The Well-Wrought Textbook
Davis, Garrick, Humanities
A look back at Brooks and Warren's college classic, Understanding Poetry
IN 1938, THE MOST IMPORTANT LITERATURE textbook of the twentieth century was published. By the the second edition, it had been adopted by more than 250 colleges and universities. The book went through four editions in all, and made millions for its authors, two junior professors at Louisiana State University.
For generations of students, Understanding Poetry was the ceremonial text in that rite of spring, or forced march, called the undergraduate survey course. The radioactive-orange cover of the fourth edition still inspires awe - or dread - among a sizable portion of the living. Among professors, its reputation is even greater: The book is commonly credited with revolutionizing the teaching of literature in America.
Today, when textbooks are written by committees and shaped by consultants at the behest of publishing conglomerates, it seems remarkable that a course book written by two little-known academics could dominate the market for half a century. What's more remarkable is this: Understanding Poetry is not even the greatest achievement of either of its authors, both of whom became major literary figures: Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.
Warren's reputation as a teacher and critic is almost eclipsed by his poetry, his trophy case of Pulitzers and other prizes, and the popular success of his novel, All the King's Men. In 2005, the post office issued a commemorative stamp to honor the centenary of his birth.
Brooks remains, for many, the ideal of the English professor. He once served as the cultural attaché to the American embassy in London, arriving just in time to call on an ailing T. S. Eliot; more usually, he was forced to lunch with "timewasters, the narcissi, and occasionally the clinically insane." The preeminent scholar of Southern literature, Brooks produced works on Faulkner that remain unsurpassed. His critical books are classics, and his teaching was admired by students such as Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Hugh Kenner.
Understanding Poetry was, in short, merely one title in a roll call of achievements that, between these lifelong friends, constitutes one of the great critical collaborations of the last century. It began auspiciously too.
Brooks and Warren met as undergraduates at Vanderbilt University in 1924 - a time when the legendary professor and poet John Crowe Ransom gathered students and teachers on Saturday evenings to read and discuss their own verse informally. The group, which included the poets Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Merrill Moore, called themselves "the Fugitives." They published a literary magazine by that name, chiefly to get their own work into print. Warren, as a senior, was a member, while Brooks, only a freshman, was not.
These discussions were friendly but also intense and critical, as members offered close readings of proffered verses. It was a heady time to be a humanities student at this tiny college. The first issue of The Fugitive editorialized on the group's ambitions: "Official exception having been taken by the sovereign people to the mint julep, a literary phase known rather euphemistically as Southern Literature has expired, like any other stream whose source is stopped up. The demise was not untimely: among other advantages, Tlie Fugitive is enabled to come to birth in Nashville, Tennessee, under a star not entirely unsympathetic." This was the dawn of the so-called Southern Renaissance.
Both men left Nashville for graduate study elsewhere. Brooks went to Tulane but found it dull; while Warren went to UC-Berkeley only to discover that his new classmates were more interested in Marx and Engels than Pound and Eliot. Both men were awarded Rhodes scholarships. When Brooks arrived at Oxford University in 1929, he found a welcome note from "Red" in his room. This is where their friendly collaborations first took shape, according to Warren:
Our characteristic topic of conversation was the opening world of poetry and poetic criticism and theory. …