Robert Penn Warren

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Robert Penn Warren Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3915

Often, what Robert Penn Warren said about other writers provides important insight into his own works. This is especially true of Warren’s perceptive essay “The Great Mirage: Conrad and Nostromo” (in Selected Essays), in which he discusses the enigmatic speech of Stein in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900): A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns—nicht wahr?No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.

Warren interprets the dream here as “man’s necessity to justify himself and his actions into moral significance of some order, to find sanctions.” The destructiveness of the dream arises from humans’ nature as egotistical animals with savage impulses, not completely adapted to the dream sea of ideas. The one who learns to swim instead of drowning in the unnatural sea of ideas is he who realizes that the values he creates are illusion, but that “the illusion is necessary, is infinitely precious, is the mark of his human achievement, and is, in the end, his only truth.” Warren calls Nostromo “a study in the definition and necessity of illusion.” This phrase could also describe most of Warren’s works of fiction.

Warren’s classification of thematic elements in Conrad’s stories could also be applied to his own. Warren writes that Conrad is concerned with the person who lacks imagination but clings to fidelity and duty (like the old captain in Youth, 1902), the sinner against human solidarity and the human mission (like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, 1902, and Decoud in Nostromo), and the redeemed individual (Jim in Lord Jim and Dr. Monygham in Nostromo). Warren says that Conrad is most interested in the latter—“the crisis of this story comes when the hero recognizes the terms on which he may be saved, the moment, to take Morton Zabel’s phrase, of the ’terror of the awakening.’”

One might note that in Warren’s novel At Heaven’s Gate, Jerry’s dirt-farmer father fits the pattern of natural rectitude, while Slim Sarrett, the nihilistic, cynical artist, is certainly the sinner against human solidarity. No one seems to be redeemed in At Heaven’s Gate, though Jerry might have a chance in a hypothetical future, since he has acquired considerable self-knowledge. Mr. Munn in Night Rider has also stripped away his own illusions, but he dies, like William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, without redemption. In other novels of this period, however, Jack Burden in All the King’s Men, and perhaps even the murderer in World Enough and Time, achieve some kind of absolution. Warren and Conrad share this deep obsession with the need for redemption, and though the sentiment is religious and may be expressed in Christian imagery, it is consistently humanistic in emphasis. The world they both recognize is a naturalistic one, but people must live in two worlds, the world of facts and the world of ideas, which they create themselves. Warren’s notion of submission to the realm of ideas is analogous, perhaps, to Hemingway’s code of the hunter, the fisherman, the bullfighter, or the soldier, which provides existential meaning in a meaningless world.

Warren’s early novels, particularly Night Rider, All the King’s Men, and World Enough and Time, which critics generally agree are his best, trace a pattern of increasing complexity in the theme of people’s vacillation between the fantasy of dreams and the reality of facts. After World Enough and Time, which is almost too densely packed and convoluted in theme, Warren relaxed his insistence that everything must be said on the subject of illusion and reality in one novel. Later works, such as Meet Me in the Green Glen and Wilderness, though not conspicuously different in theme, concentrate on a particular manifestation of the problem—on the nature of love in Meet Me in the Green Glen, and on the nature of altruism in Wilderness.

Actually, Warren’s examination of the apposition between the world of ideas and the world of facts begins in his first book, John Brown. Warren portrays the militant abolitionist as not so much obsessed with freeing slaves as with starring in his own myth. Brown is encouraged in this role by the unqualified praise of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Warren believed to be a writer of empty words, with little perception of the real world; Warren quotes Emerson as saying of Brown, “He is a man to make friends wherever on earth courage and integrity are esteemed—the rarest of heroes, a pure idealist, with no by-ends of his own.” Warren did not for a moment believe that Brown was a “pure idealist”; moreover, Warren had a continuing distrust of “pure idealists,” whoever they might be. In his fiction, Warren was inclined to show abstract idealists as lacking in self-knowledge, capable of self-righteous violence because they refuse to acknowledge their own irrational impulses. The best example of this personality-type in Warren’s fiction is Adam Stanton, in All the King’s Men, who assassinates Willie because Willie, the man of fact, seduced Adam’s sister.

John Brown, however, as one who uses exalted ideas to inflate his own self-image, is more akin to Warren’s Professor Ball, Dr. MacDonald, and Mr. Munn of Night Rider; Bogan Murdock, the industrialist, and Slim Sarett, of At Heaven’s Gate; and Wilkie Barron, the manipulative false friend of Jeremiah Beaumont, in World Enough and Time. Willie, though categorized by Jack as the “man of fact,” in contrast to Adam, the “man of idea,” has his own idealistic dream of the people’s hospital, free to anyone who needs it. Whether that dream was truly altruistic, however, or tinged by the secret need for a personal monument to his existence, is ambiguous.

