Winston Weathers (essay date fall 1963)

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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, and verbalizations—which have come to him either from the literary tradition of which he is a part or from his own imaginative and creative awareness of the world around him.2 Using these literary devices, both conventional and essential, he constructs them—as though they were building blocks—into larger literary elements, which we may call structures, that are in turn patterned and combined into the complex of the whole story. These structures, comprising both the conventional and essential devices, are themselves characteristically generic or, in some exceptional cases, are structures new to the literary scene.

Warren in “Blackberry Winter” has created significant structures in three areas—setting, character, event. In doing so, he is always making his own creative and imaginative contribution to those structures which are standard, even stereotyped, in the literature of the Western world.

Let us look first at the structures of setting. Warren begins the story with a structure known as the “First Paradise.” The conventional devices of this structure which Warren has used are (1) the presence of a youth, (2) the presence of a good father and a good mother, and (3) certain statements or observations about time and knowledge. The generic structure of the “First Paradise” has, of course, many other conventional devices; but Warren, as any creative author does, has made his own selection of the devices and has added to them the devices of his own making.

When Seth says, “You are aware that time passes, that there is a movement in time, but that is not what Time is. Time is not a movement, a flowing, a wind then, but is, rather, a kind of climate in which things are …,” we know we are dealing with the same convention we encounter, for instance, in Dylan Thomas' “Fern Hill,” which is the same “First Paradise” structure: “Time let me hail and climb / Golden in the heydays of his eyes, / … Time let me play and be / Golden in the mercy of his means. …” And when Seth says, “You remember everything and everything is important,” and “you know that when you know something you know it,” we recognize the convention of cognitive assurance that is seen frequently in paradisal structures. Likewise, the convention of the good parent is so established and so obvious that examples can be drawn from nearly any paradisal structure in literature.

To these conventional devices, Warren adds what seems to me to be a particularly effective essential device, one of his own composition that is, to underline the generic aspect of the whole structure: “You do not understand … that you cannot go barefoot outdoors and run to see what has happened and rub your feet over the wet shivery grass and make the perfect mark of your foot in the smooth, creamy, red mud and then muse upon it as though you had suddenly come upon that single mark on the glistening auroral beach of the world.” The two pertinent words are perfect and auroral, which by their very denotation name the structure as one of initial perfection or the “First Paradise.”

This structure of the “First Paradise” is combined, however, in “Blackberry Winter” with three other structures, two traditional and one essential, to make up a larger, more complex setting for the whole story.

The two traditional structures that supplement that of the “First Paradise” are those of the “Sacred River” and the “Path in the Woods.” The combination of these structures is by no means new with Warren—the coupling of the “Sacred River” with the paradisal structure is almost pedestrian since the days of Coleridge's “Kubla Khan,” and since Milton brought Paradise Lost to its moving close by adding a fragment of the structure of the “Path in the Woods” to his long account of Eden.

The “Sacred River” structure has a thousand variations, of course, as all the generic structures do, but Warren has remained rather orthodox in his use of it by selecting such conventional devices as (1) the crowd of representative human beings on the river's edge, (2) the dead object—or death symbol—in the river, and (3) the discussions of survival, mortality, and reality in the presence of the river. Such devices have been traditional since the Greek epics, and Warren underlines his use of such devices in a religious and death structure by saying, “It was like church or a funeral.” The “Sacred River” structure is the same convention, of course, that Bret Harte uses in “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” “The strong man … drifted away into the shadowy river that flows forever to the unknown sea,” and that Ambrose Bierce uses in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

The second traditional structure that Warren combines with the central structure of the “First Paradise” is that of the “Path in the Woods.” So obvious is its function in this story, or in nearly any story where it occurs, that little need be said about it. Its devices are usually (1) a traveler, (2) a wandering path, (3) a forest or woods or wilderness, and (4) darkness. One of the most famous uses of this structure is in the opening of The Divine Comedy; one of the most effective uses of this structure in American literature is in Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown.” In “Blackberry Winter,” we need note, however, that the function of this particular structure is less emphasized than that of the other structures.

The one essential or original structure that Warren uses in his story's setting is that of Dellie's cabin. A very brilliant structure, Dellie's cabin is not a part of any convention of which I know, but it has certain essential characteristics that make its function obvious: “I took a few steps up the path to the cabin, and then I saw that the drainage water had washed a lot of trash and filth out from under Dellie's house.” Inside the cabin there is darkness. Dellie has changed. There is sickness present. There is very little communication. And finally there is punishment. “Then she slapped him. It was an awful slap. … It was awful. It was so awful that Jebb didn't make a sound. The tears just popped out and ran down his face and his breath came sharp, like gasps.” This is obviously a structure of spoiled beauty, the revelation of ugliness and misunderstanding and sickness where once loveliness was.

With these four structures we have the main ingredients of the story's overall setting, a complex of rather standard structures, the complex itself being Warren's own presentation, usually in his own words, of an archetypal complex setting that we find in numerous works (though perhaps in differing combinations) and which has come to represent, by tradition again, an abbreviated and microcosmic reality, containing the crucial landmarks of human experience. 'Twixt Eden and the Stygian River is all of life, and by this shorthand method of conventional structures, Warren—as any author can—gives in brief the outline of the world in which his story is to take place. Certainly other arrangements of these structures could be made and other emphases given. Here Warren has emphasized the “First Paradise,” but has not isolated it from other great landmarks that have become well established in the Western world's literary Weltansicht.

Within this conventional structure of microcosmic reality, Warren creates his story. To do so he needs characters and events. And again he turns, as authors inevitably turn, to the archetypes of our literary tradition. We need not dwell upon the devices used to reveal Seth as a receptive Everyman or upon the devices used to reveal Seth's father and mother as the temporal gods of his microcosm. We may turn with some interest, however, to the tramp—the “Mysterious Stranger”—and to his antitype, Old Jebb.

First the tramp. Warren's handling of the “Mysterious Stranger” is traditional, creating as he is the Mephistophelian form of the archetype.3 Of the Mephistophelian possibilities—the harlequinesque rogue or the black punchinello—Warren leans somewhat toward the latter.

The two devices Warren uses to bring the “Mysterious Stranger” on stage are almost verbatim from a host of previous works in Western literature. First Warren says, “This man was coming up from the river”—the stock convention, replete with all its implications of the primordial nature of the stranger, the watery genesis, and in the light of the convention of the “Sacred River” itself, the metaphysical stature of the mysterious man. Second, Warren says, “He was moving steadily … like a man who has come a long way and has a long way to go.” This again is almost verbatim the statement used in Western literature to describe the “Mysterious Stranger” on many of his appearances. The statement is a device related to the entire convention of the “Wandering Jew,” for instance, a convention which is undoubtedly a very specialized version of the “Mysterious Stranger” story.

Other conventional devices used by Warren to create the “Mysterious Stranger” structure are (1) the anonymous face, (2) the incongruous costume, and (3) the weapon. We are told that “you could see the perfectly unmemorable face, which wasn't old and wasn't young, or thick or thin.” These same words are also found in a great body of literature, one example being Gogol's description of his roguish hero, Chichikov, in Dead Souls, who was neither too tall nor too short, neither handsome nor ugly—just nondescript. The tramp's dress, we are told, “is all wrong,” not all wrong in the sense of being outdated as was the costume of the Gray Champion, but in the sense that it is not in keeping with what people were in Seth's world. The weapon, of course, is an essential device and therefore meaningful, even if it had no archetype.

The other interesting conventional character structure in this story is Old Jebb. Like the “Mysterious Stranger,” he seems to be an elemental figure and is perhaps another version of the “Mysterious Stranger” structure, created at the other end of the spectrum, not Satanic but Messianic, or if not theistic, at least in the tradition of the “Prophet” in Hebrew-Christian culture and of Heracles in Greek myth. The explicit characteristics given to him by Warren are both essential and conventional devices: (1) strength—“he was strong as a bull,” (2) kindness—“the kindest and wisest face in the world … a good man,” (3) a servant doing menial duties—we find him in the stable performing a task, (4) wisdom—it is Old Jebb who has the greatest imaginative perspective of life, its implications, and its meanings, and (5) immortality—Old Jebb lived forever. These devices are all conventional in the standard Heracles structure.

The function of Old Jebb in the story, though not as great as that of the tramp, is designed to complete the possibilities of reality in the microcosm. I believe Warren gives us in “Blackberry Winter” a representation, fragmentary as it may be, of the entire archetypal structure of the human experience. Though the focus of this story is upon innocent man, Seth, in paradise, encountering the possibilities of evil in the world, I believe the potential grandeur of the story lies in Warren's creating a more complete background than one usually finds in so short a work of fiction.

In the setting of the microcosm, between the two character structures of the tramp and Old Jebb, Warren places the chief structure of action in this story. Seth, who we have said is created with the devices of Everyman, is involved in the structure of action that is the “Journey.” Since this story is restricted in geographical scope, the structure of the “Journey” does not have here the surface range that the “Journey” structure has in, say, Faust or Dead Souls or Divine Comedy. Yet on this abbreviated scale, the structure has some of the standard devices: (1) Everyman as a traveler, (2) a visit to the Stygian River, (3) a visit to the wise man or prophet, and (4) a witnessing of the conflict between Evil and Good. And to these conventional devices Warren has added the essential ones of having Seth watch the Mysterious Stranger gather the dead chickens and having Seth visit Dellie's house.

Thus we have in “Blackberry Winter” a complex composition, built out of structures which on the whole are quite conventional in the literary world. Structures of setting, character, and action have been given their special combination by Warren to create the special formula for literary experience that is this particular work of fiction. Confronted by these structures and the devices they comprise, the reader is ready to partake of meaning for himself.

The final meaning of this story, the meaning that will emerge out of Warren's formula will, of course, be open to subjective interpretation. There is some preference on my part, however, for keeping in mind the structures used in the story and for keeping in mind certain meanings that have accumulated, by tradition, around these structures in our culture. For me, at least, “Blackberry Winter” is most meaningfully seen in the context of the broad human situation, the broad human experience, more nearly anthropological or biological than anything else, having to do with the myth of human maturing. For me, this story is most fittingly grouped with that literature that relies heavily upon the vocabulary of archetypes and from which significant anthropological meaning regarding our human growth can be induced.

Seth, the child of paradise, mankind in his innocence, finds himself, in a strange and inexplicable season, witness to the advent of evil in his world and measurer of the dimensions of reality. He sees the mysterious evil march across his paradise and he sees the metamorphosis of beauty into ugliness. Innocent mankind is being prepared for the fall of Adam. And in the epilogue of the story, at the point from which Seth has told his story, we do see man after the Fall, standing in the wilderness recounting that day when it all began.

The story ends, of course, with Seth's statement that he has followed the mysterious stranger all his days. This becomes man's confession for the predilection to evil, his submission, as he makes his hegira out of Eden into the pathless wood, to the compelling forces of Lucifer. Yet what is more significant is that even with Seth's enigmatic confession, we note that his world still contains not only the Mysterious Stranger that one can follow, but Old Jebb, the prophet, the wise one, the immortal one, the man whom God will not let die. Eden has disappeared, but Warren has not brought Seth to his final moment. Seth's confession is somewhere out in the journey, but not at journey's end, either in Hell or Heaven.

The mysterious stranger, invisible but there; Old Jebb, willing to die but still asked to play his role; and Seth, the fallen man, constitute among themselves the dimensions of reality even yet, a reality in which Seth's status may be viewed as pathetic, since he has lost paradise and innocence, but not as tragic, since his following is not done; whatever battles he has to fight, neither lost nor won.


  1. The terminology here—(1) archetypal, traditional, conventional and (2) essential, original—is similar to, but not the same as, Fiedler's “archetype and signature.”

  2. Whatever the genesis of “Blackberry Winter” may have been—and we do have the one account of the story's creation by Robert Penn Warren himself (see “Writer at Work: How a Story was Born and How, Bit by Bit, It Grew,” New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1959, p. 4)—we need not be inhibited in describing what we see before us in the story or in evaluating the story in terms that seem most meaningful to us. We may justifiably delineate a method of composition in terms that Warren might deny as having been his way at all, for—while authors are at times aware of their conscious acts in creation—there are certain subconscious considerations taking place of which they may know not and which may be only discernible in the finished product itself.

  3. See Roy R. Male, “The Story of the Mysterious Stranger in American Fiction,” Criticism, III (Fall, 1961) for a discussion of generic conventions used in stories of this type.


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“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.

Charles H. Bohner (essay date 1964)

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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 Kentucky and Tennessee. The chain of association sparked by those memories led to a short story, “Blackberry Winter,” which was published in 1946. It is Warren's masterpiece and one of the great stories of American literature.

The action of the story is simply the events of one morning in the life of a nine-year-old boy who lives on a tobacco farm in rural Tennessee. The surface of each scene is rendered with the pristine freshness it would have for the mind of a sensitive and observant child. The June morning dawns cold and damp, a season called blackberry winter because of its unnatural and unpleasant retrogression from the warmth of spring. The boy, Seth, resents his mother's insistence that he wear shoes that spring morning, for the day promises the excitement of exploration about the farm. A storm the night before, a “gully washer,” has flooded the creek, washing out crops and spreading destruction over the countryside.

Each of the apparently trivial details of the boy's excursion about the neighborhood builds toward the moment of illumination. Seth examines the “stringy and limp” bodies of drowned chicks whose eyes have “that bluish membrane over them which makes you think of a very old man who is sick about to die.” With a crowd of neighbors, the boy watches a dead cow floating down the creek and listens uncomprehendingly to a veteran of Forrest's cavalry ruminate on human privation. When he goes to the usually immaculate cabin of two Negroes, Dellie and Jebb, to play with their son, Little Jebb, Seth feels some unformulated stirrings of disenchantment when he finds that the storm has washed trash and filth out from under the cabin. The shock of sudden violence intrudes when Dellie, suffering from “woman mizry,” cruelly slaps Little Jebb for playing too noisily. When Seth asks Old Jebb for an explanation of Dellie's unaccustomed ill-temper, he replies, “Hit is the change of life and time.” The tone of foreboding is enhanced when Old Jebb predicts that “this-here old yearth is tahrd … and ain't gonna perduce.”

These apparently random incidents are brought suddenly and sharply into focus by Seth's experience with a tramp, a knife-wielding and worthless drifter apparently cast up, like refuse, by the storm. The inquisitive child trails him from the farm, trying to draw him into conversation. Abruptly the tramp turns on him and snarls, “You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.” “But I did follow him,” the narrator adds, “all the years.”

In the span of a single morning, the child has experienced his own blackberry winter. He has been thrust suddenly and violently from the warmth of his childish innocence to the chill knowledge of the “jags and injustices” of an adult world. Each of the events of the day is a correlative of loss and change, and each is expressed through a series of ironic contrasts: the benevolence and malevolence of nature, the timeless world of the child and the time-obsessed world of the adult, the rooted and intimately familiar farm and the rootless and alien city. Seth tells the story, but what we hear is the memory of that June morning recounted thirty-five years after the event. The man is looking backward on the boy he once was, recalling objectively his childhood bewilderment. The events of the day had puzzled the child, but the man, remembering the experience, is not puzzled. Rather he now sees the experience as a paradigm of a problem he has carried into adulthood. He has come to terms with the problem—it is one mark of his maturity—but it is a problem that is never finally resolved. It is the imaginative awareness of what Warren has called, in speaking of “Blackberry Winter,” the “human communion.”1 The narrator of the story recognizes that the brotherhood of man must embrace even the contemptible, cowardly, and defeated tramp of the story; and he grasps the sense of responsibility that such a recognition entails.

“Blackberry Winter” is the finest among the fourteen short stories Warren collected in 1948 under the title The Circus in the Attic. The contents of the book go back to 1930 with the inclusion of “Prime Leaf,” and several of the stories date from the period of the Southern Review.2 The only story that approaches “Blackberry Winter” in its exercise of creative control over its material, although it is less poignant and universal, is “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger.” The resemblances between the two stories may be traced to the fact that both were written in the spring of 1946 when thoughts of his Southern boyhood were much in Warren's mind.


  1. “Writer at Work: How a Story Was Born and How, Bit by Bit, It Grew,” New York Times Book Review, march 1, 1959, p. 5.

  2. Ibid., p. 5.

Principal Works

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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

Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (poetry) 1953

Band of Angels (novel) 1955

Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (poetry) 1957

Selected Essays (essays) 1958

The Cave (novel) 1959

All the King's Men: A Play (play) 1960

You, Emperors, and Others: Poems, 1957-1960 (poetry) 1960

Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (novel) 1961

Flood: A Romance of Our Time (novel) 1964

Who Speaks for the Negro? (nonfiction) 1965

Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (poetry) 1966

Incarnations: Poems, 1966-1968 (poetry) 1968

Audubon: A Vision (poetry) 1969

Meet Me in the Green Glen (novel) 1971

Or Else: Poems, 1968-1974 (poetry) 1974

Democracy and Poetry (nonfiction) 1975

Selected Poems, 1923-1975 (poetry) 1976

A Place to Come To (novel) 1977

Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978 (poetry) 1978

Being Here: Poetry, 1977-1980 (poetry) 1980

Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (essay) 1980

Rumor Verified: Poems, 1979-1980 (poetry) 1981

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (poetry) 1983

New and Selected Poems, 1923-1985 (poetry) 1985

New and Selected Essays (essays) 1989

The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (poetry) 1998

Paul West (essay date 1964)

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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 Brother to Dragons) the boy, little apprehending the devastation and stoicism evident everywhere, fastens to him and thus vicariously “goes away.” This symbolic infidelity the adult narrator has come to regret; like the speaker in several of Warren's early poems he is saddened that as a boy he responded poorly to the beleaguered devotion of his parents. Guilt, ever-present in Warren's writings, dogs him until like old Jebb in the story he realizes the past is as unalterable as a ruined crop. Moreover, as if perfidy were not enough, it was perfidy at the wrong time: “blackberry winter” is when the genial spring unnaturally regresses and turns its back, reneging, just like the boy.

Once again Warren explores man and his relationship to the land. Neither is wholly predictable: the Negro maid uncharacteristically strikes her child; the river floods. There are no absolutes, but only risky combinations of transient circumstances. And the boy responds to the disorder of the time by holding to what is newest. “I did follow him, all the years,” the narrator says remorsefully, stressing “did” to evoke the ghost of a foregone alternative.

Nothing of Warren's more convincingly demonstrates how complex his traditionalism is. The inevitability of change is a southern fact too, even though, as he is always saying, the supposed and usually mythical stability of the past is succeeded only by the instability of an unknown future. Man makes uneasy truces with nature which is reliable only because, in the mass, it never dies.

Predictably, then, Warren's favorite images express both an entranced horror with nature and horrified relief at man's power to control. Submerged in nature, man can know a vegetable peace; against it he can achieve a sterile safety. But he cannot safely ally himself with it, for it is inscrutable. Images of flood depict the odds. In “History among the Rocks” it is “a creek in flood” which will tumble and turn “a body, naked and lean.” In Brother to Dragons R. P. W. speaks of “that deep flood that is our history,” exemplifying “the drowned cow, swollen,” while “Blackberry Winter” presents another cow “rolling and roiling down the creek.” A poem in Promises tells how “A drowned cow bobbled down the creek” and Warren's most recent novel is itself called Flood. Man cannot flood out the flood of history and time. On the other hand he can create roads, imaging the direct-mindedness of efficient modernity and facilitating the hectic placelessness to which the nation turns in escape. Only history has unlimited accommodations, and Warren's vision of America, a land cut cleanly across by numbered highways, is ironical: man applies Mercator to things fluid, aiding navigators but dominating nothing. All the King's Men opens with Jack Burden going on Highway 58 “northeast out of the city”; it is a straight, white-shimmering highway with a water-mirage forever ahead—“that bright, flooded place.” Flood opens with a highway and stays on it for several pages; and nothing could be clearer than this from Brother to Dragons:

Up Highway 109 from Hopkinsville,
To Dawson Springs, then west on 62,
Across Kentucky at the narrow neck,
Two hours now, not more, for the road's fair.
We ripped the July dazzle on the slab …

“Mexico Is a Foreign Country” makes its point with sinister levity: “The highways are scenic, like destiny marked in red”; and Segregation commemorates Highway 61 cutting south from Memphis, “straight as a knife edge through the sad and baleful beauty of the Delta country.” Flood ends with “the chrome and safety glass of cars passing on the new highway, yonder across the lake.” New mastodons for old.

Such images, recurring, evoke one another and crystallize Warren's feeling that man can best nature only by cutting across, by disregarding and dividing, never by eliciting secrets from within. The highway, symbol of initiative, speed, and control, is sterile, plagued by fatigue, mirages, boredom, advertising, and death. The flood, symbol of revenge, impersonality, and accident, is the element that contains the highways. And, just as no road ever conquers what it cuts through, so no neat network of ideas can open up history; such is the gist of Warren's treatment of his intellectual characters. But men who live close to nature achieve understanding, inchoate as it is. They accept earth as their element and source, privilege and torment.

Most of Warren's best stories are painful, guilt-ridden commemorations of some young person's rites of passage. Grandfather Barden in “When the Light Gets Green” waits four years for death and love. But his grandson, prey to familiar Warren incapacities, cannot love: he lies, feels guilty, and, grown adult, feels even guiltier for still being unable to comprehend his deficiency. It is, probably, an unexpressed resolve to submit as little as necessary to the processes of mortality. Another boy, in “Christmas Gift,” is similarly confounded by premature difficulties; but he copes by exchanging tokens with the doctor: candy for the chance to roll a cigarette. The boy in “Testament of Flood” does all his growing up in one instant of recognition. And, just as the young take their stand, gropingly or with unpracticed severity, so do those who have no future at all. Like Grandfather Barden, Viola the Negro cook in “Her Own People” lies in bed; discharged, she has nowhere to go, only death to look forward to. So she creates guilt all around her, exposing the spiritual debility of those who, like her employers, dare not love or live.

These are the problems of home, of growth within the tribe: having home, leaving it, aching to return, and being unable to dismiss intervening years. Home is also to be defined unsentimentally as any available intimate basis. For young and old alike, there must be a rock to build on even if it is only being unloved or unloving. The professor in “The Unvexed Isles” discovers how much of an unsophisticated, homesick midwesterner he is, but in re-establishing his marriage on this admitted truth cannot be wrong. Home is where candor sites it. So too the gelid marriage in “The Love of Elsie Barton: A Chronicle” stabilizes itself on bleak habit. Warren presents a choice: return to the source of one's being, like Billie Potts, or found a new home in maturity. All men crave the place where they are not naked or totally vulnerable. Bolton, the muted hero of “Circus in the Attic,” is a case in point. He has repudiated his ancestors and must therefore find something to cleave to: his soft-pine circuses carved in secret, his draftee stepson, or writing his desultory, halfhearted history of the county.

Yet the longed-for world of home remains a terra incognita, less welcoming than present adversity. The reason is that childhood identity begins with the search for freely chosen, as distinct from inherited, attachments—and the guilt of cutting free. Warren's best stories prove the search a new imprisonment; his least successful posit odd, fey ironies on situations not evaluated by characters who are themselves inscrutable.

Warren, like Bolton's father, has become increasingly “aware of the powerful, vibrating, multitudinous web of life which binds the woman and child together, victor and victim.” The search for new complicities returns man to old paradoxes. Life's patterns vary little; only private, poetic truth is abundantly various; historical and cosmic truth is infinitely monotonous—something to hold to but also something aloof.

Allan Davison (essay date winter 1968)

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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 best fiction in a way that generates a rare brand of sympathetic excitement in the classroom.

In none of his short stories is the quest for understanding better realized than the oft-anthologized, frequently taught “Blackberry Winter”; in no story has he better integrated his imagistic patterns. “Blackberry Winter” is one of Warren's best and, deservedly, most popular stories. Through this dramatization of a child's rite of passage Warren explores the complications of a nine-year-old farm boy's initiation into the complexities of the adult world largely by centering the most telling imagery on the young protagonist's feet. Warren virtually charts the sensitive reactions of the boy's feet to external stimuli. The responses of Seth's bare feet serve as indications of his changing awareness of the mystery, uncertainty and evil in the world from which his parents have so long sheltered him. The forty-four year old narrator (Warren's actual age at the time of composition) couches his youthful recollections and mature observations largely in this physical imagery. And when the narrator tells his story in the first person he adds breadth of meaning to the imagery by creating the sense of a double vision. Through this double point of view the reader is both caught up in the action of the story from the perspective of a boy's callow awareness (as one is in Huck Finn) and able to maintain the artistic distance of the mature narrator.

The persona's “double vision” extends the range of suggestiveness of the imagery by balancing naive reportage with mature observations. For instance, he conceptualizes about Time as “not a movement, a flowing … but … a kind of climate in which things are, and … a thing … stands solid in Time like the tree that you can walk around.” Then he translates his adult comments on time into the terms of his childhood: “When you are nine, you know that there are things that you don't know, but you know that when you know something you know it. You know how a thing has been and you know that you can go barefoot in June.”2 The statement is similar to Dylan Thomas' remark in “Child's Christmas in Wales” that “One Christmas was so much like another … that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” Warren's handling of the persona's relation to his boyhood is reminiscent also of Whitman's creation of a sense of telescoped time in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” in which the mature narrator states that he is “a man, yet by these tears a little boy again.” The man's awareness merges with the boy's.

Through the physical imagery that is filtered through the persona in “Blackberry Winter” then, the reader is engaged in a dramatic immediacy reinforced by a technique analogous to the imagistic techniques of writers as diverse as Whitman and Salinger. Warren's employment of such central tactile imagery is more dramatically successful than either Whitman's use of an uninitiate child's bare feet in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” or Salinger's organic use of the feet to depict Seymour's abnormal mental state in “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.”3 With Warren, furthermore, we are fortunate to have direct evidence of the author's partial (at least) awareness of the importance of such an imagistic use of feet. In a critical article on the genesis of “Blackberry Winter” Warren writes:

I recollect the particular thread that led me back into the past: the feeling you have when after vacation begins, you are allowed to go barefoot. Not that I particularly liked to go barefoot. But privilege was important, an escape from the tyranny of winter, school, and even family. It was like what anthropologists call rite of passage. But it had another significance; it carried you over into a dream of nature; the woods, not the house, was now your natural habitat, the stream, not the street. …

With the recollection of going barefoot came another, which had been recurrent over the years: the childhood feeling of betrayal when early summer gets turned upside down and all its promises are revoked by the cold spell, the gully-washer.4

Warren's comments enlighten the theme but they also suggest that in the actual imagistic embodiment of all that Seth's bare feet represent the author (à la Robert Frost) may have written better than he knew.

Purely on the sensory level Seth's bare feet, in their reactions to the temperature and texture of their surroundings, motivate his actions which place him in “learning” situations. His shoes represent ambivalent values: shoes protect and inhibit. The need for protection from the elements and the freedom from the restrictions of civilization are represented by shoes and shoelessness respectively. His shoes are also associated with parental guidance and security. Seth's responses to his feet motivate virtually all of his physical actions as he moves towards the adult emotional maturity that comes only in exchange for an equal portion of innocence.

