Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

Blackberry Winter first appeared in November of 1946 at a time when Warren’s novel All the King’s Men was on the New York Times best-seller list. Because of the success of the novel, Warren’s agent was able to get him an unusually large amount of money for the publication of his novelette. When Warren collected his short fiction into the volume called The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories in 1948, he received what was for him an exceptionally large advance against royalties.

Early reviews praised the title story and Blackberry Winter (the second story in the book), but the critical consensus then and now is that the short story is not Warren’s finest genre. Within a year of the book’s publication, Warren told a colleague, ‘‘I know that the collection is, at the best, uneven, but if I was ever to publish them I reckoned I might as well go ahead and hope for the best.’’ In his recent critical biography of Warren, Joseph Blotner sums up the reaction of critics: ‘‘It was indeed uneven, achieving distinction only in the first two and the last story. His range of characters and inventive imagination would be praised along with the atmosphere and continuity of the stories, but there would also be numerous cavils and rather general agreement that in prose fiction he was a novelist rather than a short-story writer. It was to be his first and last collection of stories.’’

Blackberry Winter, however, has been frequently anthologized and has received considerable critical attention. Commentators in the first decades after the story’s publication tended to focus on Warren’s use of poetic imagery and universal themes, using critical methods from the New Criticism that Warren himself had helped to define. Writing in the New York Times Granville Hicks noted that Warren had ‘‘developed a colloquial style that is just about as good as anything one can find in contemporary literature,’’ and that he has ‘‘also acquired greater and greater subtlety in his explorations of personality.’’

Another reviewer in U. S. Quarterly Booklist praises Warren’s ability to capture ‘‘the characteristic rhythms and homely idioms of Southern rural speech,’’ as well as the stories’ ‘‘strong sense of the uses and beauties of tangible things.’’ A reviewer in Time, however, concluded that although ‘‘each story has a rural or small-town setting and is marked by a notebook quality of careful, detailed observation . . . there is not one story that rises from notebook level to finished fiction.’’

H. N. Smith, writing in The Saturday Review of Literature concludes that ‘‘Despite the occasional triumphs of the earlier pieces, none of them is an entirely satisfactory thing-in-itself. They suggest, in fact, that Mr. Warren is a novelist rather than a short-story writer.’’ As it turns out, recent critical attention has focused less on Warren’s novels and more on the long narrative poems that occupied the late phase of his career. Joseph Blotner’s 1997 critical biography of Warren devotes little space to Warren’s short fiction, but does single out Blackberry Winter as the best and most enduring of the collection.

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Blackberry Winter, Robert Penn Warren


Essays and Criticism