Night Rider

Warren thus suggests that the self is itself part of the dream sea of ideas. Warren’sprotagonists are often initially passive persons whose emptiness is filled by other more dynamic personalities. Having acquired a somewhat fictitious self under such influence, they proceed to act in the real world as though that dream were true—often with tragic results. Thus, Mr. Munn seems an innocuous, ordinary young lawyer when he first appears in Night Rider, but he is drawn irresistibly to his more dynamic friend, Mr. Christian, who has a legitimate concern for the plight of the tobacco growers at the mercy of the price-controlling tobacco company. Munn learns to savor his new role as labor leader. He is ripe, then, for indoctrination by more conniving, professional agitators, Professor Ball and Dr. MacDonald, who preach a secret society that will scrape the fields of uncooperative growers and punish backsliders who dare to violate the embargo.

What begins as a lawful strike by the downtrodden majority becomes lawless action by a vigilante group that destroys crops, burns warehouses, and commits murder. In the case of Munn, the crisis of this psychic change in direction comes when he realizes that his assigned task to assassinate the tobacco farmer Bunk Trevelyon, whom he once defended in court on a murder charge, is not only his “duty” to the group; it also satisfies something very personal in himself that he has not yet recognized. Trevelyon had committed the murder of which he was once accused, and the African American who was hanged for that murder was innocent. Trevelyon thus becomes the symbol for Munn’s half-conscious cooperation in framing the African American, or, to use another favorite term of Warren, Munn’s original sin. In this ritual of retribution, the shared myth of community justice fuses with Munn’s private myth of killing the shadow self, an act of both self-condemnation and deliberate concealment of a secret crime.

After this private confrontation and ritual killing of his shadow self, Munn makes no more moral objections to anything Ball and MacDonald want to do. The three lead a concerted assault on the company warehouses, which results in a number of casualties. One person who dies is young Benton Todd, who had been an ardent admirer of Munn. Moreover, Todd hoped to marry Mr. Christian’s daughter, Lucille, who has been having a secret affair with Munn. If Trevelyon symbolizes the murderous shadow self that Munn has hated to acknowledge, Benton Todd suggests the lost idealism, the better dream that Munn has betrayed.

Munn’s subsequent flight to the West to escape prosecution for a murder he did not commit might have resulted in redemption, but it does not. The pattern of redemption is presented to him obliquely by the story of Proudfit, the impoverished farmer who is sheltering Munn. Proudfit tells of his own checkered career in the West, as a buffalo hunter and hide-tanner, with companions as rough and wild as himself. Eventually, however, he lives in peace among American Indians. When he becomes ill, the Native Americans care for him, using all their resources of natural healing and religious ritual. In his fever, he eventually has a vision of Kentucky, where he was reared, and a young woman waiting beside a stream. His strength then begins to return, so he leaves the Native American friends and goes back to find the very woman he saw in his vision, now his wife, and the very hill he saw, which is now his farm.

Proudfit’s story is both an engrossing dialectnarrative and a unique version of the underlying myth of death and resurrection. Proudfit’s humble redemption contrasts with the myth of sin and damnation implied in Munn’s career. Both Proudfit and Munn have a period of withdrawal (Proudfit, among the American Indians; Munn, on Proudfit’s remote farm), time to rethink their past lives and future goals. This experience is analogous, perhaps, to the withdrawal and contemplation that the mythic hero undergoes before he returns to his homeland as a new man. Munn, however, is not transformed. He does become mildly obsessed with the innocent African American who died in Trevelyon’s stead, but he cannot even remember the man’s name. Perhaps his inability to name the scapegoat is intended to suggest Munn’s distance from the redemption offered by Christ’s sacrifice. This does not mean that Warren was advocating Christianity; he was admitting, at least, a moral vacuum where traditional values have been eliminated in a society concerned primarily with power and wealth.

All the King’s Men

The polarity of idea and fact receives more explicit development in All the King’s Men. Again, an essentially passive person, Jack Burden, feeds emotionally on a more dynamic personality, Willie Stark. Jack calls himself—somewhat cynically—an idealist, but his idealism consists mostly of a fastidious preference for not getting his hands dirty with some of Willie’s more questionable political maneuvers. Willie is good-naturedly tolerant of Jack’s moral preferences, since he has Tiny Duffy to do his dirty work.

Jack considers himself a good judge of character and motives, but when a cherished image about the purity and goodness of his old girlfriend, Anne Stanton, is proven to be false, he is devastated and lost in self-doubt. Anne, who is quite a passive, unfulfilled person herself, has become Willie’s mistress. Jack’s first impulse is to flee, to escape, to drown, to fall into what he calls the Great Sleep. From this symbolic death, Burden is born again into a bleak but emotionally insulating belief in the Great Twitch—an understanding of the world as completely amoral and mechanistic, wherein no one has any responsibility for what happens. Here, indeed, Jack has stepped out of the fantasy of dreams into the reality of facts.