At first the warmth of the house makes unreal his mother's worry over his getting a chill by going barefoot. He stands “working [his] bare toes slowly on the warm stone.” He wants to go outside without shoes and does not want to “let her see that [he] was barefoot.” His thoughts are dominated by the physical pleasure of rubbing his “feet over the wet shivery grass and [making] the perfect mark of [his] foot in the smooth, creamy red mud. …” The boy's main concern seems to be for physical comfort and sense gratification. But he also desires literally and figuratively to make his mark in the world, to make choices untrammeled by parental restrictions. The narrator describes the boy's feet as parts of nature “sinking into and clutching the earth like roots. …” It is only the unexpected visit of the tramp from the outside world, however, that prevents Seth's mother from exercising her authority by forcing Seth to put on shoes. The tramp's inappropriately foreign (to Seth's world) city shoes are diametrically opposed to the naturalness of Seth's own bare feet. The boy decides to watch the tramp work in the yard because of his wish to remain barefoot and out of the sight of his mother and a growing curiosity about the outside world. Warren repeatedly contrasts Seth's bare feet with the tramp's shoes.5 The tramp's ignorance of rural matters parallels Seth's inexperience outside of the country. There is also an analogue to Seth's innocence in the helplessness of the chickens drowned in the early spring storm as the tramp picks them up by their limp feet and disdainfully disposes of them. The drowned chicken's “feet curl in that feeble, empty way. … He … began to pick up the other chicks, picking each one up slowly by a foot and then flinging it into the basket with a nasty, snapping motion.”

Warren frequently uses animals in the story as a way of revealing character. The farm dogs, the horse, mule, and the dead cow all serve to reinforce his explorations of character. The cow, for example, has jumped a fence as Seth will figuratively have to do and its drifting down the creek toward the river foreshadows Seth's drift through experience.

Seth sees the dead cow after the tramp's uncivil response to his presence has prompted him to join his father and other rural observers of the devastation wrought by the gully washer. Seth's father does not comment on his son's bare feet but, like Seth's mother, serves as a buffer to the boy's growing awareness of pain in the world. “He whisked [him], light as a feather, up to the pommel of his McClennan saddle.” His presence lessens the horror of the dead bloated cow and mutes the awareness of the blatant poverty of the Alleys. A gangly neighbor boy “on a scraggly little old mule” wonders if “anybody ever et drownt cow.” Nobody seems to listen to the old man who answers, “You live long enough and you'll find a man will eat anything when the time comes.” But the grownup Seth has remembered this further witness to various standards in the world. Seth's parents' strength and dignity have allowed him more gradually to absorb the harsh effects of an interplay of innocence and experience. Seth watches the spectacle from the back of his father's mare, where he has been lifted. In contrast, the sullen neighbor boy's “mud-stiff brogans, hanging off his skinny, bare ankles,” are scanty protection from the agony of experience as he digs his heel into his mule's “lank and scrofulous hide” and rides away alone.

Seth rides back toward home firmly pressed against his father's strong body with a physical and emotional contentment unknown in the vulnerable life of the poor neighbor boy. But when his father sets him down to the ground at the farm, experience begins to become as penetrating to his innocence as palpably as does the cold penetrate his feet. It is Seth's cold feet (chilled from the mud) and knowledge of his mother's authority that send him running for physical warmth and the companionship of a life-long friend, Dellie, their Negro servant. He had always warmed himself emotionally in Dellie's presence. She had reinforced his childhood innocence, but as he runs with chilled feet toward the symbol of past security he has to pick his way “past the filth [of the present], being careful not to get [his] bare feet on it.” Just as Dellie has proved anything but irascible in the past so the trash has always been hidden from view under the well-kept servants' cottage. The storm has destroyed Dellie's flowers and the “little grass there was in the yard … reminded [him] of the way the fluff was plastered on the skin of the drowned chicks that the strange man had been picking up in [his] mother's chicken yard.” It took the traumatic gully washer to turn things upside down in Seth's young life—to spew forth trash, float dead cows, drown chickens and flowers and summon surly tramps. Seth is being prepared for further probing into his mental and emotional awareness.

At Dellie's cabin he endures more deeply “traumatic” experience: Dellie's new menopausal hostility to him and her seemingly unmotivated cruelty to little Jeb. Little Jeb will be scarred by such traumas and sent to the penitentiary for killing another Negro. Seth does not yet comprehend this dark side of human experience figured in Dellie's “change of life”; for this is, in fact, a figuring forth of all that he will learn from his metaphorical following of the tramp “all the years.”

Seth runs from the painful hostility of Dellie's cabin “not caring whether or not [he] stepped in the filth which had washed out from under the cabin.” From there he runs to the stables, again from fear of his mother's catching him with bare feet. When he sees Big Jeb shelling corn in the nearby crib, he stops for security and comfort, and because of his childish fear of parental punishment he has gradually given in to a curiosity of what is beyond a world where blackberry winters and gully-washers are synonymous and human response is unpredictable. One sees a carefully drawn parallel between Dellie's menopause and Seth's change of life.

Significantly, Seth's feet get increasingly cold as Jeb hints at even more mystery and uncertainty in life. As Seth gets colder, for a time his security weakens in proportion to the chill. The blackberry winter is also associated with Seth's boyhood innocence that is gradually diminished. Seth's confidence in past beliefs is further shaken when Jeb questions whether they are really experiencing blackberry winter and, in effect, contradicts the boy's mother. All this uncertainty is somehow linked to the unknown world of the city tramp—the tramp Seth's mother and father do not fear and that he himself must learn to comprehend. The tramp knows of the river that is two miles from the creek which borders the farm. From the swollen creek Seth must walk to the river; but that is the next stage of his encounter with experience.

Seth's physical journey of the single morning described in the story comes full circle after he leaves Big Jeb and returns home. He is just in time to witness his father drive off the tramp because the tramp has abused his father for refusing him a permanent job. Warren describes this crucial scene again by focusing on the action below the knees. The tramp's muddy, “broken, black” city shoes slowly retreat before the “strong cowhide” boots of Seth's father. Seth's world which has been shaken so severely is given a renewed but different kind of security and he is given the courage to figuratively follow the tramp. He has not merely retreated to past innocence. His father's action helps him to withstand and come to grips with the upsets of this day. Seth is eventually to embrace a fuller courage that is a blend of a renewed parental trust and deepening personal experience. These incidents of a single morning microcosmically embody the agonies and joys—the sufferings—that span a boy's whole adolescence. But such suffering has led to a wisdom that allows the mature narrator to come to terms with the shocks of his childhood and to cope with the potentially tragic human situation. These are the kinds of experiences that prepare Seth for the death of his parents a few years hence and allow him to direct his bare feet along the path to the road beyond the creek and to the fast flowing river that parallels the broader perspectives of adult life. And through the artistic synthesis of imagery, action and statement the reader has vicariously shared this particular individual's encounter with universal experience. A highly personal experience has been integrated in a way that renders it transcendent.

In “Blackberry Winter” the teacher and poet in Robert Penn Warren are marvelously blended. The feet that propel Seth through his journey Warren has used to probe and assess the adult implications of childhood experiences. It is through a mixture of mystery and incisiveness that he has so successfully transmuted the actions and objects surrounding a small boy into a dialectical configuration which has the universal implications of all honest quests for understanding.


  1. See Warren's introduction to The Modern Library edition of Conrad's Nostromo, p. xxxviii. See also my “Robert Penn Warren's ‘Dialectical Configuration’ and The Cave”, CLA Journal (June, 1967), pp. 349-357.

  2. Robert Penn Warren, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories, New York, 1947, p. 64. All quotations from “Blackberry Winter” are from this text.

  3. See John Russell's “Salinger's Feat,” Modern Fiction Studies, XC (Autumn, 1966), pp. 299-311.

  4. Robert Penn Warren, “Writer at Work: How a Story Was Born and How, Bit by Bit, It Grew,” The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1959, p. 4.

  5. It should be noted that Warren also makes effective imagistic use of hands. For example, special notice is made of Seth's mother's strong yet vulnerable “… brown hands, not big, but somewhat square for a woman's hands … They looked … more like a young boy's hands than a grown woman's. But back then it never crossed my mind that she would ever be dead” (p. 68). The tramp's hands are “big hands, and strong looking, but they did not have the creases and the earth-color of the hands of men who work outdoors. But they were dirty, with black dirt ground into the skin and under the nails” (p. 71). In contrast to the tramp, Old Jeb's moral strength is in his “very big hands, knotted and grayish at the joints, with callused palms which seemed to be streaked with rust with the rust coming up between the fingers to show from the back. His hands were so strong and tough that he could take a big ear of corn and rip the grain right off the cob with the palm of his hand, all in one motion, like a machine …” (p. 81).

Further Reading

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Grimshaw, James A., Jr. Robert Penn Warren: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1922-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981, 494 p.

A bibliography of works by and about Robert Penn Warren.


Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

A comprehensive biography organized according to major phases in Warren's life.


Casper, Leonard. “Fiction and Biography: The Ornate Web.” In Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground, pp. 92-100. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960.

Discusses the role of childhood memories in “Blackberry Winter.”

Additional coverage of Warren's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R, 129; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 10, 47; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 18, 39, 53, 59; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 48, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980, 1989; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 13; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 37; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 8; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4; Something about the Author, Vols. 46, 63; Twayne's United States Authors; 20th-Century Romance and Historical Writers; and World Literature Criticism.

Robert Penn Warren (essay date 1979)

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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 self-consciousness and self-criticism. I suppose that in all attempts at writing there is some such balance, or oscillation, but here the distinction between the two aspects of the process was peculiarly marked, between the ease and the difficulty, between the elation and, I am tempted to say, the pain. But the pain, strangely enough, seemed to be attached to the compulsion, as though in some way I did not want to go into that remembered world, and the elation attached to the critical effort I had to make to ride herd on the wrangle of things that came milling into my head. Or perhaps the truth is that the process was more complicated than that and I shall never know the truth, even in the limited, provisional way the knowing of truth is possible in such matters.

It crosses my mind that the vividness with which I have always remembered the writing of this story may have something to do with the situation in which it was written. It was the fall or winter of 1945-46 just after the war, and even if one had had no hand in the blood-letting, there was the sense that the world, and one's own life, would never be the same again. I was then reading Herman Melville's poetry, and remember being profoundly impressed by “The Conflict of Convictions,” a poem about the coming of the American Civil War. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the war, Melville said, would show “the slimed foundations” of the world. There was the sense in 1945, even with victory, that we had seen the slimed foundations, and as I now write this, the image that comes into my mind is the homely one from my story—the trash washed by the storm from under Dellie's cabin to foul her pridefully clean yard. And I should not be surprised if the picture in the story had its roots in the line from Melville as well as in such a fact, seen a hundred times in my rural boyhood. So the mixed feelings I had in our moment of victory in 1945, Melville's poem, and not only the image of Dellie's cabin, but something of the whole import of my little story, belong, it seems, in the same package.

For a less remote background, I had just finished two long pieces of work, a novel called All the King's Men and a critical study of Coleridge's poem The Ancient Mariner, both of which had been on my mind for years. Both those things were impersonal, about as impersonal as the work of any man's hand can be said to be. Even though much of my personal feeling had been drawn into both projects, they belonged to worlds very different from my own. At that time, too, I was living in a very cramped apartment over a garage, in a big, modern, blizzard-bit northern city, again a place very different from the world of my story.

In my daily life, I certainly was not thinking about and remembering that world. I suppose I was living in some anxiety about the fate of the two forthcoming pieces of work, on which I had staked much, and in the unspoken, even denied, conviction that some sort of watershed of life and experience was being approached. For one thing, the fortieth birthday, lately passed, and the sense of let-down after the long period of intense work, could account, in part at least, for that feeling.

Out of this situation the story began, but it began by a kind of accident. Some years earlier, I had written a story about a Tennessee sharecropper, a bad story that had never been published. Now I thought I saw a way to improve it. I don't know whether I actually sat down to rewrite the story that was to have the new avatar of “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger,” or whether I got sidetracked into “Blackberry Winter” first. In any case, I was going back into a primal world of recollection. I was fleeing, if you wish. Hunting old bearings and benchmarks, if you wish. Trying to make a fresh start, if you wish. Whatever people do in their doubleness of living in a present and a past.

I recollect the particular thread that led me back into that past: the feeling you have when, after vacation begins, you are allowed to go barefoot. Not that I ever liked to go barefoot, not with my bony feet. But the privilege itself was important, a declaration of independence from the tyranny of winter and school and, even, your own family. It was like what the anthropologists call a rite of passage. But it had another meaning, too. It carried you back into a dream of nature, the woods not the house was now your natural habitat, the stream not the street. Looking out into the snow-banked alley of that iron latitude where I now lived, I had a vague, nostalgic feeling and wondered if spring would ever come. (It finally came—and then on May 5 there was again snow, and the heavy-headed blooms of lilac were beautiful with their hoods of snow and beards of ice.)

With the recollection of going barefoot came another, which had been recurrent over the years: the childhood feeling of betrayal when early summer gets turned upside-down, and all its promises are revoked by the cold-spell, the gully-washer. So by putting those two recollections together, the story got started. I had no idea where it was going, if anywhere. Sitting at the typewriter was merely a way of indulging nostalgia. But something has to happen in a story, if there is to be more than a dreary lyric poem posing as a story to promote the cause of universal boredom and deliquescent prose. Something had to happen, and the simplest thing ever to have happen is to say: Enter, mysterious stranger. And so he did.

The tramp who thus walked into the story had been waiting a long time in the wings of my imagination—an image drawn, no doubt, from a dozen unremembered episodes of childhood, the city bum turned country tramp, suspicious, resentful, contemptuous of hick dumbness, bringing his own brand of violence into a world where he half-expected to find another kind, enough unlike his own to make him look over his shoulder down the empty lane as dusk came on, a creature altogether lost and pitiful, a dim image of what, in one perspective, our human condition is. But then, at that moment, I was merely thinking of the impingement of his loose-footedness and lostness on a stable and love-defined world of childhood.

Before the tramp actually appeared, I had, however, known he was coming, and without planning I began to write the fourth paragraph of the story, about the difference between what time is when we have grown up and what it was when we stood on what, in my fancy phrase in the story, I called the glistening auroral beach of the world—a phrase which belonged, by the way, to an inland boy who had never seen a beach but whose dreams were all of the sea. Now the tramp came up, not merely out of the woods, but out of the darkening grown-up world of time.

The tramp had, literally, come up through the river woods, and so in the boy's literal speculations he sees the tramp coming through the woods. By now, however, the natural thematic distinction touched on in relation to time is moving into a pattern, the repetition in fiction of the established notion in a new guise. So when the boy sees the mental image of the tramp coming through the woods, there is the distinction set up between the way a man, particularly such a man as this, would go through woods, and the way a boy can stand in the woods in absolute quiet, almost taking root and growing moss on himself, trying to catch the rhythm, as it were, of that vegetative life, trying to breathe himself into that mode of being.

But what would this other, woodland, vegetative world of being carry with it in human terms—in terms, that is, of what a story must be about? I can promise that the passage was written on impulse, but an impulse conditioned by the idea that there had to be an expressed difference between boy-in-woods and tramp-in-woods, the tramp who doesn't know what a poult is and thinks the final degradation is to mess with a flower bed. And so here we are back to the contrast between the tramp's world and that of childhood innocence appearing in some sense of a rapport between the child and nature, his feeling that he himself might enter that very life of nature.

As soon as the passage was written I knew its import; I was following my nose, trusting, for what they were worth, my powers of association, hoping that those powers would work in relation to a pattern that had begun to emerge as a series of contrasts. And it was natural, therefore, after a few paragraphs about the strangeness and fish-out-of-waterness of the tramp, his not knowing about dogs for example, to have the mother's self-sufficiency set against the tramp's rude, resentful uncertainty, and then have her portrait at the time of the episode set against the time when she would be dead, and only a memory—though back then, of course, in the secure world of changelessness and timelessness, it had never crossed the boy's mind that “she would ever be dead.”

The instant I wrote that clause I knew, not how the story would end, for I was still writing by guess and by God, but on what perspective of feeling it would end. I knew that it would end with a kind of detached summary of the work of time, some hint of the adult's grim orientation toward that fact. From now on, the items that came on the natural wash of recollection came not only with their, to me, nostalgic quality, but also with the freighting of the grimmer possibilities of change—the flood, which to the boy is only an exciting spectacle but which will mean hunger to others, the boy's unconscious contempt for poor white-trash like Milt Alley, the recollection of hunger by the old man who had ridden with Forrest, Dellie suffering in her “woman mizry.” But before I had got to Dellie, I already had Old Jebb firmly in mind, with some faint sense of the irony of having his name remind one—or at least me—of the dashing Confederate cavalryman killed at Yellow Tavern.

Perhaps what I finally did with Dellie stemmed, in fact, from the name I gave Old Jebb. Even if the boy would see no irony in that echo of J. E. B. Stuart's fame, he would get a shock when Dellie slapped her beloved son, and would sense that that blow was, in some deep way, a blow at him. I knew this, for I knew the inside of that prideful cabin, and the shock of early recognition that beneath mutual kindliness and regard some dark, tragic, unresolved something lurked. And with that scene with Dellie, I felt I was forecasting the role of the tramp in the story. The story, to put it in another way, was now shifting emphasis from the lyricism of nostalgia to a concern with the jags and injustices of human relationships. What had earlier come in unconsciously, reportorially, in regard to Milt Alley now got a conscious formulation.

I have said that the end was by now envisaged as a kind of summary of the work of time on the human relationships. But it could not afford to be a mere summary: I wanted some feeling for the boy's family and Jebb's family to shine through the flat surface. Now it struck me that I might build this summary with Jebb as a kind of pilot for the feeling I wanted to get; that is, by accepting, in implication at least, something of Jebb's feeling about his own life, we might become aware of our human communion. I wanted the story to give some notion that out of change and loss a human recognition may be redeemed, more precious for being no longer innocent. So I wrote the summary.

When I had finished the next to the last paragraph I still did not know what to do with my tramp. He had already snarled at the boy, and gone, but I sensed that in the pattern of things his meaning would have to coalesce with the meaning I hoped to convey in the summary about the characters. Then, for better or worse, there it was. In his last anger and frustration, the tramp had said to the boy: “You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.”

Had the boy then stopped or not? Yes, of course, literally, in the muddy lane. But at another level—no. Insofar as later he had grown up, had really learned something of the meaning of life, he had been bound to follow the tramp all his life, in the imaginative recognition, with all the responsibility which such a recognition entails, of this lost, mean, defeated, cowardly, worthless, bitter being as somehow a man.

So what had started out for me as, perhaps, an act of escape, of fleeing back into the simplicities of childhood, had turned, as it always must if we accept the logic of our lives, into an attempt to bring something meaningfully out of that simple past into the complication of the present. And what had started out as a personal indulgence had tried to be, in the end, an impersonal generalization about experience, as a story must always try to be if it accepts the logic of fiction. And now, much later, I see that the story and the novel which I had then only lately finished, as well as the study of Coleridge, all bore on the same end.

I would give a false and foolish impression if I were to imply that I think this to be the only way a story should be written, or that this is the only way I myself have ever written stories. As a matter of fact, most of my stories and all of my novels (except two unpublished ones) have started very differently, from some objective situation or episode, observed or read about, something that caught my eye and imagination so that feeling and interpretation began to flow in. And I sometimes think it strange that the last story I ever wrote and presumably the last I shall ever write (for poems are great devourers of stories) should have sprung so instinctively from the world of simple recollection—not a blackberry winter at all, but a kind of Indian summer.

I would give a false impression, too, if I were to imply that this story is autobiographical. It is not. I never knew these particular people, only that world and people like them. And no tramp ever leaned down at me and said for me to stop following him or he would cut my throat. But if one had, I hope that I might have been able to follow him anyway, in the way the boy in the story does.

Marshall Walker (essay date 1979)

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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 early summer gets turned upside-down and all its promises are revoked by the cold-spell, the gully-washer.’1 ‘Blackberry Winter’ (1946), therefore, developed out of familiar rural materials which could smoothly extend into a representation of Paradise and Fall without any forcing of basic realism. The story perfectly succeeds in fusing ‘experienced reality’ and ‘symbolic significance’. The basic strategy is to create and maintain a tension between the point of view of the nine-year-old boy and that of the man he has become thirty-five years later, while suggesting, through symbolic representation and occasional observations of the middle-aged man, the differences which the years have made in his evaluation of this spot of time. The signatures of things are there for the young Seth to feel and wonder at—the flood, the trash washed out from beneath Dellie's cabin, the tramp—and the mature Seth is able to read them.

Much of the story's excellence consists in the mature Seth's ability to articulate meanings without falsifying the feelings he experienced when a boy. It is June, time for going barefoot, but Seth's mother has told him to put on his shoes because it is blackberry winter. The boy's response is precisely given although the language belongs to the man: ‘You do not understand that voice from back in the kitchen which says that you cannot go barefoot outdoors and run to see what has happened and rub your feet over the shivery wet grass and make the perfect mark of your foot in the smooth, creamy red mud and then muse upon it as though you had suddenly come upon that single mark on the glistening auroral beach of the world’ (CIA [The Circus in the Attic], p. 64). Seth is both Crusoe and Adam in a closed familiar world of initial perfection where time is the space in which something that has happened ‘stands solid’. He might muse safely over that perfect footprint, for it would betoken no sinister intruder. But a mysterious stranger enters on this day of disruptions, natural and human, leaving an imprint on the boy's sensibility that alters him irrevocably, marking his Fall from childhood innocence and his introduction to a mortal, complex world of ambiguity, insecurity and change.

Seth is still secure in the intimate safety of his father's saddle when he looks upon the natural disorder imaged by the cow, ‘dead as a chunk’, in the swollen creek, but his composure is shaken when he finds Dellie's model yard fouled by rubbish: ‘It was not anything against Dellie that the stuff had been under the cabin. Trash will get under any house. But I did not think of that when I saw the foulness which had washed out on the ground which Dellie sometimes used to sweep with a twig broom to make nice and clean’ (CIA, p. 79). The mature Seth does not blame Dellie, but the boy knows only that something ordered and clean is now inexplicably confused and besmirched. Dellie herself had been changed by the mystery of the ‘woman-mizry’ which Old Jebb will not explain but which somehow causes the disproportionate ‘awful slap’ that reduces Little Jebb to tears and sends Seth running from such sudden ugliness and misunderstanding.

It is the tramp, the mysterious stranger with his shabby city clothes, sinister knife and vicious language, who finally deprives the boy of his childhood certainties. The tramp does not merely symbolise evil: Seth's ‘Where did you come from?’ and ‘Where are you going?’ (CIA, pp. 85-86) are questions that spring from an instinctive recognition of ‘this lost, mean, defeated, cowardly, worthless, bitter being as somehow a man’.2 The tramp has no personal identity: his face is ‘perfectly unmemorable’ (CIA, p. 69) and he enters the story simply as ‘the man’ (CIA, p. 64). Like a creature of unknown origin he comes ‘up from the river and had come up through the woods’ (CIA, p. 65). He moves ‘like a man who has come a long way and has a long way to go’ (CIA, p. 66). He is an Ancient Mariner, fixing the young Seth with his intimation of human possibilities beyond anything the boy has known, or a Leech Gatherer from a far region, come to astonish the boy for his simple view of the world. Old Jebb confirms the admonition when Seth asks him to explain Dellie's ‘woman-mizry’:

“Hit is the change,” he said, “Hit is the change of life and time.”

“What changes?”

“You too young to know.”

“Tell me.”

“Time come and you find out everything.”

(CIA, p. 82)

The mature Seth of the epilogue has learned that time is not space after all, but movement through change. He realises now that his own ‘change of life and time’ began on that day thirty-five years ago, when he followed the mysterious stranger out of Eden and into the greater, doubtful world.


The list of writers whom Warren is thought to resemble in these stories is flatteringly comprehensive, if nothing else, including Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Lardner, Joyce, Faulkner and Caldwell.3 The moral is that while influences may be detected, definition of them is variable, subjective and critically not very useful. Warren is certainly a better novelist and poet than he is a writer of short stories: his stories are very uneven in quality and ‘Blackberry Winter’ is justly known as the best of them. Some are weak, some slight; several—they include ‘The Circus in the Attic,’ ‘Christmas Gift,’ ‘The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger,’ ‘Testament of Flood,’ ‘Her Own People’ as well as ‘Prime Leaf’—have much to say and, saying it effectively, are valuable contributions to an art in which rules are only made to be broken.


  1. Understanding Fiction, p. 640.

  2. Understanding Fiction, p. 642.

  3. See Bradbury, John M., in The Fugitives: A Critical Account, p. 197; Farelly, John, in a review of ‘The Circus in the Attic’ in New Republic, 118 (26 Jan, 1948); O'Connor, William Van, in another review in Western Review, 12 (Summer, 1948); Prescott, Orville, in Yale Review, 37 (Spring, 1948), 575-76.

Works Cited

Bohner, Charles H. Robert Penn Warren. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.

Bradbury, John M. The Fugitives: A Critical Account. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958.

Casper, Leonard. Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960.

Farelly, John. Review of The Circus in the Attic. New Republic, 26 Jan. 1948, p. 32.

Huff, Mary Nance. Robert Penn Warren: A Bibliography. New York: David Lewis, 1968.

O'Connor, William Vann. Review of The Circus in the Attic. Western Review, 12 (1948), 251-53.

Prescott, Orville. Review of The Circus in the Attic. Yale Review, 37 (1948), 575-76.

Albert E. Wilhelm (essay date summer 1980)

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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 child's rite of passage Warren explores the complications of a nine-year-old farm boy's initiation into the complexities of the adult world largely by centering the most telling imagery on the young protagonist's feet. … The responses of Seth's bare feet serve as indications of his changing awareness of the mystery, uncertainty and evil in the world from which his parents have so long sheltered him.1

Such imagery is indeed pervasive, but another cluster of images is equally significant in conveying Seth's maturation. These images derive from the topography of the Tennessee farm (which is Seth's home) and include, in particular, references to enclosures, fences, and gates.

Among the most basic images is the white picket fence which surrounds the farmhouse yard and defines the boundary between pastoral security and the ominous unknown. The fence encloses orderly beds of flowers, the warm hearth, and other manifestations of maternal protection, while beyond the fence are a bewildering tangle of cane and, eventually, a dark, cold swamp. Symbolically, this fence has protected Seth both by exclusion and confinement—by keeping out alien forces and by restricting him to the limited world of the farm. As the story begins, however, both functions of the fence are challenged. At the very moment of Seth's rebellion against maternal authority, he sees an interloper coming from the direction of the swamp and toward the back gate. Despite the protests of the farm watch-dog (which jumps the fence to challenge the intrusion), the tramp enters the yard bringing with him city clothes, a switchblade knife, scars of past violence, and ultimately a sullen threat to the protective power of Seth's father.

