Literature as Life Vocation: The Example of Austin Warren

By Urbanczyk, Aaron | Modern Age, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Literature as Life Vocation: The Example of Austin Warren


Urbanczyk, Aaron, Modern Age


The Letters of Austin Warren, edited by George Panichas (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2011)

"It is a rare pleasure unreservedly to recommend a book." Thus wrote Austin Warren, eminent modern literary theorist and critic, while reviewing a collection of essays on American literature of which he wholeheartedly approved. The same must be said, with equal enthusiasm and approval, of the late George Panichas's edition of The Letters of Austin Warren. It is a rare delight, especially in this age of virtual communication, to sample the letters of a truly great epistolary artist. Austin Warren was a man of immense erudition and a master stylist; his Letters ranks among the very best volumes of correspondence in the English language. Yet perhaps this collection's greatest contribution is its power of example and memory. In The Letters of Austin Warren, the reader is introduced a new to a figure hardly recognized today, especially in university circles: the humanist and man of letters. This learned teacher and scholar, from his place in the university, has a sacred public duty: with patience and humility he must teach, guide, correct, illuminate, and elevate those within his charge. Austin Warren's letters, which span the entirety of his adult life, document a brilliant literary mind persisting in this lofty vocation.

Austin Warren (1899-1986) is ranked among the most influential literary scholars of his era. He was Irving Babbitt's MA student at Harvard. After completing his doctorate at Princeton, Warren taught successively at Boston University, the University of Iowa (where he began a lifelong friendship with the comparativist Rene Wellek), and the University of Michigan, where he taught mostly graduate students for twenty years prior to his retirement in 1968.

Warren is best remembered for his landmark book, coauthored with Wellek, Theory of Literature (1949), which is one of the most influential and enduring treatises of literary theory of the twentieth century. Much like his friend Wellek, Warren resists easy placement in a school of literary criticism. He always felt himself influenced by Babbitt's "New Humanistic" vision of literature, and as he matured professionally he became very sympathetic to the New Criticism (Warren was friends with many of the southern New Critics). Warren had a lifelong commitment to analyzing literature as a distinct form with its own scaffold of inherent meanings. As a man of letters, he was a model of breadth, erudition, and exploratory scholarship.

By modern professional standards, he was quite a paradox. As a scholar he was narrowly regional in one regard: he always considered himself a citizen of New England and a "New England regionalist" (he is an authority on early American colonial literature). Yet in another regard he was very much a comparative literature scholar: he wrote widely on English and European authors and frequently taught comparative literature during his tenure at Michigan. Warren humorously reflects upon the breadth of his interests in a letter to one of his former students: "Iowa hired me as a 'New Humanist' while I had meanwhile become a 'New Critic.' Michigan hired me as an 'American Literature man' though I had turned into a literary theorist and a Comparativist."

One of the greatest pleasures of perusing Warren's Letters is coming to realize how intimately and substantially connected he was with the great literary minds of his generation. Acquaintances and friends among his correspondents include T. S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More, Kenneth Burke, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and George Panichas. Warren's cultivation of such correspondents was no mere careerist networking: he sought out among his contemporaries those with whom he could seek insight and wisdom.

It is interesting to note that after establishing a familiar correspondence with a select number of his peers, Warren began addressing letters to them in a most curious fashion. …

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