Robert Penn Warren and Regionalism

By Millichap, Joseph R. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Robert Penn Warren and Regionalism


Millichap, Joseph R., The Mississippi Quarterly


Robert Penn Warren, arguably modern America's greatest person-of-letters, enjoyed a complex, often contradictory relationship with American regionalism, one which helps to elucidate some of the complexities and contradictions evident in both the concept itself and in the author's career and canon. Regionalism is here understood as that complex of geographic-historical, socio-economic, and literary-artistic factors which support the identification of disparate sections within a larger culture. In America, the word was introduced in the later nineteenth century, perhaps to soften the harsher connotations of sectionalism, the earlier term which connotes the sort of sectional conflicts leading to the Civil War. In artistic and literary terms, regionalism is most closely identified with the local-color movements of the later nineteenth century and the geographically regional and socially realistic agendas in the arts of the 1930s and 1940s. Recent cultural critics and historians have emphasized the political utility of regionalism as an intellectual construct mediating between national and sectional forces in our culture, both politically and artistically considered.(1)

As a Southern Renascence man, a major critic as well as writer, Robert Penn Warren was deeply involved in both the theory and practice of literary regionalism throughout his long career. His involvement included the socio-economic aspects of regionalism, as his apprenticeship with the Southern Fugitive/Agrarians would suggest. In 1936, he published an essay in the American Review defining literary regionalism; almost four decades later he was still struggling with the concept in his introductions for the classic anthology American Literature: The Makers and the Making, which he edited with Cleanth Brooks and R.W.B. Lewis. Warren's literary canon is primarily concerned with the South in general and, in particular, the Black Patch or the dark-fired tobacco country of West Kentucky and Tennessee. The directions of Warren's career, as befits a border Southerner, are South and North, though they also become West and East, as his other regional settings of importance include the Mountain West and New England. Robert Penn Warren becomes a writer who, while rooted in his region, moves beyond it to his own regionalism constructed from universal literary themes and artistic meanings.(2)

Warren's own understanding of regionalism is a good place to begin consideration of its importance. In his essay "Some Don'ts For Literary Regionalists,"(3) Warren recognizes both the theoretical and practical, the socio-economic and literary-artistic aspects of regionalism, as we might expect from one of the twelve symposiasts of the Southern Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand (1930). As Warren put it: "Regionalism is a more polite expression than sectionalism of the centrifugal principle, for it doesn't carry the threat of direct political, or other, action" (p. 143). Implicit in his formulation is the recognition, which has been developed more fully in recent scholarship, that cultural manifestations such as regionalism are actually constructs operative at many levels of culture. Recent literary historians, for example, have seen the Local Color regionalism of the later nineteenth centry as both a nostalgic evocation of national innocence lost in the internecine struggles of the Civil War and as a sentimental effort at sectional reconciliation in the postbellum Glided Age. Similar readings can be made of the "regional realism" then nascent when Warren articulated his "don'ts" for regional writers in the mid-1930s. For example, in the efforts of California regionalist John Steinbeck, recent critics have discerned a similar nostalgia for national innocence lost in the First World War and the Roaring Twenties, as well as a sentimental reconciliation in a centrist political consensus.

In fact, Warren's early definition by negation does characterize "regional realism" rather neatly, even as it projects a different sort of "universal regionalism" which he would practice himself. …

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