Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Dreiser and Meet Me in the Green Glen: A Vintage Year for Robert Penn Warren

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Dreiser and Meet Me in the Green Glen: A Vintage Year for Robert Penn Warren

Article excerpt


Among good twentieth-century American authors the most prolific is Robert Penn Warren. He published his first book back in 1929, when he was in his early twenties. As the years went by he began picking up speed, until for the past couple of decades scarcely a season has gone by without another volume by Warren. Novels, poems, short stories, plays, literary criticism, journalism, textbooks, anthologies, children's books--name the genre, and Red Warren has tried it. Yet the year just past was a remarkable year even for him. He published three new books. First came an extended critical essay, Homage to Theodore Dreiser. Next was an edition of the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier, with a lengthy critical and biographical introduction. Finally there was a new novel, Meet Me in the Green Glen, his ninth, and his first since 1964.

When a man writes a great deal, his literary competitors who are less prolific than he almost always offer the only rejoinder possible under the circumstances--that he writes "too much." If he were less eager to publish his books, and would take his time on each book until he gets it right, they say, then his work would be better than it is. But the truth is that it rarely works that way. The best fiction by William Faulkner, for example, came during a six-year period when he was turning out novels and stories one after the other. The same with Ernest Hemingway--his best work almost all came during a period from about 1923 to 1929, when he was writing constantly. In later years Faulkner slowed down his pace to a book every three or four years, and Hemingway published even more slowly, yet this later work is not the fiction that has lasted best.

What it comes down to is that there is probably no inevitable relationship in literature between quantity and quality--or if there is any, the fact that a writer turns out work steadily is really a sign that he has something to say and wants very much to say it, so that instead of joining political movements, serving on committees, gardening, teaching, editing, or criticizing his contempories in print or behind their backs, he spends more hours per day at the typewriter. The writer who produces a great deal of work, comparatively speaking, is probably going to be a better writer in each one of his books, all things considered, than one who produces very little. There are exceptions, of course, such as T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate--well, there must be more but right now I can't think of any. But in general it works the other way around.

I mention all this because I have heard too many people say and some of them write about Red Warren that the reason his fiction fell off after World Enough and Time (1948) was that he was writing too much. Also, that he sold his soul to Hollywood, or to New York, and got used to too high a standard of living, and also that he was seduced into writing high-minded political uplift, and so on. Poppycock. There was a notable slackening in quality of Warren's fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Wilderness (1961) and Flood (1964) are to All the King's Men as Wordsworth's "Ecclesiastical Sonnets" are to "Tintern Abbey" and the "Immortality Ode." But it wasn't because Warren was writing too much and too often. It was, I think in retrospect, because those ideas which in the early fiction gave such profound definition to the documentation of the world of action began taking on so much importance in their own right that they grew abstracted from the felt experience of the stories. Instead of the ideas evolving out of the people and events, the process was reversed and Warren took to creating the people and events primarily to fill out a philosophical structure. What this did was to cheapen the people and events by forcing them into patterns that falsified them.

This is the temptation of the so-called "philosophical novelist," as Warren himself had recognized implicitly in his essay on Joseph Conrad. …

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