Robert Penn Warren

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Robert Penn Warren Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2108

Many of Robert Penn Warren’s stories feature an adult protagonist’s introspective, guilty recollections of imperishable childhood events, of things done or left undone or simply witnessed with childish innocence.

“Blackberry Winter”

“Blackberry Winter” (the literal reference is to an unseasonable, late spring cold snap) opens with a nine-year-old boy’s unbroken, secure world, a small community permeated with the presence and warmth of protective loved ones. A vaguely sinister city-clothed stranger happens by and is given a job burying drowned chicks and poults by the boy’s mother. Later the boy watches with his father and neighboring farmers as a dead cow, the yoke still around her neck, bobs down a flooding creek past fields of ruined tobacco plants. Then the boy finds a somehow shocking heap of litter washed out from under the house of his father’s black help. Dellie, who lives there, is sick in bed with “woman-mizry,” and after calling him to her side, gives her son little Jebb a sudden, “awful” slap. Big Jebb predicts that the cold snap will go on and that everything and everyone will die, because the Lord is tired of sinful people.

Later on, when the boy’s father explains that he cannot afford to hire any help now but offers the stranger fifty cents for a half day’s work, the stranger curses the farm and leaves, followed by the curious boy, whom he also curses. “You don’t stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.” “But I did follow him,” the narrator tells us, “all the years.” At the end of the story all the sureties of the boy’s world have been threatened, and in the epilogue we learn that the farm was soon lost, his parents died, and little Jebb has gone to prison. The narrator has learned that the essence of time is the passing away of things and people; he has been exposed to natural and moral evil.

“When the Light Gets Green”

“When the Light Gets Green” (the reference is to a peculiar, ominous shade of greenish light just before a storm) recalls “Blackberry Winter” in its setting, characterization, and theme, as well as in its retrospective point of view. The story’s first two sentences display the technique: “My grandfather had a long white beard and sat under the cedar tree. The beard, as a matter of fact, was not very long and not very white, only gray, but when I was a child. ” Grandfather Barden had served as a Confederate cavalry captain in the Civil War; he had been a hero, but now he is old and thin and his blue jeans hang off his shrunken hips and backside. During a bad hailstorm in the summer of 1914 which threatens his son-in-law’s tobacco crop, the old man has a stroke and collapses, and later upstairs in his room waits to die—unloved, as he believes. His is the necessarily uncomprehending and hopeless fight that love and pride put up against time and change. His grandson, who visits him but cannot speak, suffers the guilt of having tried and failed both to feel and to communicate the impossible love the old man needed.

Mr. Barden, as we learn in the epilogue, lived until 1918, by which time other catastrophes had intervened—the farm sold, his son-in-law fighting in France, where he would soon be killed, his daughter working in a store. “I got the letter about my grandfather, who died of the flu,” the story concludes, “but I thought about four years back, and it didn’t matter much.” The now adult narrator is puzzled and shamed by his failure and betrayal of his grandfather. In the dual perspective of the story Warren infuses a self-condemnatory ambivalence toward the old man which gives to the narrative the quality of expiation.

“Prime Leaf”

“Prime Leaf,” Warren’s first published story, derives from the Kentucky tobacco wars of the first decade of the twentieth century, in which tobacco farmers organized in an attempt to secure higher prices from the tobacco buyers. The focus of the story is upon contention within the Hardin family, most directly between Old Man Hardin and Big Thomas, his son, but also involving Thomas’s wife and young son. Old Man Hardin leaves the farmers’ association rather than support the use of force against those members who object to the association’s price fixing. Big Thomas, whom he had originally convinced to join the association, refuses to resign immediately. Their reconciliation occurs only after Big Thomas wounds one of a party of barn-burning night riders raiding the Hardins’ property. Big Thomas decides that he will wait at home for the sheriff, but his father urges him to ride into town to justice, and on the way Big Thomas is ambushed and killed. The opposition of father and son is a contest between idea and fact, between idealism and pragmatism. Old Man Hardin is a kind and morally upright man but is also notably detached, remote, and unyielding. To his idealism is opposed his son’s stubborn practicality, born of hard experience.

In delineating the conflict of the two men, with its tragic and ironic outcome, Warren did not espouse the beliefs of either, but focused on the incompleteness of each. Old Man Hardin, embodying the rocklike integrity of the gentleman-farmer tradition, places an unwise reliance on what he still—despite much evidence to the contrary—takes to be the due processes of law. He cannot save his son and is in a way responsible for his death. Big Thomas, firing at the night riders until his rifle jams, before yielding to his father, does not resolve in acceptable fashion the problem of ends and means.

