“Blackberry Winter” describes one day in the life of a young boy on his parents’ farm, but the story is told as a recollection by a grown man, thirty-five years later. Robert Penn Warren has said that the story grew out of two memories—that of being allowed to go barefoot in the summer when school is out and that of feeling betrayed when the promises of summer are forestalled by a sudden cold spell. After beginning with this nostalgic memory, Warren realized that for it to be a story something had to happen. Therefore, he introduced the mysterious stranger who seems, like the cold of “blackberry winter,” to be wrong, out of place, incongruous.
Indeed, incongruity, or the child’s discovery of a cold reality of which he was previously unaware, constitutes the plot line and structure of the story. It begins with the boy’s astonishment that he is not allowed to go barefoot, even though it is June because of a fierce rainstorm and the accompanying cold weather. The adult Seth examines the significance of this disruption of his expectations by relating it to the child’s perception of time, which is not something that passes and has movement, but is like a climate, like something solid and permanent. The story itself is a memory in time that retains this solidity.
The stranger who appears on the farm on this particular morning is as incomprehensible to Seth as the unseasonable cold weather. First, it is strange that he should be there at all, having come out of a swamp where no one ever goes. Seth even closes his eyes, thinking that when he opens them the man will be gone, for he seems to come from nowhere and to have no reason to be there. Seth, with the self-assurance of a child, realizes, as he does about the weather, that the man does not belong, that he “ought” to be other than as he is.
The tramp is given the job of burying dead baby chicks killed by the storm, a task he performs fastidiously and with sullen resignation. The adult Seth’s comment that there is nothing that looks deader than a drowned chick is the first of several images of death and incomprehensible evil that the story introduces. When Seth goes down to the creek to watch the flood with his father, he sees a dead cow come floating down the stream, bloated and looking at first like a large piece of driftwood. When the son of a poor sharecropper wonders aloud if anyone ever ate dead cow, the more immediate implications of poor crops caused by the storm are suggested, especially when an older man says that if a man lives long enough he will eat anything.
Seth goes to the house of the family cook, Dellie, to play with her little boy, and once again is surprised by something that “ought” not to be. Dellie and her husband old Jebb have a reputation of being clean and thrifty “white folks’s negroes,” and Seth is surprised to see that the storm has washed trash out from under Dellie’s house into the yard that she has always been proud to keep swept clean. Moreover, he cannot understand Dellie being sick and in bed, and he is shocked when she gives her son a vicious slap for making too much noise. Dellie’s illness is explained to Seth by her husband as being “woman-mizry,” a result of the change of life, additional realities that Seth cannot understand.
All these clashes with incongruity and the incomprehensible come to a climax when Seth returns...
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to his house and witnesses a confrontation between his father and the tramp. After being paid a half-dollar for his half-day’s work, a fair wage for 1910, the tramp utters an oath at Seth’s father, who orders him off the farm. The tramp then spits at the father’s feet and walks away, with Seth following him down the road. He asks the tramp where he came from and where he is going, but the only response he gets is the tramp’s hurling an obscenity at him and threatening to cut his throat if he does not stop following him.
The story ends with Seth describing briefly his life since the event: the death of his father and mother, the death of Dellie, the imprisonment of little Jebb, and a meeting with old Jebb, now more than a hundred years old. The last line of the story—that he has followed the tramp all of his life—forces the reader to look back on the memory to try to determine its structure and meaning and thus understand what Seth means.