The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (1947) has never prospered among Warren critics, beginning with the author himself. This single collection of his short fiction constitutes the total output of an author otherwise impressively prolific in other genres: poetry, novels, literary criticism, informal history, and cultural commentary. Warren's explanation for quitting this distinctive field early on was compositional: short stories, he complained to interviewers, ate up ideas and situations he wanted to reserve for poems.
Joseph R. Millichap's study of the stories, which is both critically acute and pedagogically useful, comprises more than half of this book; the remainder is devoted to the reprint of an important 1970 interview; the author's [End Page 377] essays on the genesis of "Blackberry Winter" and "The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger"; and two shrewdly chosen views of the short fiction by Allen Shepherd and Randolph Runyon. What Millichap importantly does, in setting out to rectify critical neglect of a major author's short fiction, is to contextualize "the romance of southern history," which he names the "central energizing theme" of Warren's career—biographically in the artistic transmuting of family figures into notable fictional characters, and culturally in his linking of those characters to mythically resonant narrative patterns that Freud first made available to modern readers. The arrangement of stories, all dating from the early 1930s to the mid-1940s, is the work of Warren himself at the galley-proof stage; it suggests authorial fascination with the intertextual dynamics of history and romance. But against this larger concern, like such precursor short-fiction cycles as Winesburg, Ohio and In Our Time, Warren's achieves its local textures through intricate variations of the initiation story: all the central figures tend to be "southern males at various stages of development from childhood to old age."
Millichap is the first critic to take seriously those stories most of us have been quick to dismiss. While he also finds many of these to be narrative failures (Warren was no better than other fictionists, for example, in making the academic venue come alive), he is judicious in locating sources of interest and strength in even frail pieces. What he says in his brief treatment of "Her Own People" should send us all back to that story for reconsideration. But his finest insights are those illuminating the title story and "Prime Leaf."
As we follow Millichap in his analysis of these fictional efforts from the depression and war years, we are reminded anew of the pervasive darkness of Warren's naturalism. He makes us aware of how incidents of violence and death and the careers of "cultural failures" (a baseball player, a yeoman farmer, a provincial artist) are important signals of a larger cultural disorder—a plane of relevance in Warren's writing not always sufficiently appreciated. This alone makes Millichap's a welcome addition to the steadily growing shelf of Warren studies.