- Reviewed by
One of the happier aspects of the contemporary critical situation is the return to historically based approaches influenced by those critics gathered under the rather imprecise rubric of Neo-Historicism. The critical currency of figures such as Foucault, Althusser, and Jameson has empowered traditional critics to essay historical, social, and political approaches that might have been neglected even a decade ago. The two books reviewed here take historical perspectives on two [End Page 483] important although undervalued American modernists—Robert Penn Warren and John Steinbeck—whose visions were shaped by the discontinuities of the Depression and the Second Word War.
The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren by William Bedford Clark is one of some half dozen important books on similar aspects of the writer's career and canon that have appeared recently. In particular, Clark's book complements the efforts of two fine investigations of Warren's troubled relationships to the American tradition: John Burt's Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism (1988) and Hugh Ruppersburg's Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination (1990). Clark really combines the approaches of these two studies, balancing Warren's oblique commentary on America in his poetry and fiction with his more direct commentary on American history and literature. Clark's volume is most distinctive in its own historical formulations and chronological structuring.
The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren begins in the near present, the bicentennial year of 1976, demonstrating Warren's conflicted response to the national celebration. Although his own poetry of the period recognized the national malaise at the end of the Viet Nam era, his prose commentary still saluted the vision of the founders. In Clark's words, Warren saw the "challenge to actualize a society in which the dignity of the individual is a given and the integrity of the individuated Self is the principal end." For Clark, Warren's creative vision played back and forth between the commitment to the self and to the greater society, creating by the way some of the most complex political narratives in modern American literature.
The chapters that follow trace the evolution of Warren's career from his apprenticeship in the 1920s to his decline in the 1980s. In fact, the next three chapters each survey a decade in Warren's development. During the 1920s Warren emerged as a member of the Fugitive/Agrarian grouping centered around Nashville and Vanderbilt University. Clark skillfully handles this complicated background, as well as the considerable complexity of Warren's infamous essay, "The Briar Patch." However, the chapter's major contribution is a close analysis of Warren's first book, his 1929 biography of John Brown that prefigured many of his later narratives in its contrasting of personal and social truths.
In Chapter Three, "Out of the Thirties," Clark emphasizes the fact that Warren came of age with the Depression decade, something that earlier critics have tended to neglect in the historical analysis of Warren's career. Clark contrasts Warren with figures such as John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, and James Agee, as well as with ones more familiar to Warren criticism, such as William Faulkner. The chapter also pays attention to Warren's early, unpublished novels and his short fiction, subjects often slighted by the critics.
Although Warren's first novel, Night Rider, appeared in 1939, Clark considers it in a chapter on the 1940s, along with the next two novels, At Heaven's Gate (1943) and All the King's Men (1946), as "dramatic studies in the dynamics of political power." This approach yields many interesting insights. For example, Clark connects Night Rider with European and existentialist novels as well with Warren's American forbears. The discussion of All The King's Men seems somewhat truncated, perhaps because there is so much to say about Warren's pivotal work.
In fact, the reader's wish for more becomes the only problem with Clark...