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Poetry and Epic: the Academy and the Forum

ISSUE:  Summer 1985

Parnassus on the Mississippi: The Southern Review and the Baton Rouge Literary Community, 1935—1942. By Thomas W. Cutrer. Louisiana. $27.50.

Robert Penn Warren left his teaching position at Louisiana State University in 1942, tendering his resignation just as the administration and board of supervisors of that institution were in the act of terminating the Southern Review. I was then a somewhat younger than usual second-year student at L.S.U.and far from having tipped the balance in favor of sophos over moros in relation to that nicely ambivalent term “sophomore.” Even so, I had the good fortune to come into contact with a few among that sizable number of remarkable members of the faculty who came to Louisiana in the 1930’s as a result of Huey Long’s determination to make L.S.U.the best university the state’s money could buy. Much later I came to recognize that I had a sufficient onset of common sense in late adolescence to perceive, however dimly, the qualities that made those individuals not only outstanding teachers and scholars but also enabled them to develop—within a bizarre external setting—an authentic community of intellect. Such a community defies conception in the presence of the massive, bureaucratically managed, individual career-oriented, fragmented, and overspecialized organizations (or anarchies) we call universities today.

Thus it was that I came to be enrolled in Robert Heilman’s full-year course in the English novel during that momentous spring following the American entry into World War II—and only shortly before my college career was temporarily terminated by a tour of duty with the U.S.Army. I recall, as clearly as though time has stood still during the intervening 40-odd years, a particular day when Heilman came striding into the classroom, dominatingly erect and with his broad shoulders squared. His prominent features were tightened into a gloomy countenance that carried no hint of the usual grin that anticipated the pleasure he took in bringing to the assembled students the joy of discovering some fresh understanding in the latest reading of a familiar, but critically inexhaustible, work of fiction. His incisive wit, unexpectedly puckish in a man of his physical stature, could at times be sardonic, but on that day it was, for the only time in my memory, bitter. Before opening the text to the assigned reading, he made a single flat-toned comment: “Well, they’ve chosen the Tiger over the Review.”

The reference was clear even if its nuances escaped most of the 20 or so undergraduates present. The L.S.U.board of supervisors had just met to consider stringent budget cuts justified as part of the cleanup of university affairs following the 1939 scandals in which President James Monroe Smith and other hangovers from the Huey Long era went to prison for misappropriating public funds. At the budget session the unrelenting manner in which power was wielded by the restored ancien régime differed only in its Jack of flamboyance from the way Huey had browbeat the legislature into rubber-stamping stacks of bills to implement his big-spending programs. An added justification for the purge was the need to husband all the resources possible for expenditures in support of the university’s contribution to the war effort. Among the victims of the slashes were a number of university-sponsored journals that symbolized the literary and general scholarly prestige Huey’s state money had helped bring to the institution. Among these, of course, was the Southern Review. When the Review’s turn came, the pro forma motion that L.S.U.continue its publication died for want of a second. At that time it was reckoned that the annual subsidy needed to sustain the Review was about what the University spent to maintain the live Bengal tiger that served as the football team’s mascot (the first in a line of formidable beasts that continues in that exhibitionist role to this day.) The 1942 symbolization of the choice of university gods has now been employed as the title of the final chapter of Parnassus on the Mississippi—”The Review or the Tiger.”

Twenty-two years after I witnessed the delivery of Heilman’s bitter epitaph, Warren returned to the L.S.U. campus for the first time since his departure. By then he seemed to me to have become, as he continues to be, the foremost man of letters in America. In the opening remarks of his lecture to a packed audience of students, faculty, and townspeople, Warren noted that “After Louisiana nothing seemed real.” The author of Parnassus uses this quotation as an appropriate headnote to the book’s epilogue.

By the time of Warren’s visit I had been back on the L. S. U. faculty for seven years, having returned in 1957 with “a mind to stay”—an intention that Warren has expressed on several occasions with regard to his faculty affiliations with both Vanderbilt and L.S.U.By yet another of those coincidences of time and place the new series of the revived Southern Review was just getting under way, and I was preparing to take my departure from the end of the 1963—64 academic year. And this for much the same reason that Warren has given for leaving Vanderbilt and L.S.U.—what had begun with so much promise and been pursued for a time with so much hope was ending with a growing sense that, despite the memorable experiences and enduring friendships I had known there, rapidly changing circumstances left no place for me at the university, even with the Review coming back.