As the protective wall is breached, Seth's curiosity about the outside world is simultaneously stimulated. The watchdog, described initially as “bone-white,”2 serves as an indicator of this change. When he jumps the fence, his white chest is splashed with “red clay mud,” which to Seth is “exciting, like blood” (p. 67). As the tramp intrudes further into the warm kitchen (normally the realm of maternal care), Seth ironically moves in the opposite direction—to the realm of cold and death within the chicken pen. Soon he is attracted by a more distant and more turbulent sight—the flood at the bridge. Like the dog's stained chest, the muddy, boiling creek also displays the alluring mixture of red and white, and to reach this scene Seth must pass through three successive enclosures (the chicken pen, the picket fence around the yard, and finally the fence-like bodock hedge). In doing so he literally passes beyond the pale of his childlike innocence.

At the bridge Seth confronts the harsh reality of poverty (sharecroppers whose tobacco has been destroyed) and death (the carcass of a drowned cow). Certain images suggest that the dead cow is, to some extent, a symbolic counterpart of Seth himself. Its former home was a “fenced-in piece of ground up the creek,” and “it had a yoke around its neck, the kind made out of a forked limb to keep a jumper behind fence” (p. 75). Just as these restraints have not insured the cow's safety, Seth himself cannot be protected from the pain of maturation. Furthermore, other references to farm animals emphasize the same point. Seth's mother is adept at shooting hawks if they fly “over her chicken yard” (p. 68), but she cannot protect her poultry from the storm. The young turkeys drown because they escape from their pen, and the baby chickens are apparently killed even inside their coops. As in Seth's case the fences do not completely protect either by confinement or exclusion. Only the dog seems able to jump the fence and return with impunity.

After the ominous scene at the bridge, Seth's pattern of advancing beyond the fences is replaced by one of retreat. As in many other initiation stories curiosity about the unknown is transformed to fear or revulsion (compare, for example, Hemingway's “Indian Camp”). First, Seth's father lifts him to the saddle and encloses Seth within his arm “to steady” him (p. 74). Later, they ride together to the “big gate” where his father dismounts “to open it” and lets Seth “ride Nellie Gray through” (p. 77). Within this large enclosure Seth retreats further to Dellie's cabin. Significantly, this cabin has “a little whitewashed fence around it and a gate with plow-points on a wire to clink when somebody” enters (p. 77). The plow-points serve then as a warning device but also as a mechanism to keep the gate tightly shut when not in use. In the cabin Seth seeks the warmth of the hearth and an alternative mother figure (since Dellie ordinarily displays the benevolence but not the authority of his real mother). Further evidence of his reversion to a childlike role is his attempt to participate in the train game with Little Jebb. But the forces of change have invaded, and a return to childhood is not possible. Suffering herself from the “change of life” (p. 82), Dellie now displays violence which drives Seth from the cabin and the yard.

Seth's flight leads to one more place of refuge—the crib where Old Jebb is shelling corn. The word “crib” is perhaps intended as a pun since Seth goes there seeking warmth and comforting answers. As he enters he pulls “the door shut behind” him (p. 81) and notes that Old Jebb has the “kindest and wisest old face in the world” (p. 81). But instead of reassurance Jebb offers only predictions of apocalyptic doom, and Seth hangs “on the door, shivering” (p. 83).

The story's final images again emphasize Seth's movement beyond the protective fences. After the argument between his father and the tramp, Seth intently watches the tramp “going out the yard gate” (p. 85). With some initial hesitation Seth trails him until they get “within sight of the big gate that let[s] on the pike” (p. 85). In spite of the tramp's injunction, “Stop following me,” Seth can pursue no other course. Like his postlapsarian Biblical namesake he now stands outside the gates of paradise. Pain and evil have been made real, and he cannot return to the protection of the garden.


  1. Richard Allan Davison, “Physical Imagery in Robert Penn Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter,’” Georgia Review, 22 (1968), 482.

  2. In The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947), p. 67. All references are to this edition.

James E. Rocks (essay date 1980)

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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 varied literary talents. That “Blackberry Winter” was written soon after the novel and essay suggests that it might be read critically in the light of the two earlier works. It is unlikely that they influenced the short story in any definite way, but the essay on Coleridge and All the King's Men do foreshadow some of the themes, symbols and techniques of the story and indicate that Warren was thinking about similar problems as he wrote each work. All the King's Men and “Blackberry Winter” share the same mood of impending disorder and express a similar view of the idea of change, a major theme in Warren's work.

In “Writer at Work: How a Story was Born and How, Bit by Bit, It Grew,” Warren describes the origin of “Blackberry Winter” in World War II, when he felt civilization might never again be the same. A line in Melville's poem “The Conflict of Convictions” carried for him the frightening reminder that wars threaten to uncover the “slimed foundations” of the world, an image that is reminiscent in tone of the decay, corruption and death in the novel and the story.1 His tale grew, he says, from the association of various experiences in his own life and was an attempt to treat the “adult's grim orientation” toward the fact of time and the fall of man into moral awareness. As Warren writes, “I wanted the story to give some notion that out of change and loss a human recognition may be redeemed, more precious for being no longer innocent.”2 This condition of growth into maturity, with its concomitant gains and losses, is shared by Jack Burden in All the King's Men and Seth in “Blackberry Winter.”

Warren's essay on “Blackberry Winter” gives us some clues in reading both the story and All the King's Men, but it is like Poe's “The Philosophy of Composition” or Allen Tate's “Narcissus as Narcissus” in that it leaves most of the important pieces of the puzzle for the reader to assemble. Warren expects the reader, like the writer in the act of composing, to be a creative and discerning individual. The quest for knowledge that fictional characters undergo is interpreted by a sympathetic and imaginative reader, who must discover in the work the symbols, myths and archetypes that the writer has used to dramatize the universal human condition.3 As a New Critic, Warren affirms the significance of a symbolic reading of literature and states that a “poem is the light by which the reader may view and review all the areas of experience with which he is acquainted.”4 A story, like a poem, uses symbol and has rich texture. Warren stresses the varied and suggestive meaning of any symbol, particularly one “rooted in our universal natural experience.”5 The sun, moon, stars and wind that he identifies in Coleridge are examples of such fundamental symbols, which like the archetypes of rebirth and the journey in Coleridge are to be found in Warren's own work, including, of course, “Blackberry Winter” and All the King's Men.

Warren's discussion of Coleridge's sacramental conception of the universe, violated by the Mariner's crime against the sanctity of nature, is relevant to a reading of “Blackberry Winter.” The short story examines how the prideful individual can isolate himself from what Warren calls the sense of the “One Life”6 in which all creation participates. In “Blackberry Winter” the older Seth arrives at a similar knowledge as he looks back at his day's journey: like the Mariner, he learns about the beauty and terror of the universe and the natural process of change that both renews and destroys. Seth, like all men, must reenact the fall of the first father, Adam, whose third son we are told in Genesis was named Seth. Although the story, in its series of episodes and recurring symbols, seems to emphasize decay and death (the “slimed foundations”), it asserts finally the triumph of human perception over the natural forces that age and destroy. Seth, whose fall is fortunate, has moved, like Jack Burden and Ann Stanton in All the King's Men, “into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”7 The adult Seth, like Jack and Anne, has learned the meanings of sin and guilt, isolation and community.

The tramp, or the Mysterious Stranger, represents, as Warren finds them in Coleridge's poem, the ideas of sin and guilt and the isolation that attends them. Warren maintains that Coleridge was interested in the mystery of original sin—not hereditary sin, however, but sin that is original with the sinner and is a manifestation of his own will. In the Mariner, Warren says, we witness the corruption of the will, which is the beginning of the moral history of man. The Mariner's killing of the albatross reenacts the fall and is a condition of the will and results from no single human motive. Although a comparison between the Mariner and Willie Stark certainly cannot be carried too far, one may see in Stark an example of the corruption of the will that Warren finds in the Mariner. Like the Mariner, Willie makes his own convenience the measure of an act and therefore isolates himself from the “One Life.” One might argue, then, that Willie Stark and the tramp in “Blackberry Winter” represent in Warren's fiction the corruption of the will and the isolation of sin he finds in Coleridge. Both men are agents in the narrators' initiations and can be viewed as primarily beneficial in their influence on them. Stark may be corrupt in the means of his politics but he is often motivated by altruistic ends; goodness, as Jack Burden learns, can be accomplished by the morally bad agent. Like Stark, the tramp is also a human being, however sinful and violent he may appear. In “Blackberry Winter,” as Warren states in “Writer at Work,” Seth remembers “this lost, mean, defeated, cowardly, worthless, bitter being as somehow a man” who had come “out of the darkening grown-up world of time.”8 The Ancient Mariner, Willie Stark and the tramp are alike in that they serve to elicit the emotions of pity and terror from the reader and suggest the knowledge that man must apprehend if he is to avoid a similar fate. Each of these men enters a “darkening grown-up world of time”; so, also, do their observers, the wedding guest, Jack Burden and Seth. An awareness of time is a central concern of Warren's characters, and in his story he depicts the truth that Jack Burden and Seth must suffer to learn; life is motion toward knowledge.

The title “Blackberry Winter” foreshadows the principal knowledge that Seth will gain: what man thinks has been permanent and will always remain permanent is subject to unexpected and devastating change. As a boy Seth believes that what he has done before will remain possible forever—that in June, for example, one need never wear shoes:

… when you are nine years old, what you remember seems forever; for you remember everything and everything is important and stands big and full and fills up Time and is so solid that you can walk around and around it like a tree and look at it. You are aware that time passes, that there is a movement in time, but that is not what Time is. Time is not a movement, a flowing, a wind then, but is, rather, a kind of climate in which things are, and when a thing happens it begins to live and keeps on living and stands solid in Time like a tree that you can walk around. And if there is a movement, the movement is not Time itself, any more than a breeze is climate, and all the breeze does is to shake a little the leaves on the tree which is alive and solid. When you are nine, you know that there are things that you don't know, but you know that when you know something you know it. You know how a thing has been and you know that you can go barefoot in June.9

At the time the story opens, however, an unseasonable cold spell, blackberry winter, and a gully washer have just interrupted the anticipated plan of boyhood activity. From the beginning of the story, we are aware that the apparent security of the boy's world will be upset by a series of episodes revealing the mystery of change. The four scenes of the story—the first at his house, the second at the bridge, the third at the Negro cabin and the fourth at his house—are structured to suggest the idea of cycle or return, a going forth and a coming back. This pattern, like the notion that the gain of knowledge is worth the loss of innocence, argues for an interpretation of the story that stresses rebirth and renewal—if not the regeneration of life, at least the enlightenment of the mind. In the epilogue that concludes the story, the older Seth looks back from the year 1945—when Warren felt that the “slimed foundations” of the world might be exposed—and considers the profound ironies of change: that the father who seemed invincible to him as a boy has died early, a victim of the machine, not of nature; and that the mother who seemed strong has died of a broken heart; and that Old Jebb, who most wanted the release of death to end his fatigue and who had prophesied the end of the world, lives on like an aging Samson. Most important of all, Seth realizes the value of his memory, which has kept alive the image of the tramp for thirty-five years.

This tramp and not the cold spell first disturbs the harmony of Seth's world, his “One Life.” Seeing the tramp emerge from the woods, he is struck by “the strangeness of the sight” (p. 64) and he tries to “walk around” (p. 64) in his mind the idea of such unpredictable behavior. The tramp is completely out of place; his appearance and his manner suggest the origin of the city, a complex world unknown to the country boy. In the figure of the tramp Warren creates the archetype of the outsider, a character who threatens the security of a closed world; a vagabond or maverick, he is the type of the failure of the American dream of success. The tramp's nondescript eyes and “perfectly unmemorable face” (p. 69) are like a confusing mask to the boy, making him all the more inquisitive of the reality underneath. The boy's “steady and self-reliant” mother (p. 68), in whom he can feel confidence, offers the tramp the work of burying the dead chicks and cleaning up the trash in the flower beds. This description of the littered setting, suggesting the destruction and death of the animate world, foreshadows the vivid descriptions in succeeding scenes of the trash that runs in the creek and of the trash under Dellie's cabin. The boy begins to see the capacity of nature to ravage what it creates (chickens) and what man creates (flower beds). Seth will grow to realize that man does not control his environment and that he cannot be certain either of his expectations or of the satisfaction of his desires.

Seth does not perceive the full devastation of nature until he arrives at the strange sight of the bridge over the swollen creek, which is described as “boiling,” “frothing,” “hissing,” “steaming” and “tumbling” (pp. 72-73)—words that suggest natural cataclysm and foreshadow the Biblical tone of Old Jebb's later description of the next great and annihilating flood. On the bank the boy's tall, proud father sits on his horse, above the heads of the other men, who are mostly poor white tenate farmers and in Seth's mind of a lower social class. In this episode Seth begins to learn about poverty, a condition largely unknown to him. The dead cow that floats past reminds the onlookers of their probable hunger in the future. The cow, which suggests the idea of maternity, foreshadows Dellie's condition of menopause, Old Jebb's remark that mother earth might stop producing and his own mother's death some years later. Each of these images gives unity to the story and affirms the idea of death to man and nature, a death out of which there will seem to be no renewal.

When the young spectator at the bridge asks whether anyone has ever eaten a drowned cow, the response is stunned silence; but the question becomes ironic in the light of Old Jebb's statement later that if the earth stops producing man will eat up everything. Jebb's wisdom is anticipated in an old Civil War veteran's response to the boy: “you live long enough and you'll find a man will eat anything when the time comes.” (p. 76) This man speaks, it might be said, rather like a character out of Southwestern humor; his words demonstrate knowledge of the comic and the tragic. He is, like Old Jebb, the sage and seer, to whom time and experience have brought wisdom.

The third episode of the story, at the Negro cabin, falls into two parts—in the first, Seth talks with the family cook Dellie and, in the second, with her common-law husband Old Jebb. Both of them have always been proud of their clean, orderly house and yard; but, much to Seth's surprise, the yard has also become littered by the storm. Contrary to what he had come to expect, the yard is full of the trash and filth that had always remained hidden under the house. Seth learns that appearances or order, cleanliness and health can be deceptive, that dirt, ugliness and decay lie beneath the surface of things. This new awareness is reaffirmed when he sees Dellie, normally healthy and active, lying sick under her quilt, which, like the house hiding the litter, covers the reality of the decay underneath. Dellie is suffering menopause, what Old Jebb later calls “the change of life and Time.” (p. 82) This change signals the end of her ability to reproduce and thus the approach of a kind of death. When Seth says he is sorry to hear that she is ill, he realizes that the word is an empty one. Language fails to express the emotions of loss or sorrow, and, like the men watching the creek, Seth stands a mute and powerless witness to this example of natural change and human suffering.

The culmination of the boy's journey is reached in his dialogue with Jebb, who unlike the tramp has a wise, sad, kind face and represents the security of love and fatherly wisdom. A prophet figure, Jebb speaks like Noah, who foretells a flood but who has not heard God's word of a possible salvation for man; he is also like the preacher of Ecclesiastes, but his message is that the sun will never rise again, that the earth will not abide forever. Old Jebb will not tell Seth why Dellie is ill, and his response, “Time come and you find out everything,” (p. 82) reveals the Negro's understanding that all things change and that time is needed for man to be aware of the nature of change and of his part in it. Time, Jebb knows, is maturity.

Seth argues with Jebb that because it is June the cold spell will pass. Jebb contradicts the boy's belief that what has been will always be when he says that the cold may have come to stay:

Cause this-here old yearth is tahrd. Hit is tahrd and ain't gonna perduce. Lawd let hit come rain one time forty days and forty nights, 'cause he was tahrd of sinful folks. Maybe this-here old yearth say to the Lawd, Lawd, I done plum tahrd, Lawd, lemme rest.

(pp. 82-83)

Like Dellie, mother earth will lose her fecundity and man will be faced with extinction. The irony of Old Jebb's speech is that man feels no awe for the earth's seemingly infinite bounty or no concern to preserve it; the Lord rested on the seventh day and so does man, but the earth can never rest. As Seth leaves, the cold penetrating his spirit as well as his bare feet, Jebb tells him to hurry home before “you ketch yore death.” (p. 83) Young Seth will also have to endure the process of change and decay; like all men, he has caught his death. Back at his home, in the concluding episode that brings the action full circle, Seth follows the tramp up the drive toward the pike and into the memory of the future.

In the epilogue, the adult Seth provides a perspective on his youthful experiences and reveals that he is not unlike the Ancient Mariner in his need to articulate the meaning of what happened to him on that day. The story provides for him and for the reader an epiphany that gains value in the narrator's dual vantage point of youth, which feels, and age, which interprets. The fullest insight belongs to the reader, however, for it is he who perceives the entire significance of Seth's experience. The epiphany we participate in is a discovery of the self in relation to one's environment and to other individuals, not unlike Robinson Crusoe's discovery of the footprint, a mark that signalled a change in his life. (Seth thinks early in the story about this moment of self-awareness in Defoe's work.) The image of a footprint is particularly meaningful in the light of its importance as a symbol of man's relation to nature, which is both his sustainer and his destroyer. Seth's bare feet grip the earth but they are unprotected from the cold and dirt; they let him know nature as she is. As the foot is an important symbol in the story, so is the hand, which can grasp hold of reality. Each of the adult characters has strong hands, which presumably can control and shape destiny—or at least that seems so to young Seth. But the painful truth is that these people cannot alter their lives, that they will become victims of their mortality. Their condition is almost like that of the character in All the King's Men who has what Jack Burden calls the Great Twitch, which determines that man is a victim of uncontrollable forces. The characters in “Blackberry Winter” have the freedom to choose and to act but no certainty that their choices and acts won't be overwhelmed by nature.

“Blackberry Winter,” like The Ancient Mariner and All the King's Men, creates in literary form, as Warren writes in “Knowledge and the Image of Man,” “a vision of experience … fulfilled and redeemed in knowledge, the ugly with the beautiful, the slayer with the slain, what was known as shape now known as time, what was known in time now known as shape, a new knowledge.”10 This definition of the ordering of experience into a literary image comments on the theme of his own fiction, particularly “Blackberry Winter.” Man has a right, states Warren, to define himself and to achieve his own identity, or an image of himself. He says that this notion of personality is part of the heritage of Christianity, in which every soul is valuable to God and in which the story of every soul is the story of its choice of salvation or damnation. In the quest for knowledge, Warren declares, man discovers his separateness and the pain of self-criticism and of isolation; but he also learns that his condition is shared by all men alike:

In the pain of isolation he may achieve the courage and clarity of mind to envisage the tragic pathos of life, and once he realizes that the tragic experience is universal and a corollary of man's place in nature, he may return to a communion with man and nature.11

Man's knowledge makes him aware that he is a fallen creature, Warren is saying, but that he has gained more than he has lost:

Man can return to his lost unity, and if that return is fitful and precarious, if the foliage and flower of the innocent garden are now somewhat browned by a late season, all is the more precious for the fact, for what is now achieved has been achieved by a growth of moral awareness.12

These two passages provide a perfect gloss of Warren's story and novel written a decade earlier.

The essay on The Ancient Mariner and All the King's Men share with “Blackberry Winter” similar themes of sin, isolation, change and growth, similar characters who lose their innocence because of others who embody evil and guilt or because of forces over which they have no apparent control and similar techniques of rich texture, narrative point-of-view and the treatment of time. Reading “A Poem of Pure Imagination,” All the King's Men and “Blackberry Winter” together enhances the reader's appreciation of each of the works.


  1. “Writer at Work,” NYTBR, 1 March 1959, p. 5. See line 65 of Melville's poem.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Winston Weathers's comprehensive essay, “‘Blackberry Winter’ and the Use of Archetypes,” SSF, 1(1963), 45-51, discusses the meaning of Warren's symbolic and archetypal patterns and has enlightened my reading of the story, as has Richard Allan Davison's “Physical Imagery in Robert Penn Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter’,” GaR, 22 (1968), 482-88.

  4. “A Poem of Pure Imagination: an Experiment in Reading,” Selected Essays (New York, 1966), p. 212.

  5. Ibid., p. 219.

  6. Ibid., p. 222.

  7. All the King's Men (New York, 1973), p. 438.

  8. “Writer at Work,” p. 5.

  9. The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (New York, 1962), pp. 63-64. Page numbers of subsequent quotations from the story are given in the text.

  10. SR, 62 (1955), 241-42.

  11. Ibid., p. 241.

  12. Ibid., pp. 241-42.

Thomas W. Ford (essay date July 1981)

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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 Winter,” written in the fall or winter of 1945-46, are two sides of the same coin. Indian summer, that short-lived period in late October or early November when the weather suddenly seems to turn around and slip back into summer, is the central image in Dickinson's poem. Blackberry winter, that equally short-lived period in May or June when summer turns upside down and winter seems to reappear, is the central image in Warren's story. In both the poem and the story, these sudden reversals of nature's seasons become strikingly appropriate metaphors for the deeply disturbing and peculiarly human awareness, experienced by most of us at some crucial point in childhood, that those things which we had always regarded as absolute, timeless, changeless, permanently reliable are, in fact, subject to change.

Different genres must obviously have basic differences. By its very nature, a lyric poem will not have the narrative thread, the leisurely development, dialogue, or character interaction found in the short story. But allowing for these inevitable, built-in differences of genre, one finds in Dickinson's poem and in Warren's story not only the same key images but the same perspective and thrust of feeling resulting from the response to these images. More than just similar treatments of a common theme, each work is to an astonishing degree the counterpart of the other, almost to the point that one has the eerie feeling of having stumbled into parallel worlds, something akin to what science fiction writers like to refer to as a space-time warp, where everything is the same yet somehow different. Like the negative from which a photographic positive print is made, although the image is strangely reversed, if we hold it up to the light we can recognize it as the same. This is not a matter of influence of Dickinson on Warren, or of any conscious borrowing of images or ideas. It is a matter of Jungian-like responses of sensitive creative temperaments to a universal human experience. Taken together, the two become illuminating complements, the one the richer for the other. New England's Indian summer and the South's blackberry winter become haunting mirror images, and if the reader can get through the looking glass, the ambiguous complexities of the human condition take on added dimensions.

Dickinson's eighteen-line poem reads as follows:

These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.
These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.
Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.
Thy sacred emblems to partake—
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

Although it was the editors of the 1890 edition of her poems who supplied the title “Indian Summer,” it is unmistakable that this is indeed the subject of her poem. But rather than being a mere nostalgic and sentimental paean to the glories of this beautiful period with its mild days and fair weather, the softly shining sun, the rich blue of the sky, and the gentle haze of the air, the poem is structured by a wave-like alternation between doubt and belief, certainty and uncertainty, death and immortality, illusion and reality. All the typical beauties of the season are included, but they are ironically poised between the poles of falseness on one hand and sacredness on the other. The persona is pulled backward and forward in time as well as back and forth between faith and uncertainty. The season appears to be like summer and yet in truth is not. The child-persona yearns to join in the sacrament but never learns whether it is in fact a sacrament that is being witnessed. The child, the only human actor in the poem, never learns whether the startling beauties of the season are real or illusory. Autumn itself is ambiguously poised between the full life of summer and the death of approaching winter, and even more questionable is the role of Indian summer, which tempts the persona into thinking that time can be recaptured and that winter is really not coming. The possibility of betrayal is always just beneath the surface, even in the last two stanzas, where the almost desperate reaching for signs of sacrament and immortality appears.1

Words such as sophistries, fraud, mistake, cheat in the early portions of the poem exert their weight on the otherwise positive words of faith such as sacrament, communion, consecrated, immortal in the latter portions of the poem, making these words take on connotations of deception.2 In which direction the terms lead, Dickinson deliberately refrains from saying. But the reader cannot help being drawn toward the notion of hypocrisy inherent in the word Indian, one of its connotations being something that looks like the real thing but is not.3 Nor can he help being drawn toward the meaning as used in the expression “Indian giver,” applied to one who gives and then takes back the gift. Summer, and especially June, should be a reassuring season to a child, and nature itself, with its primal and reliable rhythms and its established patterns of harmony, should be an absolute rock of faith. But Indian summer, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its beauties, which are so temptingly offered and then so swiftly withdrawn, reverses the expected pattern of nature, and the reliable clockwork of the deistic universe becomes a sham and a fraud. The future thus becomes freighted with uncertainty.

The world suddenly becomes a tentative place. Even a few of the birds are lured into taking a backward look, and more importantly they serve to fool the human observer into thinking that it is summer. Then June itself is associated with falseness, sophistries, and becomes a “blue and gold mistake.” The bee is not subject to the fraud, perhaps because he can gather honey in any season. The observer is almost induced to believe in the plausibility of the scene. But then the falling leaf anticipates the approaching death of winter, and the pattern of alternation between belief and doubt continues. The word altered underscores the fundamental tone of change and the relentless passage of time. Security, timelessness, certainty are not available in the human world. Yearning for the Indian summer to signify immortality rather than deception, for surely the seeds of autumn contain future life, the persona cries out as a child, “Oh Sacrament of summer days,” cries out, “Oh Last Communion in the Haze— / Permit a child to join.” But there is absolutely no indication given in the poem that the child was informed even that there was a communion. So the certainties of summer, blue and gold skies, the child's communion with the everlasting patterns of nature, all move into the human world of doubt and uncertainty and change.

One moves through the looking glass into Warren's story by a series of key connecting images; by the same structural pattern of wave-like alternation between certainty and uncertainty, security of the past and fear of the future, changelessness and change; and of course by the central metaphor of blackberry winter—the polar twin of Indian summer.

The specific key connecting images are June, child, and leaf. Seth, the young boy in the story, is a nine-year-old child living in Middle Tennessee. It is June, and with June always had come the privilege of going barefoot, something irrevocable and certain. As Warren tells us in his own commentary “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection,” it was like some established “rite of passage.” But suddenly this privilege is denied because of the sudden cold spell, a “gully-washer,” a blackberry winter. After his mother has firmly announced that he must put on shoes to go outside, Seth protests, “But it's June.” Then comes her disturbing reply, which in retrospect becomes a herald of the end of childhood certainty and security: “‘It's June,’ the voice replied from far away, ‘but it's blackberry winter.’” Thus blackberry winter not only turns summer upside down but turns Seth's secure universe of timelessness and changelessness upside down. As Dickinson had phrased it, “the old—old sophistries of June.” The reluctance with which he will let go of his certainties resembles the child's cry in the poem, “Oh Sacrament of summer days.” The implanted firmness of his childhood world is conveyed by his comment that “nobody had ever tried to stop me in June as long as I could remember. … When you are nine, you know that there are things that you don't know, but you know that when you know something you know it. You know how a thing has been and you know that you can go barefoot in June.”4

Seth escapes having to put on shoes by the sudden appearance of the stranger diverting the mother's attention. Seth sees the city tramp coming up from the river and knows he has come up through the woods. Seth's thoughts drift to his own relationship with the woods and nature, and it is at this point that the image of the leaf appears, presented with the same perspective of feeling as the last half of Dickinson's poem:

When you are a boy and stand in the stillness of woods, which can be so still that your heart almost stops beating and makes you want to stand there in the green twilight until you feel your very feet sinking into and clutching the earth like roots and your body breathing slow through its pores like the leaves—when you stand there and wait for the next drop to drop with its small, flat sound to a lower leaf, that sound seems to measure out something, to put an end to something, to begin something, and you cannot wait for it to happen and are afraid it will not happen, and then when it has happened, you are waiting again, almost afraid.

