Style and Technique
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This is a carefully controlled story, so packed with events similar in their significance that it can truly be said to be “loaded.” There is nothing superfluous to the cumulative impact of Seth’s confronting incongruity and coping with how to integrate the new and mysterious into his understanding of life. Because it is told from the point of view of the adult Seth recalling a memorable day, the language of the story is that of an intelligent and thoughtful adult, one trying to understand something by means of an imaginative reconstruction; in short, it is a tale told by an artist, a miniature portrait of the artist as a young man, making a discovery about the need for sympathetic understanding of other humans that is essential for the artist.
Because the story is both a description of the boy’s day and a conscious effort of the adult to understand it thirty-five years later, the reader must respond to a double perspective: the uncomprehending view of the child and the probing thoughts of the adult. Thus, although the story is told primarily as simple description and narration, it also intersperses expository philosophical passages of the man attempting to understand and explain. The very fact that the story is so firmly directed toward the classic theme and structure of the rite-of-passage initiation story and the fact that it is so loaded with obvious images of death, the unexpected, the incongruous, and the mysterious, indicate that this is an artist’s story, for it is told by a writer who is well aware of the tradition of the initiation story as well as the use of conventional metaphors for death and disruption. The metaphors are handled with such naturalness and confidence, however, that they seem to exist as part of a real and tangible world, even though the reader is aware that this is a highly conventional story.
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The New Criticism
Warren’s legacy to literary studies goes far beyond the novels, stories, poems and plays he created. He was one of the founders of a school of criticism called the New Criticism, which dominated the field of English studies for more than a generation. He accomplished this through his role as teacher to countless undergraduate and graduate students who would go on to be teachers and professors, through his influence as founder and editor of two highly influential literary journals (Southern Review and Kenyon Review), and perhaps most important, through the defining textbooks he wrote with fellow Louisiana State University professor and critic Cleanth Brooks.
The theory and methods of the New Criticism will seem to today’s students both obvious and outdated. Simply put, they argued that poems (and other genres, but poems especially) could be read and interpreted on the merits of their own internal and formal qualities. The methods grew out of the practices of a loose group of students and professors (called the Fugitives) at Vanderbilt University who met regularly to talk about poetry and to read and discuss each other’s work. Though one of the youngest members of the group when he first began attending, Warren was quickly recognized as one of its brightest lights, contributing as both a poet and as an adept reader of other members’ work. The critical methods that members of the group employed, careful word by word scrutiny of the text as separate from its author, became part of the classroom practices of the professors and professors to be. When Warren took up a teaching post at Louisiana State University in 1934 he collaborated with his colleague Cleanth Brooks to write the textbook that formalized these methods, Understanding Poetry, which was published in 1938 and still in use in some college classrooms forty years later.
Today, most critics find New Criticism limited in its ability to account for the cultural context of a work of literature, and believe that its insistence on discounting the personal life of the author erases important differences in gender, ethnicity, and other features of authorial identity. Nonetheless, many— if not most—professors and critics in literary studies today were taught by professors who were trained in these methods. Though the New Criticism is no longer an end in itself, its methods for close reading of a text are often the first step in any teacher’s or critic’s approach to a work of literature.
The New South and the Old South
The cultural context of the literary circle at Vanderbilt is important. Vanderbilt was at the time the site of vigorous intellectual activity, and a great deal of the discussion, quite naturally, had to do with the state of the American South. Members of the Fugitive group who met to discuss literature and culture were interested in preserving the cultural uniqueness of the southeast, but were also ‘‘intent of repudiating the magnolia-and-julip tradition of southern letters,’’ as Bohner puts it. The Fugitives’ positions were complex and contradictory, but in general, they were concerned that the northern industrial culture would eclipse what was left of the southern way of life. In particular they ‘‘were distressed by what they considered to be the results of a culture based on the machine: the accelerating tempo of life, the chaotic individualism, the blatant materialism, the debasement of human effort and human dignity,’’ as Bohner defines it. By 1930, four of the regular attendees of Fugitive meetings, Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson joined eight other southern writers to publish a collection of essays called I’ll Take my Stand.
