Robert Penn Warren Critical Essays

Robert Penn Warren American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Warren’s poetry and fiction often meditate on the twin mysteries of time and identity. Childhood is half remembered and half mythologized as a time of ignorance and innocence, sometimes expressed in terms borrowed from religion. It is a remembered paradise from which one inevitably falls from grace through original sin—that is, some malicious act or an insight into the moral ambiguity of oneself and others.

Original sin, as Warren uses the term, is not traceable to evil inherited from Adam’s initial disobedience, as Christian myth describes it, but is a normal development in the process of growing up. In that sense, guilt is inevitable, and the need for redemption is a psychological state peculiar to the human psyche. There is some element of inheritance in the nature of one’s individual burden of guilt, however, as the time and place of one’s birth help determine the kind of illusion, sin, or temptation one encounters. Like many southern writers of Warren’s generation, his being engrossed later in the history of the South, with its double jeopardy of inherited racial conflicts and defeat in the Civil War, adds a special depth to more personal family and individual problems. In this affinity for regional sorrows and predicaments, he is akin to his contemporary William Faulkner.

In some cases, the problem of identity and its moral implications are dramatized as a quest involving fathers and sons. The protagonist is often a young man in search of his father—that is, the source of his being. He may reject his biological father and choose a surrogate father whom he admires more. The ambitious protagonist of At Heaven’s Gate (1943) despises his lowborn parent and idealizes a successful but unscrupulous business tycoon.

The romantically deluded young man in World Enough and Time kills the surrogate father who has been his friend and benefactor. The protagonist of A Place to Come To (1977, a title suggesting a spiritual home) has both envied and despised his father but, in retirement, becomes reconciled to his childhood roots in the South and befriends the foster father that he had never acknowledged. In All the King’s Men, Jack Burden, whose very name may suggest unresolved guilt, does not even know who his father is. Moreover, Willie Stark in that novel is at least partially responsible for the death of his own son.

In some poems using a very young persona, such as “Court Martial,” the child gains a foreboding insight into the darker side of an idealized older man—in this case, Warren’s beloved grandfather. The episode is both historical and autobiographical, as well as a striking symbolic image of the frightening shadow-self that lurks in the unconscious mind. The moment when the child first glimpses the dark side of a loved person may pave the way for an understanding of his own capacity for evil. That self-recognition is necessary for emotional and moral maturity.

Trained as he was in the classical tradition of Greek, Shakespearean, and Jacobean drama, which he often taught, Warren was very conscious of the tragic sense of life. While human destiny may seem fated or inevitable, it is nevertheless self-chosen and rooted in individual character. One learns through error and suffering. The self-knowledge gained in this process may end in disaster or, in more fortunate circumstances, may result in a reconciliation and renewed love for life. Warren noted how, in his classes at Louisiana State (which was Huey Long’s alma mater) the students’ attention sharpened as he discussed the political background of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Tragedy came alive when Huey Long was assassinated, almost on the steps of the state capitol, in a seeming replay of historical drama.

Warren often used local legends or adapted historical events for literary purposes. He made no claims for literal accuracy. He disclaimed any actual knowledge of Huey Long, for example, but he listened to the endless legends that circulated among the common people who thought they had found a champion at last against the aristocratic, wealthy families who controlled southern politics.

Physical deformity was sometimes used by Warren to suggest or symbolize the human character flaw that afflicts all people. Such flawed characters are not necessarily bad persons; in fact, in some cases, such a visible sign of imperfection seems to help the sufferer to avoid inordinate pride and attain a measure of redemption. In the poem “Original Sin,” the defect is first associated with an old man’s disfiguring wen, later with some foolish monster, and still later rather fondly with an old dog, scratching at the door, or a tired horse put out to pasture. Warren has even used a glass eye, which he himself wore, as indicative of some secret flaw. Sometimes the sign is more obvious, such as the clubfoot of the idealistic young immigrant who comes to America to help free the slaves in the Civil War novel Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961).

In his long career, Warren sought to reconcile some of the most contradictory elements of American intellectual life, particularly the inheritance of eighteenth century optimism about humankind’s essential goodness and social progress with the darker, romantic consciousness of good and evil advanced by such American writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Although Warren may lean heavily on the symbolism and imagery of romanticism, he does so with an irony that recognizes illusion and myth as necessary parts of human consciousness. Warren believed that the self is not synonymous with the ego alone but must include irrational elements of the subconscious, through which the individual is bound to all humanity and to nature.

All the King’s Men

First published: 1946

Type of work: Novel

Jack Burden, former newspaperman and former graduate student of history, gains self-knowledge through his association with a charismatic politician.

All the King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, has sometimes been called the best political novel written in the United States. Nevertheless, its emphasis is on the private psychological roots of action that is played out on a public political stage. The social milieu is authentically drawn, with redneck farmers pitted against entrenched aristocratic families.

Jack Burden is in between the political forces, initially simply a spectator and a reporter from an upper-middle-class background, watching with curiosity and a certain fascination as a man from the farm becomes a self-taught lawyer and moves into politics. Plain-speaking Willie Stark, who hardly looks like a hero, learns to capture an audience of poor dirt farmers and small-town businessmen, in whom he inspires almost fanatical devotion. He is a cunning, hardworking, expedient politician, promising to build roads and bridges in the isolated rural areas and hospitals for the common people.

It is a story of men who do not know themselves. Willie Stark thinks he can use evil means to achieve good ends. Jack Burden tries to avoid guilt by running away from it or simply not seeing it, and he does not recognize his own father and inadvertently kills him. Judge Irwin, representative of the old genteel tradition, literally forgets his original sin. Adam Stanton, the puritan idealist, suddenly casts off all restraints to kill Willie Stark.

Stark attains power partly by understanding and controlling other men. He recruits Jack for his personal staff, partly for his skill in research. Jack’s first task at the outset of their relationship is to “find something” on an old friend of his father, Judge Irwin, who had been like a father to Jack in his younger days. The reason for the investigation is that Judge Irwin has come out for Stark’s opponent in the upcoming election.

Jack pursues this inquiry into Judge Irwin’s background with a curious objectivity, convinced, on one hand, that there can be no hint of wrongdoing in what he calls “the case of the upright judge” and, on the other hand, wondering whether Stark’s assessment of human nature may, after all, be accurate.

Stark’s answer to Jack’s assurances that there could be nothing dishonorable in the background of Judge Irwin is reiterated three times in the novel: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the grave. There is always something.” Burden does, in fact, find “something” in the forgotten past. Not only did the upright judge once accept a bribe, but he was also protected by the equally immaculate Governor Stanton, father of Adam and Anne, Jack’s dearest childhood friends. Anne had been Jack’s first love.

The career of Willie Stark quickly becomes, to Jack, more than an interesting spectator sport, and his employment becomes more than a convenient job serving a dynamic personality. Burden becomes enmeshed in a complex web of relationships and circumstances that involve his own past, as well as the uneasy present and the dubious future. Burden holds on to his knowledge about the judge until Anne herself asks him to convince her brother Adam, now a celebrated surgeon, that he should accept the directorship of the new medical center that Willie wants to build.

Jack understands that the only way to influence Adam in this respect is to change his mind about the moral nature of the world—to break his conviction that good and evil can be kept separate. How better to achieve this than to reveal that the idealized father and the irreproachable judge were themselves guilty of political crimes?

The bitter knowledge of his father’s expedient compromise with honor has the desired effect on the puritanical Adam. He makes an uneasy alliance with Stark (whom he despises) for the...

(The entire section is 4067 words.)