The almost religious tone of the passage, the communion-like atmosphere, the desire to become part of nature—“your body breathing slow through its pores like the leaves”—the almost epiphanic quality of expectation of some coming crucial revelation, ambivalent feelings of awesome fear mixed with ecstatic longing for something to happen that will mark a beginning and an ending—all combine to produce the same thrust of feeling present in Dickinson's “softly thro' the altered air / Hurries a timid leaf.”5 Seth's feelings are like a “Sacrament of summer days,” are like a “Last Communion in the Haze,” the “green twilight” even resembling the “Haze” of the poem; and the longing of the “child to join” in the worship and to “partake” of the “sacred emblems” is unmistakably there. Warren's comment on this particular passage reinforces the above view:

So when the boy sees the mental image of the tramp coming through the woods, there is the distinction set up between the way a man, particularly such a man as this, would go through the woods, and the way a boy can stand in the woods in absolute quiet, almost taking root and growing moss on himself, trying to catch the rhythm, as it were, of that vegetative life, trying to breathe himself into that mode of being.

So the tramp, with his dirty city clothes and threatening manner, becomes one item in the series of intrusions on Seth's stable world of childhood. Warren himself tells us that he wanted to “work in relation to a pattern that had begun to emerge as a series of contrasts” and that the items of recollection came “not only with their, to me, nostalgic quality, but also with the freighting of the grimmer possibilities of change.” Events in the story continue in the pattern of alternation and contrast: the recognition of hunger and starvation as a possible human condition when the boy overhears comments spoken by the old Civil War veteran watching the flood; the trash washed up by the flood that spoiled Dellie's always clean yard;6 the awful and uncharacteristic slap administered by Dellie to her small son during the misery of her menopause; and, most important of all, the conversation with Old Jebb, a conversation which is the metaphorical center of the story. Seth asks Jebb to explain Dellie's sickness, and the old man replies, “Hit is the change of life and time,” a remark that applies equally well to what is happening to Seth. Seth tells Jebb he is cold because it is blackberry winter, remembering his mother's use of the phrase. Jebb's reply casts one more doubt on Seth's childhood world by questioning the wisdom of the mother: “Ain't sayen Miss Sallie doan know and ain't sayen she do. But folks doan know everything.” Desperately trying to hang on to his rapidly disintegrating world, Seth insists that his mother said it was blackberry winter, and Jebb states that “blackberry winter just a leetle cold spell. Hit come and then hit go away, and hit is growed summer of a sudden lak a gunshot. Ain't no tellen hit will go way this time.” And of course for Seth, the change in his life is indeed not merely a blackberry winter, not a temporary chill, but in fact a permanent change. The change is, simply put, his own reluctant awareness that his world of barefoot innocence is in fact passing and changing—an awareness, in other words, of impermanence.

And so, moving deeper into the space-time warp and into the strangely parallel but reversed worlds of poem and story, with their surface opposition of geography and season, but with almost identical responses to those seasonal metaphors, the reader now recognizes that just as the child in the poem longed for the Indian summer to signify lasting summer and immortality, so the child in the story longs for the blackberry winter to signify merely a temporary reversal of his assurances of permanency and timelessness.

The conclusion of Warren's story advances thirty-five years into the future, and the reader learns, of course, that things did not and could not remain the same. The chill of blackberry winter did not depart, for time was not the solid tree that Seth had envisioned as a child, but rather, in truth, a flowing, a wind, a movement. His father, mother, and Dellie had died. Only Old Jebb remained, and in his wisdom had prophesied accurately. And his final remarks underscore the human condition of uncertainty. He says that God has gone off and forgotten him and that “a man doan know what to pray for, and him mortal.”

Although both story and poem have thus used nature to serve as a metaphor emphasizing the tentative world that we as human beings must inhabit, there is a final dignity in this perspective—a recognition that this is the human comedy; this is the human tragedy. Something meaningful has been gained, as the final sentence in the story implies. The narrator, thinking back to that blackberry winter experience, remembers the boyish curiosity that prompted him to follow the tramp for a few yards, fascinated almost against his will to learn where the tramp was going. He remembers the tramp's darkly furious command not to follow him, and then the narrator concludes: “But I did follow him, all the years.” Once more Warren's own comment in his “Recollection” sharpens the focus of the conclusion: “In so far as later he had grown up, had really learned something of the meaning of life, he had been bound to follow the tramp all his life, in the imaginative recognition, with all the responsibilities which such a recognition entails.”

So a nineteenth-century Amherst spinster in a poem about a New England Indian summer and a twentieth-century southern agrarian in a short story about a Tennessee blackberry winter stretch out long arms across space and time, clasp hands, and become metaphorical twins in creative response to and recognition of the uncertainty of the human condition. That the two worlds of story and poem on opposite sides of the looking glass have indeed united at the threshold in a single perspective, even to the point of almost a merger of genres and a merger of seasons, is quite unintentionally but yet remarkably acknowledged by Warren. Nearing the conclusion of his comments on the story, he writes: “And I sometimes think it strange that the last story I ever wrote and presumably the last I shall ever write (for poems are great devourers of stories) should have sprung so instinctively from the world of simple recollection—not a blackberry winter at all, but a kind of Indian summer.”


  1. Another major New England poet, just slightly less than one hundred years later, was also impressed with nature's unreliability manifested in abrupt weather shifts, unexpected and even potentially dangerous. Robert Frost in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” although not considering Indian summer, sees the same possibility of betrayal just beneath the surface of nature's deceptive mildness and warm sun in April:

    The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
    You know how it is with an April day
    When the sun is out and the wind is still.
    You're one month on in the middle of May.
    But if you so much as dare to speak,
    A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
    A wind comes off a frozen peak,
    And you're two months back in the middle of March.

    Like the few birds in Dickinson's poem who come to take a backward look, Frost's bluebird cautiously “comes tenderly up” to take a forward look:

    His song so pitched as not to excite
    A single flower as yet to bloom.
    It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
    Winter was only playing possum.
    Except in color he isn't blue,
    But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

    Frost even hints at potential danger in the water, so necessary for blooming life in spring and summer, that now casually rests in every wheelrut and hoofprint:

    Be glad of water, but don't forget
    The lurking frost in the earth beneath
    That will steal forth after the sun is set
    And show on the water its crystal teeth.

    Thus Frost reaffirms the advice and warning of the bluebird for things not “to blossom.” Spring frost can be deadly to blossoming life. One is inevitably drawn to another Dickinson poem which so effectively and emphatically emphasizes the deadly side of nature, eerily anticipating Robert Frost's using the word frost in the phrase “lurking frost” in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

    Apparently with no surprise
    To any happy Flower
    The Frost beheads it at its play—
    In accidental power—
  2. It is worth noting that Herman Melville was especially alert to the deceptive qualities of nature's beauties. In his remarkable chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Moby-Dick he particularly emphasizes nature's deceits. Although his imagery leans more obviously toward cosmic pessimism than does Dickinson's, it nonetheless shares that same questioning of the reliability of nature's surface beauties evidenced in Dickinson. Melville states in the last paragraph of the chapter:

    And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within … the palsied universe lies before us a leper.

  3. “Dickinson's ‘These Are the Days When Birds Come Back,’” The Explicator, 2 (February, 1944), item 29.

  4. In a number of poems besides the one under discussion, Dickinson used the dramatic mask or persona of the child. One that seems particularly appropriate here is “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” her well-known poem about the snake. Consider the following lines:

    He likes a Boggy Acre
    A Floor too cool for Corn—
    Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot—
    I more than once at Noon
    Have passed, I thought, a Whip Lash
    Unbraiding in the Sun
    When stooping to secure it
    It wrinkled, and was gone—

    Not only does she use the image of the barefoot child, a central image in Warren's story, but even the sex is the same, not just the generic child, but specifically a boy. Furthermore, nature's deception is once again a major theme: what was thought to be a “Whip Lash / Unbraiding in the Sun” turns out in reality to be a snake. Incidentally, the editors of the 1891 Poems, apparently disturbed by Miss Dickinson's sophisticated change of sex for dramatic purposes, altered her word Boy, substituting the word child.

  5. Charles R. Anderson, Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (New York, 1960), p. 147, suggests that Dickinson may have intended a pun on the word altered (altared) connoting the communion service, further enhancing the religious implications.

  6. It is of considerable significance for this study to mention that Warren was reading Herman Melville's poetry when he was writing “Blackberry Winter” and was especially impressed by one poem titled “The Conflict of Convictions.” In this poem about the Civil War, Melville is questioning the justice of the scheme of things that would allow such a conflict and refers to the bleak possibility that the universe may have “slimed foundations.” Warren states in “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection” that this particular phrase probably was in his mind when he wrote in the story about “the trash washed by the storm from under Dellie's cabin to foul her pridefully clean yard.” This response to Melville is one more connecting link between Dickinson and Warren. Dickinson's kinship with Melville is discussed in footnote 2, above.

Peter Freese (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8118

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.”]]


Leafing through Erasmus of Rotterdam's Colloquia (1522), which went through more than 130 printings and remained in use as a popular textbook for teaching Latin till the eighteenth century, one finds, for example, the dialogue of a youth with a prostitute or the detailed description of the effects of syphilis in the story of a diseased rake's marriage with a sixteen-year-old innocent girl. Such surprising topics make one realize that a collection of texts which today would stand a fair chance of being indexed as harmful to young persons was long esteemed as a useful schoolbook. Obviously, there were times in which legal concepts like the protection of children and young persons and educational notions like developmental appropriateness were unknown, and in which children, adolescents and adults shared the same social realm.2 Thus it is no wonder that in older literature the childhood and youth of Telemachus, the son of Ulysses, of Parzival, the foolish boy in the forest of Soltane, or of Simplizius, the wretched farmer's son in the war-ridden Spessart village, are only necessary transitional stages which one could not leave out entirely, but which are hardly treated as developmental phases with their own intrinsic value.

Such an indifferent view of childhood is difficult to reconstruct in an epoch which, in 1899, Ellen Key proclaimed to be ‘the century of the child,’ and it underwent a basic change in the years between the appearance of Rousseau's Emile (1762) and Wordsworth's Prelude (1798 ff.), for now, in the context of that momentous turn from thinking to feeling, from Descartes' ‘cogito, ergo sum’ to Hemsterhuis' ‘je sens, ainsi je suis,’ the essential value of childhood was discovered, and children and adolescents who so far had only appeared as miniature adults began their triumphant advance as autonomous heroes of literature.

In America, too, the child was freed from that “easiest room in hell,” which Wigglesworth in The Day of Doom (1662) had assigned to it,3 and was lifted on to the throne of romantic transfiguration when Whittier, for example, rhapsodically proclaimed: “We need love's tender lessons taught / As only weakness can; God has his small interpreters; / The child must teach the man,”4 and thereby offered an easily recognizable variation on Wordsworth's famous saying that “the Child is father of the Man.”5 The Calvinist doctrine of original sin and the related image of the child as a miniature adult born in sin who only through a subsequent conversion could turn into a valid member of the Christian community—“In Adam's Fall we sinned all,” was the first sentence of The New England Primer6—was replaced by the Rousseauistic concept of original innocence and the related image of the child as a pure being not yet corrupted by the influences of civilization—“The parents remind me of the devil, but the children of God,”7 Thoreau noted in his Journal. But the romantic belief in the innocence and purity of the child which Emerson alluded to when, in a lecture of 1880, he said about the preceding decades: “Children had been repressed and kept in the background; now they were considered, cossetted and pampered,”8 and which pervades, for example, Bret Harte's story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868), did not remain unquestioned for very long, and it was Sigmund Freud who, with his Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905) and his doctrine of infant sexuality, dealt it a decisive blow.

As early as 1898 Henry James insinuated that Miles and Flora might be evil by nature and thus offered, with The Turn of the Screw, one of the earliest literary realizations of the ‘evil child’; in 1954 William March, with his novel The Bad Seed, indicated by his very title that it need not always be a good seed which comes up in children; and in 1959 Vladimir Nabokov committed the twofold sacrilege of having his precocious American ‘nymphet’ Lolita seduce the middle-aged European Humbert Humbert, and thus not only contradicted the established myth of the sexual innocence of the romantic maiden but also the axiom of the ‘international theme’ as established since Mark Twain that the democratic American had to be naive and good, the feudalistic European to be wily and evil.

The concept of original sin, thought to have been abolished by enlightened man, came back into favour, now less justified theologically than psychologically and backed up by the disillusioning experiences of recent history, and numerous literary works demonstrated how seemingly innocent children embodied the very evil as the helpless victims of which one had liked to pity them. If, for example, one compares J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) with William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), one recognizes how starkly Holden Caulfield and Golding's choir boys contrast with each other as the representatives of two diametrically opposed points of view: the former is a Rousseauistic figure who believes that the original innocence and purity of man has been tainted by the corrupting influence of a ‘phoney’ civilization; the latter degenerate because of their inherent dispositions into bloodthirsty brutes and act out their creator's conviction that “man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin.”9

It is in the context of the tensions hinted at in the above remarks that the depiction of the socialization process in the American short story has to be studied; and first of all it should be stated that it is not the children but the adolescents who attract the main interest. One reason for such a preference is the fact that there is hardly another country in which the age of adolescence is accorded the same esteem and even reverence as in America, of which the British sociologist Geoffrey Gorer says that the years from twelve to twenty-five are looked at as “the chief raison d'être of living,”10 of which Ihab Hassan diagnoses a “neurosis of innocence,”11 and in which Grace and Fred M. Hechinger find a Teen-Age Tyranny established.12 Another, and more pertinent, reason is the fact that America, as the country in which fathers abdicate their authority and try to be the pals or even the peers of their sons, in which the daily behaviour of politicians testifies to the pervading influence of the boy-man ideology, and in which the slogan ‘Don't trust anybody over thirty,’ was invented, has always connected the individual developmental phase of adolescence with the collective chance of beginning anew in the virgin land of a continent free of the fetters of history, and has thus linked the promise of individual youth with the national dream known, since James Truslow Adams, as ‘the American Dream.’ Ontogenesis and phylogenesis are looked at as reflections of the same process, “the child and the race” are understood—to quote from Granville Stanley Hall's seminal study Adolescence of 1904—as “each keys to the other,”13 and thus Henry James could judge the Civil War as America's collective fall and, therefore, the end of her paradisiacal childhood, and state: “… the good American, in days to come, will be a more critical person than his complacent and confident grandfather. He has eaten of the tree of knowledge”14; and D. H. Lawrence could reverse the image and say about America: “She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth.”15 Wherever the accent is placed by the individual author, the developmental stage of adolescence in its precarious borderline existence between the innocence of childhood not yet lost and the experience of adulthood not yet won serves as a paradigm of the tension between the backward-looking ideal of an innocent Eden and the forward-looking ideal of a hard-won Utopia, and the basic contrast between innocence and experience which might be safely called one of the essential constituents of American intellectual history, bestows a certain significance upon every fictional youth and turns him almost inevitably into an embodiment of the respective self-assessment of his era.

If one presupposes such an idea of mirror-image analogies, one cannot expect the short story, if only because of its limited scope, to unfold the respective phases of a complete developmental process, but one must start from the assumption that the story, in contrast, for example, to the genuinely German genre of the Bildungsroman with its concept of the Goethean entelechy as a “geprägte Form, die lebend sich entwickelt,”16 can only focus on the decisive turning point or climax of such a process. Thus it seems only logical that critics do not speak of the ‘story of socialization’ but prefer to speak of the ‘story of initiation.’ In doing so, they do not adopt the concept which from the late thirties onwards has moved into the centre of the social sciences, but they take up a concept from ethnography and the sociology of religion which, at first sight, does not seem to have any relevance whatsoever for modern social reality. The original meaning of in-itia, the Latin equivalent of the Greek μύεsι∫, is the entrance into oriental and hellenistic mystery cults as described, for example, in the XI. book of Apuleius of Madaura's The Golden Ass; subsequently, after the French Jesuit missionary Joseph François Lafitau applied the word, in 1724, to the maturation ceremonies of Canadian Indians and defined it as “le principe, le commencement, l'entrée de la vie,”17 it achieved the status of an ethnological technical term referring to “the ceremonies and ordeals with which a youth is formally invested with adult status in a primitive community.”18

In 1943, in the wake of the anthropological interest generated by the Cambridge School and perhaps stimulated by Margaret Mead's well-known books on growing up in primitive societies, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, in their influential textbook Understanding Fiction, introduced this term into literary criticism when they defined Anderson's “I Want to Know Why” and Hemingway's “The Killers” as stories about “the process of the initiation, the discovery of evil and disorder”19; and in 1959 Warren supplied some information about the origin of the term when he said in his essay about the genesis of his story “Blackberry Winter,” probably in allusion to Arnold van Gennep's seminal study Les rites de passage (1909), that the experience of his protagonist Seth consisted of “what the anthropologists call a rite of passage.”20 After Ray B. West, in The Short Story in America 1900-1950 (1952), differentiated between two basic short-story types in the works of Hemingway and Faulkner and defined them as ‘story of action’ on the one hand and ‘story of recognition’ or ‘story of initiation’ on the other, taking the latter to be an expression of the fundamental philosophical dilemma of the times,21 the concept of the initiation story became popular in short-story criticism. In spite of Mordecai Marcus' meritorious attempt to answer the question “What Is an Initiation Story?”22 the term remains vague and ambiguous. It can hardly be the task of this paper to define it, but a closer look at some selected short stories which have repeatedly been classified as stories of initiation might lead, in the context of the coordinates of intellectual history sketched above, to a better understanding of the literary depiction of adolescence in the American short story.


On a Sunday in October 1723 seventeen-year-old Benjamin Franklin arrived, almost destitute, in Philadelphia, saw his future wife standing at the door of her house while he walked forlornly through the streets, bought three puffy rolls with his last pennies, and finally landed in a Quaker meetinghouse where he fell asleep from exhaustion. This famous episode of the poor young man in the strange city embarking full of unshakable self-assurance on an astonishing career under his own steam did not only become the endlessly copied model of that ‘success literature’ which found its most popular expression in the 120 novels of Horatio Alger with their stereotyped ‘from rags to riches’-formula, but it also gave rise to a remarkable and downright prophetic contrafactum in the first American initiation story, namely Nathaniel Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” of 1832, which turned the superficially optimistic success ethics of the American Dream into a broodingly pessimistic rendering of its reverse, that is, of that darker aspect of the dream which Henry Miller in 1945 would aptly designate The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Bit by bit, Hawthorne's story reverses the constituent elements of Franklin's scene: the beginning of Ben's remarkable career, which is illuminated by bright daylight, turns into the commencement of Robin's abortive odyssey, which is hidden in nocturnal darkness; Ben's self-assured calmness in the peaceful meetinghouse of the deistic Quakers is replaced by Robin's fearful suffering from loneliness in front of the deserted church of a wrathful Puritan God; the friendly help which Ben finds becomes the derisive rejection which Robin encounters; an enticing prostitute takes the place of the future wife; and the clever Ben who pretends to be naive is replaced by the foolish Robin who fancies himself “shrewd.”

But Hawthorne's story not only offers a devastating criticism of a mendacious ideal and insistently asks whether innocence might not be nothing but a euphemism for ignorance and whether or not only fallen man can fulfil his destination, but it also introduces the very constituents which from now on will dominate the American story of initiation in constant variation. Robin is somebody who as “a youth of barely eighteen years”23 belongs to the phase of transition between childhood and adulthood and who risks the transition from his former sphere of life “in the woods” into the new world of the “little metropolis of a New England town”; he is an adolescent, “evidently country-bred,” who embarks on his “first visit to town,” a young man from the provinces characterized by “nature's gifts” who goes to a town where “art” is employed to beautify nature; and his transition from the one into the other world, from the wilderness to the market-place, is ritualized by means of the archetypal motif of crossing the river which from Chretien's Lancelot and his choice between “li ponz evages” and “le pont de l'espée” to Melville's Redburn on the ferryboat, Faulkner's Lucius Priest on his way across the iron bridge spanning Hell Creek or Malamud's Yakov Bok crossing the Dnieper signalizes that a hero is setting out on his life journey and burning all his bridges behind him.24 The journey which here is realized as a tangible geographical movement will be encountered in more recent initiation stories in those manifold metaphorical and spiritualized forms which language reveals in such terms as ‘course of education’ or ‘curriculum vitae,’ it will appear as the ‘journey’ of the psychoanalytic session into the unknown depths of the patient's subconscious or as the drug-induced ‘trip’ into new fields of experience; and all these variations do not only express the general perception of temporal human development in terms of spatial movement and reflect, in addition, on the American belief in mobility, but they also subdivide, in correspondence to the course of primitive initiation rituals, into the three phases of exit, transition, and (re-)entrance. They consist of several stations which are usually realized as confrontations of the initiate with other persons—in Robin's case his seven encounters with the ferryman, the old man with the stick, the innkeeper, the prostitute, the watchman, the satanic stranger with his Janus-like face, and the friendly helper—and they culminate in a sudden insight or illumination which most often effects a lasting change in the initiate's life and might best be termed, in Melville's words, a “shock of recognition.”25

Out of such a constellation there results an oppositional structure of old versus new existence, of the world view brought along by the initiate versus the challenge of the new experiences he is asked to digest, which is typical of all stories of initiation and which in the case of “My Kinsman” is simultaneously realized on several levels. Thus one can read the story as a historical-political allegory in which sturdy, self-assured but naive Robin functions as an embodiment of young America, which in a violent act of liberation breaks with the English crown and risks her first hopeful and painful step into an independent future. One can read it as a demonstration of oedipal strife in which Robin represents the typical rebellious adolescent who is on the run from paternal authority and in search of sexual liberty and who seizes the opportunity of fulfil his secret wishes in articulating his protest against his uncle as the symbol of “authority” in an outburst of liberating laughter. One can read the story as a moral allegory in which Robin vicariously enacts the odyssey of all men who leave the paradise of childlike innocence and move out into the realm of adult sinfulness, in which he encounters the Dantean satan of ambiguity and expresses in his laughter the bitter self-contempt of one who has learnt to distinguish between good and evil because in disowning his uncle he has himself done evil. And one can finally read it as a variation of the archetypal ritual of the expulsion of the Scapegoat-King in which Robin participates in the driving away of collective evil personified and thus helps to enforce the sacrificial death of the old order for the benefit of communal purification and regeneration. Whichever of these readings one prefers, the story is always concerned with a new and unforeseen insight of the initiate, and thus it is certainly no accident that a detailed optical imagery and numerous verbs of sensory perception play as important a part as the light in which Robin sees his surroundings.

His odyssey, which as a rite de passage fittingly begins in the twilight between the sunshine of bygone carefree days of rural innocence and the nocturnal dark of the bewildering labyrinthine town, is illuminated by the natural light of the moon and the artificial light of lanterns and torches; and whereas the moon, “creating, like the imaginative power, a beautiful strangeness in familiar objects,” stands for Robin's tendency towards dream and illusion, the glaring artificial lights signalize the necessity to take notice of reality. But neither of these types of light can deepen ‘sight’ into ‘insight’ and thus effect an ‘enlightenment’—“a dense multitude of torches shone along the street, concealing, by their glare, whatever object they illuminated”—but only their combination, the interplay of feeling and thinking, “fancy and reality,” enables man to recognize the ambiguity of human existence. “May not a man have several voices, Robin, as well as two complexions?” asks the friendly stranger, who functions as mentor, and in doing so he refers to another constituent element of the story of initiation, namely the disparity between appearance and reality, the fact, difficult to ‘see through,’ that in this world things are not always what they ‘look like.’

“My Kinsman” offers, as those few remarks may have intimated, a typological ‘model’ of an initiation story and a historical statement of a peculiarly American kind of self-assessment. Reduced to a necessarily simplified formula, the ‘model’ can be described as follows:

The youthful protagonist of a story of initiation gains his experience during a journey which consists of the three phases of exit, transition and (re-)entrance and leads the traveller from innocence to experience. In the course of this real or metaphorical journey the initiate experiences manifold confrontations with a world hitherto unknown to him, and is exposed to the temptations of a temper but can, on the other hand, find advice and help from a fatherly mentor. His experiences culminate in a recognition or an insight which changes his life and which often refers to the disillusioning discovery of the disparity between appearance and reality.

In a similar simplification, Hawthorne's historical position can be described like this: the initiate's gaining of insight and maturity has necessarily to be paid for by his losing of innocence and spontaneity; the fall into knowledge can neither be understood in a purely negative way as an expulsion from the paradise of childhood nor be judged in a purely positive way as a decisive step on the way towards self-realization, but it must be seen as a mixture of both loss and gain. Puritan pessimism and romantic optimism merge into that paradoxical ambiguity which the medieval Exultet expresses in the phrase felix culpa and which is implied when the Miltonic Adam right after his fall doubtingly asks himself, “whether I should repent me now of sin / By mee done and occasioned, or rejoyce / Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring.”26 Such a position mediates between the nostalgia of the backward-looking believer in a lost Eden with his lament about the irretrievable loss of innocence and the optimism of the forward-looking believer in Utopia with his pride in the conquest of ignorance, between Faulkner's Ike McCaslin who faces up to his disillusioning consciousness of guilt and is willing to atone for the sins of the past and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn who plans to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest”27 and hopes to realize the promises of the future. Such a position between the two poles of the dream of a sinless new beginning in the New Canaan of America and the nightmare of the knowledge of the necessity of penance for the sins brought along from the old world points to the indissoluble tragedy of human experience and therefore, as an ambiguous stance, seems so ‘modern’ that it might account for the fact that “My Kinsman,” which remained almost totally unnoticed till about 1950, has since moved into the centre of critical attention.


If one leaves Hawthorne's story with the ironic last sentence “perhaps … you may rise in the world without the help of your kinsman” still ringing in one's ears, and examines how seventy years later Sherwood Anderson in “I Want to Know Why” (1919) deals with the same predicament one finds several changes. Instead of the chronological narration from a detached omniscient perspective used in “My Kinsman,” one now reads the protagonist's personal report which is characterized by repeated digressions and temporal inversions, and instead of a carefully arranged plot story continuously progressing from exposition to denouement, one faces an abruptly beginning and seemingly incomplete narrative of the new type which Anderson helped to introduce into American literature and which is commonly known as the slice-of-life story. The degree of individualization and introspection has grown considerably, not least under the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, and also the medium of narration has changed, in the course of America's gaining of her intellectual independence, from the elevated diction of east-coast literature orientating itself by British standards to a genuinely American vernacular derived from the oral tradition of frontier tall-talk; the problems, however, have remained the same. A nameless sixteen-year-old narrator-protagonist tries to give an account of a certain experience he had about a year before, and his disorderly narration, which time and again shies away from the real issue, reveals that he has not yet come to terms with this experience and thus becomes a formal pendant of his bewilderment and his attempt at autotherapy at the same time. The boy is driven by a passion for thoroughbred horses which is an expression of his attempt to escape from an increasingly complicated everyday life into the pastoral microcosm of the race tracks as well as an unconscious expression of his diffuse adolescent sexuality—he compares Sunstreak, his favourite horse, with “a girl you think about sometimes but never see”28 and would like to kiss it. Thus he runs away with some friends from his little hometown in Kentucky and hitchhikes his way to Saratoga, New York, to watch Sunstreak perform in the decisive race. Sunstreak wins, and in the fulfilling moment of victory the boy's enthusiastic admiration for its trainer Jerry Tillford blossoms into unrestrained love. However, in the evening of the same day the boy follows his idol and sees him squander the very look he had directed at the glorious horse on an ugly prostitute, and is thus forced to the realization that eros turns into sexus, adoration into lust. The idealized father surrogate fails miserably—a variation of the motif of the ‘crumbling idol’ frequent in initiation stories—and the indissoluble contradiction between the experiences of the boy in the two contrastively parallel scenes in the pristine green of the matitudinal race course and in the nocturnal decay of the shabby whorehouse explodes his value system and deprives him of all childlike certainties.

