Robert Penn Warren's Band of Angels at Fifty
Clark, William Bedford, Southern Quarterly
This year (2005) marks the centennial of Robert Penn Warren's birth, and a range of events, great and small, have been planned to mark the anniversary. His native Kentucky certainly remembers this most distinguished of her literary sons, and in April (Warren's birth-month) there will be celebrations in his hometown, Guthrie (just over the Tennessee line), and at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, home to a very active and increasingly influential Center for Robert Penn Warren Studies. A commemorative postage stamp will be issued (a rather tacky production I fear - based on what I've seen on the Internet), and a new screen adaptation of Warren's most popular and respected novel, All the King's Men (the first version earned three Oscars in 1950), is now well into production. (It will feature, as they are wont to say, a "stellar cast," headed by the brooding and enigmatic Sean Penn who, I suspect, will do a splendid job of recreating Warren's boisterous and enigmatic Southern dictator Willie Stark.) Though my invitation has yet to arrive, I am informed that libations will be poured out and reverently consumed in Warren's honor at New College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar in his own decidedly irreverent youth, and special issues of quarterly reviews and learned journals will be devoted to this remarkably versatile writer who was, during a career that spanned over six decades, a bestselling novelist, an acclaimed literary and cultural critic, and - ultimately -America's first official Poet Laureate.
Centennials are important, good occasions on which to reassess and better appreciate an author's place in the American canon, and semi-centennials are at least half as good. The year 2005 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Band of Angels, Warren's fifth novel and a book that remains as readable and as problematic today as it was when it first appeared in 195 5. Band of Angels is a page-turner to be sure, on one level a passionate love story - or rather a sequence of love stories - generously interlarded with action and adventure. As a conscious craftsman with a committed regard for tradition, Warren was fully aware of Hawthorne's useful distinction between the "novel" proper and the "romance," and Band of Angels, for all its detailed realism and scrupulous historicity, better fits the latter designation, as a range of friendly and not-so-friendly readers have long noted. More specifically, it is an "historical romance," a sweeping (and in this case consciously researched) narrative in which the major protagonists play out their destinies against a panoramic backdrop of perilous and exciting times (and in whose pages wholly fictive characters often interact with actual figures out of history). The historical romance is a popular (and therefore for many purists a meretricious) genre, but beginning with Sir Walter Scott and coming down to contemporary writers like lain Pears, it has had its innings and can boast of a reasonably legitimate pedigree. Some particularly fastidious readers, mindful that the novel's heroine Amantha Starr is serially beset by tumescent males - few of whom are gentlemen, most of whom are not - have made uncharitable comparisons between Band of Angels and another kind of "romance" - the mildly pornographic "bodice-ripper" where true love vies with a certain sadomasochistic titillation to insure close and attentive reading - and a wide readership. They would argue that Warren's novel does not look back to Walter Scott so much as it anticipates Barbara Cartland.
I think they are manifestly wrong but there is no denying that there are some kinky moments in Band of Angels, and melodramatic elements (improbabilities of plot, harrowing escapes, histrionic posturing) abound, so much so that an early reviewer, the always perceptive if equally quirky critic Leslie Fiedler, compared the book to the staginess of grand opera. And yet, at the age of fifty the novel remains at once a quite readable and a problematic piece of fiction, but it is also something else, and therein lies its lasting importance. …