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The story is told by a first-person narrator who is recalling events that happened to him sometime in the past. Not until the epilogue does he reveal that thirty-five years separate the events of that June day from the narration. This distance sets up a contrast between the nine-year-old Seth’s point of view and the forty-four-year-old narrator’s. This structure not only invites comparison between the boy’s perception of events and the man’s, it also asks readers to consider how the mechanism of memory works. In other words, is it the events of that June day that are important, or the recollection of those events over the intervening time period?
Because the adult narrator is capable of understanding and interpreting the events of the day better than the child is, the narrative structure of the story anticipates an explanation. Readers expect that by the end, the elder Seth will provide the missing pieces and a narrative overlay to connect the fragments and explain the significance of the events of the day. Warren never gives his narrator a chance to offer a full resolution, however. Though it is clear throughout the narrator’s story that he understands events much better now than he did then, he still cannot account for the bigger mysteries. ‘‘The man is looking backward on the boy he once was,’’ Bohner explains, ‘‘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.’’
The southern rural setting of Blackberry Winter is significant in several ways. Warren considered himself a Southerner and a southern writer his entire career, despite the years he spent living in Minnesota, New York, and abroad. He, like Flannery O’Connor wrote years later, believed that the south would produce a richer literature because the experience of the Civil War and its repercussions meant that the region had ‘‘already had its fall,’’ had already acquired a deeper and more tragic vision of the human condition. For Warren the rural life in Kentucky and Tennessee (where the story is set) conjures images of an agrarian way life in the south that he believed was being threatened by the intrusion of homogenous northern industrialism (see below).
On a more personal level, though, the farm in Blackberry Winter evokes his grandfather’s place in Cerlulean, Kentucky, where Warren spent summers as a boy. Living in Minneapolis in 1946, where snow in May was not uncommon, Warren was apparently nostalgic for the warmer spring of his youth and found himself with a string of memories that became the story that many consider his best piece of short fiction.
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Warren's story is presented in a traditional realistic mode of first-person narration. However, the story, which seems, on first reading, to depend on the creation of mood and atmosphere, is carefully constructed around motifs of change and mutability: the sudden alteration in the season, the drowning of the chicks and the cows, the unexplained appearance of the tramp, and the unexpected sickness of Dellie. In contrast to these metaphors for change, aging, and death, the narrator also describes elements of stability in his world: his mother's fearless reaction to the tramp; his father's assurance in the face of the turmoil created by the flooded creek; the reliable behavior of the dogs; the untroubled demeanor and folk wisdom of Old Jebb. The presence of these opposing motifs creates the psychological conflict of the story.
Another significant technique is the inclusion of the final section which describes the fate of the major characters in the subsequent thirty-five years, and offers the mature narrator's somber reflection on his experience. The effect of Seth's reflective backward look is to emphasize the ironic distance between the mature man who understands experience and the eager and innocent boy who made these discoveries on the first morning of "blackberry winter." In addition, it is the mature Seth who offers an explanation of the meaning of the tramp's appearance, with the comment that he did "follow" the tramp into the world of adult experience.
Although Warren's initiation story may cause some readers to recall Hemingway's Nick Adams stories (especially in In Our Time), Warren has developed a more complex style than Hemingway's early fiction. Both Warren and Hemingway are typically modernist in their concern with vivid and concrete details, but Warren frequently uses effective subordinate clauses and blends his command of literary prose with a strong element of the Southern oral narrative style.
However, Warren's insistent use of concrete narrative details proved to be taxing for his imagination. At the time of the composition of "Blackberry Winter," Warren was having difficulty writing short lyrical poems, and as a result he decided not to write any more short fiction because he said that short stories "gobbled" up so many images that he could have used for his poetry. It is easy to see why, for several of the incidents in "Blackberry Winter" could have been turned into the kind of lyrics Warren would later include in Promises (1957), and the entire episode with the tramp's intrusion on the farm could have become a sequence of lyrics.