Not only the elements of the journey, the series of confrontations and the figure of the tempter already known from “My Kinsman” reappear in Anderson's story, but here, too, the protagonist's disturbing insight consists of the discovery of the disparity between appearance and reality, and the stranger's question “May not a man have several voices … as well as two complexions?” directed at Robin is answered for Anderson's boy as well with a disillusioning ‘yes.’ Once Adam in his “garden eastward in Eden” had eaten from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”29 and thus caused his fall, and now Anderson's boy is, ironically enough, overtaken by reality in his very escape world of horse-racing and undergoes in his paradise, the race course of Saratoga situated “in the east” and covered with “evergreen trees,” his fall through knowledge into a troubled maturity. But this fall does not consist of the discovery of evil about whose existence the boy already knows. It is rather the shocking insight into the unexpected coexistence of good and evil in the same person which unsettles the boy and which, in Anderson's story as well as in Hawthorne's, can be demonstrated by means of the verbs of sensory perception.

At the beginning the verbs to see, expressing the sensory perception of outward appearance, and to know, expressing the mental registration of inward essences, are interchangeable for the boy, at least as far as the world of the race courses is concerned, and immediate perception seems to be identical with true knowledge: “It was his day. I knew when I see him.” But after the shocking discovery, when seeing and knowing have disintegrated and a deep abyss breaks open between appearance and reality, to see and to know are separated by to think, the word for the intellectual process that investigates and qualifies the raw data of sensory perception: “I keep thinking about it and it spoils looking at horses—I want to know why.” The immediacy of the boy's sensuous unity with the world around him is irrevocably lost; the protagonist of Anderson's story, who down to literal echoes is irrevocably lost; the protagonist of Anderson's story, who down to literal echoes is a literary descendant of Huckleberry Finn, cannot restore the idyll of the race tracks, and his black mentor, the groom Bildad Johnson, who is for the boy what a dad is for his son, can no more protect him from an expulsion from his paradise than his literary ancestor, Nigger Jim, could defend the idyll of the Mississippi raft against the invasion of the Duke and King.

It should have become evident that, in spite of all their conspicuous differences in narrative perspective, structure, and style, Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and Anderson's “I Want to Know Why” are closely related variations of the same basic type of the story of initiation, and it also should have become clear that the same structural pattern is kept in spite of vastly different contents. The theological aspect which was of central importance in “My Kinsman”—or, even more so, in “Young Goodman Brown”—has almost vanished, and the parallel between Anderson's protagonist and the Biblical Adam is hardly more than a formal analogy. The social criticism, too, which played such a central role in Huckleberry Finn, is—in spite of this novel's influence upon Anderson's story—only of marginal importance in “I Want to Know Why.” It is the psychological aspect which now occupies the centre of interest, and it is no accident that the sphere of sexuality and its importance for the process of male identity formation, which, for example, is depicted in far greater detail in “The Man Who Became a Woman,” figures most prominently. The “lady of the scarlet petticoat,” in analogy to Biblical models, represents in Hawthorne's story only one among other aberrations from a life pleasing to God, but in Anderson's story the whore with the “red hair” and the “hard ugly mouth” poses the central threat to a male world symbolized by the cameraderie of the race tracks, and she embodies that very ‘sense of dirt’ by which the boy is upset and by which Anderson himself felt persecuted.


The general direction of development from Robin's desire to “rise in the world,” which is already ironically qualified by the implicit allusions to Benjamin Franklin's career, to the need of Anderson's protagonist “to know why,” which is accentuated by Freudian insights into the importance of man's sexuality, is continued in a third ‘classical’ example of the initiation story, namely Robert Penn Warren's “Blackberry Winter” (1946). In this story, which was written under the impact of World War II and which Warren himself compared to “what the anthropologists call a rite of passage,”30 there is little overt action, and the reflective aspect is strengthened by the fact that here a grown-up man, with thirty-five years of narrative distance, reports what happened to him when he was nine, and thus effectively combines immediate commitment and detached remembrance, direct reportage from a childlike point of view and retrospective comments from an adult perspective. Nine-year-old Seth, whom the name of Adam's son makes the ‘son of man’ and thus a representative everyman, lives in harmony with surrounding nature in the sheltered world of his parents' plantation in Tennessee, but already the story's title signalizes that on the day of action, in July 1910, something out of the ordinary will happen, for as the sudden cold spell of ‘blackberry winter’ upsets the orderly seasonal sequence from spring into summer, a sudden confrontation with evil painfully interrupts the boy's steady growth from childhood into youth. This time it is not the initiate who, like seventeen-year-old Robin Molineux or Anderson's fifteen-year-old horse lover, moves from the country to the city and travels from the wilderness to Boston or from Beckersville, Kentucky to Saratoga in order to be unexpectedly confronted with a world hitherto unknown, but it is the urban evil which, in the figure of a tramp, intrudes upon the rural paradise of the sheltered youth to effect in the human world what the destructive thunderstorm has done in the world of nature. On the plantation and during his ‘journey’ to the flooded creek, to Dellie's cabin and back to the house, Seth experiences five constantly more intense confrontations with death as the expression of human transitoriness and with violence as the expression of human sinfulness; he receives advice and help from Jebb, the wise old Negro who, like Anderson's Bildad, is a literary descendant of Nigger Jim; he is expelled by the ominous and mysterious stranger, who functions as tempter, from his childlike garden of Eden; and, confronted with the unexpected dirt washed by the flood from under Dellie's cabin, he realizes the shocking disparity between appearance and reality. The implicit foreshadowing of the beginning which refers, in the image of “that single mark on the glistening auroral beach of the world,”31 to the scene in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in which evil in the shape of the cannibals invades the peace of the castaway's island, fulfils itself; and after Seth has been confronted with the drowned cow drifting in the creek, with Dellie slapping her innocent son, with the quarrel between the tramp and his father, and with the stranger's threat to cut his throat, his paradise is forever destroyed. Time has no longer the sheltering character of a never-changing “climate in which things are” but has been replaced by the irresistible “change of life and time,” and the boy has embarked on his journey from the secure children's world surrounded by the often-mentioned “fences” into the reality of adulthood symbolized by the trackless forest behind the fields. That one is told about the dead cow drifting in the water, that “she shore jumped one fence,” is a plain hint at the risks taken by one who leaves his accustomed place, and that the barefooted boy, who refuses to wear shoes in spite of the sudden cold spell, in the course of his adventures ‘gets cold feet’ in the literal and in the metaphorical sense, exemplifies the appropriateness of the unobtrusive but highly effective tactile imagery which pervades the story and in the context of which the shoes of the different characters, which on the one hand prevent their direct contact with the earth and on the other grant protection against cold and wetness, have a twofold function as emblems of man's estrangement from nature and of the triumph of his inventiveness over his physical limits. The places of action, too, achieve archetypal significance, for the fenced-in plantation becomes a variation of paradise as a hortus conclusus; the path through the forest covered by the tramp becomes a variation of the meandering path in the woods on which once Young Goodman Brown walked towards his bitter disillusionment; the creek which overflowed its banks becomes a variation of the holy edge of the waters on which representative humans discuss the sense of life and try to interpret nature's signs—“It was like church or a funeral”; and Dellie's cabin becomes a variation of the topos of spoilt beauty which Warren himself, in the context of his living and reading experiences, related to Melville's poem “The Conflict of Conviction” with its reference to the “slimed foundations” of the world as laid bare by the Civil War.32 And when the narrator states in his epilogue that thirty-five years previously the tramp, that embodiment of the archetypal mysterious stranger, had threatened to kill him if he followed him, but that in spite of that threat he has followed him all the time, it becomes evident that “Blackberry Winter” demonstrates man's fascination with evil and thus speaks out in favour of the risks of experience over the preservation of innocence. Therefore Warren's position can be summed up by a statement of Henry James the Elder which runs: “Anyone with half an eye can see … that ‘Adam's fall,’ as it is called, was not that stupid lapse from the divine favor which it has vulgarly been reputed to have been, but an actual rise to the normal human level.”33


It is tempting to conclude from the three stories looked at in some detail that the protagonists of initiation stories have become progressively younger—Robin is 17, Anderson's boy 15, Seth 9—and to see such a development as a reflection of the acceleration of real-life adolescence. And it is equally tempting to state a development from a theological interest in guilt and redemption in Hawthorne's story via a psychological interest in sexuality in Anderson's story in the direction of a philosophical interest in time and transitoriness in Warren's story, and then to extend such a line towards an epistemological interest in the comprehensibility of an initiate's experiences in a contemporary story like Joyce Carol Oates's “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” (1969) and towards a parodistic reversal of the whole tradition in a story like John Barth's “Lost in the Funhouse” (1969) with its mock-ironic question “Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?”34 Such generalizations, however, prove to be untenable if tested against a greater number of stories, and the more texts one examines the more impossible are neat classifications. Apart from a general tendency towards a growing introspection and internalization which initiation stories share with literature in general, and apart from the interesting fact that only in recent times have female initiates appeared more frequently, only the following conclusions seem admissible:

Since Hawthorne, American stories of initiation have offered a highly complex image of adolescence and have, in contrast to popular myths, always stressed the ambiguity of gain and loss as the dominant characteristic of this phase of development. The ‘good good boys’ of success literature who rise from shoeshine boys to millionaires because they abstain from alcohol, are punctual and diligent and work hard, have remained confined to popular and ephemeral texts, and the stereotyped career of the self-made youth in the steps of Franklin has proved too simplistic and too mendacious for serious literature as is already indicated in Hawthorne's subtle retelling of the Philadelphia episode. Also the ‘good bad boys’ of Aldrich, Warner, Shillaber and Peck whose straightforward development into respectable citizens might have expressed the hope of the Gilded Age for an equally uncomplicated overcoming of the aftermath of the Civil War, have remained incidental; and Tom Sawyer found his successors mainly in the fields of children's books and comics in such figures as the Katzenjammer Kids, Dennis the Menace and the nephews of Donald Duck. In the literary short story the period of youth, far from being “the Best Years of Our Lives,”35 proves to be no close season. On the contrary, Robin Molineux's descendants have to make difficult decisions, to solve complicated problems, and to survive the most painful disillusionments. Such a contention can be illustrated, for the time after Hawthorne, by Melville's Billy Budd who “in the nude might have passed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall” and who, because his “utter innocence” is nothing but “blank ignorance,” comes off a loser in his confrontation with Claggart, the monomaniac with the “evil nature” whose body reminds people of “a dead snake.”36 Billy's death, sacrifice and redemption in one, merges failure and triumph into that higher unity which is later achieved by Steinbeck's Pepé Torres in “Flight” (1933), when in his flight through the mountains he is reduced to an animal, wriggling snake-like on his stomach and uttering hissing noises, only to achieve his true manhood in the moment of death. Such a statement could be proved, for the time after Anderson, by Fitzgerald's Basil Duke Lee or by Faulkner's Ike McCaslin who points back to Cooper's Deerslayer and forward to Mailer's D. J. Jethroe in Why Are We in Vietnam? One could also mention the 24 Nick Adams-stories of Hemingway, which extend from the child's first encounter with death in “Indian Camp” through the adolescent's confrontation with violence, indifference and lack of responsibility in stories like “The Battler” or “The Killers” to the young man's experiences in war, and which indicate by the protagonist's very name—Adams = son of Adam, Nick (of the woods) = the devil—the initiate's precarious position between gain and loss, victory and defeat.

The shift of emphasis towards a more pessimistic view, which already announces itself in the classical phase of the American short story, becomes more obvious after World War II. The social aspect of growing up, as for example the task of gaining an appropriate position within the social order, is now of secondary importance in comparison with the psychological aspect, as for example the conflict between the initiate's contradictory urges and anxieties; and the process of socialization often ends with that ‘separate peace’ which, following Hemingway, John Knowles uses as the title of his important novel of adolescence and which would also fit his story “Phineas.” The adolescent's attempt to integrate with society and to find, in spite of all difficulties, a place in the system, which would presuppose his acceptance of the given social order as a valid frame of reference, is often abandoned or rather replaced by more or less desperate endeavours to flee into self-made dream or escape worlds. In a literature which is characterized by a frequently solipsistic shift of interest from society to individual and by a progressive fragmentation of a national culture into ethnic, philosophical, religious or age-group-orientated subcultures, literary adolescents are no longer motivated, like Hawthorne's Robin, by their wish “to rise in the world,” do no longer exert themselves, like Anderson's protagonist, to “think straight and be O. K.,” and are no longer sustained, like Warren's Seth, by untroubled confidence in their parents. Like Ellison's black pilot Todd in “Flying Home” (1944), they tend to fight for the achievement of their true identity which, in the case of the blacks, is impeded by the humiliating role ascriptions of a white racist society; like the eponymous hero in Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues” (1958), they try to crawl back out of the abyss of drug addiction and, being doomed to isolation by their speechlessness, to use music as a means of communication with their fellow sufferers; or like Jay Neugeboren's crippled Luther in the story of the same title, they flee into petty crime and extremist political doctrines in order to forget the miseries of their ghetto existence. Like Updike's fourteen-year-old David Kern in “Pigeon Feathers” (1961), they struggle for religious illumination, or like thirteen-year-old Ozzie Freedman in Philip Roth's “The Conversion of the Jews” (1958), they rebel against the philistine orthodoxy of their religious leaders. Like the nine-year-old protagonist of Salinger's “The Laughing Man” (1949), they experience the painful failure of their venerated idol; like the sixteen-year-old heroine of Joyce Carol Oates's “How I Contemplated …” (1969), they try to escape from the empty affluence of their suburban home into the shabby world of heroin addiction and streetwalking; or like the adolescents in Purdy's “Encore” and “Cutting Edge,” they suffer from estrangement or separation from their parents. Their mentors fail to even reach them across a widening generation gap, school for them is hardly more than a prison, and the hard-won insight of Melville's Redburn that “the thing that had guided the father, could not guide the son”37 is only too true for most of them. Their pains and losses often turn into a paradigm of an all-embracing social disorientation, and that cynical aperçu that the United States has developed from adolescence to decadence without ever reaching maturity, which is rephrased in Purdy's statement: “There don't seem to be any men or women in America; there are those who are young and have everything before them—and then there are the others, mostly dead,”38 and so convincingly illustrated in his novel Malcolm, seems to be confirmed time and again by the fates of contemporary literary adolescents. The conflict between good and evil, which since Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and Melville's Pierre has been frequently symbolized by the opposition of dove and serpent, seems to have been decided in favour of the latter. The former self-assured option for the dangerous but rewarding risk of experience and for the intentional passage through the state of sin for the purpose of achieving a deeper and more conscious innocence has all too often turned out a failure, and thus in the majority of stories the contemporary postlapsarian Adam abides resignedly in that phase which—with the title of a drama by Miller—is defined as After the Fall and for which Thomas Wolfe's nostalgic formula You Can't Go Home Again seems to be far more appropriate than that exuberant hope for a second chance with which Emerson and Whitman once extolled the American Adam.

Looking back on recent social history, certain developments can be traced with disturbing clarity: the concept of socialization has superseded the older notions of education and Bildung; the perspectives of moral philosophy and normative educational thinking have had to give way to the scientific claims of empirical research; and emphasis has shifted from the individual to the social aspects of growing up to such an extent that there is a serious danger of the respective status quo being unquestioningly accepted as the guide to aims and norms and a consequent danger of reducing education to a technocratic process of making the new members of society function efficiently. In such a time literature preserves in an ever-growing number of initiation stories the knowledge of the individual traits of every maturation process and, by relating this knowledge to the traditional concepts of original sin and original innocence and to the ancient rites of passage, embodies it in a comprehensive context of intellectual history which we cannot afford to have obliterated by a steadily growing flood of so-called objective data provided by polls, surveys, and other sources of statistics39.


  1. This article is the slightly revised version of a paper read in December 1978 at the universities of Freiburg, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, and Tübingen.

  2. Cf. Hans Heinrich Muchow, Jugend und Zeitgeist: Morphologie der Kulturpubertät (Reinbek, 1962), pp. 9-13.

  3. Colonial American Writing, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce, 3rd ed. (New York, 1958), p. 284.

  4. “The Barefoot Boy,” in The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, ed. W. Garrett Horder (London, 1919), p. 494.

  5. “The Rainbow,” in The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford, 1961), p. 624.

  6. O Brave New World: American Literature from 1600 to 1840, ed. Leslie A. Fiedler and Arthur Zeiger (New York, 1968), p. 381.

  7. The Journals of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (New York, 1962), II, 1475.

  8. “Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,” in The Transcendentalists: An Anthology, ed. Perry Miller (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), p. 494.

  9. “Fable,” in The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces (London, 1970), p. 88.

  10. The American People: A Study in National Character (New York, n. d.), p. 121.

  11. Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (New York, 1966), p. 40.

  12. Cf. Teen-Age Tyranny (New York, 1963).

  13. Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education (New York, 1904), I, viii.

  14. Hawthorne, ed. Tony Tanner (London and New York, 1967), p. 135.

  15. Studies in Classic American Literature (London, 1964), p. 51.

  16. “Urworte, Orphisch,” in Gedichte und Epen, ed. Erich Trunz, 5th ed., vol. I of Goethes Werke: Hamburger Ausgabe (Hamburg, 1960), p. 359.

  17. Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains, comparées aux moeurs de premiers temps (Paris, 1724), I, 222-223.

  18. Webster's Third International Dictionary (Springfield, Mass., 1971), s. v. ‘initiation.’

  19. Understanding Fiction, 2nd ed. (New York, 1959), p. 309.

  20. “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection,” in Brooks and Warren, Understanding Fiction, p. 640.

  21. Cf. The American Short Story 1900-1950 (Chicago, 1952; rpt. New York, 1968), pp. 95-97.

  22. Cf. “What Is an Initiation Story?” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 14 (1960), 221-227.

  23. All references are to the text as given in The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, Claude M. Simpson et al., vol. IX, The Snow-Image and Uncollected Tales (Ohio State University Press, 1974), pp. 208-231.

  24. Cf. Christian von Troyes, Sämtliche Erhaltene Werke, ed. Wendelin Foerster (Amsterdam, 1965), IV, ll. 644 ff.; The Writings of Herman Melville, ed. Harrison Hayford et al., vol. IV, Redburn: His First Voyage (Evanston and Chicago, 1969), ch. 2; William Faulkner, The Reivers: A Reminiscence (London, 1962), ch. 5; Bernard Malamud, The Fixer (New York, 1967), ch. 2.

  25. “Hawthorne and His Mosses: By a Virginian Spending July in Vermont,” in The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York, 1955), p. 199.

  26. The Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire, 2nd ed. (London, 1960), p. 277.

  27. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, facs. of 1st ed., ed. Hamlin Hill (San Francisco, 1962), p. 366.

  28. All references are to the text as reprinted in The Young Man in American Literature: The Initiation Theme, ed. William Coyle (New York, 1969), pp. 281-288.

  29. Genesis I, 8 and 9.

  30. Cf. note 19.

  31. All references are to the text as given in Robert Penn Warren, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (New York, n. d.), pp. 63-87.

  32. Cf. “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection,” p. 639.

  33. As quoted in R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago and London, 1955), p. 60.

  34. Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (New York, 1969), p. 88.

  35. Geoffrey Gorer, The American People, p. 121.

  36. The Works of Herman Melville, Standard Edition (New York, 1963), vol. XIII, 68, 58, 46, and 74.

  37. Redburn: His First Voyage, ch. 31, p. 157.

  38. As quoted in Webster Schott, “James Purdy: American Dreams,” The Nation, 198 (March 23, 1964), p. 302.

  39. For a detailed investigation of the theme of initiation in the American novel cf. my extended study Die Initiationsreise: Studien zum jugendlichen Helden im modernen amerikanischen Roman (Neumünster, 1971); for references to the critical literature on the stories of Hawthorne, Anderson, and Warren to which I am indebted see my essay on how to teach these and other ‘stories of initiation’ in the ESL-class, “Über die Schwierigkeiten des Erwachsenwerdens: Amerikanische stories of initiation von Nathaniel Hawthorne bis Joyce Carol Oates,” in Die Short Story im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II: Theorie und Praxis, ed. Peter Freese, Horst Groene, Liesel Hermes (Paderborn, 1979), pp. 206-255.

Chester E. Eisinger (essay date 1981)

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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 contained within a formula. Or perhaps it would be better to say that Warren reveals, better than any other writer except Faulkner, the potentials for a universal interpretation of experience that lie in southern conservatism.

The particularities of Warren's revisionist and conservative position may be framed in a dialectic of affirmations and repudiations. Such a formulation may ignore the spontaneity of Warren's mind, but it will have the advantage of setting before us the naked girders in the structure of his thought. To begin, then, he rejects the heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment. He finds its optimistic view of human nature shallow and its faith in reason and abstract principle misplaced; most of all he fears its untrammeled individualism, which leads to the autonomy and thus to the heresy of the self, by which he means a destructive overconfidence in the capacities of the self-isolating individual, cut off from society and God. He accepts a more complicated and darker view of man, whose good is always susceptible to corruption. He is suspicious of reason and impatient with abstractions, since he brings to bear on life an ironic and sceptical vision which abhors dogmatic decisions and makes a virtue of provisional resolutions. While he regards the realization of the self or of human identity as the highest, final goal of man, he believes this realization can be achieved only by reference to authority beyond the self. He rejects the heritage of nineteenth-century science, which is responsible for our God-abandoned world of today and which has bred the variety and multiplicity that contribute so heavily to the disintegration of society and of individual consciousness. He accepts an unorthodox orthodoxy which rests on the validity of religious myth and religious metaphor; out of the Christian conception of the communion of men will come unity to replace the present fragmentation. He rejects the industrialism and the metropolitanism of the twentieth century because they too stifle the human personality. And they cut man off from the fructifying past. He affirms the enduring value of the past, of its tradition and its myth, in establishing the continuity of human identity in the present and for the future. He rejects the romantic, “democratic” conception of the West as the land of golden opportunity, settled by Frederick Jackson Turner's individualistic and independent frontiersmen. This myth of America he inverts, and he sees the West as a region of license and as an escape from responsibility. The West is the world of nature. While man is in and of nature, as Warren recognizes, man must nevertheless separate himself from nature if he is to achieve the discipline commensurate with his humanity. For Warren, in short, Jeffersonian liberalism, Darwinian science, and American industry comprise an unholy trinity that has spread its infection throughout the modern world, fragmenting our universe, inducing a chaos of beliefs, destroying the possibility for stable society, and threatening the existence of the human personality itself. He is at war with all these forces.


In 1947 Warren collected his short stories in a volume called The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories. My feeling is that the stories do not, on the whole, succeed. When they are not discursive and loose in structure, like the title story, they are too neatly packaged, like “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger.” The humor and the irony are sometimes so obvious that it is difficult to understand why Warren should have wanted to preserve such work; I have in mind especially “A Christian Education” and “Confession of Brother Grimes.”

The most authentic note Warren strikes in this volume is that of reminiscence, because looking backward gives scope to his piety and opportunity to assess the growing-up process. These characteristics make meaningful such stories as “When the Light Gets Green” and “Blackberry Winter.” The second story treats the maturation theme as a series of disorientations from the lovely green world of nature and the secure, isolated world of the farm. “When you are a boy … you want to stand there in the green twilight until you feel your very feet sinking into and clutching the earth like roots and your body breathing slow through its pores like the leaves. …” But one cannot retain the innocence of boyhood. The stranger, who does not grow into the ground, brings the meaningless viciousness of the urban world to the boy. The dead cow in the river and the old veteran of Forrest's cavalry bring home the horror of nature and life to the boy. Even the familiar and gentle Dellie, now irascible and mean in her illness, shows the unhappy reality that lies under the surface of human life; and her usually spotless yard, now littered with filth brought out by the flooding creek, signalizes the destructiveness of nature. Not everyone can survive the knowledge of good and evil and the wrenching away from nature. The boy in this story does. But the men in stories like “Goodwood Comes Back” and “The Patented Gate” cannot do it; they thus reveal themselves as only half-men.

“The Circus in the Attic,” the title story, is another approach to the dualism of life, an examination of the relation between the world of illusion and the world of reality as it bears on the discovery of truth. Warren seems to be showing that what is important is what men choose to live by. In so doing they make an enduring truth, and it makes no difference whether or not it is a verifiable truth. The counsels of imperfection and tentativeness contained in this story, like the use of time as a continuity which helps to create a truth that never was, are typical of the Warren syndrome, even as the indecisive conduct of the story is an aberration from the disciplined form he so often provides.

Kenneth Tucker (essay date fall 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1933

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 to a scheme which guides the reader's perceptions of the fictional events—the story's parallelism to the medieval German legend of the Pied Piper. Warren uses the parallelism to sharpen our understanding of young Seth's behavior on the day which alters his life, to clarify Seth's relationship with the tramp who wanders onto his parents' farm, and to shed light upon the story's enigmatic final line: “But I did follow him [the tramp], all the years.”2 Warren's adaptation of the Pied Piper legend adds a vital dimension to the tale of a child's psychological movement from Edenic innocence to knowledge of sorrow.

Although the Pied Piper story is well known, outlining it is in order. Hamelin is so plagued by rats that the mayor and the town council approach despair. A mysterious stranger, the piper, offers to rid the town of rodents. A bargain is struck. The stranger, if he makes good his vow, will be paid a thousand guilders. Whereupon the Piper musically charms the rats, leading them into the Weser river. Although the mayor and councilmen are congratulatory, they fret over the piper's stiff fee and reduce the amount. In revenge the Piper puts instrument to lips, and leads the children to Koppelburg Hill, where they vanish.

A summary of “Blackberry Winter” reveals the parallels.3 Seth's parents have suffered a catastrophe. A gulley washer has created disheartening damage. Flower beds have been ruined; poultry destroyed. Soon after his mother rebukes him for slipping bare-footed from the house, Seth spies a stranger, the tramp, approaching. Seth's mother, thereafter, hires the stranger to clean the flower beds, bury the drowned poultry, and mend the coops. After the wanderer begins the chores, Seth joins his father by the river, then visits the Negro tenants. When he returns to his parents' farm, his father is confronting the stranger, in fact reneging on his wife's promise. He stresses that he cannot afford hired help, dismisses the tramp, but offers him fifty cents—a half day's wages. Angered, the tramp reaches into a pocket concealing a switchblade, but thinks better of taking on the farmer. For spite, the tramp spits malevolently but carefully so that the globule strikes the brick near the father's boot. Seth's father declines to retaliate. The tramp leaves, and Seth, mysteriously, powerfully fascinated by him, follows his steps until the embittered stranger snarls, “Stop following me. You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch!” (p.86).

