Many of Robert Penn Warren’s stories feature an adult protagonist’s introspective, guilty recollections of imperishable childhood events, of things done or left undone or simply witnessed with childish innocence.
“Blackberry Winter” (the literal reference is to an unseasonable, late spring cold snap) opens with a nine-year-old boy’s unbroken, secure world, a small community permeated with the presence and warmth of protective loved ones. A vaguely sinister city-clothed stranger happens by and is given a job burying drowned chicks and poults by the boy’s mother. Later the boy watches with his father and neighboring farmers as a dead cow, the yoke still around her neck, bobs down a flooding creek past fields of ruined tobacco plants. Then the boy finds a somehow shocking heap of litter washed out from under the house of his father’s black help. Dellie, who lives there, is sick in bed with “woman-mizry,” and after calling him to her side, gives her son little Jebb a sudden, “awful” slap. Big Jebb predicts that the cold snap will go on and that everything and everyone will die, because the Lord is tired of sinful people.
Later on, when the boy’s father explains that he cannot afford to hire any help now but offers the stranger fifty cents for a half day’s work, the stranger curses the farm and leaves, followed by the curious boy, whom he also curses. “You don’t stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.” “But I did follow him,” the narrator tells us, “all the years.” At the end of the story all the sureties of the boy’s world have been threatened, and in the epilogue we learn that the farm was soon lost, his parents died, and little Jebb has gone to prison. The narrator has learned that the essence of time is the passing away of things and people; he has been exposed to natural and moral evil.
“When the Light Gets Green”
“When the Light Gets Green” (the reference is to a peculiar, ominous shade of greenish light just before a storm) recalls “Blackberry Winter” in its setting, characterization, and theme, as well as in its retrospective point of view. The story’s first two sentences display the technique: “My grandfather had a long white beard and sat under the cedar tree. The beard, as a matter of fact, was not very long and not very white, only gray, but when I was a child. ” Grandfather Barden had served as a Confederate cavalry captain in the Civil War; he had been a hero, but now he is old and thin and his blue jeans hang off his shrunken hips and backside. During a bad hailstorm in the summer of 1914 which threatens his son-in-law’s tobacco crop, the old man has a stroke and collapses, and later upstairs in his room waits to die—unloved, as he believes. His is the necessarily uncomprehending and hopeless fight that love and pride put up against time and change. His grandson, who visits him but cannot speak, suffers the guilt of having tried and failed both to feel and to communicate the impossible love the old man needed.
Mr. Barden, as we learn in the epilogue, lived until 1918, by which time other catastrophes had intervened—the farm sold, his son-in-law fighting in France, where he would soon be killed, his daughter working in a store. “I got the letter about my grandfather, who died of the flu,” the story concludes, “but I thought about four years back, and it didn’t matter much.” The now adult narrator is puzzled and shamed by his failure and betrayal of his grandfather. In the dual perspective of the story Warren infuses a self-condemnatory ambivalence toward the old man which gives to the narrative the quality of expiation.
“Prime Leaf,” Warren’s first published story, derives from the Kentucky tobacco wars of the first decade of the twentieth century, in which tobacco farmers organized in an attempt to secure higher prices from the tobacco buyers. The focus of the story is upon contention within the Hardin family, most directly between Old Man Hardin and Big Thomas, his son, but also involving Thomas’s wife and young son. Old Man Hardin leaves the farmers’ association rather than support the use of force against those members who object to the association’s price fixing. Big Thomas, whom he had originally convinced to join the association, refuses to resign immediately. Their reconciliation occurs only after Big Thomas wounds one of a party of barn-burning night riders raiding the Hardins’ property. Big Thomas decides that he will wait at home for the sheriff, but his father urges him to ride into town to justice, and on the way Big Thomas is ambushed and killed. The opposition of father and son is a contest between idea and fact, between idealism and pragmatism. Old Man Hardin is a kind and morally upright man but is also notably detached, remote, and unyielding. To his idealism is opposed his son’s stubborn practicality, born of hard experience.
In delineating the conflict of the two men, with its tragic and ironic outcome, Warren did not espouse the beliefs of either,...
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