- Old Friendships
The penultimate volume in this magnificent series of Robert Penn Warren's letters covers a decade bookended by the publication of two long poems some critics consider his greatest, Audubon: A Vision (1969) and the extensively revised Brother to Dragons (1979, originally 1953). The intervening years, blighted only by a bout of hepatitis that required exploratory surgery, and the onset of his wife Eleanor's deteriorating eyesight, due to macular degeneration, saw the publication of an astonishing body of new and highly original work, including two further volumes of poetry, the experimental Or Else (1974) and Now and Then (1978), which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, Warren's third overall and second for poetry; the 327-page Selected Poems 1923-1975 (1977, including an introductory section of ten new poems); and two novels, his ninth and tenth, Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971) and A Place to Come To (1977, "the best thing I've ever done"). "I don't theorize about the fact that I write both verse and prose," Warren explained to Jon Bracker on May 13, 1970. "For me the fiction and the poetry seem to have some inner relation, [and] I feel the impulse to write both." But "when the poems come," Warren assured John Crowe Ransom in a letter dated 10 April 1969, "I have long since decided that prose can wait."
The groaning shelf of Warren's books also housed, in addition to the published text of Warren's 1974 Jefferson lecture, Democracy and Poetry (1975), a substantial body of critical work, including the monumental two-volume "history-reader," American Literature: The Makers and the Making (1973), which contained more than two million words of text and accompanying essays by Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and R. W. B. Lewis. "I have never read our literature systematically and chronologically," Warren confessed to Robert Heilman on December 9, 1972, "and I must say that I feel very different about my country after this immersion." "Same old crisis every generation," he continued, "only under different names. Nobody learns anything."
Inextricably connected to his work on the textbook, which he said had been over a decade in preparation, were Warren's magisterial edition [End Page lvi] of Herman Melville's poetry, which appeared in 1970, and his highly regarded studies of John Greenleaf Whittier's poetry and Theodore Dreiser's novels, both of which were published the next year.
During the course of the 1970s Warren and Brooks, his collaborator since 1938, prepared new editions— the third, fourth, and fifth respectively—of Understanding Fiction, Understanding Poetry, and An Approach to Literature. The famously tetchy Robert Bly had denied permission to include one of his poems in the poetry textbook because their assistant, David Milch, had caused him a "devastating insult" by spelling out "Mister" in the greeting of his permissions letter. Warren determined to address the matter himself: "I enclose my letter to Bly, the shit-heel," he wrote to Brooks in early march 1975. "I hope I have puzzled him a little bit." This letter, albeit unsuccessful in achieving its purpose, is nevertheless a minor masterpiece of damage control.
"I have a deal on with Franklin Mint for four books," Warren boasted to Allen Tate on 10 October 1976, "and one requires that I sign 20,000 to 25,000 sheets to be tabbed in—this in 90 days. $2.00 a sheet for the first 20,000, after that $3.00. . . . Plus two weeks at any resort of our choice to recuperate." The book in question was the Franklin Library's profusely gold-stamped, leather-bound "limited first edition" of Selected Poems 1923-1975, "privately printed exclusively for Members of The First Edition Society," according to the Robert Penn Warren-signed colophon leaf. That it was, in fact, bibliographically the second edition would unlikely have troubled members, who no doubt rejoiced in endpapers that Warren's bibliographer describes as "burnished orange silk." Albert Erskine "asked if I could stand their vulgarity...