In both stories appear the coming of a catastrophe, the hiring of a stranger to undo the harm, the employer's reneging on the wage, the stranger's impulse to seek vengeance, and children or a child irresistibly following the departing stranger.

Furthermore, suggestions of the Pied Piper are evoked by the tramp's clothing. Although not pied, his garments are ill-matched; the colors clash. “I could see now that he wore old khaki pants, and a dark wool coat with stripes in it, and a gray felt hat. He had on a gray shirt with blue stripes in it, and no tie. But I could see a tie, blue and reddish, sticking in his side coat-pocket. Everything was wrong about what he wore” (pp. 68-69). His garments suggest the array of the harlequin, the jester—figures often associated with the Pied Piper.

A significant character, the tramp has multivalent functions in the story. He stands for the intrusion of the unexpected into the expected and reminds us of downtrodden humanity. He also is a symbol of evil. But to understand the tramp's relevance to Seth's fortunes and the impact of the final line, we must investigate his function as a symbolic pied piper.4 In psychoanalytical theory the Pied Piper himself is an embodiment of the Trickster archetype. This universal figure has a long history in literature and legend. He appears in such guises as Brer Rabbit, the Bible's Jacob, the Katzenjammer kids, and Robin Goodfellow. Like other archetypes, the Trickster maintains his popularity because he symbolizes fundamental human impulses and presents a complex of universal meanings.

The trickster's basic significance resides in his delight in disorder. He enjoys pulling the pants off the pompous official, hurling the pie in the bewildered face, employing his wits to outwit the slow-witted. Frequently whimsical, the Trickster often relishes cruelty and becomes the enemy of propriety, the antagonist of order. In his evil guise the Trickster is related to the Shadow, the Jungian representation of our hidden, often malign and destructive impulses.

Yet like all other archetypes the Trickster presents manifold meanings. In Jungian theory the Trickster can represent the initial stage in the development of the hero. We might recall the infant Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo, Tom Sawyer finagling the neighborhood children into whitewashing the fence, and other preadolescent pranks of heroic figures. Symbolically the shenanigans of the child-hero reflect the infantile energy of the psyche—the instinctive need to assert one's drives, even at the expense of governance and order. The Trickster, then, represents a stage through which the legendary hero and indeed Everyman passes on the meandering road to maturity.5

This psychological theory, moreover, is applicable to Seth. Warren's protagonist is himself a Trickster in miniature. During his visit to the Negroes' cabin, he leads Young Jebb into playing with the cigar box train despite the ailing Dellie's injunction against noise. In their enthusiasm, the boys become loud. Suddenly irritable, Dellie slaps her son rather than Seth. Although Seth does not consciously work Young Jebb's harm, the device of the Trickster's causing another to be blamed for his pranks is common. This event, in addition to the barefooted Seth's wanderings to elude his mother, evince the Trickster's desire to assert the self despite regulations.

Herein lie grounds for Seth's seemingly inexplicable fascination with the belligerent wanderer, the reason he hypnotically moves with the tramp to the pump as the latter washes before undertaking the chores and why Seth follows him at the story's conclusion. Soon after Seth views the approaching tramp, he realizes that the stranger is alien to the rustic surroundings and indeed sinister. Thus unconsciously Seth indentifies himself with the tramp; he finds in the bizarre intruder a distorted mirror image of his own needs to trample on the accustomed and to disobey his parents. Moreover, the tramp has contempt for rural life and for Seth's parents. He arrives when Seth is chastized—hence, at a moment when Seth is able to welcome and identify with one presenting a challenge to his parents' authority.

From this standpoint Seth's behavior when the tramp threatens his father is intriguing. Warren gives us no indication that Seth is terrified. Instead the protagonist, frozen in place, watches the scene with uncanny fascination. Thereafter, he follows the man who could have injured or killed the father he loves. The reason for Seth's anomalous behavior is that the tramp's threat mirrors his own repressed urges to thwart and menace his father.

Thus like the Pied Piper, the tramp gains a victory over the employer who has not paid the promised wage. As the Piper leads the children from the town, the tramp, lures Seth psychologically from the orderly, but restrictive world of his parents. Momentarily, the tramp becomes for Seth a substitute father, one who has threatened the real father and has taken his place.

Examined in light of the Piper legend, the story's final words, “But I did follow him, all the years,” take on unsettling reverberations. The powerful sentence has called forth varied interpretations, such as that Seth has become aware of unfortunate members of humanity, that too late in life he has realized the goodness of his parents and his rural upbringing, and that his life has become rootless.6 Undoubtedly these interpretations constitute portions of the meaning. But the provocative line also implies that in trailing after the tramp, Seth has followed and faced villainy in himself—a lesson which perhaps the adult Seth, who narrates the story, does not fully realize, hence, the overmastering remembrance of the tramp that haunts Seth after decades. Seth consciously or semi-consciously admits the existence of the recalcitrant, the egotistical, the cruel within himself. He senses hidden kinship with the tramp. Both have desired to commit what to Seth is the tainting sin of injuring his parents. This implied acknowledgment bequeaths a poignant tinge of guilt to Seth's closing recollections of his deceased mother and father.

The legend of the Pied Piper provides a vital framework for ordering “Blackberry Winter”'s treatment of a child's becoming aware of evil. Through it we gain understanding of Seth's inner turmoil on a day that he will long remember, the day that will change his life. Yet the results of Seth's encounter with the tramp are not exclusively detrimental. Seth has gained from the experience. For like the Jungian child-trickster, Seth has matured, but not into a hero, rather into a man cognizant of the sorrows of humanity. In this light Seth is better for having met the tramp and encountered the malign jester in himself.


  1. For illuminating commentaries on these themes, see Ray B. West, The Short-Story in America, 1900-1950 (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952), pp. 77-80 and Charles H. Bohner, Robert Penn Warren, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 69 (New York: Twayne, 1964), pp. 102-104.

  2. “Blackberry Winter,” in The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947), p. 87. All quotations from “Blackberry Winter” are from this edition.

  3. Warren's fascinating account of how the story was written—“Writer at Work: How a Short Story Was Born and How Bit by Bit It Grew,” New York Times Book Review, 1 March 1959, p. 4—does not mention the story's similarities to the Pied Piper legend. This omission, however, does not obviate my thesis. Writers are notoriously reluctant to supply the location of every hidden nugget of meaning in their literary works they choose to discuss. Very likely Warren was aware of the parallelism as the story developed. On the other hand, Warren could have subconsciously recalled the tale as he composed the story—a mental process which helped to shape “Blackberry Winter.”

  4. Winston Weathers, in “Blackberry Winter and the Use of Archetypes,” Studies in Short Fiction, 1 (1963), 45-51, points out significantly mythological structures in this story. He does not, however, mention similarities to the Pied Piper legend.

  5. For a discussion of the Trickster figure and its archetypal function in literature and psychoanalysis, see Joseph L. Henderson's “Ancient Myths and Modern Man” in Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl G. Jung and M. L. von Franz (New York: Doubleday, 1964), pp. 112-123, ff.

  6. These interpretations are found respectively in Charles H. Bohner's Robert Penn Warren, p. 104; in Leonard Casper's Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960), p. 94; and in Monroe Beardley, Robert Daniel, and Glenn Leggatt's “Reading a Short Story,” in Theme and Form: An Introduction to Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1956), p. 695. Weathers, in “Blackberry Winter and the Use of Archetypes,” p. 50, stresses Seth's “predilection to evil,” but does not specify its nature.

Katherine Snipes (essay date 1983)

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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 passage from the naïve paradise of expectation into the blemished reality of adults. This theme is subtly suggested from the very first, when the nine-year-old boy is in a contest of wills with his mother about whether he should go outside barefoot. The fact that it is June is sufficient reason, in the boy's mind, for going barefoot, in spite of the obvious reality of an unseasonable cold spell.

The very real chill of an inhospitable world after a “gully-washer” is but one detail of a series of impressions the child accumulates that day: the sinister urban tramp who earns fifty cents by gathering up and burning the drowned chicks strewn in the mud of the chicken yard; the dead cow that bobs in the flooding river; the suggestive question of a sharecropper's young son, “Reckon anybody ever et drownt cow?” and the old soldier's rejoinder “… a man will eat anything when the time comes”; the junk that washes out from under the cabin of Dellie and Jeff, the “white folks' niggers” who refuse to be shiftless and careless and dirty like so many of the other Negro tenants and whose pride results in constant badgering of little Jebb by other Negro children; the mysterious sickness of Dellie, which old Jeff calls “woman-misery … Hit just comes on 'em when the time come … Hit is the change of life and time.”

These hints of something that happens in time that the boy does not understand induce him to follow the miserable tramp, with his incongruous city clothes, with questions: “Where did you come from? … Where are you going?” only to be met with the warning, “You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.” The narrator reveals now that these events occurred thirty-five years ago, and since then Father, Mother, and Dellie are all dead and his chum, little Jebb, is in the penitentiary for killing another Negro. The narrator remembers the tramp's warning and knowing well the pain and frustration of the world closes with, “But I did follow him, all the years.”

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date summer 1985)

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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 composition of poetry. On the other hand, he has said that the emotional turbulence of the last stages of his marriage to Cinina Brescia also ran counter to the mood which produces poetry.

Preciseness of imagery, distinctness of characterization, and revelation of meaning give Warren's “Blackberry Winter” many traits of his poems. The story begins with childhood in the country recalled by a forty-four-year-old man. The progression is toward increasing conflict on a day on the farm and an abrupt shift in time at the end of the story when the narrator takes a hard look at the meaning of his following a tramp after that day. An interpretation by Warren written twelve years after the story was published serves as the author's criticism of his own story. This afterword on “Blackberry Winter” increases the complexity and puzzlements, the variety of possible meanings, and perhaps the questions.

The remembered day in Tennessee is cold and uncomfortable, and mother and son argue about whether the boy may go outdoors barefooted. Putting on his shoes, he lifts his head and sees a man out the window. “What was strange was that there should be a man there at all,” but what is even stranger is the kind of man he is—a complete foreigner to the farm. He prepares to defend himself against the farm dogs with “the kind of mean knife just made for devilment and nothing else”; “everything was wrong about what he wore”; when the boy's mother speaks to him, he “stopped and looked her over”—suggesting hostility and perhaps even an appraisal of her sexually. He wants work, but told to bury some drowned young turkeys, he says, “What are them things—poults?” Working in a flower bed, he feels “a kind of impersonal and distant marveling that he should be on the verge of grubbing in a flower bed.” The series of images which reveal how this tramp is from a different world end in a scene of conflict between the tramp and the boy's father. Learning that the tramp has a “mean knife,” the father fires him. In contempt, the man spits close to the father's foot, and the son notices the contrast between the father's “strong cowhide boots” and the tramp's “bright blob” of spit and his “pointed-toe, broken, black shoes. …”

The stranger brings to the farm the disorder of a mechanized, violent, urban world. Disorder also comes from nature. It is blackberry winter, a day of cold rain, storms, and floods. A dead cow floats down the flooding creek, and hunger in the lives of the poor is revealed. A big gangly boy asks, “Reckin anybody ever et drownt cow?” The storm mangles the flowers around Dellie's cabin, and trash washes from under the house of her and Jebb—admirable blacks who live on the farm.

These destructive forces enter the nine-year-old's stable world from a foreign culture and the storms of nature. It is for him a time of definition. His childhood until that time had not been “a movement, a flowing, a wind,” but a world in which living things and people stood “solid in Time like the tree that you can walk around.” Before, the wind had not shaken the tree but only the leaves “a little … on the tree which is alive and solid.” Decades later the boy remembered the stable environment: the strength of his mother, the courage of his father, and the suffering of poor countrymen like Milt Alley, who silently watched the cow and the crops being washed away.

The entire story is a description of this cold day, except for five final short paragraphs. They are told when the boy is forty-four years old, thirty-five years later. The ending summarizes a variety of disasters since that time: the natural, the accidental, and the violent and the evil. The father died of lockjaw after a cut; the mother, of a broken heart; Little Jebb grew up to be “mean and ficey” and killed a man. But the most extraordinary future awaited the boy. At the end of his long recollection, he comes back to the tramp and tells how he followed him as he left the farm. The man showed his teeth and said: “‘Stop following me. You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.’ That was what he said, for me not to follow him. But I did follow him, all the years.” The concluding sentence is as dramatic as the threat of the tramp, but the older narrator did not specify how he followed him. There are many possibilities: following him into the urban world; growing old; adopting a life of rootlessness and violence; or simply growing up into knowledge.

In the last five paragraphs the characters also seem to have followed the tramp—the good people lived on into a sadder world; they died of accident and lockjaw, of grief, the Negroes Jebb and Dellie lived on for many years; their son, Little Jebb, went out into the violent world. All, then, apparently moved into a greater knowledge of complexities and depravities. The way the boy followed the tramp is not at all enacted in the story. Warren indicates only that he lived at least forty-four years, arrived at some state of knowledge, and indulged in a long reverie about that ancient day. The man ponders the meanings rather than the actions of the later time. The story ends without the causes being embodied in the world's body and the events of the boy's life. The actions and decisions of several characters were not like those of the tramp. The narrator's life was like the tramp's, or perhaps not. Not everyone must follow the tramp into the same kind of knowledge.

Warren's “Recollection” of his writing the story begins with the admission that the writing was “complicated” and that “I shall never know the truth, even in the limited, provisional way the knowing of truth is possible in such matters.” In unfavorable terms he remembered the tramp who came into the story and left it: “city bum turned country tramp, suspicious, resentful, contemptuous of hick dumbness, bringing his own brand of violence, … a creature altogether lost and pitiful, a dim image of what, in one perspective, our human condition is.” In contrast, he remembers the “mother's self-sufficiency,” and there is never an indication that she too followed a route like the tramp's. Warren remembered later that he “wanted the story to give some notion that out of change and loss a human recognition may be redeemed, more precious for being no longer innocent.” At the ending, I believe, there is a decline from embodied incident to general statement. Either when Warren wrote the ending of the story or when he wrote his interpretation of it, he considered only one way of following the tramp. Warren now believed that if the narrator “had really learned something of the meaning of life, he had been bound to follow the tramp all his life, in the imaginative recognition … of this lost, mean, defeated, cowardly, worthless bitter being as somehow a man.” The boy followed the tramp at least in his meditations. If following is mere recognition, the last sentence is “an impersonal generalization about experience”—as Warren calls it in his own recollection. But that is not the best method of enactment in fiction. That ending makes a heavy demand on a reader who is told of the murderous life of Little Jebb and of other terrible matters. In his recollection, Warren says that no tramp ever threatened him as the one in the story did the boy, “but if one had, I hope that I might have been able to follow him anyway, in the way the boy in the story does” [italics mine].

But what way is that? The story has not specified, and the recollection has given almost no additional clue. The tramp moves into the experiences of the world, but the story does not provide one glimpse of his understanding or of the events of the narrator's later life. Certainly this ending has not ruined one of Warren's best short stories and one of the most accomplished American short stories. But neither has it entirely fulfilled the fiction. By switching altogether to the narrator's meditation and by making a statement of a view of life, the author lets the last sentence of the story, mysterious as it is, fall flat on its face into a puddle of meaning. At the end of Warren's explanation, one can only wonder if he has left his interpretation incomplete, if the recollection is wrong, or if the story itself has a misleading last sentence.

Bryan Dietrich (essay date spring 1992)

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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 observation, “But I did follow him, all the years,” is plain enough on the surface. It simply refers to the tramp of the story and to an experience the narrator is remembering in the context of 35 interim years. But as readers, we know there is a deeper level, and it is the deeper level that throws us. Seth, the narrator, has not literally spent the years since he was nine years old following that one tramp. But if we believe a metaphor is at work here and that that metaphor succeeds, then we must be seeing evidence, clues, or keys to its interpretation, in the larger body of the story.

Floyd C. Watkins argues that such a key to adequate understanding of the last line (and ultimately, I suppose, the whole tale) is lacking. Watkins acknowledges that the “concluding sentence is as dramatic as the threat of the tramp,” but also suggests,

the older narrator did not specify how he followed him. There are many possibilities: following him into the urban world; growing old; adopting a life of rootlessness and violence; or simply growing up into knowledge.


In other words, Watkins continues,

The tramp moves into the experiences of the world, but the story does not provide one glimpse of his understanding or of the events of the narrator's later life … the author lets the last sentence of the story, mysterious as it is, fall flat on its face into a puddle of meaning.


If we believe Watkins, then, Warren has neglected to provide a solid context in which to see the ending, and it is only natural that the reader should trip over the last line.

Most other critics, however, seem to disagree. Thomas W. Ford, in a charming essay that compares “Blackberry Winter” to Emily Dickinson's poem, “These are the days when Birds come back,” sees

the recognition of hunger and starvation as a possible human condition … the trash washed up by the flood that spoiled Dellie's always clean yard; the awful and uncharacteristic slap administered by Dellie to her small son during the misery of her menopause; and, most important of all, the conversation with Old Jebb … [as] the metaphorical center of the story.


I think Ford would agree with Warren himself, who wrote of his story, and of the meaning of the last line in particular,

the tramp had said to the boy: “You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.”

Had the boy then stopped or not? Yes, of course, literally, in the muddy lane. But at another level—no. In so far as later he had grown up, had really learned something of the meaning of life, he had been bound to follow the tramp all his life, in the imaginative recognition, with all the responsibility which such a recognition entails, of this lost, mean, defeated, cowardly, worthless, bitter being as somehow a man.

(Warren, “Recollection” 642)

And for Warren himself, then, the ending is one of hope, an ending that indicates no matter what or how much we realize about the inadequacies of men, no matter how awful those realizations may be (especially for a nine-year-old), we tend to find that we can overcome self-pity when we accept a kind of basic humanity in even the most inhumane of men.

If such a hopeful outlook is the interpretation we are to arrive at, Ford's assertion of the central metaphor will do nicely. All the images of human frailty that he notes—images that illustrate the basic, underlying contradictions of human nature—provide sufficient context with which to read the last eight words as positive. Ford goes on to say,

So a nineteenth-century Amherst spinster in a poem about a New England Indian summer and a twentieth-century southern agrarian in a short story about a Tennessee blackberry winter stretch out long arms across space and time, clasp hands, and become metaphorical twins in creative response to and recognition of the uncertainty of the human condition.


But the above interpretation is not the only interpretation. Ford himself suggests that there is a strong “rite of passage” element at work in Warren's story, and this particular rite can be seen in a more negative context, despite Warren's own assertion: “no tramp ever leaned down at me and said for me to stop following him or he would cut my throat. But if one had, I hope that I might have been able to follow him anyway, in the way the boy in the story does” (Warren, “Recollection” 643).

Kenneth Tucker sees the underlying contextual metaphor as related to the German legend of the Pied Piper. Such a parallel is a fairly simple one to make if we break the action of both the story and the legend down into general terms:

In both stories appear the coming of a catastrophe, the hiring of a stranger to undo the harm, the employer's reneging on the wage, the stranger's impulse to seek vengeance, and children or a child irresistibly following the departing stranger.


Tucker, however, takes the analogy even further, deftly describing the tramp's accouterments, not necessarily as “pied,” but certainly as “motley.” He then elaborates, defining the Tramp/Piper character as a symbol of evil, specifically as “an embodiment of the Trickster archetype” (340) and later explains, “The Trickster's basic significance resides in his delight in disorder” (341).

Tucker argues that Seth understands the basic “evil” inherent in the tramp, but

like the Pied Piper, the tramp gains a victory over the employer who has not paid the promised wage. As the Piper leads the children from the town, the tramp lures Seth psychologically from the orderly but restrictive world of his parents.


This particular interpretation makes fairly clear how Tucker sees that “the provocative [last] line also implies that in trailing after the tramp, Seth has followed and faced villainy in himself” (342).

In his essay, “‘Blackberry Winter’ and the Use of Archetypes,” Winston Weathers anticipates Tucker's argument, but suggests an even more sinister view of the tramp. For Weathers, “Warren's handling of the ‘Mysterious Stranger’ is traditional”; yet he believes Warren creates a “Mephistophelian form of the archetype” (43). Weathers, continuing, writes, “Of the Mephistophelian possibilities—the harlequinesque rogue or the black punchinello—Warren leans somewhat toward the latter” (43). In other words, for Weathers, the tramp is more than a simple Trickster or Pied Piper who leads Seth into (presumably) redeemable villainy; the tramp is cut from a decidedly darker pattern of Luciferan cloth. Thus, Seth's admission to having followed the tramp all his days becomes less an admission of guilt, and more an admission of damnation.

Few if any of these interpretations take the middle way into consideration. Yes, the metaphoric context is there; yes, the last line is justified by that metaphor; yes, the ending is hopeful; but yes, also, the tramp figure is a harbinger of “evil.” These statements are not mutually exclusive if the tramp is seen as a dual figure himself. We will return to the dual nature of the tramp later, but first we must look at the metaphoric context: In what light should we see the tramp? Much of that light, the light that shines from behind the words of the text, can be viewed as religious, at least as pseudo-religious.

Prime examples of such a “religious” reading can be found early in the story, in the awed descriptions of time and the woods that rattle through Seth's head. There is little doubt that the depth of caring, the breathlessness, and the nod to universal significance that appear in these internal descriptions approach a kind of mystic revelation. These are short textual examples, but both descriptions hold positions of prominence in the overall thrust of the story. These descriptions, in fact, set the tone for the entire piece. Other scenes follow in the same religious context, some specifically Christian, some, like the awed responses to nature, not. Moreover, the religion, the belief that these undertones allude to, can also be seen as a fading belief.

The religious context, the atmosphere of faith that is set up early in the story, is gradually undermined. Belief becomes disillusionment. We see this undermining in several places throughout “Blackberry Winter,” most notably in Jebb's speeches, in Seth's brief historical summary at the end, and in a handful of specific Christian (or New Testament) allusions. In both of Jebb's extended speeches, his disillusionment is clear. In the first, he describes the blackberry winter as a sign of the end. Here, by “end,” he means the apocalypse in the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we are to take him literally, he and Seth and all the characters have been left behind by God, left to walk the Earth as it becomes a living hell. Jebb, 35 years later, again echoes this kind of disillusionment when he says that God answered his prayers, gave him strength, and left him. This strength has allowed him to live too long in a world that has lost its significance, in a world God himself has forsaken.

Other images of fading belief, of the undermining of faith, appear in the scenes outlined by Ford earlier, but what about Seth's adult description of what has happened to his family? His father, a man who believed in the way of farming, died on his own blade. Seth's mother, a woman who believed in loving her husband, died of a broken heart. Those very beliefs, the faith in what they were that made them what they were—farmer or mother, man of the land or wife—killed them.

The final images of disillusionment can be found in what appear to be direct allusions to the New Testament. The time frame and setting of “Blackberry Winter” are, after all, rooted in “down-home” Christian tradition. If we are to see the metaphoric context of this story as a descent into disillusionment, it only makes sense that the basic faith of the given place and time, Christianity, is also challenged, at least symbolically. When the county people come to see the results of the flood, the narrator informs us, “Everybody always knew what it would be like when he got down to the bridge, but people always came. It was like church or a funeral” (139). Here we have people gathering in a church-like atmosphere to witness something for reasons they do not really understand. We have a boy, small of stature, who comes to this “religious” gathering and who sees his father mounted on a horse. His father, seeing Seth on the ground, commands him up onto the horse where the boy can see better.

We see a similar set of events and actions in the Gospel of Luke, 19:1-6, when Jesus enters Jericho. The people have gathered to see Jesus, to witness the coming of something they do not fully understand. Zacchaeus, a rich man, but a man small of stature, climbs a sycamore tree to see better. Jesus, passing by, commands Zacchaeus to come down. Of course the parallels are not exact; Seth mounts his father's horse to see better, he does not climb a tree. But all of the same elements are here, as well as tantalizing similarities: Seth's smallness of stature, his climbing up to see better, the people gathered and unsure about what they have gathered to witness. Even more important, arguably, are the differences. Seth's father commands him up onto the horse. Jesus commands Zacchaeus to “come down.” There is at one and the same time a kind of familiarity with the scene and a kind of reversal. After all, what the masses witness in “Blackberry Winter” is not a coming (or even a second coming) of Christ; rather, they witness the coming of a cow. This cow—if we see it as a symbol, as reminiscent of roughly parallel pagan symbols—is yet another indication that faith has fallen degenerate. Not only is it potentially pagan, and thus the antithesis to Christ, it is also quite dead. Another, possibly even more oblique, parallel to the New Testament is the relationship between Christ's parable of the vineyard, in which a laborer contests unequal pay (Matthew 20: 1-16) and the hostility that arises between Seth's father and the tramp over what the tramp sees as a “breach of contract.”

What about the tramp himself? Seth mentions, when he first sees the vagabond on the road, “Nobody ever went back there except people who wanted to gig frogs in the swamp or to fish in the river …” (133). This simple statement is far more intriguing when we view it in light of what Christ says to Simon and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee in Mark 1: 17: “Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” Is the tramp then, himself, a kind of “fisher of men”? He “reels in” Seth quite handily; in fact he does so by reversing what Christ says in Matthew 8: 22. While Christ asks his disciples to “Follow me,” the tramp eventually says to Seth, “Stop following me,” the exact opposite.

One can easily read a Pied Piper legend into this work, or see a Lucifer figure in the person of the tramp; but if we take the incidentals of the story as symbolic and religious references rather than simple metaphors, the tramp becomes an antichrist figure. The tone of near-cathedral-like reverence toward time and nature early in the story; the church-like atmosphere of the gathering on the river bank; the increasing tempo of disillusionment with any belief, but specifically with belief in Christian ideas; the loose parallels to Christ and Christian mythos throughout; and, specifically, the command of the tramp, a command that echoes an exact negation of Christ's words—all these elements lead to the conclusion that the last eight words are an admission that Seth did not (necessarily) follow the path of hope, villainy, or damnation alone. Rather, he followed all the paths by following the path of an antichrist.

This is not to say that Seth fell under the spell of that antichrist—merely that he followed in the footsteps of disillusionment. Disillusionment holds within it all paths, the temptation toward despair, for example (as Jebb would solidly testify). But it also presupposes the possibility of enlightenment, the possibility of recognizing the face of the deceiver and changing course. And who better than a deceiver, an antichrist, to bring us the message of a dual- or even multi-faced coin? To a society whose preeminent belief system is Judeo-Christian, whose system is now faltering, an antichrist comes, and he flips that coin. He shakes things up, because if one does not question one's beliefs, one prays to a sedentary God.

Whether the deceiver arrives in the form of Pied Piper, Lucifer, tramp, antichrist or Christ himself, the revealed deception is always a seed of hope. And Seth, the narrator of “Blackberry Winter,” intimates the possibility of such hope by the very knowledge that he did follow that deceiver, that tramp, all the years.

Works Cited

Ford, Thomas W. “Indian Summer and Blackberry Winter: Emily Dickinson and Robert Penn Warren.” The Southern Review 17 (1981): 542-50.

Tucker, Kenneth. “The Pied Piper—A Key to Understanding Robert Penn Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 339-42.

Warren, Robert Penn. “Blackberry Winter.” A Robert Penn Warren Reader. New York: Vintage, 1987. 131-50.

