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Reviewed by:
  • Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism, and: The Fiction of Walker Percy, and: Conversations with Peter Taylor
  • Joseph R. Millichap
John Burt. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. 238 pp. $22.50.
John Edward Hardy. The Fiction of Walker Percy. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1987. 318 pp. $24.95.
Hubert H. McAlexander, ed. Conversations with Peter Taylor. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987. 178 pp. $17.95 cloth; pb. $9.95.

These three seemingly disparate titles are integrated both by the literary achievements of their subjects and by the critical importance of their contributions to the serious reading of Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, and Peter Taylor. Of course, these writers themselves possess much in common; all three [End Page 638] represent the second generation of the Southern Renaissance, and, as the senior survivors of that generation, all three are receiving wide recognition and praise as major figures of contemporary American literature. These three studies both confirm that recognition and indicate its continued development and scholarly directions. As such, all three will become required texts for serious readers of the writers in question.

Still writing and publishing in the eighty-fourth year of a long and productive literary life, Robert Penn Warren remains the senior writer not just of contemporary Southern but of contemporary American letters. His prodigious canon spans six decades, from the early issues of the Fugitive at Vanderbilt to the recent publication of his reminiscent Portrait of a Father by the University Press of Kentucky. Warren remains the only writer to have won Pulitzer Prizes for fiction and poetry, and he was our first official Poet Laureate (1986-1987). His writing also includes important works of drama and history, as well as cultural and literary criticism. Perhaps Warren's wide variety of genre and mode have daunted academic critics, for few have attempted unifying studies. Aside from introductory volumes in the various critical series, only one book—James Justus' excellent The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren—deals with the complexities and contradictions of the author's canon in anything like the breadth or depth it demands.

For this reason alone, John Burt's first book proves a welcome addition to the Warren criticism. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism respects the contrary elements in Warren's career and canon while discovering commonalities that unify Warren's critical and his creative writing, his fiction and his poetry, his irony and his idealism. Burt's book began as a doctoral dissertation at Yale that traced contemporary extensions of the tradition of American romance defined by Richard Chase and his successors. In the present study, Burt narrows his contemporary focus to Warren while widening his perspective to American idealism in both its brighter and darker manifestations. Burt finds in Warren's sensibility an ambiguous attraction to and flight from idealism—philosophical, political, and literary. Because this same ambivalence has marked American thought and letters from the birth of the Republic, Burt judges Warren to be a representative American writer.

Burt's central thematic emphases make him capable of complex insights into individual works as well as the Warren canon. Better than any earlier critic, Burt realizes that Warren's ambivalence is not simply recreated in his characters (in particular, his narrators) but is best discovered in his authorial relation to his creations. Thus Warren's approach to and withdrawal from idealism, particularly under the guise of modernist irony, shapes the very structure of his works. In Burt's view, Warren discovers in his best creations a "neutral territory" in which idealism and pragmatism may accommodate each other in both life and art.

These best works for Burt include Warren's elegiac poems, in particular his most famous elegy, "Mortmain," written for the death of his father in 1955. Like other recent articles, Burt also admires Warren's long narrative poems, especially The Ballad of Billy Potts, Audubon, and Brother to Dragons. He discusses those novels that balance politics and romance—Night Rider, All the King's Men, and World Enough and Time—the novels most universally praised by Warren's readers. Burt's achievement is demonstrated by his fresh insight into these often...


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