Blackberry Winter by Robert Penn Warren Essay - Critical Essays

Blackberry Winter, Robert Penn Warren

Introduction

“Blackberry Winter” Robert Penn Warren

American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright

The following entry presents criticism of Warren's short story “Blackberry Winter” (1946). See also Robert Penn Warren Poetry Criticism, Robert Penn Warren Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 6, 8, 13.

“Blackberry Winter” (1946) is Warren's most frequently anthologized work of short fiction. Set in his native region of rural Tennessee, “Blackberry Winter” is a tale about loss of innocence that is related through a middle-aged narrator's recollections. “Blackberry Winter” has been considered an archetypal story with biblical references to the Garden of Eden, the Antichrist, the Fall, the Flood, and the Prodigal Son. It was first published as an illustrated novelette in 1946 and the next year it was included in Warren's only collection of short fiction, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories. Although he is primarily celebrated as a poet and novelist, Warren's “Blackberry Winter” is considered a major achievement in the short story genre.

Plot and Major Characters

Seth, the narrator of “Blackberry Winter,” is a forty-four-year-old man recounting a series of events that occurred when he was nine. The story is set in June of 1910, the day after a violent storm has flooded the creek, damaging crops and leaving marks of destruction across the countryside. Seth argues with his mother about whether or not it is warm enough for him to go barefoot in blackberry winter, a term which refers to the advent of a sudden cold spell in summer. Seth watches as a stranger approaches the house. His mother offers the man food and a day's work cleaning up the drowned chicks in the yard. Seth goes out in his bare feet and watches the stranger. He then walks to the bridge over the creek, where a crowd of people are watching a dead cow float downstream. Seth next visits his friend Jebb, the son of Dellie and Old Jebb, the black farmhands who work for Seth's parents. While Dellie and Old Jebb's yard is usually well-kept, Seth notices that garbage has been washed out from under their house in the flood and lies scattered across their lawn. Inside the house, Dellie lies sick in bed. Later, Old Jebb tells Seth that Dellie is sick with “woman-mizry” (menopause) but does not explain what this means. Seth returns home and finds his father talking to the stranger. Seth's father explains that he has no more work for the man and offers to pay him for a half day of work. The stranger is rude and nearly spits on Seth's father. When the stranger leaves, Seth trails behind him until they reach a gate at the main road. Seth asks the stranger where he is from and where he is going, and the man leans down and tells him, “‘Stop following me. You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.’” In the final line of the story, the adult Seth comments, “But I did follow him, all the years.”

Major Themes

The motifs of childhood rite of passage, loss of innocence, and initiation into adulthood are often seen as parallels to the biblical notion of the Fall in “Blackberry Winter.” The figure of the stranger is seen to symbolize the forces of malevolence in the world, a figure of the anti-Christ or dark angel, and his arrival is thus interpreted as the child's introduction to the presence of misery, suffering, and evil in the world, from which he has heretofore been protected. Many critics have suggested that the narrative of “Blackberry Winter” takes the form of a confession and that the middle-aged narrator symbolizes the Prodigal Son, although his homecoming is carried out through an act of reminiscence, rather than a physical return. Throughout “Blackberry Winter,” Warren established a causal relationship between nature's sudden, devastating burst and a rash of unusual events in the community, as he described the startling images witnessed by Seth. Events throughout the day force Seth to view the harsh side of reality: the dead chicks in the yard, the drowned cow in the creek, the garbage washed out from under Dellie's cabin, the “woman-mizry” suffered by Dellie, and, finally, the death-threat uttered by the outlander. Impermanence, the inevitability of change, the passage of time, and mortality are all dominant themes in “Blackberry Winter.” Over the course of the day described in the story, Seth acquires an awareness of the precarious nature of life. Notions of memory and reminiscence are also central to the story, as Seth recounts a series of events that occurred thirty-five years earlier. The distance between the narrator in 1945 and his childhood self in 1910 provides Seth with the ability to make sense of this long-ago day of awakening and disillusionment.