Jack can now consent to let Willie use the information he has uncovered concerning Judge Irwin’s long-forgotten political crime. Jack soon discovers how brutal the world of fact can be, when Judge Irwin’s suicide reveals that the judge was actually Jack’s own father. Hardly recovered from this blow, Jack recognizes a measure of responsibility for the deaths of Willie and his best friend, Adam, who is shot by Willie’s bodyguard after the assassination. Through his passivity and noninvolvement, Jack had virtually handed over Anne to his more dynamic boss, and thus set the stage for assassination.

The novel is a fascinating study of symbiotic relationships, of which the most striking is that between Willie, the practical politician, and Adam, the puritanical idealist and perfectionist. Warren also suggests a politically symbiotic relationship between the demagogue and the people he represents. In social terms, the world of All the King’s Men is more complex than that of Night Rider. Munn’s career is essentially that of the tragic hero, the good but not exclusively good man who is corrupted by power. Willie, however, is sustained not only by his own drive for power but also by the concerted will of his constituency, who feel themselves to be socially and politically helpless. He is probably more significant as an antidote to their depression than as an answer to their physical needs. Even though Willie wants to change the world of facts for their benefit—build roads, bridges, a free hospital—it is for his psychological impact, exemplifying the triumph of the common person over the privileged elite, that he is beloved. Thus, even the man of facts floats in the symbolic sea of ideas.

World Enough and Time

If the relationship between dream and reality is complicated in All the King’s Men, in World Enough and Time it becomes intricately complex. Seldom have human aspirations been so relentlessly exposed, one after another, as frail illusions. Though it might be termed a historical novel because it is based loosely on an actual event, or a philosophical novel because it comments repeatedly on the abstract meaning of human behavior and aspiration, World Enough and Time is better termed a psychological novel, or more precisely, perhaps, an examination of the psychological motivations for philosophizing. It is certainly not, like Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” to which the title ironically alludes, a neat argument for seizing pleasures while one may. It is not a neat argument for any philosophical position, but it illuminates the sequential confusion of a reasonably thoughful, well-meaning person trying to identify himself and justify his actions.

Jeremiah Beaumont, the orphaned son of an unsuccessful Kentucky farmer in the early nineteenth century, becomes the loved protégé of Colonel Cassius Fort, a well-known lawyer and statesman of the region. Jerry’s exalted view of Colonel Fort receives a cruel blow from his dashing friend Wilkie Barron, a popular man-about-town and dabbler in politics. Wilkie tells Jerry of a beautiful woman he once loved in vain, who was seduced by an older man who had come to console her when her father died. When the young woman, Rachel Jordan, had a stillborn child, the older man abandoned her. The knave who wronged her was the unimpeachable Colonel Fort.

The persuasive Wilkie succeeds in promoting in a somewhat passive Jerry a romantic vision of wronged womanhood. From this point on, Jerry creates his own drama of love and revenge, though Wilkie continues to manipulate him in ways he never understands until near the end of his life. Jerry repudiates Colonel Fort, his surrogate father, and woos and eventually wins the lovely Rachel, who is in a neurotic state of depression, not because of the supposed perfidy of Colonel Fort but because of her baby’s death. Jerry, blind to the real source of her despondency, hounds her into commanding him to defend her honor. Fort refuses a duel with Jerry, however, and the honorable vengeance seems destined to fizzle. Rachel is again pregnant, and Jerry is fitting into the comfortable role of country squire. An unknown messenger brings to Rachel a slanderous handbill in which Colonel Fort, presumably denying to his political opponents his affair with Rachel, claims that Rachel had slept with a slave. Fort had gallantly claimed paternity of the child as a chivalric gesture. This shocking document, which is actually a forgery written by Wilkie, precipitates Rachel’s labor, and Jerry’s child is also born dead. Jerry, in remorse, kills Fort—not openly in a duel, as he had planned, but secretly, letting it appear to be a political assassination.

Jerry’s trial is a bewildering process where deceit and truth become inextricably mixed. Wilkie appears, however, and reveals Jerry’s vow to kill Fort, the reaction Wilkie had himself orchestrated even before Jerry had met the wronged lady. All is lost, and Jerry is sentenced to hang. Rachel comes and stays with him in his basement jail cell, where they indulge in a passionate interlude—a veritable frenzy of love in the face of imminent death.

The unpredictable Wilkie appears at the last minute, after the lovers have unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by drinking laudanum. Wilkie rescues them and sends them west to live in the desolate island refuge of a notorious bandit. This is a return to nature, but a nature devoid of its original innocence, incapable of healing the scars of “civilization.” Jerry sinks into a bestial pattern and Rachel into insanity, eventually killing herself. Jerry, who finds out that the slanderous handbill came from Wilkie, is himself murdered as he seeks to find his way back to the hangman, resigned now to the most austere prize of all—neither love nor honor, but simply knowledge.