Ideas for Group Discussions
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Discussion of "Blackberry Winter" may take several differing approaches. One approach may stress changing social attitudes toward strange visitors or outsiders. Contemporary readers may be surprised by the casual way Seth and his family react to the presence of the tramp: although not very pleasant or ingratiating, the tramp is treated as essentially a respectable person seeking work until he proves himself otherwise. An age obsessed, as ours has been, with the potential menace of strangers, especially toward young children, may be astonished at the lack of fear displayed toward the mysterious stranger displayed by Seth's mother or by Seth.
Another useful approach may be to study Seth's attitudes toward parental authority. While he is not exactly rebellious, some resentment does exist, as is displayed by some of Seth's actions, as in Seth's persistent ignoring of his mother's order to wear shoes.
Yet another line of attack may be to look closely at the story's treatment of African-Americans. In what ways are Big Jebb, Dellie, and Little Jebb treated by the narrator as somehow belonging to a different order than Seth himself does. Is the treatment of these characters any different from fictional treatments of African-Americans today, in these more politically correct times?
In connection with the treatment of African-Americans, readers may also want to look carefully at the social class system implied by the story. For instance, it is obvious that Seth's family occupies a higher level of the social world of the story than that of "poor whites," such as the families of Milt Alley or Cy Dundee. Discussion could center on the variety of social classes that are clearly defined even in rural 1910 Kentucky.
Discussion of social class might lead easily into a further discussion of the way the historical and regional setting—a world thirty-five years earlier than that known by the mature narrator—becomes a major influence in the story.
1. What attitudes shown by the characters toward the stranger or the tramp seem different from the likely attitudes today? How are Seth's attitudes and the attitudes and those of his parents different from the probable attitudes of people today, even in rural areas? Would the tramp be viewed as a possible menace today, or would he be the subject of generalized pity, as a representative of the "homeless"?
2. Does the story's regionalism make its setting appear remote from contemporary attitudes? What major effects of the 1910 rural setting are visible influences on the characters?
3. What is Seth's precise boyish response toward the tramp? What is his mature view of the tramp, thirty-five years later? Is the final line regarding Seth's confession that he did "follow" down through the years capable of being given several different interpretations? If so, what are they?
4. What should our opinion of the tramp be? Is the tramp a figure of independence and nonconformity? Why is he described as having eyes that are "bloodshot"? What resentments does the tramp reveal?
5. How many instances of change (alterations of the season, aging, death) are presented in the story? Do these instances of change help to define the story's mood and purpose?
6. How are the African-Americans, Little Jebb, Dellie, and Big Jebb, presented? What is their social position in comparison with that of the narrator's family? What forces appear to motivate each of the three black characters?
7. In the discussion of the dead cow, how are the social statuses of Milt Alley and of Cy Dundee's family defined? What differing social levels are presented in the story?
8. What role is played by the aging Confederate veteran who recalls his times with "Gin'l Forrest"? What other vestiges of the Southern past appear in the story?
9. What role is played in the story by nature and the agrarian landscape? Is agrarian setting of the story to be regarded as pastoral or idyllic? Why or why not?
Compare and Contrast
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1940s: Workers during the Great Depression are faced with unemployment rates as high as 25% and relief comes through socialistic government programs. The United States also increases defense spending as the nation enters World War II.
1990s: Unemployment stands around 6%, but corporate downsizing has many workers concerned about their future. The government must reduce a multi-billion dollar deficit, yet the stock market continues its strong performance.
1940s: Blacks are excluded from the suburban housing boom of the era. The Federal Housing Authority practices ‘‘redlining’’: on city maps it draws red lines around predominantly black inner- city areas and refuses to insure loans for houses in those areas. This practice contributes to the demise of the inner city.
1990s: Though many upper- and middle-class blacks live and work in the suburbs, poor blacks are often confined to substandard housing in decaying urban areas, or ghettos.