Critical Reception

Scholarly reaction to “Blackberry Winter” and The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories is varied. Warren's short fiction is usually compared to the author's poetry and longer fiction, as many principal themes are shared. Furthermore, the critical worth of Warren's short fiction is often judged to be of only a correlative value to Warren's novels and poetry. Warren stated that one of the reasons his output in the short fiction form was limited was the fact that, as he wrote them, his stories kept turning into poems. Another reason, Warren offered, was that he wrote short stories to earn money and after the financial success of his novel All the King's Men (1946) this became unnecessary. Warren's short fiction, including “Blackberry Winter,” is commended for its technical virtuosity and intensity of imagination. While some commentators suggest that Warren's narrative art is better served by the more expansive format of the novel, others praise Warren for his precise and sensitive descriptions of both setting and character, and consider several of his stories to be among the finest in the short story genre. Critics note the influence and similarity of Warren's stories to other pieces which depicted small town life during the author's time, including Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology.

Principal Works

Blackberry Winter 1946

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories 1947

John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (nonfiction) 1929

Thirty-Six Poems (poetry) 1935

Night Rider (novel) 1939

Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (poetry) 1942

At Heaven's Gate (novel) 1943

Understanding Fiction [editor; with Cleanth Brooks] (criticism) 1943

Selected Poems: 1923-1943 (poetry) 1944

All the King's Men (novel) 1946

World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel (novel) 1950

...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Criticism

Winston Weathers (essay date fall 1963)

SOURCE: Weathers, Winston. “‘Blackberry Winter’ and the Use of Archetypes.” Studies in Short Fiction 1, no. 1 (fall 1963): 45-51.

[In the following excerpt, Weathers explores the elements of setting, character, and action in “Blackberry Winter” in terms of archetypes that address “the myth of human maturing.”]

In an almost exemplary literary fashion, Robert Penn Warren has in “Blackberry Winter” constructed from traditional devices and essential devices1 a provocative formula for literary experience. Warren has constructed a literary vehicle out of elements—descriptions, events, ideas, characters, images, rhetorical and poetic figures,...

(The entire section is 2780 words.)

Charles H. Bohner (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Bohner, Charles H. “The Past and Its Burden.” In Robert Penn Warren, pp. 102-05. New York: Twayne, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Bohner perceives “Blackberry Winter” to be a masterpiece that effectively addresses themes of memory, nostalgia, loss, and change.]

Released suddenly from the concentrated work necessary to complete All the King's Men and the critical essay on The Ancient Mariner, Warren in the spring of 1946 found himself in a retrospective mood. Living in the heart of Minneapolis, a Northern city where snow was still falling in May, he was, as he said, “indulging nostalgia” in recalling the coming of spring in his native...

(The entire section is 904 words.)

Paul West (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: West, Paul. In Robert Penn Warren, pp. 34-8. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, West highlights motifs of nature and the concept of home in “Blackberry Winter.”]

A single volume, The Circus in the Attic (1948), contains all of Warren's short stories, of which “Blackberry Winter,” published separately in 1946, is outstanding in the history of the genre as well as the most compact epitome of Warren's output. A man in his early forties recalls his initiation into manhood and the ways of nature. When a city-clad stranger comes to work on the farm during a time of storm and flood (like December 1811 in...

(The entire section is 1332 words.)

Allan Davison (essay date winter 1968)

SOURCE: Davison, Allan. “Physical Imagery in Robert Penn Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Georgia Review 22, no. 4 (winter 1968): 482-88.

[In the following essay, Davison underlines the imagistic significance of the narrator's feet in “Blackberry Winter.”]

The ability to use physical imagery and human actions as vehicles for psychological and philosophical observations on man is the commanding distinction of Robert Penn Warren's art. His most carefully constructed images dramatically realize a “dialectal configuration”1 which embodies a struggle to explore fully the significance of human experience. This artistic struggle is found in Warren's...

(The entire section is 2758 words.)

Robert Penn Warren (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Warren, Robert Penn. “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection.” In Robert Penn Warren: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by Joseph R. Millichap, pp. 90-5. New York: Twayne, 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in Cleanth Brooks's and Warren's Understanding Fiction in 1979, Warren views the process of writing the story “Blackberry Winter” as a blend of biographical memories and imaginative fiction.]

I remember with peculiar distinctness the writing of this story, especially the balance, tension, interplay—or what you will—between a sense of compulsion, a sense that the story was writing itself, and the flashes of...

(The entire section is 2676 words.)

