“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.”
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.
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.