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Robert Penn Warren in VQR

PUBLISHED: December 26, 2010


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 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’searly penchant for publishing works with a compelling Southern focus, often by talented Southern writers. This alignment of interests sparked a rich relationship between Warren and VQR, resulting in eleven works published over a span of over forty years, from 1931 to 1975.

The years preceding Warren’s 1930s emergence as a “great Southern writer” was not without its complications. Between 1931 and 1932, Warren received free books in exchange for writing unpaid book reviews while simultaneously experiencing the rejection of his poems and short fiction by editor Barr. Warren’s frustrations finally came to a head in November 1931, in a stormily worded letter to Barr:

If my prose … is decent enough for you to print, my verse is equally, or more, so. Or, is a prose review regarded as merely a space filler in the Quarterly? That would be a distressing conclusion for a contributor who has a certain amount of conscience in his own writing …

In view of our cordial relations and your past kindness I am permitting myself the unprecedented luxury of this letter with the hope that you will see my point—which is that I would like to see your point.

Now tell me to go to hell.

Barr, replying to Warren a month later, defended his reasons for rejecting the works and questioned Warren’s dedication to writing for VQR. Barr’s letter was greeted, heavily, with three years of silence.

In autumn 1934, Warren initiated correspondence with managing editor Lambert Davis, starting a relationship that would maintain an amiable and consistent correspondence for four years. “John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony” was Warren’s first work to appear in VQR. It paid tribute to a developing Southern literary collectivity, as well as to Ransom, a fellow Vanderbilt “Fugitive” poet and Southern Renaissance writer, whose resistance to rational abstractionism deeply informed Warren’s understanding of an agrarian sensibility. In his submission letter sent in the fall of 1934, Warren wrote to Davis:

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 lifelong 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 T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Allen Tate. 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 VQR and the Southern Review shared similar audiences and thematic concerns, Davis worked to create reciprocity between the two publications, encouraging the free exchange of ideas, editions, and literature over the years.

Concurrently in the mid-thirties, Warren’s short stories and poems began finding a home in VQR’s pages and receiving wider praise. Although Lambert Davis believed Warren to be “more successful as a critic,” two of Warren’s short stories, “Her Own People” (Spring 1935) and “The Christmas Gift” (Winter 1937) were published during this time. Ironically, Davis was not a huge advocate of “The Christmas Gift,” a short story that would eventually be canonized by John Updike in his twentieth century anthology, The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Both “Her Own People” and “The Christmas Gift” 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.

During this time, Warren shifted frequently and effortlessly between poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, his frequent submissions revealing the rich variety of his literary palette. Writing to accept the poems “History” and “Resolution” for publication in the Summer 1935 issue, 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, which 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 “Resolution,” Davis wrote to Warren stating, “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 futureeditors, like Charlotte Kohler, who took great pride in Warren’s legacyand frequently encouraged him to keep publishing in VQR.

Emerging in the 1940s as an institution, a mainstay, and respected voice in Southern letters, history, and literature, 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). It seemed time however for Warren to move on, although his legacy as VQR’s “Renaissance man” would endure.

A selection of Warren’s work published in VQR:

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