The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 153-160
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Recent Scholarship on Robert Penn Warren
Poems of Pure Imagination: Robert Penn Warren and the Romantic Tradition. By Lesa Carnes Corrigan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. 171 pp. $22.95, paper.
Making History: The Biographical Narratives of Robert Penn Warren. By Jonathan S. Cullick. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. 214 pp. $45.00.
Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, Volume One: The Apprentice Years, 1924 - 1934. Edited by William Bedford Clark. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. 274 pp. $39.95.
It has long been said that literary criticism is a salvage operation, but just as garbage has become recycled goods, so salvaging has become more than effecting the rescue of reputation or renown. Some years ago, in his far-reaching essays on Hawthorne, Coleridge, and others, the American poet Robert Penn Warren took pains to point out to us what was really going on in certain texts by these men, but his aim was the good old-fashioned one of making us appreciate them more by acquainting us further with their genius. With the entrance and, now, preeminence of theory in literary studies, the texts of deceased authors are primarily salvageable as cogs in the theory machine. Thus Richard Wright's work is deconstructed to reveal inadvertent misogyny as well as advertent racism in Native Son. Does this argument make Wright a more important writer? Hardly. But does it eject his work from the canon? Not so long as his novel proves useful for the intersection of feminist, Marxist, and reader-response theory. Lovers of Wright, then, do well to foment [End Page 153] trouble over gender stereotypes in Wright's work if they want to keep that same work alive and in print.
Jonathan Cullick, in his book on Warren's biographical narratives, and Lesa Carnes Corrigan, in her study of the strains of romanticism in Warren's poetry, pull terms and categories at will from the various dens of theory to prove Warren's connection, not to the prevailing winds, but to older traditions of poetry and the philosophy of history. Besides being unfashionable, this approach has its problems. In Cullick's study, for instance, the arc traced from biography (Warren's studies of John Brown, Daniel Boone, Jefferson Davis) to autobiography (Jack Burden in All the King's Men, the narrator of World Enough and Time) to the interconnectedness of personal and historical past ("Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce" and a number of Warren's literary essays) is not a new one. As Cullick notes, critics from L. Hugh Moore to James Justus have observed exactly this arc running through all of Warren's narratives—fictional and nonfictional, prose and poetry—that deal with the past. Cullick's task, then, is to freshen this insight by shaping it in terms of "discourse," showing how by "renegotiating the relationship between the myths of the past and the needs of the present[,] Warren certifies his biographical narratives as authentic records." Unfortunately, Cullick "borrows" terms from theorists like Seymour Chatman and Wayne Booth wherever they seem handy to explain his sensible observations in more cutting-edge language. Especially where such ground-breaking late-twentieth-century theorists are concerned, terms such as "narrator-agent," "self-conscious narration," or the "nonnarrated story" are not simply labels but fundamental building blocks in larger views of fiction that should either be found useful as articulated approaches or wrestled with as systems. Cullick uses "terminology" (his word) from these critics, but he does not seem to put their ideas into practice, nor does he reshape the terminology to fit a new idea about biographical narrative, or indeed about anything that goes beyond a careful reading of Robert Penn Warren. Such critical practice might be excusable if the term were a recently coined or little-used bit of jargon that proved useful where no "standard" term fit. But Barthes, Chatman, Genette, Booth, and others whom Cullick cites are regarded as founding fathers of contemporary literary theory, and to "borrow" their terms is akin...