The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 123-127
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"Christ, Start Again!":
Robert Penn Warren's Provisional Art
Edward J. Dupuy
Lonelier Than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile. By Randy Hendricks. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2000. 244 pp. $40.00.
The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren . Ed. David Madden. Introduction by James H. Justus. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. 186 pp. $34.95.
It is an irony of American literary history that the nation's first poet laureate is remembered not so much for his poetry but for All the King's Men. And it is a further irony that one of the nation's leading publishing houses, W. W. Norton, as Victor Strandberg points out, truncates Warren's career such that the editors of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Fourth Edition (1994) claim that "Warren's career as a 'major' poet 'began' with the publication of Audubon in 1969, when the poet was in his mid-sixties." Warren was a student of American irony, and as much as he may have reveled in the ironies of his own legacy, both Hendricks and Madden do much to correct them. Each places Warren's poetry at the center of their works, and neither shies away from his voluminous productivity or his protean forms. Instead, Hendricks' and Madden's volumes do what good criticism should do. They take the provisional forms under question, reformulate them, and leave the works open to further reformulations.
Novelist David Madden's collection of some twelve essays (including the introduction) has a deeply personal origin. One does not usually cite the Acknowledgments, but it seems appropriate in this case, related as it is to the irony already mentioned:
I imagine Robert Penn Warren would have liked knowing that his influence upon my life, my teaching, and my scholarly and creative [End Page 123] writing began when I first read All the King's Men, while working as a wiper aboard an oil tanker sailing through the Panama Canal in 1952. I'm glad I had the chance to tell him that rereading the novel inspired me to accept the position of Writer in Residence at LSU in 1968 so I could live in Louisiana. . . . The day I learned of his death, I began an effort to commemorate his legacy to LSU and to American history and literature.
Madden's collection of essays is one of many ways he has commemorated Warren's legacy.
Aside from the excellent introduction by James H. Justus, the volume includes essays by scholars and writers as diverse as C. Vann Woodward, Lewis P. Simpson, R. W. B. Lewis, T. R. Hummer, John Burt, Ernest Suarez, Deborah Wilson, Lucy Ferriss, James A. Grimshaw, Jr., Dave Smith, and Victor Strandberg. Acutely aware of the provisional nature of Warren's art and criticism, the writers in this volume have produced diverse (even opposite) approaches to Warren's corpus—from Hummer's interrogative subtitle, "Robert Penn Warren, a Poet of the South?," to Burt's assessment of Warren as a "Poet of New England"; from Wilson's treatment of women to Simpson's of "The Poet and the Father"; from Warren as a moral philosopher (Grimshaw) to Warren's relation to gynocriticism (Ferriss).
As diverse as these essays are, each touches in some fashion on Warren's relentless, yet provisional struggle to make meaning in history. Lewis P. Simpson, for example, whose critical work often centers on memory and history, cites Warren's comment from the foreword of both versions of Brother to Dragons: "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake." Simpson expands on this idea:
To put this more directly, the historian is a poet and the poet is a historian; history is poetry and poetry is history, the historian being no less a maker than the poet, who in the original Greek meaning of the term for poet...