1940s: Race relations are tense as blacks grow frustrated with segregation and discrimination. In southern states, poll taxes and literacy tests are used to prevent blacks from voting. Tempers explode during race riots in Detroit and Harlem in the summer of 1943.
1990s: Though civil rights legislation enacted during the 1960s has improved the conditions of minorities, particularly African Americans, the nation was polarized along racial lines in the debates over the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson trials.
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Among the main literary precedents for this story of boyhood initiation are Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (1876; see separate entry) and more importantly, Huckleberry Finn (1884; see separate entry). The regional realism of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919; see separate entry), may also have provided a useful precedent for Warren. It is also possible that Warren's short story was subtly influenced by the lengthy rite of passage novels of Thomas Wolfe, such as Look Homeward, Angel (1929; see separate entry), although Warren's command of fictional form and style was always much more controlled than Wolfe's. Nevertheless, Warren was well acquainted with Wolfe's fiction, since he had published an article containing largely negative comments on Wolfe's lack of artistic discipline.
A more potent influence than those mentioned above (except for Huckleberry Finn) was probably Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories of boyhood, especially those published in Hemingway's early collection, In Our Time (1924; see separate entry). In his series of tightly controlled short tales about Nick, his alter ego, Hemingway had described his protagonist experiencing dramatic encounters with death, the flaws of his parents, and the loss of early assurances and certainties.
Other regional short fiction about adolescence includes numerous stories by Southern authors, particularly Warren's near contemporary, William Faulkner in "Barn Burning," "That Evening Sun," and the novella, "The Bear." These stories deal with the growing awareness of a youthful protagonist, as do some of the classic short stories in the early collections by Katherine Anne Porter, a close friend of Warren's. A closer parallel may be provided by the short stories of Eudora Welty dealing with adolescence.
Since Warren expressed respect for the poetry of Conrad Aiken, it is possible that Aiken's famous story, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" was an influence on "Blackberry Winter," especially in its highly lyrical prose. However, Aiken's story describes a youthful mind that is retreating into a private world of fantasy and despair, whereas Warren's Seth is a stronger character who is beginning to discover the world of adult reality.
Later Southern writers have continued the tradition of studying the developing awareness of their protagonists, whether in childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. Flannery O'Connor's stories, Carson McCullers' novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940; see separate entry), and Bobbie Anne Mason in such stories as "Drawing Names" (1981). Other more recent fiction writers have also tended to follow Warren's precedent. Some of the early short fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, though set in the Midwest, offers interesting comparisons to and contrasts with "Blackberry Winter."
Bibliography and Further Reading
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Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography, New York: Random House, 1997.
Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren, Twayne United States Author Series, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Hicks, Granville. Review of Circus in the Attic, in the New York Times, January 25, 1948, p.5.
Lynn, David H. [In Memoriam], in Kenyon Review, N.s., Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall, 1989.
Review of Circus in the Attic, in Time, January 26, 1948.
Review of Circus in the Attic, in U.S. Quarterly Booklist, June, 1948.
Smith, H. N. Review, in Saturday Review of Literature, January 1, 1948.
Watkins, Floyd C. and John T. Heirs, eds. Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950–1978, New York: Random House, 1980.
Weathers, Winston. ‘‘Blackberry Winter and the Use of its Archetypes,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, pp. 45–51.
Conkin, Paul. The Southern Agrarians, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988. With the benefit of historical perspective and newer critical methods, Conkin offers a fresh perspective on the literary and scholarly contributions of the group of writers who called themselves The Agrarians. Contains a careful explanation of Warren’s sometimes strained relationship with the group.
Runyon, Paul Randolph. The Taciturn Text: The Fiction of Robert Penn Warren, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990. In this comprehensive study of Warren’s fiction, Runyon organizes his analysis historically. Chapter Four is a careful reading of the volume of stories of which ‘‘Blackberry Winter’’ is a part, and contains useful discussion of common themes and stylistic features.
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Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.
Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.
Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Madden, David, ed. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Szczesiul, Anthony. Racial Politics and Robert Penn Warren’s Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.