in Southern Fiction

By Duane Carr | Go to book overview

19

Robert Penn Warren:
The Dispossessed as Southerner

Robert Penn Warren is not the artist that Faulkner is, nor do his characters leap from the page as do O'Connor's. But what strikes the reader about Warren is his capacity for analysis and a desire for understanding. Not the least of what Warren came to understand, in ways Faulkner and O'Connor did not, was the psychological makeup and motivation of poverty‐ striken rural white citizens of the South. This understanding seems to have come from his readings into what he called "the testimony of sociologists and historians," which allowed him a historical perspective and insight into the contemporary milieu of despair and hopelessness of disadvantaged rural whites (Millichap 98).

Warren's readiness to understand and therefore sympathize with the dispossessed came early. As he himself recalls in his essay "All the King's Men: The Matrix of Experience," he first traveled from his native Kentucky to the deep south of Louisiana State University not knowing what to expect. He soon found, however, that the students there were much "like students everywhere in the country in the big state universities." The ones who engaged his most immediate sympathy, however, were the few rural students from the outlying parishes who occasionally, despite economic, social, and psychological obstacles, made it to that campus but were still discouraged about their ability to learn. Recalling that experience later, he expressed his sympathy with those students as well as an antipathy for the attitudes of the upper and middle classes:

Among the students there sometimes appeared ... that awkward boy from the depth of the 'Cajun' country or from some scrabblefarm in north Louisiana, with burning ambition and frightening energy and a thirst for learning; and his presence there, you reminded yourself ...

-145-

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