———. “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection.” Understanding Fiction. 2nd ed. Ed. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959. 638-43.

Watkins, Floyd C. “Following the Tramp in Warren's ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Studies in Short Fiction 22 (1985): 343-45.

Weathers, Winston. “‘Blackberry Winter’ and the Use of Archetypes.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1963): 45-51.

Joseph R. Millichap (essay date 1992)

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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 and winter of 1945-46, it is not only his best known but his best effort in the genre. Obviously “Blackberry Winter” stands successfully on its own; indeed, it was first published as a separate chapbook by the Cummington Press in 1946. But it is best read and most fully understood within the full context of Warren's short-fiction cycle, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories.

Warren placed his finest story second in the volume directly after the introductory novella, whose title has metaphoric and thematic implications that provide a key to understanding this story. The story is a work of recollection on the parts of both author and narrator, a blending of memory and imagination, of history and romance. The story's own symbolic title, “Blackberry Winter,” suggests its romantic themes and images. Warren's most famous tale does not depend on poetic prose or narrative artifice; rather, it balances a precise realism of detail, including accurate social observation and a harsh naturalism of theme against its lyric recollection of youthful innocence. Warren connects the story with the two major works he had just completed: his finest novel All the King's Men and his important introduction to Coleridge's “The Ancient Mariner.” “Blackberry Winter” can be seen in tension between these two poles of realistic and naturalistic fiction, on the one hand, and romantic and lyric poetry, on the other. And, in these dichotomies of genre and mode, he establishes his major structuring device: the contrasting of opposites in terms of characters, events, settings, and themes.

The author's introductory essay warns the reader that the story's realism does not derive from autobiographical experience; in his recollection, the writer insists that he did not know these people and that no tramp ever threatened him. He did, however, know this world, for it is clearly that of his boyhood in the Black Patch country of Kentucky and Tennessee. The lyrical impulse that creates the story is autobiographical; Warren recollected “the particular thread”2 that led him back into the past as the boyhood desire to go barefoot in spring and summer. During a winter of personal and cultural discontent, the writer recalled this image of an idyllic personal and cultural past. Although he had finished his two major projects, he was anxious about their success and feeling the additional anxiety of his recent 40th birthday in the setting of “a big, modern, blizzard-bit” Minneapolis (“Recollection,” 377). The larger culture also knew in that winter of 1945-46 the full horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima as well as the failure of the post war visions of peace and plenty. As with the composition of his first published fiction, “Prime Leaf,” his farewell to short fiction, “Blackberry Winter,” was a way of recapturing a life from which he had separated. In an interesting image he calls its effort a sort of “Indian summer,” of his short fiction (“Recollection,” 382).

In the midst of a dark cold winter, the writer recalled the youthful joy of summer vacation, of going barefoot—“a declaration of independence from the tyranny of winter and school and, even, your own family” (“Recollection,” 640). This freedom symbolized a reentry into nature, into the woods and streams of the countryside around his grandfather's farm, as Warren puts it, “what the anthropologists call a rite of passage,” (“Recollection,” 640). But spring was often betrayed by a “cold spell,” when a northern front would dip across the border country bringing a “gully-washer” of a storm and a return of winter's tyrannies. These unseasonal cold spells provide a mirror image of “Indian Summer” and likewise have a sequence of folk names derived from the blossoms scattered by these northern fronts: daffodil winter in April, dogwood winter in May, blackberry winter in June when the blackberry bushes are white with their delicate blossoms.

Warren opens his story with blackberry winter in the recollection of a narrator named Seth, then nine years old, circa 1910, in the border country of Tennessee. Standing on the kitchen hearth of his family's farmhouse, arguing with his mother about wearing shoes in summertime, and wondering if he dare sneak out barefoot, the consternation of the boy leads the adult narrator, 35 years later, to muse on the nature of time. To a boy, time is “a kind of climate in which things are,” (Circus [The Circus in the Attic], 64); in other words, time is not movement.” And if there is movement, the movement is not time itself, any more than a breeze is a climate” (Circus, 64). In other words, the boy does not understand how time changes things, how the orderly progression of time will lead to disorder and death. Of course, the destructive blasts of the storm demonstrate that nature as well as time will generate more than gentle breezes in life. The man knows the boy wants to be barefoot “and make the perfect mark of your foot … on the glistening auroral beach of the world” (Circus, 64).3 In this innocent dawn of life the fixed, stable, orderly progression seems immutable, until the voice from the kitchen reiterates, “It's June … but it's blackberry winter” (Circus, 64).

At this juncture in his composition, Warren had his recollections, his nostalgia, “but something has to happen if there is to be more than a dreary lyric poem posing as a story” (“Recollection,” 640). Indeed, themes and events of this story would be replayed in a half-dozen later poems, but in 1945-46 Warren was writing short fiction. His narrative inspiration has a sense of drama and of romance: “Enter mysterious stranger” (“Recollection,” 640, emphasis Warren's). The writer's portentous announcement develops the archetypal aspect of the tramp who appears out of the woods near the river seeking odd jobs. A familiar character in tales by Hawthrone, Poe, and Melville, the mysterious stranger provides a title for Mark Twain's darkest story, as well as the protagonist for his cautionary tale of American nightmares, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” As Warren puts it in his recollection, “The tramp who has walked into my story had been waiting a long time in the wings of my imagination” (“Recollection,” 640); undoubtedly, the mysterious stranger, so often connected in literature with the supernatural and the subconscious, is a part of the generic American imagination as well.

Warren goes on to recall “an image drawn, no doubt from a dozen unremembered episodes of childhood, a city bum turned country tramp … a dim image of what, in one perspective, our human condition is” (“Recollection,” 640). So Warren's figure is no comedic, picturesque re-creation in the mode of Chaplin's Little Tramp, but the real thing, the human refuse produced by urban changes. His clothes and shoes are an outlandish combination of city and country; his features are gray and nondescript; his possessions no more than a parcel wrapped in newspaper and a switchblade knife, “the kind of mean knife just made for devilment and nothing else” (Circus, 67). The knife focuses Warren's description of his entry as the bum draws it against threatening dogs: “He just held the knife blade close against the right leg, low down, and kept on moving down the path” (Circus, 68). Mechanized, yet almost magical, deadly and somewhat phallic, the switchblade forms a perfect correlative for the tramp, a social yet symbolic outcast easily associated with the darker aspects of life—failure, loneliness, violence, compulsion, and death—and with the archetypes who represent them: the prodigal, the demon, the outcast, the grim reaper, the devil himself, the serpent in Eden.

The nameless tramp, in short, represents everything that the innocent narrator has yet to encounter in his ordered, stable life. The boy's mother is opposite to the tramp: clean, brisk, tanned, steady, self-reliant, and fearless. She seems so youthful and vital that the narrator still cannot reconcile himself to the fact that she has been dead these many years—here the reader realizes fully the author's intended play between past and present. The narrator knows many women would have been afraid of this stranger, but his mother meets him calmly, offering food in return for help in cleaning up the storm damage to her poultry coops and flower beds. Probably she intends an act of charity, for the jobs are paltry, mere boy's work, and the tramp seems disinclined to do any real labor. When Seth follows, watching him at his efforts with the dead chicks and wilted flowers, the tramp chases him off to find his father at the washed-out bridge near the farm.

An even more obvious foil for the forlorn stranger, the narrator's father is “a tall, limber man, who carried himself well” and sits his horse “quiet and straight” (Circus, 73). His cowhide boots, hunting coat, and clean pants, “made him look very military, like a picture” (Circus, 77). When his father lifts him to the pommel of his saddle for a better look at the flooded crossing, Seth enjoys a warm secure feeling in the midst of the strange crowd assembled to assess the damage of the flood. Many of them are “pore white trash” (Circus, 75), sharecroppers ruined by the unseasonable storm that has washed out their cash crop, the dark-fired tobacco. A grotesque drowned cow floats downstream to strike the bridge girders as if to punctuate the scene of natural disaster and untimely death. The cow belonged to one of the poor whites, Milt Alley, who with his “passel” of children is hardly better off than the urban tramp. When Seth asks his father if he thinks Milt Alley has another cow, his father replies quietly, “you say, ‘Mr. Alley,’” indicating this thoughtful man's identification with his poor-white counterpart in this time of loss. This social parallelism is underscored when a poor-white boy not much older than Seth, “who might just as well as not have been the son of Milt Alley,” (Circus, 76), embarrasses himself by speculating about eating “drown cow.” A white-bearded man, a veteran of Nathan Bedford Forrest's long raids, summarizes the wisdom time provides: “Live long enough, he said, and a man will settle for what he can git” (Circus, 77). The old man with the white beard provides a connection with Seth's “military” father as well as an incarnation of the recurring nightmares of war and famine.

Warren then shifts the realistic focus of the story from dispossessed whites to exploited blacks, when the symbolic narrative moves from the old white man to an old black man. Old Jebb (whose name Warren tells us in his “Recollection” ironically recalls another gallant Confederate commander, J. E. B. Stuart) is “up in his seventies” but “he was strong as a bull” (Circus, 81), the patriarch of the small community of black tenants on the farm. Most of the black sharecroppers come and go, to be “shiftless somewhere else” (Circus, 78), the narrator says, perhaps echoing his father who “was always threatening to get shut of them” (Circus, 78). The adult narrator seems conscious of racial tensions and ironies when he contrasts Old Jebb and his common-law wife, Dellie, some 30 years younger than her husband, as “clean and clever Negroes … what they used to call ‘white-folks' niggers’” (Circus, 77). Old Jebb and Dellie work hard in the father's fields and in their own garden, being especially “careful to keep everything nice around their cabin” (Circus, 77). They have a son, Little Jebb, about two years older than the narrator and his closest playmate.

Clearly, the black family mirrors the white family in a textbook illustration of the southern family romance posited by Richard King and others. Of Old Jebb, the narrator tells us, “He was a good man, and I loved him next to my mother and father” (Circus, 81). On other levels, Old Jebb is a surrogate father, or grandfather, with “the kindest and wisest old face in the world” (Circus, 81). He became the archetypal “wise old man” because he is part of the stable order of the farm, but at the same time separate from it—the “other” who can instruct the young initiate in the mysteries of time and change. He is also a foil for the tramp in the development of the narrator's consciousness: both are dark, enigmatic figures—one good, one bad. Within this configuration, Dellie can represent the shadow image of the mother, or of the female as other, while Little Jebb is the darker double of Seth himself.

Of course, the young Seth is unconscious of these parallels; he is only seeking the warmth of Dellie's hearth and Little Jebb's company after his cold barefoot walk from the creek. Even the adult narrator seems only generally aware of these connections and ironies as he retells his tale, though they do seem to emerge clearly in the final coda that sums up the history of the characters. The careful reader, of course, sees more in the story, especially in the context created by the short-fiction cycle. One symbol proves particularly arresting in comparison with the title novella. The young white boy asks his black friend if he can play with his train. “Old Jebb had put spool wheels on three cigar boxes and put wire links between the boxes to make a train for Jebb. The box that was the locomotive had the top closed and a length of broom stick for a smoke stack” (Circus, 80). Even within the story this homemade toy provides an important symbolic nexus. On the most basic level, it replicates the black family's careful, clever imitation of the white family, who could have bought a metal toy train for their son. At the cultural level, the train in 1910 would have been the primary symbol of mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization; in other short fictions, such as “Prime Leaf,” it takes its realistic place as a primary agent of social and cultural change. Although no actual trains appear in this story, Old Jebb is said to look like “cast iron streaked with rust” (Circus, 81), while Dellie in her prime has the energy of “an old-fashioned black steam thrasher engine” (Circus, 79). Most interesting is the comparison with Bolton Loveheart's model circus, especially in the way the toy train becomes a text of sorts in which to read the relationships within the culture and the changes overtaking them.

The narrator's visit to the cabins emphasizes these same themes. As he approaches he contrasts Jebb and Dellie's cabin with the two others occupied by the constantly shifting poor black families, people little better off than the white tramp. Also, the storm has transformed the neat yard by washing all the trash out from under their raised cabin.

I took a few steps up the path to the cabin, and then I saw that the drainage water had washed a lot of trash and filth out from under Dellie's house. Up toward the porch, the ground was not clean any more. Old pieces of rag, two or three rusted cans, pieces of rotten rope, some hunks of old dog dung, broken glass, old paper, and all sorts of things like that had washed out from under Dellie's house to foul her clean yard. It looked just as bad as the yards of the other cabins, or worse. It was worse, as a matter of fact, because it was a surprise. I had never thought of all that filth being under Dellie's house. It was not anything against Dellie that the stuff had been under the cabin. Trash will get under any house. But I did not think of that when I saw the foulness which had washed out on the ground which Dellie sometimes used to sweep with a twig broom to make nice and clean.

(Circus, 78-79)

This paragraph is worth quoting at length because in his introduction Warren points to it as the central image of the story. He then connects this “homely” image with the larger social and cultural contexts of war and peace. At the time he wrote “Blackberry Winter,” he was reading Herman Melville's Civil War poetry, notably the poem “Conflict of Convictions,” about the origins of the war:

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the war, Melville said, would show “the slimed foundations” of the world. There was the sense in 1945, even with victory, that we had seen the slimed foundations, and as I now write this, the image that comes into my mind is the homely one from my story—the trash washed by the storm from under Dellie's cabin to foul her pridefully clean yard. And I should not be surprised if the picture in the story had its roots in the line from Melville as well as in such a fact, seen a hundred times in my rural boyhood. So the mixed feelings I had in our moment of victory in 1945, Melville's poem, and not only the image of Dellie's cabin, but something of the whole import of my little story, belong, it seems, in the same package.

(“Recollection,” 639)

The images of change continue, for Dellie is not her usual bustling self but is sick in bed with what Old Jebb later identifies as “woman-mizry” (Circus, 82). And when Little Jebb and the narrator get noisy playing with the cigar-box train, Dellie slaps her son in an “awful” way that brings the boy to silent tears. This behavior startles the narrator almost as much as it would if his mother had slapped him in the same fashion. The contrast of the two mother figures is reinforced when Old Jebb connects Dellie's illness with “the change of life and time” (Circus, 82), particularly with the change of seasons. When the white boy tells his black mentor that his mother says it's only blackberry winter, Old Jebb portentously replies, “too late for blackberry winter, blackberries done bloomed” (Circus, 82). The grizzled patriarch connects this storm with the biblical flood and with the millennial end of the earth itself. Their discussions conclude with Old Jebb's cryptic warning as he watches the shoeless boy shiver with the cold, “you ketch your death” (Circus, 83).

The narrator had told the blacks about the tramp, but had not told his father. A careful reader might wonder why; perhaps the excitement of the flood distracted the boy so that he simply forgot. Or possibly the author forgot himself, for the passage telling the blacks was added to the original manuscript. If the father were told, it would undoubtedly short-circuit the development of the story, for he would certainly have ridden directly home for the confrontation that concludes the story after young Seth has visited the black family.

The final confrontation works on both realistic and archetypal levels. The farmer, probably wanting to be rid of the “shiftless” tramp, dismisses him with a half dollar for a morning's work—the correct amount in 1910, the narrator notes. The tramp, possibly covering his own need and disappointment, replies, “I didn't want to work on your—farm” (Circus, 89). Seth is astounded at the word, one “they would have frailed me to death for using” (Circus, 89). In Warren's typescript, he was more forthcoming; it reads “f—g farm.” Evidently, the word was no more printable in 1946 than in 1910, though it is interesting to know Warren's intentions.

For the “f-word” raises a flurry of sexual connotations and not just for the nine-year-old Seth. In particular, it would have underlined even more markedly the tramp as a threat, even a sexual threat, to the prelapsarian innocence and order of farm and family life. The tramp asserts his oedipal threat by spitting at the father's “military” boots, and by fingering the switchblade knife in his pocket. Seth thought “that if that glob had hit my father's boot something would have happened” (Circus, 85). But doesn't, and under the father's steady gaze the tramp retreats without pulling his knife. He stops only for his newspaper parcel and then hightails it for the main road. Strangely, the boy Seth seems compelled to follow the stranger, staying a few feet away from him, asking “Where did you come from?” and “Where are you going?” (Circus, 85). The tramp replies only “you don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch” (Circus, 86).

Warren does not end the story here with the boy watching the tramp disappear down the pike toward town. Instead he provides a coda in which the adult narrator, now 44, sums up the meaning of the incident as he sees it from the perspective of three and a half decades, from 1945, the same year in which Warren wrote the story. Of course, his parents are dead, both lost while he was still a boy. His father died of lockjaw, cut by “the blade of a mowing machine” (Circus, 86), as if the grim reaper had returned to mow him down. His self-reliant mother died of a broken heart after she sold the farm and moved to town. Dellie died too, though some years later. Old Jebb lived on, and was at least 100 when the narrator last saw him in town and on relief during the depression, still strong but lonely and old, like a lost patriarch. Little Jebb, the narrator's black double, grew up to be “mean and ficey,” killing another black in a fight and still serving a term in the state penitentiary. The tramp he never saw again. But the narrator concludes his tale by noting “But I did follow him, all the years” (Circus, 87).

Warren's ambiguous final line has been given a number of readings by critics and scholars; however, he provides his own gloss in his recollection of the story's composition: “Had the boy then stopped or not? Yes, of course, literally, in the muddy lane. But at another level—no. Insofar as later he had grown up, had really learned something of the meaning of life, he had been bound to follow the tramp all his life, in the imaginative recognition, with all the responsibility which such a recognition entails, of this lost, mean, defeated, cowardly, worthless, bitter being as somehow a man” (“Recollection,” 643). In other words, the tramp symbolizes, like the evil angel in Eden, the full knowledge of the fallen human condition, of the progression of time and the inevitability of change. The succeeding decades have proved that fathers fail, mothers die, sons turn prodigal, brother kills brother, the garden paradise is lost, the foundations slimed, and only the trash remains, the detritus of nature and culture. For our contemplation, however, we have the arresting tale from this “mariner” narrator who has lived through this fortunate fall, through depression and war, without losing his humanity or even his desire to understand it better. As Robert Penn Warren, the ultimate narrator, puts it in his recollection, “I wanted the story to give some notion that out of change and loss a human recognition may be redeemed, more precious for being no-longer innocent” (“Recollection,” 642).


  1. Almost all of the works listed in the Bibliography present positive and insightful readings. Particularly useful readings include those in volumes by Bohner, Casper, Runyon, Walker, and West, as well as the articles by Grubbs, O'Connor, Runyon, Shepherd, Weathers, and Wilhelm.

  2. “‘Blackberry Winter’: A Recollection,” in Understanding Fiction, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979), 377; hereafter cited in the text as “Recollection.”

  3. Of the footprint the narrator goes on to say: “You have never seen a beach, but you have read the book and how the footprint was there” (Circus, 64). This possible allusion to Robinson Crusoe set up several intertextual reverberations including suggestions of the natural paradise and the confrontation with the “other.”

James H. Justus (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4599

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 uttered truth. It is what we might expect from a wisdom figure.

If nothing is ever lost, however, it does not follow that everything will be found. In his long career Robert Penn Warren emerges as one of the century's great seekers, and what he found was always more provisional than definitive. The entanglement of will and fate is a given in most of the recording voices we hear in his work—the poetic personae, the narrating protagonists, the reluctant and partial memorist, the amateur historian and sociologist. The writing is a dramatic enactment of a sensibility forever engaged in untangling the relationship of human responsibility to cosmic reality; if the latter remains tantalizingly mysterious, the former is never perfectly known either. The searcher—the yearner—nevertheless plunges on, poem after poem, novel after novel, essay after essay, convinced that patterns of meaning may be discovered and interpreted as entries into the grand secret.

It was Warren's lot—both his fate and his choice—to inhabit the familiar terrain most amenable to the literature of consolation: the pieties of geography and kin, the annals of the poor, the joys of the domestic family, the comforts of childhood, the pride of a national past. Since the mid-nineteenth century, this is a cultural terrain secured by constructions of desire, ranging, we might say, from the mother's knee to Historic Williamsburg—totems that invoke nostalgia and sentimental affirmation. Such artifacts may inspire and assuage, but their major function is to console. As carriers of values they suggest what is lost more than what is saved.

This matrix of conventional consolation literature is also Warren's: the parents as sources of guilt and reconciliation; the hard experience of people on the margins; the love of wife and children; the sounds and sights of nature; recreated scenes from childhood; exempla drawn from prior generations. But in Warren fractious resistances mar such images: wishing the mother dead, scorning the father's compromises, betraying wives and lovers, exposing national predations on Americans of color, locating no confirming meaning in nature, succumbing to the pull of violence. Problems of loyalty (to place, to kin, to friends) and blurred identity recur with disquieting frequency in the half century of Warren's career. The facile cynicism of the early work, derived mostly from his Jazz Age elders, evolved into the probing scepticism of his maturity, in which the intellectual journey for meaning took on an almost visceral intensity. The resources of the search were varied: the bone-and-blood knowledge of African Americans, the canny country lore of the illiterate poor, the testimony of philosophers and prophets, the practical sagacity of forebears, the existential self-spying when immersed in great nature. Warren was a yearner of enormous resilience and patience. Balked and baffled, he forced himself repeatedly into the investigative mode.

But what is most impressive in the persistent tough-mindedness of this long search is the yearner's posture in his old age, where we still find resistance to the easy faith of affirmation, a reluctance to pronounce formulas of consolation. It is easier for the aging writer to accept the culturally proffered role of wisdom figure than it is to decline it. The paradigmatic figures of Wordsworth and Whitman entice all long-living poets, including in our own time Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and W. H. Auden. No poet resisted the models more stoutly than Warren. For the artist who, early on, was “willing to go naked into the pit, again and again, to make the same old struggle for his truth,” was the same artist who distrusted the “pious truism, fit for sampler work,” who retained to the end his own truth that “the hand-me-down faith, the hand-me-down ideals” could be not merely unhelpful but vicious. The quoted passages are from two of Warren's most famous essays, his piece on Conrad's Nostromo and “Pure and Impure Poetry.” Similar sentiments can be gleaned from the substantial body of his discursive prose. But for my own purposes, I would like to focus on a text that fictionally enacts Warren's interrogative enterprise, one that gives us important anticipatory clues to why this author refused to become the old poet dispensing wisdom.

Consider for a moment “Blackberry Winter,” one of the century's great stories and the author's first satisfactory account of how he came to read the world in which he found himself. As we all remember, what is striking in the story is the materiality of a rural world subjected to the caprices of nature. Drowned baby chicks, a dead cow bobbing in a flooded stream, washed-out trash from under an otherwise well-kept cabin are all objects of looming specificity because of a “gulley-washer and a cold spell”—natural phenomena that momentarily disrupt the progression of seasons, creating for the summer-free schoolboy a kind of stasis in which the components of that world stand out, stripped of everydayness, waiting for analysis. The need to know begins with the familiar and the domestic part of that world. The nine-year-old Seth tries to “analyze the tone” of his mother's refusal to let him go barefoot, assessing the “degree of authority and conviction” in her voice; and having gone barefoot, he tries to “read his [father's] face, to see if he was angry.” In both cases Seth is unable to decide. He can record but not interpret. We should remember that the narrative perspective here is not that of a nine-year child but of a forty-year-old man reimagining his younger self. Because the luminous clarity of the boy's concretely realized world contrasts remarkably with the adult's interpretive perspective on that world, Warren suggests a sobering fact of experience: that to discover meaning in the circumstantial ruck of things is an uncertain process, a program of never-ending reverberations. Indeed, one of the lessons of “Blackberry Winter” is that basic interpretation, the piecing together of the scraps of one's world into a coherent pattern, may take thirty-five years and yet remain provisional.

“Blackberry Winter” turns on the disruption of a comfortable, nourishing, solidly familiar world by a tramp, that fixture of an earlier America. He is the agent of all that is alien—and presumably inimical—to it. Out of an undifferentiated urban world comes this transient—sullen, incommunicative, mysterious, sinister: a naturalistic version of that keening speaker in the old country gospel song who proclaims,

This world is not my home;
I'm only passing through.

Although this agent of disruption is ejected by Seth's father, the icon of order, the boy turns from a natural role model to the unlikely other. Seth does not follow his father onto the porch and into the kitchen but follows the defeated tramp up the path—a turn from the comfort, safety, and predictable love of the known to the uncertainty, danger, and predictable hostility of the unknown, from home to the road.

If the nine-year-old boy thinks of the stranger as an unnatural eruption onto his orderly world, the mature narrator knows that he is merely the most startling of sudden reversals created by a nature that flushes the urban stranger into prominence just as she flushes out the trash from beneath Dellie's cabin. The world of “Blackberry Winter” is dominated by an iconography of disruption: a yoked cow, herself yoked to driftwood, clogging a bridge girder; dead chicks strewn haphazardly; flowerbeds inundated by mud, trash, and gravel; a clean yard fouled by filth and debris. These domestic images suggest the fragility of human ordering, but they also serve as visual equivalences of human relationships: a maternal nourisher and friend turn aggressor (Dellie and Little Jeb), and a poor white boy stumblingly betrays his hunger. It is not the intruding stranger but this general disruption that allows “Blackberry Winter” to illustrate one kind of truth: that familial and social understandings are but a thin, easily ruptured membrane over which a civil community moves precariously to avoid drowning in a sea of primal needs. But the stranger so encapsulates that truth that he becomes a shadowy mentor figure teaching certain hard-edged lessons in the reality of going under as well as staying afloat, egoistic assertion as well as disinterested benevolence, death and ruined nurseries as well as tended gardens.

Although Warren restricts his story to a single setting, the pastoral world of boyhood, its particular moment is poised on the point of its dissolution, not because it has already been corrupted (which of course it has) but because violence and uncertainty inherent in that world of apparent innocence have finally staked their claims in the boy's consciousness. Thereafter he will know that the world he walks in consists not merely of what is obviously alien (such as pointed city shoes or a switchblade knife) but country disasters that turn the familiar into the alien (floods, hungry bellies, “woman-mizry,” mud that stains like blood, and homegrown versions of apocalypse). “Blackberry Winter” establishes the power of urgencies and yearnings even as it weakens the moral defense erected against them, an aesthetic priority for the dark, subterranean center of experience that will be increasingly felt in Warren's future work.

Mentors by definition are to be followed. The speaker of “Blackberry Winter” records that the tramp commanded him not to follow him; yet he admits, “But I did follow him, all the years.” One confirming sign of that admission comes more than three decades later in “Convergences,” from Rumor Verified (1981). Another Seth, exploring the gorge of a mountain stream, is confronted by another stranger: this time hungry, abrupt, “wolfish and slit-eyed,” whose tongue warily slides back and forth. The stranger appropriates the boy's sandwich, bursts his thermos of milk on a rock, and is suddenly gone. But the boy follows him until the stranger becomes “a dot in the distance of sun,” disappearing in a railroad tunnel “that sucked all to naught.” In this figure, defined as “a man born not to win,” a raging deprivation is curiously linked with acceptance, in an uneasy equilibrium that not only suggests the fragility of a world perceived as neatly regulated in its moral and social economy, but also anticipates how the threats to that world are to be borne.

