Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Robert Penn Warren's West

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Robert Penn Warren's West

Article excerpt

As befits a border Southerner, the primary directions of both Robert Penn Warren's career (1905-1989) and canon are north and south. Both his grandfathers rode with Forrest's raiders in the Civil War, and both bore their military titles through Reconstruction. His birthplace (Guthrie, Kentucky) was a railroad junction on the western border of Kentucky and Tennessee in the heart of the "Black Patch," the dark-fired tobacco country which was the scene of bitter "Tobacco Wars" during the first two decades of this century. Just as his region's history records a succession of Northern incursions--military, industrial, and cultural--Warren's personal history reveals a series of Northern sojourns culminating in his virtual emigration from the South. However, almost all of Warren's fiction is set primarily in the South, the greatest part of his poetry considers his personal experience of the South, and most of his non-fiction concerns the generic Southern experience in both history and in literature. Although Warren left the South more or less permanently in 1942, he is still considered a Southern writer, and correctly so.

Given this essential south/north axis in his life and work, it proves interesting to observe a complementary east/west orientation. As a man of letters concerned throughout his long career with the history and the geography of American literature, Warren's voluminous canon contains many Western excursions--fictional, poetic, and critical. Even the earliest criticism of Warren recognized his fascination with the West, particularly as a place of escape, a place to flee the recurrent failure of the American Dream. (1) Recent critical studies of Warren have recorded more positive attitudes toward the West, especially in his later poetry. (2) So far, Warren's critics have yet to trace his lifelong engagement with the West, a motif which certainly proves an important corollary to his central thematic concern with the romance of Southern history. (3)

For Warren, the West is a symbolic as well as a geographical distinction; the West is not simply a direction, but a turn of mind, the American mind. As with others of our serious authors from the American Renaissance forward, Warren presents a West rich in promise but ultimately poor in performance. Somewhat simply put, the West, both as geographical reality and symbolic construct, represents for Warren the tensions of nature and culture, youth and age, innocence and experience. Particularly American expressions of these archetypal tensions include New World and Old, wilderness and garden, frontier and civilization. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Warren's West is his own reversal of both the geography/history and the innocence/ corruption continuums of the American West. For Warren, the West is first fallen and then redeemed as he penetrates further into its landscapes and deeper into its history. Finally, Warren accepts the West as "a place to come to," one which permits the grandest efforts of the human spirit, efforts which assert eternal order and meaning in the face of inevitable defeat and death.

Like most aspects of his biography, the basis of Warren's personal interest in the West remains obscure. (4) We do know that after his graduation in 1925 from Vanderbilt University (in his home region's literary capitol of Nashville) Warren took his M.A. at the University of California-Berkeley in 1927. In addition to intellectual growth, his two years in California prove important biographically because of his relationship with his future wife, Emma (Cinina) Brescia. Warren's 20-year marriage (1930-1951) to this enigmatic woman was evidently a passionate though troubled union. His Southern family connections during his California years as well as her Western ones during their Southern residence together (her father was conductor of the San Francisco Symphony) must have occasioned cross-country travel and shaped Warren's visceral reaction to the West. …

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