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Behind the Iron Mask: Joseph Blotner’s Warren

ISSUE:  Autumn 1997
Robert Perm Warren: A Biography. By Joseph Blotner. Random House. $35.00.

“Who am I?” Amantha Starr asks herself at the beginning of Band of Angels, and her question reverberates through all of Robert Penn Warren’s work. Like most writers, Warren said that he wrote not to put down what he already knew, but to find out what he didn’t know or, at least, what he didn’t know that he knew before he discovered it in the act of composition. Writing for him, as for others, was a lifelong effort at self definition. He wrote of his forebears—of his Grandfather Penn who quoted poetry at length, and of his doting mother and of his father, a poet manque who judged himself a failure. He wrote of his wife and his children, of friends and acquaintances, and of historical figures such as John Brown and Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis. He based characters on old teachers and ex-lovers, on politicians and adventurers and financiers. He found plots for his novels in stories from his childhood, in old manuscripts and newspapers, and in reports of contemporary mischief. Finally, in A Place To Come To, he made himself the source of his main character and constructed his story out of incidents in his own past. Like Warren himself, Jed Tewksbury yearns to discover the meaning of life, but at the end of the novel, he has learned only that he is himself—”I was I”—and that what life has taught him is what he, like everyone else, was born knowing; but the nature of this knowledge that we all share is not fully explained, nor is Jed fully comforted by what he has discovered. The uncertainties that haunted Warren most likely contributed to his genius as a writer and doubtless added complexity to his character and his days.

Warren’s life was filled with romantic episodes. Having lost the sight of an eye and with it his dream of attending the Naval Academy, he attempted suicide while he was a student at Vanderbilt, was jailed for riotous behavior in San Francisco, scandalized his neighbors in the same city by a passionate liaison that he reluctantly ended at the insistence of the police. He kept his marriage to Emma Brescia, which was performed in California, a secret from his family and friends and married her a second time in Arkansas to perpetuate his original duplicity. With the help of a neighbor, he delivered his first child before the arrival of paramedics, an event that according to Cleanth Brooks was “God’s revenge on Red for writing so many melodramas.” Melodramas or not, through it all, he was writing— novels and poems and critical essays and text books. Usually, he had more than one project underway, working on one in the morning and another in the afternoon as if he were driven by the current of his own creative energy. Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, both of whom endured periods of literary sterility, said that Warren wrote too much which, of course, he wouldn’t have believed, though if he had, it seems unlikely that he could have stopped himself. His physical and emotional and intellectual energy were evident even in the quiet moments of his life—when he was sitting in a chair, raising a drink, listening to what someone else was saying. Almost all his life, he lifted weights, swam, took walks forcing himself to endure, toward the end, the pain that movement cost him. He maintained control over his mind and his temperament too. He was gregarious, affable, meticulously polite, and gifted at conversation. But his friends said that he wore “an iron mask.” Under most circumstances and among most people, he kept his own counsel.

His reticence was at least partially a result of his first marriage. Emma Brescia—”Cinina” to friend and foe alike, the latter of whom were legion—seemed to those who knew her to be either mad or demonic. Defining Cinina’s personality, discovering the kind of person she was must have been one of the major problems Joseph Blotner encountered in writing Warren’s biography. When Blotner began work, there were plenty of people still alive who remembered Cinina, but in most cases, the memories were sufficiently bitter that the survivors would hardly grant her human status. Her public outbursts were so distasteful—screaming insults, turning over furniture, slamming doors, and, at least on one occasion, committing physical violence against her hostess—that Warren’s companions shuddered to imagine what kind of private life he suffered with her. Clearly, there was more to Cinina than a poisonous disposition; otherwise, Warren, who was no fool, would not have married her. She possessed, as Blotner makes clear, a physical magnetism that transcended smooth skin and shape of limb and hair pulled sleekly back to display her oval face, her sensuous lips, her broad forehead. She was doubtless paranoid, jealous of Red, of the affection his friends had for him as well as of his fame. She was deeply selfcentered, demanding always to be the focus of attention. But as Blotner recreates her, she was stylish and talented, and if not as brilliant as Red, bright enough to have been a proper wife for him in a more tranquil relationship.

Cinina’s madness was certainly a source of Warren’s reticence, but, of more importance, the structure of Blotner’s biography suggests, rightly, I think, that Warren’s relationship with Cinina helped to establish the emotional terms under which Warren lived the rest of his life. Having divorced Cinina at the suggestion of her psychiatrist, he was eager for happiness and well equipped by his previous agony to deal with it. If opposites attract, he and Eleanor Clark were made for each other. She was a Yankee who had worked for the Communist, Leon Trotsky; Red was a Southerner who had contributed to the conservative Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. While he was attending public schools in Guthrie, Kentucky, she was being educated by Ursuline nuns in San Remo, Italy. In time, Red became more liberal, Eleanor grew more conservative, but they never arrived at a synthesis of their political views. Eleanor was strong willed and opinionated. She was also affectionate and generous: a writer herself, as Cinina had wanted to be, she took joy in Red’s increasing fame and in the prizes that he won, the honors that were bestowed on him. With the birth of their children, his life achieved a kind of happiness of which he would not have dared to dream during the hard days with Cinina. When she died, she was buried so deep in his memory that he was able to say, “I didn’t feel a thing.” But he never forgot her. As Blotner makes clear, living with her had been one of the shaping experiences of his existence.