The flight to the West seems an almost gratuitous extension of suffering, especially since the real Jereboam Beauchamp, who murdered Colonel Solomon Sharp in 1825, did hang for his crime. The real trial and death of Beauchamp and his wife, Ann Cook, were only slightly less miserable, however, than Warren’s fictional account.

Warren’s extension to allow further demoralization of the lovers does help to explore all possible approaches to the problem of reconciling the ideal and the real. At first, Jerry believes that the idea must redeem the world: The mental context defines the object. Unfortunately, this route leads to an idealism divorced from action and allows a further evil to develop in the world—the death of his child. Then he believes that the world will redeem the idea—that is, the act of killing Fort will vindicate the idea of honor. In his flight to the West, he commits a third error, the opposite to his first: to deny the idea completely and embrace the physical world—“to seek communion only in the blank cup of nature.”

Perhaps this tortured journey through innocence and experience should arrive at some reconciliation of opposites, but, if so, that too seems more dream than reality. “There must be a way whereby the word becomes flesh,” muses Jerry in his last days. Even so, “I no longer seek to justify. I seek only to suffer.” If this is not a particularly lucid analysis of philosophical possibilities, it may nevertheless be true psychologically to the mental and moral confusion in which people live. Perhaps it is intended to represent the “terror of the awakening” that Warren finds in Conrad’s Lord Jim when the “hero recognizes the terms on which he may be saved.”

In his later novels, Warren continued to deal with the tension between the ideal and the real. The central mystery is usually the self, which the protagonist does not know except through a painful dialectic between exalted idea and gross fact. The protagonist also suffers from an inability to identify his real father or the real home where he belongs. Jack Burden and Jeremiah Beaumont both have several surrogate fathers, but they are responsible for the deaths of those to whom they owe the greatest filial loyalty. In At Heaven’s Gate, Jerry Calhoun rejects his real father, the man of natural rectitude and love, and gives his devotion to Bogan Murdock, who, in Conrad’s phrase, is hollow at the core.

A Place to Come To

Even in Warren’s last novel, A Place to Come To, the protagonist’s first act is to despise his father and flee from his homeland; his last is to return to his hometown and make peace with the gentle stepfather he had never wanted to meet and the deaf father who had humiliated him as a child. As Warren wrote in “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” the son must always return to the father, who often represents the flawed and fallen world that is our heritage.


The struggle between the ideal and the real in Warren’s later novels is most explicit in Wilderness, about an idealistic young Jew from Bavaria who comes to the United States to fight for the freedom of the slaves. When his father, a political prisoner in Berlin, dies, Adam Rosenzweig realizes that he has “lived only in the dream of his father’s life, the father’s manhood, the father’s heroism.” The trip to America is a way to star in his own heroic story. Adam’s career in America is a progress in disillusionment; the telltale symbol of the compromising world of physical fact is his clubfoot, which he has desperately sought to hide in a specially constructed boot. If World Enough and Time is Warren’s most complex treatment of idealism, Wilderness is his most direct treatment of this recurring subject, uncluttered by secondary themes or plots. Some critics prefer it for that reason, though it lacks the depth and humanity of Warren’s earlier epic treatment of romantic idealism.

Meet Me in the Green Glen

Meet Me in the Green Glen is a pastoral novel about the nature of love. The love of a homeless young Italian immigrant for a dowdy country wife begins with carnal passion devoid of any attempt to idealize sexual attraction. The ironically named Angelo has distinct similarities to Conrad’s “natural man,” Nostromo, who lives in the physical world with little thought of any other. In fact, Angelo protects himself from any really serious bond with Cassie, the frustrated wife of a paralyzed man, casting her in the more tawdry dream of “scarlet woman” with gifts of a tight red dress and cosmetics. Only at the last, when she pleads for his life in court by confessing to the murder of her husband, of which Angelo is accused, does he recognize a love that transcends the merely physical. Just as Adam in Wilderness becomes more human when he admits the strength of flawed reality, so Angelo becomes more human when he recognizes the strength of dreams. In spite of Cassie’s confession, Angelo is condemned to die, because, in his ignorance of the racial situation, he violates the mores of the community. Cassie, unable to save her lover, drifts off in the dream sea of ideas, forgetting the sordid elements of their affair and only retaining the dream that transcends the body’s need.

In these and other episodes in his fiction, Warren showed his fascination with what he called, in his Conrad essay, “the Great Mirage.” It is a dark vision that sees all human values as illusions, yet insists—with the passion that fueled six decades of creative work—that such illusions are necessary, and that humanity must continue to invent itself.

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