Marshall Walker (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Walker, Marshall. “Short Stories.” In Robert Penn Warren: A Vision Earned, pp. 72-84. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Walker examines the biblical themes of the Garden of Eden and the Fall in “Blackberry Winter.”]

The time known as blackberry winter is a spell of unseasonable weather which interrupts summer when blackberries are ripe. It is a climatic incongruity, like T. S. Eliot's ‘Midwinter spring’ in ‘Little Gidding’. Warren's most famous short story began as ‘a way of indulging nostalgia’ for the childhood freedom of being allowed to go barefoot in summer and for the strange ‘feeling of betrayal when...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)

Albert E. Wilhelm (essay date summer 1980)

SOURCE: Wilhelm, Albert E. “Images of Initiation in Robert Penn Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Studies in Short Fiction 17, no. 3 (summer 1980): 343-45.

[In the following excerpt, Wilhelm explores the rite of passage motif in “Blackberry Winter” as expressed through the imagery of the Tennessee farm and the biblical themes of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and the Flood.]

In analyzing the initiation motif in Robert Penn Warren's “Blackberry Winter,” Richard Allan Davison asserts that in no other story has Warren “better integrated his imagistic patterns.” Davison comments further:

Through this dramatization of a...

(The entire section is 1144 words.)

James E. Rocks (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Rocks, James E. “Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter’: A Reading.” University of Mississippi Studies in English 1 (1980): 97-105.

[In the following essay, Rocks finds parallels between Warren's “Blackberry Winter,” his novel All the King's Men, and the author's essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “The Ancient Mariner.”]

Robert Penn Warren wrote “Blackberry Winter” shortly after he completed All the King's Men and “A Poem of Pure Imagination: an Experiment in Reading,” the long essay on The Ancient Mariner; these three works, written during 1945 and 1946, are notable examples of their respective genres and reveal Warren's...

(The entire section is 3694 words.)

Thomas W. Ford (essay date July 1981)

SOURCE: Ford, Thomas W. “Indian Summer and Blackberry Winter: Emily Dickinson and Robert Penn Warren.” Southern Review 17, no. 3 (July 1981): 542-50.

[In the following essay, Ford discusses the common themes shared by Warren's “Blackberry Winter” and the poem “These are the days when Birds come back” by Emily Dickinson.]

Separated as they were by both space and time, Robert Penn Warren and Emily Dickinson responded in remarkably similar fashion to those two curious seasonal freaks of nature—Indian summer and blackberry winter. Dickinson's poem “These are the days when Birds come back,” written about 1859, and Warren's short story “Blackberry...

(The entire section is 3736 words.)

Peter Freese (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Freese, Peter. “‘Rising in the World’ and ‘Wanting to Know Why’: The Socialization Process as Theme of the American Short Story.”1Archiv fur das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 218, no. 2 (1981): 286-302.

[In the following essay, Freese examines three American initiation stories, including Nathaniel Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux,” Sherwood Anderson's “I Want to Know Why,” and Robert Penn Warren's “Blackberry Winter.”]]

1

Leafing through Erasmus of Rotterdam's Colloquia (1522), which went through more than 130 printings and remained in use as a popular textbook for...

(The entire section is 8118 words.)

Chester E. Eisinger (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Eisinger, Chester E. “Robert Penn Warren: The Conservative Quest for Identity.” In Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil Nakadate, pp. 31-2. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Eisinger outlines the defining characteristics of Warren's fiction and contends that “Blackberry Winter” is among the more meaningful of the author's short stories.]

The conservative southern imagination may be best summed up, for the 1940's, in the work of Robert Penn Warren. He belongs to this period, as Faulkner does not. But, like Faulkner, he is a writer of such considerable achievement that he cannot be totally...

(The entire section is 1068 words.)

Kenneth Tucker (essay date fall 1982)

SOURCE: Tucker, Kenneth. “The Pied Piper—a Key to Understanding Robert Penn Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Studies in Short Fiction 19, no. 4 (fall 1982): 339-42.

[In the following essay, Tucker assesses the parallels between Warren's “Blackberry Winter” and the medieval German folk tale of the Pied Piper.]

Although “Blackberry Winter” is known as one of Robert Penn Warren's finest short stories, few critics have studied it. Those who have analyzed it have emphasized its themes—the unpredictability of nature, the loss of innocence, the mutability of joy, and the growing awareness of evil's reality.1 None, however, has directed attention...

