Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Warren's 'Wilderness' and the Defining "if."(Special Issue: Robert Pennn Warren)

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Warren's 'Wilderness' and the Defining "if."(Special Issue: Robert Pennn Warren)

Article excerpt

Robert Penn Warren's total life's work is marked by an interpretation of American history which shaped and, in the process of interpretation, was shaped by his sense that human identity depends upon a poetic process. This is hardly an original insight. In fact, the link between American history and the forms by which it might be understood is the common subject of three of the most significant recent studies of Warren's work: John Burt's Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism, Hugh Ruppersburg's Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination, and William Bedford Clark's The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren.(1) Each of these studies provides a highly original and insightful interpretation, yet their very titles testify to a common understanding of one level of Warren's significance: Here was a life's work based on a profound struggle with the meaning of America, particularly in terms of the individual's relation to a community and various manifestations of competing ideologies - higher law versus pragmatism, manifest destiny versus naturalism, the divinity of man versus Original Sin, the promise of American democracy and individualism versus the actuality of American materialism and banality.

Shaped by a private and regional experience whose lessons were of failure on a personal and massive scale and a romantic temperament that yearned for the fulfillment of the American promise, Warren's vision of America says no to easy interpretations of its history in a continual struggle to say yes to its dream. The effort is always that of a yearning skeptic battling against a blinding idealism and a paralyzing cynicism. Jack Burden must come out of cynicism into history at the end of All the King's Men. And despite some misreadings to the contrary, the grievous state to be overcome in Brother to Dragons is not Thomas Jefferson's too idealistic view of humankind's and America's future - the facts of history, it is assumed, have sufficiently debunked that idealism. It is instead the cynicism into which the resurrected Jefferson has fallen and which R.P.W. has inherited as the all-too-common consciousness of his age. Warren's interplay between the two states of mind has led some critics to label him in ways that appear to be hedging. Ruppersburg, for example, thinks that it would be accurate to call Warren "a romantic realist, a pragmatic idealist" (p. 7). As slippery as such labels seem, they are accurate, for they convey just how charged the issue of personal freedom is for Warren. Clark has explained the matter very well in saying that "individuals like Jack Burden . . . are 'free' only because they recognize that an absolute and unconditional freedom of the 'self' is neither possible nor, in the last analysis, desirable" and because they discover "the humbling and exhilarating truth that we can never be truly alone, for the paradox of the human condition is that we are one in our shared alienation, anxiety, and weaknesses" (p. 94).

Given such a vision of the human condition, for Warren both idealistic positivism and naturalistic determinism are equally dreams of the individual's separateness from history, and in addressing the issue of American identity Warren may define a representative conflict or situation more than a representative man. The representative may be a Founder or one of the nameless ones who drove west; a powerful planter or a mountaineer battling the rocky and merciless soil. He may be heavily embroiled in the dynamic politics of states or financial empires or associations, or he may be as humble as Willie Proudfit or Ashby Windham. She may be the pampered daughter of a Kentucky planter who on the day of her father's death becomes chattel. Or he may even be a Bavarian Jew who comes to America to participate in the fight for freedom during the American Civil War. For despite his foreign citizenship, Adam Rosenzweig, the protagonist of the novel Wilderness, undergoes an experience that in Warren's vision is decidedly American. …

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