Blotner’s method of dealing with Warren’s work, conventional, but quite effective, is to discuss the books as they appeared, putting them in the context of Warren’s life and evaluating them both independently and in terms of the entire Warren canon. There were in all, if I have counted accurately, 42 books: 10 novels, 15 volumes of poetry, essays, memoirs, critical studies, editions, and text books. Blotner’s readings of Warren’s work are both tough and sympathetic and always perceptive. The autobiographical element is stronger in Warren’s poetry than in his fiction. Both his daughter Rosanna and his son Gabriel appear frequently in his verse as does Eleanor. He probes his own Kentucky boyhood, celebrating relatives, friends, and attempting to establish a connection that he was unable to develop in life with his dead father. Blotner traces the sources of Warren’s novels: the Kentucky tobacco wars, about which Warren had heard much when he was growing up, for Night Rider; the financial shenanigans of Luke Lea and Rogers Caldwell for At Heaven’s Gate;the memory of Huey Long and Benito Mussolini for All the King’s Men, which Blotner judges to be Warren’s best novel.

Blotner’s exegeses of Warren’s poems are particularly rewarding probably because, with the exception of A Place to Come To,Warren’s poetry is more personal than his prose, more frequently based on what he has seen and done and thought and felt. Blotner suggests that the late novels were perhaps damaged by the financial success of All the King’s Men and the high prices that Helen Strauss, who became Warren’s agent, was able to get for his fiction. Movie rights to All the King’s Men went to Columbia Pictures for $200,000. In 1947, Strauss sold first serial rights to “The Circus in the Attic” to Cosmopolitan for $5,000, more money than Warren knew “existed for a short story.” Although he lived well and traveled extensively—or perhaps because he did—Warren frequently needed money. His divorce from Cinina cost him $1,000 a month in alimony. Then came marriage to Eleanor, a barn to rebuild into a house, children to support and educate. Warren remained loyal to his craft, wrote as well as he could write^ but, as Blotner shows, he selected his subjects and planned his novels with an eye on Hollywood. Whether or not his novels suffered from his desire to make them profitable, after All the King’s Men, they were at best uneven. When A Place to Come To was treated harshly by critics both here and in England, Warren could comfort himself that the book had “already made its little fortune.” Robert Redford had bought the film rights before publication.

One of the ways Blotner develops Warren’s character is to chronicle his many friendships: with his old Fugitive and Agrarian friends, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Donald Davidson; with writers of a different orientation such as William Styron, from whom he was estranged late in his life, and Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison; with his former student and editor, Albert Erskine, and, most important of all, with Cleanth Brooks for whom his deep affection never wavered. There were many others: academics, editors, publishers, companions of his youth, and men and women who had been his neighbors in half a dozen countries. He thought of his widely scattered friends as a community that had replaced the more closely circumscribed Southern community that, as a result of the duplicity or fecklessness or sheer stupidity of Southern academics, he had been obliged to leave. Edwin Minis forced him out of his job at Vanderbilt. Administrators at Louisiana State University refused to match an offer that Warren received from the University of Minnesota in 1942.”I took it,” Warren told Blotner, “as an invitation to leave.”

In what ways Warren’s career might have been different had he stayed in the South is a matter about which Blotner wisely does not speculate. But the South, from which he was exiled and to some extent estranged, was perhaps as important to Warren as Ireland was to James Joyce. In 1930, while he was at Oxford, Warren wrote the essay on race relations in the South for inclusion in I’ll Take My Stand. He was a reluctant contributor to the Agrarian manifesto, and he must have wished for the rest of his life that he had followed the doubting part of his mind and withdrawn from the project. He endorsed the principle of “separate but equal” which was a common view of the time. Donald Davidson thought Red had come down too heavily on the equal arm of this dialectic and said the essay did not sound like “the Red Warren that I know.” For Davidson, Warren had been too liberal. But for most of the world, he had not been liberal enough. For a while Warren’s friends and for much longer his enemies held him accountable for what, in a changing social climate, became an increasingly damaging indiscretion. Warren apologized and apologized again. He also devoted much of his literary energy to race relations and the history thereof and to the history of our nation, North and South. He wrote a book on segregation in the South, followed it with a book on the Civil War, wrote Who Speaks for the Negro?, and followed that with a book on Jefferson Davis who had, more than a century after the end of the Civil War, had his American citizenship posthumously restored. Race and the Civil War were themes in his novels, in Band of Angels, for example, and in Wilderness. If his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand forced him to look more carefully at his home ground and his early history, his work surely was better because of it, but his writing also was deepened by his enduring affection for the South.

I think it is a tribute to Joseph Blotner and to the splendid work he has done here that I have said considerably more about Warren than about the author of his biography. Blotner’s job as biographer was to give us Warren, to render him not only as the great writer that he was, but as a complicated and often secretive human being. This Blotner has done admirably, and the result of his consummate skill, his thorough research, his solid construction of his narrative, his graceful and concretely detailed writing, is a Red Warren developed in a completeness and angularity that will enlighten even some of Warren’s oldest and closest friends. In 1989, dying of cancer, Warren entertained a woodcutter’s helper by his Vermont fireside while the woodcutter telephoned for assistance in getting his truck out of a ditch.”After a while, anticipating the end of the phone call, the helper said, ‘Well, we’ll see you next year.’ Warren replied, ‘No, you won’t see me next year, ’ and when the boy asked why, he explained quite simply.” Warren’s generosity, offered to friend and stranger alike, endured through his own pain. Much of what was best in Robert Penn Warren is caught in this image—one of many that Blotner’s own generosity prompted him to share with his readers. We are all in his debt and will be for as long as Warren’s work survives.


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