“The Circus in the Attic”

“The Circus in the Attic” is a long and crowded tale about the meaning—or apparent meaninglessness—of history. It features, appropriately enough, a would-be local historian, Bolton Lovehart, a frail, frustrated man of aristocratic antecedents, whose deepest desire is simply to be free and himself. The only child of a weak father and an almost cannibalistically possessive mother, Bolton as a boy makes several doomed gestures of resistance. To his mother’s subsequent horror, he participates in a riverbank baptismal ceremony; later he runs off with a carnival but is immediately retrieved. During his first year at college his now widowed mother has a heart attack; such at least is her story, although she will not allow a specialist to examine her and treats her son’s suggestion as treason. In any event, Bolton does not return to college and life closes in on him. He begins to see a young woman, but, realizing that Bolton’s mother has the stronger hold, she deliberately seduces and then abandons him.

Establishing the context of local history back to the first white settlers, Warren provided a series of vivid and ironic vignettes, one of which distinguishes between the official, heroic, United Daughters of the Confederacy version of the Civil War battle of Bardsville and the half-comic, half-sordid truth of the unremarkable little affair. One of the heroes, Cash Perkins, full of liquor, climbed on the wrong horse, a particularly mean one, and was carried, helpless and roaring, directly into Yankee rifle range. The truth of the other memorialized hero, Seth Sykes, was somewhat more involved. He cared nothing for Secession, said so publicly, and lost a stomp-and-gouge fight over it. Then he said he hoped the Yankees would come, which they soon did, to take his corn, for which they offered him a note. He would have none of it; he had offered them meat but not his corn. He resisted and was killed. Of the official, patriotic versions of these two deaths, Warren wrote, “ people always believe what truth they have to believe to go on being the way they are.”

Bolton Lovehart’s major resource and consolation is the painstaking creation of a tiny circus—complete with animals and clowns and trapeze artists and a lion tamer—which he carves in the attic office where he is supposedly composing his study of local history. Upon his mother’s death (finally, she does have a heart attack), it appears that he may at last enter into a life of his own. Shortly before World War II, Bolton marries, finds a hero in his braggart stepson, a posthumous Medal of Honor winner, and becomes for a time in his reflected energy and glory a current affairs expert and historian of sorts. His wife, however, who has been unfaithful to him, is killed in an automobile crash, his stepson is taken from him, and at last he returns to the creation of those small, inanimate, innocent, wooden objects whose world alone he cherishes, controls, and understands. Bolton Lovehart’s is less a fully human life than a kind of pathetic facsimile. His study of Bardsville’s past—and by extension, humans’ study of history—seems to assert that historical causation and “truth” are unknowable, that all humans are equally unimportant, and that all people are trapped in their own dark compulsions.

Warren is commonly identified as a southern writer and associated with such other premier representatives of that area as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. So long as “southern” is not equated with “regionalist” in the limiting sense of that term, the description is accurate if not very illuminating. In another sense, however, as is apparent in his short fiction, Warren was a provincial, at least insofar as he retained an attachment to and an awareness of generally humanistic values—moral, social, and theological—often regarded as a vital part of the region’s heritage. Thus the frequently noticeable tension between stylistic understatement (apparent in passages quoted earlier) and thematic intensity characteristic of the stories seems a reflection of a pull between the old humanistic conception of human wholeness and a naturalistic belief in the fragmented and unintegrated nature of human experience.

Warren published his last short story, “The Circus in the Attic,” in 1947; thereafter he published as stories fourteen prepublication excerpts from his novels. Although in his nearly twenty years as a short-story writer Warren produced some fine work, both the author and a good many of his readers have found his achievement in short fiction less satisfying than that in other genres, notably poetry and the novel.

Explanations for his limited success in and satisfaction with short fiction might start with the fact that when he wrote many of the stories collected in The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories, he was a beginner, at least in fiction. It is also the case, as Warren conceded, that he wrote for the quick buck, which did not come. Most of the stories did not represent major efforts; as Arthur Miller has said of his own short stories, they were what came easier. Finally, and most importantly, the form itself seems to have inhibited Warren’s natural talents and inclinations.

In writing stories in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Warren appears to have backed into what was for him an unhappy compromise; stories were neither long enough nor short enough, offered neither the satisfying extensive scope of the novel nor the demanding intensive concision of the poem. Short stories might occasionally serve as sketches for novels (“Prime Leaf,” discussed earlier, is the prototype of Warren’s first published novel, Night Rider, 1939), but Warren found that the overlap between the short story and the poem was bad for him, that stories consumed material that would otherwise have become poems. Thus he said, “Short stories are out for me.”

Despite such demurs, however, Warren’s achievement in the short story is that of a major talent. Warren’s ear never failed him; the voices from the past and of the present always ring true. No one writing in his day had a better ear—one could almost say recollection, if one did not know Warren’s age—for the voices of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. His eyes were open to both the panorama and to the smallest evocative detail: from the trapper looking across the mountains to the West to the cracked and broken shoe of a tramp. He was intensely alive to the natural world. This is not to say simply that the natural backgrounds of the stories are vividly realized and accurately observed, although Warren was here the equal of Ernest Hemingway or Faulkner, but that such observation and realization provide the bases for those effects characteristic of his stories, for the evocation of atmosphere, for tonal modulation, and for symbolic representation.

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