- Choosing Sides during the Culture Wars of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s: Robert Penn Warren, the Weight of Agrarianism, and the Popular Audience
- Mississippi Quarterly
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 64, Numbers 1-2, Winter-Spring 2011
- pp. 25-57
- View Citation
- Additional Information
PATRICIA L. BRADLEY Middle Tennessee State University Choosing Sides during the Culture Wars of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s: Robert Penn Warren, the Weight of Agrarianism, and the Popular Audience IN 1946, ROBERT PENN WARREN ACQUIRED HIS FIRST LITERARY AGENT, Helen Strauss, who was savvy, well-read, and admittedly aware of her client’s professional reputation as a foremost figure among the Fugitives, New Critics, and Agrarians. Warren had just published the widely acclaimed All the King’s Men and was facing a significant shift in his literary identity, from that of a writer appreciated primarily in academic circles to an author whose writing extended itself to popular audiences and popularizing accolades such as the Pulitzer Prize. In her autobiography, A Talent for Luck (1979), Strauss reveals that after adding Warren to her client list she had second thoughts about her bold strategies for promoting his work; in particular, she had misgivings about placing his short stories in magazines like Cosmopolitan, even though in 1947 that publication offered to pay $5000 for an abridgement of his novella “The Circus in the Attic”: Warren, associated with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and the Kenyon school of criticism, had been respected as editor, essayist and a leader in that too convenient, heterogeneous grouping known as the New Criticism for over a decade in the pages of scholarly and prestigious little magazines. A Rhodes Scholar from Kentucky, who had attended Vanderbilt, he was associated with the Fugitive Group of poets in Nashville—Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Merrill Moore—and had encouraged . . . the best of a generation of new Southern-born authors in the pages of The Southern Review. . . . Cosmopolitan seemed a big jump . . . and for no good reason except a certain ignorance of that circuit, I did not know if this commercial leap would sit well with Warren’s peers, or with Warren himself. (129) Strauss’s concise summation of Warren’s career as well as of the friends and colleagues who had been major influences from his Vanderbilt years to the late 1940s is as notable for whom it includes (Caroline Gordon, for 26 Patricia L. Bradley example, as the only woman on the list) as for what it omits.1 Patently one of Warren’s most devoted fans and having also become a good friend, Strauss prominently mentions most major aspects of Warren’s career up to the moment of their first meeting: his active undergraduate membership in the Vanderbilt Fugitive group and his later role as a mature scholar in helping develop and promote the New Criticism in venues such as the Southern Review. What Strauss neglects to mention at this point in her reminiscence is an aspect of her client’s career that remains to this day a contested area of Warren studies: his role, along with other southern Agrarians, in producing the 1930 Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand. Yet, these were the very associations from Warren’s early career that would speak most emphatically against the perceived commercialism of his publishing agenda in the mid- to late 1940s. Regardless of Strauss’s apprehensions, any hesitation Warren may have shown in publishing with Cosmopolitan would have little to do with his former Fugitive status. His membership during the 1920s in that close brotherhood and his ardent commitment to literary modernism, particularly of the Eliotian variety, would indeed have mandated a more elitist response to such a middlebrow publishing venue. But by 1946, the trajectory of Warren’s creative development had borne him anxiously away from much of that modernist influence and would carry him even further away over the remaining decades of his career. His New Critical status would prove similarly moot; his adherence to the New Criticism developed essentially from pragmatic pedagogy and then to a democratizing impulse when, as an assistant professor and then associate professor at Louisiana State University from 1934 to 1942, Warren realized that his students could not read their assignments with any real understanding of their literary content. Insisting that the skillful reading of literature could and should be taught to all university students whether they attended the elite universities like Vanderbilt or the large 1 Gordon, of course, did...