There is another stranger, however, whose presence creates in the boy a kind of casual awe rather than an active threat. This is the tramp of “Dark Night of,” another poem of memory in Promises (1957). The boy, now twelve, and with a “defective” sense of property, refuses to sic the dogs on an old man, stunned by sun glare, moving tentatively out of the protected darkness of the woods. The young possessor fixes the old dispossessed across a sanitary distance, a gesture sanctioned by country noblesse. Later, near sundown, rounding up the cows, the boy finds the old man crouched amid elderbloom and honeysuckle. Close up, he is “rough-grizzled, and spent,” his head “regally wreathed” by white strands; he croaks at the boy (“Caint you let a man lay!”), but resignation is stronger than petulance, and he stirs his old frame and moves off down the lane.

Someone has attributed to Freud the observation that the world is what your neighbors, not your parents, say it is. In the case of the protagonist of “Blackberry Winter” and his avatars in the poems, the world is what both neighbors and a down-at-heels stranger say it is, and the stranger whom the boy follows “all the years” paradoxically becomes a mentor less remote and more ambivalently attractive than his biological father. Because they are loving, the parents are readily and predictably monitory figures; they order, they cajole, they reason with, they advise, they teach. The stranger emerges out of a world unshaped by love, whose lessons are pronounced in sparing croaks, taunts, threats. The stranger is untidy, old (even when the age is vague), grizzled, dispossessed, probably urban; he is enveloped by a private rage whose sources can never be known. The circumstances suggest that existence generates rage, explanations for which are hardly capable of being articulated except through weary exhalations, furious exclamations, and expletives that fall staccato-like on the ears of the boy.

The intrusive stranger is a mentor not because of what he says or does but because of what he is. If moral authority is invested, however reluctantly, in such a figure, we should not be surprised at the lack of consolatory wisdom in Robert Penn Warren's later writing. For with the rage to know, to understand, to interpret, what solace can be found in spiritual transience? deprivation and dispossession? restlessness as the moral equivalent of maturity? The stranger is, in a sense, the world's voice, the voice of actuality. But what of the family, the home, the known community? Is there no alternate voice to support the values they are culturally credited with generating—love, charity, responsibility, cooperation?

Yes and no. There is another mentor—a well-known one—in Warren's writing, one who not merely is but says. That figure also appears first in “Blackberry Winter.” As the community gathers at the flood-swollen creek to stare at the drowned cow, a poor white boy wonders aloud if “anybody ever et drownt cow”; he is answered by “an old man with a white beard”: “‘Son, … you live long enough and you'll find a man will eat anything when the time comes.’” Into this garrulousness Warren inserts a crucial detail: “‘Son,’ the old man said, ‘in my time I et things a man don't like to think on. I was a sojer and I rode with Gin'l Forrest, and them things we et when the time come. I tell you.’” Although the crowd ignores him, he peers at the men and boys “from his weak, slow eyes” and draws his specific experience into an old man's generalization. “Live long enough, … and a man will settle fer what he kin git.”

What we see here is of course the bare outline of a figure that is to assume much greater authority in Warren's later work. By imaginative assimilation of personal memory into the urgencies of art, this garrulous man craving an audience later metamorphoses into Warren's maternal grandfather, an old man of intense privacies who regales his grandson with war stories and who relives public battles—his grandson as his only audience. The tableau is familiar: the figure of the white-bearded grandfather in blue jeans, smoking his cob pipe or holding it in one gnarled hand, sitting in a split-bottomed chair propped against a cedar tree, occasionally drawing lines with a stick in the dirt to illustrate military battles. Because this recurring tableau is even more personally invoked in numerous interviews, it assumes special status as one of the enabling images of this writer's crucial history.

Although the grandfather, the old Confederate captain who had ridden with Forrest, appears frequently, his function varies. At the simplest level he is a memorial aid to a writer who is convinced that the Civil War is our “only ‘felt’ history—history lived in the national imagination.” As Warren remarked in The Legacy of the Civil War in 1961, the memory of the grandfather who had been in the war is a bridge between actuality and myth, a confirming link that indeed makes that war a felt history. When in the late 1970s Warren had the opportunity to reassess the Civil War again, this time from a narrower angle, he again characteristically invoked the grandfather: “an old man under the cedar tree, meditating on the past while an ignorant little boy sat there tailor-fashion on the ground.” It is the opening image of Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980), and it recurs twice in that slim volume of 114 pages. The book is not about Warren's grandfather or himself as a young boy, but for the first ten pages we are invited to share in a special kind of autobiography—one in which the personal intersects imaginatively with local history, family legend, and the reverberating effects of two wars. “He was history,” Warren says of his grandfather, which means that he is the personification of national trauma, a reminder of continuities as well as a brooding totem signaling the influence, for good or ill, of the done on the to be done—in short, a wisdom figure.

But because Gabriel Penn is Robert Penn Warren's grandfather his function as a wisdom figure can never be quite that simple. Warren has spoken of the old soldier as “uncommunicative,” leaving us to assume that his stories told to his grandson came sporadically and fragmentarily. The dedication page of Being Here (1980) reveals, I think, something of this complexity:

To Gabriel Thomas Penn (1836-1920)

OLD MAN: You get old and you can't do anybody any good any more.

BOY: You do me some good, Grandpa. You tell me things.

What are the things the “bookish” old man tells the boy? How important it is to read books and to meditate? The joy of memorizing and reciting poems? The way battles were or should have been fought as illustrated by Napoleon and Nathan Bedford Forrest? Yes: all these things the old Confederate soldier tells his grandson in those lazy summers on an isolated Kentucky farm just before World War I. But in the poems in which he figures, what the old soldier really tells is sometimes frustratingly embedded in what he only partly tells.

“Court-martial,” from Promises, develops from a chance word the boy hears: guerrilla. The old man translates it into a less honorific idiom—“Bushwhackers, we called 'em”—and illustrates the term not with an anecdote or a heroic battle encounter, but a confession. In this story of guerrilla war, the old man—“Captain, cavalry, C.S.A.”—discriminates among those committed to a cause and those plundering the countryside for their own gain, those whom it became justifiable to kill outright. But for those with a queasy stomach or conscience, the old man mutters, “You could make it all regular, easy,” with an impromptu court-martial. The impact of the memory rouses the old soldier out of his serenity, and the queasy stomach and conscience reach out across the years:

“By God—” and he jerked up his head.
“By God, they deserved it,” he said.
“Don't look at me that way,” he said.
“By God—” and the old eyes glared red.
Then shut in the cedar shade.

The grandfather's halting recall triggers the grandson's imaginative reenactment of the hanging, the captain, now young in his great cavalry boots, riding large in the sky, swinging to the saddle's sway:

The horseman does not look back.
Blank-eyed, he continues his track,
Riding toward me there,
Through the darkening air.
The world is real. It is there.

The diminution of the heroic comes without judgment, only the stark reality of acts performed and responsibilities assumed. What remains is the human, not the heroic. The felt compulsion to perform an act and the stomach-churning conscience that persists beyond the act coexist, almost as if evaluation were irrelevant in light of the moral tension that we all must live in. What the grandfather loses is the irrefutable status of a conventional wisdom figure, but what he gains is complexity, which for Warren means human frailty acknowledged, a dimension that makes man more rather than less human.

The nine-year-old boy in “The Day Dr. Knox Did It” is hot for certainties in asking why a man would kill himself in a barn with a twelve-guage shotgun, but the grandfather's responses are unsatisfactory: “It's one of those things,” he says, and “Folks—yes, folks, they up and die,” and “dying's a thing any fool can do.” Even when further pressed, the old man must fall back on: “‘For some folks the world gets too much.’” If the boy immerses himself in a stream hoping that “like water, the world / would flow, flow away, on forever,” he learns only much later that there is “no water to wash the world away.”

Even when the old man recurs in Being Here, in the volume dedicated to his memory, he is presented not so much as a reservoir of advice, a fount of wisdom to which the inexperienced boy goes for successive draughts, but as a puzzling familiarity, a hieroglyph of which only parts are decipherable. The setting of “When Life Begins” and “Safe in Shade” is the same: the cedar shade, the bearded old man in jeans, one hand wrapped around a cob pipe, his gaze fixed on a mythic distance. What the wisdom amounts to in these poems, behind the heroic charge, beyond the pressure of hunger and thirst, is the incommunicativeness of wisdom.

As generative models, these two recurring figures in Warren's work would seem to occupy opposing extremes. The stranger is the alien spoiler whose chance encounters with the boy are disruptive of a nurturing world of regulated behavior, dependable routine, and predictable human responses. The old soldier is a central representative of that familiar world, a living link between past and present, a symbol of generational continuity and therefore of the values that lend meaning and coherence to life. The stranger takes his definition from the road, the old soldier from the cedar tree. The weary restlessness and hungering mobility of the one counter the stability and serenity of the other.

But in the actual working out of these figures, in their vital engagement in the spiritual drama of Warren personae, the real differences between the stranger and the old soldier seem to fade. If the stranger is an inadvertent mentor, assuming that unplanned role retrospectively, the grandfather's organic function as surrogate father—or better, as parental extension—is translated into something equally unplanned, less protective, less respectful of the Edenic parameters of the boy's home. Paradoxically, under the loving aegis of family the boy learns the actualities of loss, diminishment, pain, guilt; and if these intimations of mortality are less abrupt and harsh than those of the stranger, they are no less chilling to the complacencies of boyhood. Even when the grandfather's words are direct and instructive, as in one of Warren's late poems, “Old Time Childhood in Kentucky,” they are less triumphant words to live by than a code of moral minimalism: “‘Love / Your wife, love your get, keep your word, and / If need arises die for what men die for.’”

The grandfather is finally just as inadvertent a wisdom figure as the stranger. Warren's fondness for the doubled point of view device is itself an instructive clue to the writer's moral stance. The self as nine- or twelve-year-old boy—bright, curious, lonely, and hot for certainties—is never seen except through the scrim of the self as man. And, for all his maturity, he is still bright, curious, lonely, and hot for certainties. But what gives depth to the double perspective is the melancholy realization that answers to vital questions we all live with are merely variants of those questions. Human wisdom itself is inadvertent. Like Mercutio and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the stranger and the grandfather in Warren's writing shatter the ideal constructions that only the naive and the sentimental believe in. Making peace with Mercutio, these grudging mentors, like impure poetry itself, call the poet back to the marred world of imperfection.

The bracing consistency with which he invoked that world is one legacy of Robert Penn Warren. From the mid-1950s on, that poetic voice sounds like no other. In the very decade when the national culture tapped into the sources of spiritual renewal, civic optimism, and conforming complacency, Warren sounded his bittersweet affirmations and inconclusive yearnings. By the 1970s it became clear that the nagging existential explorations that had become the Warren trademark would never be fully mapped.

If his voice is not the consoling kind, neither is it misanthropic. It is tonic, not sour. What generally protects Warren's vision from helplessness and futility is a kinetic joy, a resilient energy, that lies in the very struggle for meaning. In “The Mission,” Warren links the circumstantial world, our home that shifts and crumbles over the long ages, to the human species doomed to live in that terrestrial slippage. If the human mission is somehow forgotten, the speaker concludes that perhaps the “lost mission is to try to understand / the possibility of joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty.”

The premise behind most of the pieces gathered here is the persistence of Warren's own restless mission, manifested in the several genres the writer so adeptly exploited, to plumb the resources of this world for whatever clues that might illuminate his role in it. The stubborn search for his meaning, even when it veered into solipsism, may be the most private kind of wisdom; but Warren never lost sight of the vital linkage of his own yearning to the ongoing human quest for meaning. And however significant as geography, Kentucky and Italy, Baton Rouge and San Francisco, Vermont and Colorado are cartographical markers of a seeker whose boundaries were as flexible as the mission was firm.

The note that The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren persistently strikes is the centrality of the writer to twentieth-century American culture. Warren both participated in and lived through the literary phenomenon that we once confidently called the Southern Renascence; and while there is much yet to be learned from assessing the Southern wellspring of his creativity, readers who write about his work no longer feel constrained to reconnoiter Dixie as a cultural prerequisite. In its rich variousness, Warren's career incorporates most of the aesthetic and intellectual schema of our century—although until recently too few critics have sought to explore that richness. In this volume, the very diversity of approaches that we see in Lewis Simpson and Lucy Ferriss, Ernest Suarez and C. Vann Woodward, Victor Strandberg and R. W. B. Lewis assumes the emergence of Warren from a provincial context of feisty Southern modernism (the category that fixed his reputation for years beyond its relevance) to the turf of moral and aesthetic speculation that all great writers claim. To muddy the comfortable assumption that Warren is a Southern poet, as T. R. Hummer and John Burt do, is (not so) simply to draw our attention to the now-obvious fact that the legacy of Warren is something greater than being the second (or third?) brightest light of the Southern Renascence. To attribute the term moral philosopher to Robert Penn Warren, as James Grimshaw does, forces us rightfully to imagine a figure transcending the South, a landscape not notably rich in that particular species.

That capacious hunger to transcend both geography and self perhaps accounts for the modesty of whatever wisdom Warren allowed himself. Old poets become beloved only if they sand down their kinks and tics and project themselves as models of consolation. It is to Warren's credit—and perhaps to his readers' as well—that Warren never descended to being beloved. In the last twenty years of his career, he resisted the self-image of the old man dispensing wisdom; what was interrogative and provisional in earlier years remained so to the end.

Jonathan S. Cullick (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054

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 of separate moments but an atmosphere within which events emerge: “When you are nine years old, what you remember seems forever; for you remember everything and everything is important and stands big and full and fills up Time and is so solid that you can walk around and around it like a tree and look at it” (“BW” [“Blackberry Winter”] 64). The story is an initiation narrative; the storm that floods the landscape and the stranger who confronts Seth's father both intrude upon the garden of Seth's youth. Seth narrates the story as a man in his forties recalling how time appeared during his prelapsarian existence, before events seemed to become fragmented from each other. The young Seth's perception of time eschews both vector and matrix paradigms, for events have no clear points of origin or termination. In fact, time never moves:

You are aware that time passes, that there is a movement in time, but that is not what Time is. Time is not a movement, a flowing, a wind then, but is, rather, a kind of climate in which things are, and when a thing happens it begins to live and keeps on living and stands solid in time like the tree that you can walk around. And if there is a movement, the movement is not Time itself, any more than a breeze is climate, and all the breeze does is to shake a little the leaves on the tree which is alive and solid.

(“BW” 64)

By recalling when time was a “climate in which things are,” the older Seth prefigures the narrator of Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, who recalls having learned about the Civil War not necessarily from home or school, “but from the very air around him” (JD 9). In Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back Warren recalls a “sense of changelessness” (JD 3) that he experienced in his boyhood. Because the effects of the Civil War are still being felt, the past is a strong presence; thus, “time seemed frozen, because nothing seemed to be happening there on that remote farm except the same things again and again” (JD 8).

There are parallels between Seth's story and Jack Burden's ethical discovery of historical interconnectedness. Like Burden, the older Seth recounts his own story, though the spatial limitations of the short story offer Seth the opportunity to narrate not a thread of successive events but a description of one day in his life. The older Seth, then, does more than recall his initiation into the world of experience. He depicts a conflict between two notions of time: climate and movement. Linear movement is depicted by the stranger walking with deliberation through the woods at the beginning of the story, and by the changes that the boy observes throughout the story (such as the dead poults, the garbage washed out from under Dellie's cabin, and Dellie's change of life). The boy himself matures by taking part in the movement, moving away from his mother's rule by violating her order not to walk barefoot, and ultimately moving away from his father's rule by following the stranger “all the years.”

However, Seth returns. “Blackberry Winter” is a Prodigal Son story, similar to the confessions made by the narrators of the interpolated narratives within the novels: Willie Proudfit, Ashby Wyndham, Cass Mastern, Munn Short, and Hamish Bond. (James Justus, in the first chapter of The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren, entitled “Fathers and Sons,” gives the most thorough discussion of this theme of the son who leaves and returns to the father.) Seth's narrative is in the confessional mode, culminating in the admission of his sin: “But I did follow him, all the years” (“BW” 87). The act of narration, then, is an act of return. He recounts his memories of his mother and father, and Dellie and Old Jebb, with a sensitivity that suggests nostalgia—a romantic desire to reconnect with the past and with the sense of connection that he experienced in his youth: “When you are a boy and stand in the stillness of woods … you feel your very feet sinking into and clutching the earth like roots” (“BW” 64).

Equally significant is the interplay between past and present in this story. The older Seth comes to the same realization as Warren's narrator in Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back: “There are two kinds of memory. One is narrative, the unspooling in the head of what has happened, like a movie film with no voices. The other is symbolic—the image, say, of a dead friend of long ago” (JD 1). Memory can be chronological or symbolic, the latter of which is the more enduring. In his narration, Seth chooses to present his memory not as an unwinding spool of thread but as an image, as if it were something solid, something that “begins to live and keeps on living and stands solid in Time.” The adult Seth recalls events from one day in his life. The concluding sentence of the story indicates that Seth has been physically—but, more important, also spiritually or emotionally—led astray. His “following” the stranger ever since that one day implies that he has had many experiences, after that day, that repudiate home and parents. Yet Seth chooses not to narrate events of the years between the story time (when he was nine years old) and the time of his discourse (when he is forty-four years old). Thus that one significant day has existed in his memory like an image, a symbol, a “tree that you can walk around” or “a kind of climate in which things are.” By revisiting it through narration, Seth recognizes his complicity within the matrix of time, and his narration becomes an act of redemption.

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

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2158

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 poetry rather than short stories, Warren did not devote much of his creative energy to writing short fiction. Indeed, his last published short story, “Invitation to a Dance,” appeared in February, 1949, two years after his only collection of short stories, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories, appeared. In his biography of Warren, Joseph Blotner notes that Warren stopped writing short fiction because he felt the stories got in the way of his poems.

Critics are somewhat divided about the value of Warren's short stories. Justus rightly suggests that Warren's short stories demonstrate his ability to express abstract metaphysical concerns by creating compellingly distinct, historically specific narratives: “From the beginning his uniqueness as a writer of fiction has been the curious way in which Warren is driven both to propound abstract philosophical problems and to explore the concrete actualities of time and place” (262). Casper finds less to praise in The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories than does Randolph Runyon who goes to great length to establish links between Warren's short fiction and his poetry.

Most of Warren's short stories are set in Tennessee, and all of them deal with the concerns already discussed in his longer fiction. His stories include “Prime Leaf,” “Unvexed Isles” (1934), “Testament of Flood” (1935), “Her Own People” (1935), “When the Light Gets Green” (1936), “Christmas Gift” (1937), “How Willie Proudfit Came Home” (1938), “Goodwood Comes Back” (1941), “The Life and Work of Professor Roy Millen” (1943), “A Christian Education” (1945), “The Love of Elsie Barton: A Chronicle” (1946), “The Confession of Brother Grimes” (1946), “Blackberry Winter” (1946), “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger” (1947), “The Circus in the Attic” (1947), and “Invitation to a Dance” (1949). Five of these stories should serve as adequate examples of Warren's experiments with short fiction: “The Circus in the Attic,” “Blackberry Winter,” “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger,” “Goodwood Comes Back,” and “The Love of Elsie Barton: A Chronicle.” Three of these five stories were based on events or memories from Warren's youth. These stories deal with dreams, goals, and the discoveries one makes when one's dreams are either fulfilled or frustrated.

“The Circus in the Attic” tells Bolton Lovehart's story of his unhappy relationship with his mother. Simon Lovehart, who is a major in the Confederate army, dies of a stroke before Bolton is able to attend college at Sewanee in Tennessee. On his deathbed Simon tells Bolton to be good to his mother since she always means well. Bolton decides not to attend college in order to take care of his mother. However, she insists that he attend college and he enrolls at Sewanee. He does not complete his first year there before his mother suffers a heart attack, and he returns home to care for her. Back at home, he begins dating Professor Darter's daughter Sara, and starts writing a history of Carruthers County. Sara seduces Bolton in her father's house, but leaves Bardsville for a more glamorous life. Bolton's mother nags him about doing something with his life, and he retreats to the attic ostensibly to work on the history of Carruthers County. Instead of working on the history, he spends his time building a miniature circus based on one that captured his imagination when he was a boy.

Bolton must grapple with a question posed by Simon Lovehart as he reflects on his wife and son: “Is the present the victim of the past, or the past the victim of the present?” As he abandons writing to work on the miniature circus, he rationalizes that one “can only love perfectly in terms of a great betrayal” (44). Bolton eventually marries Mrs. Parton, a widow with a son Jasper. She, too, is from the Lovehart line and is in her late thirties when they marry, while Bolton is fifty-nine years old. In 1940 Jasper is drafted into military service for World War II. He is killed in action in Italy and is awarded posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor. Jasper's heroic act of bravery on the battlefield changes Bolton's life. Bolton sells his circus to raise money for the Red Cross as an atonement for his past. His wife is killed in an automobile accident late one night with a man named Captain Cartwright at the wheel. Both had been drinking. World War II ends. Bolton finds his way back to the attic and starts rebuilding his imaginative world. For Bolton, the present seems to be the victim of the past, at least in terms of his decision to remain at home to care for his mother.

“Blackberry Winter” has a first-person narrator named Seth, who tells a retrospective story of his life. It is 1945 when Seth narrates his memories of events that took place June, 1910, in middle Tennessee after a flood. Time, the narrator reflects, is “a kind of element in which things are” (64). Time does not represent linear movement; instead, events are fixed in time. The story of Seth, who is nine years old in 1910, is one of initiation. The flood has brought disorder, destruction, and death to the community. A tramp of unidentified ethnic origin comes to Seth's door asking for work. He is arrogant and surly and has a knife. Seth's mother gives him some menial cleaning chores in exchange for a meal. Seth is curious about the tramp, but goes to the cook's cabin to play, where he is confronted by another discovery about life. He is surprised at how much trash washed out from under their cabin, a place he had always thought of as cleaner than most. Seth is friends with Jebb, who is the cook Dellie's son. Seth loves Jebb's father, who is thirty years older than Dellie and a good man. Seth loves his mother and father, too. When Seth joins his father at the swollen river, he is taken with the image of his father sitting straight in his saddle amid the destruction of the flood. A dead cow floats past while they are there. The crowd gathered at the river declares that the dead cow belongs to Milt Alley, who represents poor white trash in the opinion of the community. When Seth's father returns to the house, he tells the tramp he does not need him now and offers him a half-dollar for half a day's work. The tramp insults Seth's father and leaves. Seth follows the tramp down the lane and asks innocently, “Where are you going?” The tramp's response makes a lasting impression on him: “Stop following me. You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch” (86). Seth's ambiguous response thirty-five years after this encounter has puzzled some readers: “But I did follow him, all the years” (87). For Seth, the tramp represents movement. He seems not to know specifically where he is going but does know with certainty that he is moving on. In his willingness to uproot himself and move forward without holding on to any social ties, the tramp displays a kind of freedom that Seth admires.

In the second edition of Understanding Fiction (1959), Warren recollects how “Blackberry Winter” evolved. He recalls going barefoot as a child and his feeling of betrayal when the weather in early summer sets the season back temporarily. He remembers the appearance of a tramp, who was “suspicious, resentful, contemptuous of hick dumbness, bringing his own brand of violence into a world where he half-expected to find another kind, enough unlike his own to make him look over his shoulder down the empty lane as dusk came on, a creature altogether lost and pitiful, a dim image of what, in one perspective, our human condition is” (640). Warren suggests that Seth discovers that he “had really learned something of the meaning of life, he had been bound to follow the tramp all his life, in the imaginative recognition, with all the responsibility which such recognition entails, of this lost, mean, defeated, cowardly, worthless, bitter being as somehow a man” (642).

“The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger” comes from the same period in Warren's career, a very productive time when he had just completed All the King's Men and his essay on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In his recollection about “Blackberry Winter,” Warren notes that he has just turned forty, is somewhat anxious about his two latest works, and has begun thinking about an earlier unpublished story about a sharecropper in Tennessee. After “Blackberry Winter,” he returns to the sharecropper story about a character named Jeff York, who owns a sixty-acre farm in Cobb County, Tennessee.

The story is set in 1935, after Jeff York has worked thirty years to earn enough money to buy his place. The pride of his accomplishments is his white patented gate. He is married and has three children. His wife has a passion for hamburgers. When the family goes to town each Saturday, the last stop is always Slick Hardin's Dew Drop Inn Diner. When Slick announces that the diner is for sale, Mrs. York shows an interest in buying it. The asking price is $1,450. Todd Sullivan, president of the local bank, will not lend the money to Jeff outright but offers to buy Jeff's place for $1,700. Jeff sells his farm and works to clean up the diner. After he and his wife are settled, Jeff takes a walk by himself in the country one Sunday. Neighbors find his body hanging from the main crossbar of the patented gate. Mrs. York is hurt by her husband's death but manages to pick herself up and continue to “fling a mean hamburger.”

Like “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger,” “Goodwood Comes Back” focuses on the search for authentic individual identity and the effects of that search on other people. “Goodwood Comes Back” is based on Warren's boyhood friend Kent Greenfield, who was spotted by a major league scout and recruited to pitch for the New York Giants in the 1920s. He was a good pitcher and perhaps could have become a great pitcher, but he was homesick. He needed his bird dogs and the open spaces that he left behind in Kentucky. The team manager did not understand his need, and Greenfield did not or would not express it. In Greenfield's dilemma Warren saw the tragic breakdown of a person with great talent and potential for life. Greenfield might have proven a major success had he been able to communicate his problem so that his manager could understand his need. In Warren's fictionalized account of Greenfield's story, Luke Goodwood marries Martha Sheppard and moves to a farm, but bad blood develops between her brother and Luke. A quarrel ensues and her brother shoots and kills Luke with a shotgun. The narrator, who relays much of the story based on what his sister named Mrs. Hargreave tells him, comments on the tragedy with a wry sense of country wisdom: “I have noticed that people living way back in the county like that are apt to be different from ordinary people who see more varieties and kinds of people every day” (119).

“The Love of Elsie Barton: A Chronicle” details Elsie Barton's life from her parental history to her relationship with Benjamin Beaumont, a tobacco buyer who seduces her. They marry and Elsie leaves Charlestown, Tennessee, to have their daughter Helen. Elsie survives the pregnancy and their marriage, which she is never able to understand. Benjamin Beaumont dies of a stroke caused by his debauchery in Nashville. The community serves as a kind of character in this story, which is told by an omniscient narrator. Elsie Beaumont is an old woman at the start of the story. The narration moves backward in time. Her relationship with the community and her self-imposed isolation remind one of Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily,” but Elsie hides no corpse in the attic. She suffers quietly her error of vanity, fostered by Benjamin Beaumont before they were married. The next story in the collection, “Testament of Flood,” seems to flow out of “The Love of Elsie Barton,” and is more of a partial story that continues with Helen's classmate Steve Adams's crush on her. This kind of interweaving of narrative strands between different Warren stories is a prevalent movement in his canon. In The Taciturn Text Randolph Runyon has done a detailed analysis of how Warren constructs intertextual links between his short stories and novels. Runyon also provides a cogent reading of intertextual connections between Warren's poetry in The Braided Dream.

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Critical Overview