(The entire section is 1933 words.)

Katherine Snipes (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Snipes, Katherine. “The Dream Sea of Ideas: Prose Period, 1944-1950.” In Robert Penn Warren, pp. 61-5. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Snipes maintains that “Blackberry Winter” contains many autobiographical elements and effectively captures childhood experiences.]

The best known and most often anthologized of the stories [in The Circus in the Attic] is “Blackberry Winter,” which has many autobiographical elements. Like so much of Warren's poetry involving childhood experience, it captures the way in which children become aware of the suffering and disillusionment associated with adult life. It is a story of the...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date summer 1985)

SOURCE: Watkins, Floyd C. “Following the Tramp in Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Studies in Short Fiction 22, no. 3 (summer 1985): 343-45.

[In the following essay, Watkins argues that the final sentence in “Blackberry Winter” is an ineffective conclusion to the story.]

Robert Penn Warren wrote his short stories in the late 1930's and the first half of the 1940's. He did not publish any poems from his Selected Poems (1943) until Brother to Dragons (1953) and then the poems collected into the Pulitzer Prize winning Promises (1957). Brevity and compactness (and perhaps the intensity of writing short fiction) interfered with Warren's...

(The entire section is 1547 words.)

Bryan Dietrich (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Dietrich, Bryan. “Christ or Antichrist: Understanding Eight Words in ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 2 (spring 1992): 215-20.

[In the following essay, Dietrich examines the last line in “Blackberry Winter” and declares that the tramp symbolizes a duality of good and evil, both an Antichrist figure of disillusionment with religion and a messenger of hope.]

For four and half decades readers, professors, and critics seem to have stumbled, at least the first time through, over the last line of Robert Penn Warren's short story, “Blackberry Winter.” If we know the basic storyline, the adult narrator's final, backward-looking...

(The entire section is 2696 words.)

Joseph R. Millichap (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Millichap, Joseph R. In Robert Penn Warren: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 17-25. New York: Twayne, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Millichap asserts that the tramp in “Blackberry Winter” symbolizes loss of innocence and the inevitability of change.]

Perhaps no single, postwar American story has been so often anthologized, so frequently alluded to, or so highly praised as “Blackberry Winter.”1 Warren himself acknowledged its special importance by including it in the second edition of Understanding Fiction (1959) along with his introductory essay, “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection.” The last story he wrote, in the fall...

(The entire section is 3986 words.)

James H. Justus (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Justus, James H. “Warren as Mentor: Pure and Impure Wisdom.” In The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren, edited by David Madden, pp. 3-13. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Justus perceives the character of the stranger in “Blackberry Winter” as a mentor figure.]

More than once in Robert Penn Warren's writing occurs the gnomic passage: nothing is ever lost. Whatever else the declarative statement may mean, it connotes promise and threat equally—its authority derives from some prior vision presumed to be cohesive, integral, conclusive. More discovery than precept, the statement yet carries the weight of...

(The entire section is 4599 words.)

Jonathan S. Cullick (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Cullick, Jonathan S. “Return, Reconciliation, Redemption: Uses of the Past in Warren's Biographical Narratives.” In Making History: The Biographical Narratives of Robert Penn Warren, pp. 9-27. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Cullick considers the theme of the Prodigal Son and the importance of the past in Warren's “Blackberry Winter.”]

An example of redemption through knowledge and confession is “Blackberry Winter,” a Prodigal Son story in which the narrator at age forty-four, revisits one day of his childhood to acknowledge his complicity in time. Seth observes that in childhood, time is not a pattern...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)

James A. Grimshaw, Jr. (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Grimshaw, James A., Jr. “Early Fiction.” In Understanding Robert Penn Warren, pp. 64-71. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Grimshaw explores central themes shared by five of Warren's short stories, including “Blackberry Winter.”]

Warren's canon of short stories is relatively small, containing only about sixteen texts if one excludes the vignettes written for his high school literary publication. Several of these short stories are incorporated into his longer fiction. For example, Warren's short story “Prime Leaf” (1931) was expanded into Night Rider. Recognizing that his talent lay in novels and...

(The entire section is 2158 words.)