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Robert Penn Warren: “Renaissance Man” of the South

ISSUE:  Spring 2009

As one of American literary history’s most celebrated “Renaissance men”—tirelessly producing prodigious works of fiction, short fiction, and poetry, as well as essays and methodological studies—Robert Penn Warren was one of the leading voices of American intellectual and esthetic identity during the twentieth century. Generally termed a “Southern writer,” Warren was deeply invested in defining the emerging consciousness of a new South during decades of racial and social upheaval. In a 1931 letter sent to VQR editor Stringfellow Barr, Warren inquired in closing, “How are the Southern writers making out?” Warren’s concern for the Southern state of things fit well with VQR’s penchant for publishing works with a compelling Southern focus, often by talented Southern writers. This alignment of method and interest sparked a rich relationship between Warren and the Virginia Quarterly Review, resulting in eight works published over a span of ten years, from 1931 to 1941.

John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony” was one of Warren’s first published pieces in VQR. It paid tribute to a developing Southern literary collectivity, as well as to Ransom, a fellow “Fugitive” and Southern Renaissance writer, whose resistance to rational abstractionism deeply informed Warren’s understanding of Agrarian “sensibility.” In his submission letter sent in the fall of 1934, Warren wrote, “I imagine that my high opinion of Ransom’s work shows through the cracks of my essay . . . I simply wanted to relate the various aspects of his work and link the whole to certain drifts in other people and places: to define the central preoccupation.” 

The task of defining this “central preoccupation” of modern writing in all its various forms became a life-long activity for Warren. In 1935, he co-founded the Southern Review with literary critic Cleanth Brooks and began publishing the creative works, critical essays, and book reviews of leading modernist writers such as Eliot, Huxley, Porter, Weltly, and Tate. VQR editor Lambert Davis warmly received the Southern Review as “a distinguished addition to Southern periodical literature,” one that made conscious strides in advancing not only a Southern notion of literary identity but a modern one as well. As both periodicals shared similar audiences and thematic concerns, Davis worked to create reciprocity between the two publications, encouraging the exchange of ideas, editions, and literature over the years.

Concurrently in the mid-1930s, Warren’s short stories and poems began receiving wider praise and publication by Lambert Davis. Although Davis believed Warren to be “more successful as a critic,” two of Warren’s short stories, “Her Own People” (1935) and “The Christmas Gift” (1937) were published during this time. Both pieces had an Agrarian feel, simple in narrative style and climatic development, yet thematically complex in portraying the effects of modernity on Southern culture. This excerpt from “The Christmas Gift” showcases Warren’s signature style: imagery-laden, and textually evocative of a distinct time and place:

At the foot of the slight grade the bottom spread out: bare cornfields with stubble and shocks that disintegrated to the ground, rail fences lapped by the leafless undergrowth. Away to the left a log house stood black under bare black trees. From it the somnolent smoke ascended, twined white and gray against the gray sky.

Warren shifted frequently and effortlessly between poetry, fiction, and nonfiction during the 1930s, his submissions revealing the rich variety of his literary palette. Writing to accept the poems “History” and “Revelation” for publication in the Summer 1935 edition, Lambert Davis declared that they would be “among the most distinguished poems ever published” by VQR. Warren’s early poetry had a youthful conservatism, relying heavily on traditional poetic forms and Agrarian themes of regionalism and individual liberties. Yet, his innovative vocabulary and metrical patterns were expressive of a new poetic edge (that Davis praised), as evident in the first stanza from “History”:

Past crag and scarp,
At length way won:
And done
The chert’s sharp
The track-flint’s bite.
Now done, the belly’s lack,
Belt tight
— The shrunk sack,
Corn spent, meats foul:
The dry gut-growl.

In the same 1935 letter accepting the publication of “History” and “Revelation,” Davis wrote to Warren, “you are, I believe, the only person who has had a poem, an essay, and a short story accepted by the Quarterly.” This sentiment would later be echoed by future VQR editors, like Charlotte Kohler, who took great pride in Warren’s legacy and frequently encouraged him to keep publishing in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Emerging in the 1940s as an institution, a mainstay, and a respected voice in Southern letters, Warren acknowledged his “deep and abiding desire to write poetry and short fiction,” yet also recognized his shifting commitments to long-term tasks such as professorships, novel contracts, and editorial work with textbooks and literary journals. “I have always been proud of my VQ situation,” wrote Warren to Charlotte Kohler in 1946, the year after he ended his stint as America’s first Poet Laureate and the year before he would win his first of three Pulitzer Prizes (one for fiction, two for poetry).


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