- Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination, and: Katherine Anne Porter and Texas
By limiting his focus to one, and that the most important, aspect of Robert Penn Warren's vision, Hugh Ruppersburg is able to examine in detail the panoramic play of Warren's mind over the question of what it means to be "American." For Americans, more so than people nurtured by longer and deeper traditions, are not only more prone to ponder their "Americanness" but are, in a profound way, what the American imagination has told them they are, and their vision of what they should be is no less determined by that ideal of the imagination. Because of their fresh start in the wilderness such a short time ago, Americans were allowed to invent themselves and to keep on reinventing themselves in ways that the English and Spanish, for example, no longer can.
One of the remarkable things to be seen about Warren's vision in Ruppersburg's analysis is that it could remain "Southern" and still transcend the rather simplistic view of his contribution to I'll Take My Stand (1930). Beginning with a general chapter setting up his parameters "Warren and the American Imagination," the author goes on through close readings of Warren's major poetry and his nonfiction prose concerned with the civil rights movement and the threat of The Cold War. Fiction is treated tangentially. The book fittingly ends with reference to Warren's agrarianism which, in his maturity, became national and international in scope. [End Page 482]
This book is extremely well written, a pleasure to read and all in all a stunning achievement. In its depiction of his sixty-five year career as a successful artist engage it clearly demonstrates Robert Penn Warren's right to the Medal of Freedom and the First American Poet Laureateship.
Katherine Anne Porter and Texas, a collection of essays by various hands, ably edited by Clinton Machann and William Bedford Clark, originated in a symposium held at Texas A & M in 1977. The subtitle of the volume, "An Uneasy Relationship," aptly describes the common theme of the nine essays and the annotated bibliography that form the contents. The publication of Joan Givner's provocative biography of Porter in 1982, in destroying the assumption that Porter had fostered, that her roots were firmly planted in a well-to-do Southern family, currently a bit down at heels, has led to a torrent of critical enquiry into the "truth" about Porter's background. In "The Women Artist I Knew," Cleanth Brooks provides some needed course correction in this attempt to paint Porter's childhood as one of cultural deprivation. Professor Brooks makes the telling observation that she totally lacked the earmarks in her speech that would have betrayed such a background and points up the obvious truth that a cultured Southern tradition could and has survived and transcended poverty and defeat in individual families. Other essays treat the battering that Porter's psyche received from her literary rejection by her native state, which preferred Western over Southern culture as the basis of its literature. What it all seems to add up to is that, as a writer, Katherine Anne Porter in Texas was a bird of paradise in a covey of crows. Each essay in this collection is interesting and well written and the bibliography comprising about a third of the volume is useful. However, one is left with the nagging suspicion that the effect of the whole is a powerful advertisement for the tenets of the "old" New Criticism: the conflicts that matter in Porter's stories happen on the page. Why not leave them there?