All of this is by way of saying that Parnassus on the Mississippi is not a book I am able to review in the ordinary way because its contents are too immediately personal to obtain the distance necessary to treat it objectively. Suffice it to note that the author tells his story so well, on the basis of such skillful use of pertinent sources (including several apposite interviews and unpublished memoirs), that for one who lived through the events recounted the book is not read simply as an aide mémoire, but is an experience of deja vu involving nearly total recall. The only jarring notes for one so situated are recurring errors in the use of proper names [e.g., Charles Hineman instead of Charles Hyneman, (pp.225 and 227), Clarence Carson instead of Clarence Cason, (p.41), Herbert C.Nixon instead of Herman Clarence Nixon (p.72, fn.2; Nixon’s name is reported correctly on p.138 and in the index)] and the inclusion of two photographs of Paul M. Hebert, one of which is identified as Charles W.Pipkin.

Although the subtitle of the book is The Southern Review and the Baton Rouge Literary Community, 1935—1942, the historical and topical coverage is much broader than the seven years during which the initial series of the Southern Review was published and came to be recognized here and abroad as the most distinguished American literary magazine of its day. In fact, it is the vivid rendition of the setting— social, political, academic, and literary—that reifies Warren’s Louisiana in a way that makes his subsequent experience seem unreal. The brief prologue takes us all the way back to the improbable origins of 1859—60 as a state-supported military academy under the superintendency of William Tecumseh Sherman (who secured his position with help from P.G.T.Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, and Richard Taylor). The equally brief epilogue tells of the exodus from L.S.U. of the principals following the demise of the Review and gives a brief account of the origin of the new series of the magazine.

In a summary assessment of the favorable reception the Review has enjoyed following its resumption, the university president of record at the time is quoted as saying that he hoped if his administration was remembered for any one thing it would be the magazine’s revival. Mr. Cutrer does not take advantage of the opportunity to close the book with another of those ironies that test one’s perception of reality. I remember the statement attributed to the same source on accession to the presidency. He noted that he was most pleased to become president because “they” could no longer keep him from watching the Tigers practice.

The story proper opens with the spectacular advent of Huey Long as governor in 1928.Long was, of course, the neopopulist successor to the moderately progressive Governor John M.Parker, whose administration (1920—1928) mildly interrupted a line of Bourbon regimes going back to the post-Reconstruction era. Because of his relatively successful efforts in curtailing public corruption, adopting a new state constitution, and constructing a graveled highway system, Parker was referred to as the “gentleman as reformer.” Among the changes he brought about was the building of a commodious new campus for L.S.U.on a plantation site just south of Baton Rouge.

As early as 1926, arrangements were made to appoint another Army officer, Maj. Gen. Campbell Blackshear Hodges, as president of the university. Hodges was from a prominent planter family in North Louisiana and thus doubly a member of the old guard planter-military elite. But when he could not be released from active duty in time to take the position, an acting president was appointed. By the time the general was in a position to take over the administration Huey Long was in the governor’s office and not about to acquiesce in the appointment of a man whose family was in the vanguard of the increasingly bitter opposition of the old order to what Allan Sindler called Long’s “buccaneering liberalism.” Hodges was destined to continue his military career for another decade before the “reform” administration of Gov. Sam Houston Jones (1940—44) made him president of the university in 1941.In that capacity Hodges lent his handsome, austerely dignified presence to the budgetary reductions that liquidated the Southern Review and much else that in the interim had elevated L. S. U. ‘s status in American higher educational circles to a position it had not previously occupied and has not regained since.

Long’s choice for president of L. S. U. in 1930 was the aforementioned James M.Smith (a native of Huey’s home parish), who was brought to Baton Rouge from Southwestern Louisiana Institute. Smith was thought by many observers to be an ambitious local, a political hack, and a sycophant who would not make a move except on Huey’s direct orders. In some respects all those things were true, but they do not accurately reflect offsetting personal characteristics of Smith and Long that affected their interactions relative to the university. Huey’s ambitions for L.S.U., like those for himself, were unlimited, and they included academic achievements as well as attention-getting functions of the university that represented the bread and circus aspects of the King-fish’s political substance and style. Long attended personally to the latter activities—the boosting and boasting about higher educational opportunities for the youth of the state regardless of the ability of their families to pay, and the football extravaganzas, marching bands, fetes, festivals, and excursions that kept Huey in the local and national headlines. But, apart from some highhanded incidents involving affronts to his amour-propre, he was shrewd enough to know that favorable judgments on academic quality within those circles in which such things counted was not something that his modus operandi lent itself to attaining once he had procured the funds for buildings, equipment, scholarships, faculty positions, and educational programs. On the other hand, Smith’s homespun academic sophistication and experience, as well as his imagination and political instincts (if not his civil courage) were underestimated. He had taken a doctorate in educational administration at Columbia, and while there developed what some of his associates at L.S.U.recognized as an understanding of the university as a place in which scholarship and graduate education occupied the leading position in the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge.

He also made contacts in the East whom he called on later for advice and other intangible support in his efforts to make L.S.U.into a university of national stature.

As the economic depression deepened, L. S. U. was one of the few universities in the country that was adding programs, faculty, and students—and getting the state appropriations necessary to support them. By contrast, most colleges and universities were in heavy retrenchment, while able scholars and teachers were in plentiful supply. President Smith proved to be equal to exploiting his natural advantages in productive ways. To aid him on the academic development side he brought in an extraordinary man, Charles W.Pipkin, as dean of the graduate school. Pipkin, a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas and a full professor of government at the University of Illinois while still in his twenties, was only 31 at the time of his appointment. Urbane, able to command respect by his firm presence, willing to speak out with no fear of the consequences, and totally dedicated to the ideals of the academy, he was protected from the worst caprices of Louisiana politics by these qualities and by the authenticity of Huey Long’s and James Monroe Smith’s aspirations for the university. Almost immediately he became the chief internal catalyst for the vitalization of the institution.

The story of the transition of L. S. U. from a small, essentially land-grant college with a heavy military orientation to a large, academically and culturally comprehensive university in less than a decade under the economic and political conditions of the time is a remarkable one that is a bit too much to cover in a book of moderate length. But the story of the Southern Review is symbolically representative of that achievement and its national, regional, and state significance.

Among other inspired appointments, Pipkin was responsible for bringing Cleanth Brooks to the campus in 1932, and Warren followed a couple of years later. The three of them, again working alternatively through the overt and covert channels of the Byzantine order of the day, founded the Southern Review in 1935, with Pipkin as editor and Brooks and Warren as managing editors.

The magazine was a success—at least in terms of critical acclaim—from the first issue, even though the idea was broached as late as February and the Review made its initial appearance the following July. It was preceded in March by the solicitation of material from scores of the most prominent writers, critics, and commentators on public issues of the day, and in April by the Southern Writers’ Conference, at which the formal announcement of the launching of the Review was made in an atmosphere charged with an explosive mixture of skepticism and elation, ignited by the sparks of political ideology that were sputtering residues of earlier heated intellectual exchange between the Vanderbilt Agrarians and the University of North Carolina Progressives.

Despite the fact that Warren and Brooks were still in the fledgling period of their illustrious careers and were venturing into terra incognita as far as American writers and publishers were concerned, the response they received from their invitations to potential contributors was remarkable. Perhaps the best support they had was a heritage from the Vanderbilt Fugitives and Agrarians (Warren had been a participant in both groups, and Brooks was a slightly later addition in spirit to them). John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and the historian Frank Owsley were early contributors and gave moral support to the cause, as well as the benefit of their growing reputations, critical intelligence, and wide acquaintance in the broader world of letters. Ransom, especially, encouraged such talented young writers as Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Richard Weaver to pursue their graduate studies under Brooks and Warren.

Most of these “apprentices,” along with others such as Albert Erskine who arrived in time to become the first business manager of the magazine and was later married (albeit briefly) to the older, peripatetic Katherine Anne Porter when she “settled” in Baton Rouge for a time, were contributors and involved in other ways with the Review, on which the literary life of the community of letters in Baton Rouge turned. While limitations of space (and the certainty of leaving out persons who belong on any list of those affiliated with the magazine) control the temptation to include a roster of contributors to the 28 issues put out between 1935 and 1942, an attenuated list of individuals appearing in the first one may be said to be typical of the eminence and diversity of critical, creative, and social perspectives characteristic of the Southern Review throughout its short life. These included Herbert Agar, Kenneth Burke, Donald Davidson, and Aldous Huxley. Others were to follow in such profusion that a full roll reads like a Who’s Who of American (and British) creative writers of the period and beyond, since many younger writers in addition to those directly connected with L.S.U.(the best example is Eudora Welty) have given generous credit to the Southern Review’s editors for helping advance their careers when they were struggling to establish themselves as writers.

The Southern Review was undoubtedly a sustaining center of the Southern literary renaissance, which had begun with the Fugitives, been extended by Faulkner preeminently (even though in relative isolation), and continued by a host of others as Southern literature and criticism dominated the American literary scene for three decades or more by demonstrating that the creative imagination, informed by broad philosophical insight, can elicit universal meaning from portrayals of parochial experience.

Both Huey Long and the original Southern Review have long since entered into the mythopoetic realm of legend. Parnassus on the Mississippi, like the late T.Harry Williams’ biography of Huey Long, provides a vivid historical portrait of the events that made up the life of its subject in its own time and setting. Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men, and the abiding contents of the Southern Review itself (both the original and the new series) provide much of the historical— “suprahuman,” as Robert Heilman once referred to it— meaning that attaches to the strangely intertwined legends of Long and that essential, but vulnerable, cultural artifact we know as the Southern Review.


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