Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 4)
Warren, Robert Penn 1905–
Warren is a celebrated American poet, novelist, short story writer, literary critic, essayist, and editor. Warren was an original member of the influential "Fugitive Group" of poets and is often associated with New Criticism in literature. The moral and intellectual welfare of men in complex contemporary society, an abiding aspect of his agrarian sensibility, has been a prevailing theme in his work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
[Robert Penn Warren is] a writer of great talent, great sophistication, and great intellect. The most notable characteristic of Warren's work is his serious concern with religious and philosophical ideas. He attempts to write the novel of ideas in which the essentially southern view of man is dramatized through melodramatic actions involving southern characters.
For Warren the problems of man are the twin problems of finding identity and expiating guilt. In finding identity man moves, he believes, from nontime to time, from innocence to guilt; for guilt is an inevitable property of identity. Warren repeatedly tells the story of that guilt and that search in poetry, short stories, and novels, frequently laid in the historical past or involving legendary folk characters.
Warren's novels are uniformly technical tours de force, in which the normal demands of their apparent type of fiction are set aside in order to achieve meaning through the manipulation of action and the special use of witty, knowing, and metaphysical language which can express meaning in its complexity and ambiguity.
C. Hugh Holman, "The Novel in the South," in A Time of Harvest, edited by Robert E. Spiller (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1962 by Robert E. Spiller), Hill & Wang, 1962, pp. 83-94.
In discussing the ideas in Mr. Warren's novels one pays, inevitably, insufficient attention to the effect of his luxurious, and in its way undoubtedly magnificent, romantic style upon his material. This style is seen at its full reach in World Enough and Time, a book in which the invented quotations from early nineteenth-century histories, autobiographies, newspapers and pamphlets are done with such skill and at such leisurely length that they have an air of absolute fidelity. In spite of all its rhetorical glitter the style is used here positively to enhance the force with which Mr. Warren puts forward his ideas about man's place in history.
Julian Symons, "Fables for our Time" (1962), in his Critical Occasions, Hamish Hamilton, 1966, pp. 119-25.
Robert Penn Warren's lyric poetry … depicts the condition of modern man suffering from unbelief…. Warren's modern man … is entirely isolated within the society, and suffers only his own private agonies…. There are only solitary individuals discovering their own predicament, for the most part devoid of the responsibility for any historical or social representation. His people are locked in with their loneliness; it is not a mode of thought with them,… but a literal fact, a condition of being….
For Warren … the agrarian image is an assertion of the supremacy of dumb nature, the massive reality of the natural world as contrasted with the doubt, the ignorance of thinking men with their pathetic searching for values beyond those of nature. In this respect Warren seems almost Emersonian, but without the earlier poet's easy optimism about cosmic unity and Transcendental purpose….
His agrarians are not virtuous husbandmen; there is little of the pastoral corrective in them…. Warren's men in nature are anguished mortals caught in time, for whom the stony fields of winter are withering reminders of human transience, and the forest a place where the crimes of culpable humanity may be re-enacted.
Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in his Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country, University of Washington Press, 1963, pp. 176-82.
If Warren is a first-rank novelist, it is not because he is "wise"; he simply brings the most energy and knowledge to bear imaginatively on [the] point of collision. No other novelist so committed to modernism—with its devotion to truth of the inner life, its alliance with a presumably superior past, its confidence in its vision of something better than commercial industrial society—so powerfully conveys the surprise at being given world enough and time to try translating arrogance into actuality. In all of his best novels, this pent-up anger finds itself freer than it had dreamed possible to press upon living flesh. Where in Faulkner violence counterattacks against unbearable stasis, violence in Warren acts calculatingly in the name of concretely envisaged freedom. Warren is a true shock novelist—not in his plots or his embarrassed sexuality, but in his focus on the tender, murderous imagination of the twentieth century suddenly authorized to practice control upon events. He shows more forcefully than any of his rivals what enthusiasm for control is and where it hurts most. He writes the emerging novel of forces with a more violent drive than Snow or Greene or Sartre or Camus….
[The] limits of Warren's explanations appear more starkly now than they did fifteen or twenty years ago. Essentially, he depends upon a commonwealth of guilt grounded in the family romance. Though fewer people now question this chart, more recognize its crudity. Such sophistication can make the wish behind the cross-referencing drama seem too tensely held. Straightening everything into a tight pattern may be impossible and undesirable—may be, as Herzog's psychiatrist says, a dangerous inability to tolerate ambiguous situations….
In Night Rider the fundamental drive is for definiteness. Kenneth Burke first recognized the importance of its division into day and night worlds, and one point should be added. The day world is radically indefinite. It consists of claustrophobia in the train, the miscellaneous crowd, release and exhilaration in Munn's speech followed by letdown and question, victory in Trevelyan's trial succeeded by doubts as to justice. But the night world makes definiteness seem a possibility. In the dark the great fantasies can be acted out. Munn can lead a search of the negro cabin and terrorize its inhabitants; can retry Trevelyan and exact punishment in the lynching; can recreate Confederate myth in the Morgan raid and ambush at the ford; can try Senator Tolliver, the avatar of the day world, in his own mind and set out to destroy him. This militant search for definitions grand enough to encompass all complexities is basic to Warren's best work. And he represents the resistance thoroughly, ranges all over for every complication that might thwart definition….
If Warren is to remain among the major novelists, though, All the King's Men must stand as more than a monument to some minor Muse like the American Political Novel. Warren makes this rereading hard to do. Unlike most contemporaries, he does not automatically enlist the reader's collaboration. His drive for definiteness leads him to finish sentences that his fellow novelists like to leave dangling. Above everything else, he is an anxious writer. At the end of All the King's Men, his fear of the ferocity within leads him to tie up loose ends in a frenzy of reconciliations—with Jack's mother, Judge Irwin, the Scholarly Attorney, Anne, and Cass Mastern. He has to protect the new life at every point from the threat of emotional kickback. So he returns to that fountain of modern renewal, youthful hopes, and tries to carry them intact across the barrier of adult years.
But up to that point he had been doing better than most novelists. He writes powerful dramatic scenes. He brings together militant energy and a theatrical imagination at a time when theatricality carried man's hope; and he fixes these upon a double locale admirably suited to testing their range…. Warren's theatricality sets up a conflict between subtler ambivalent feelings—a love-fear for the integrity of anger, a love-hatred for slyness, and an impossible yearning for personal force….
The critical conflict in All the King's Men occurs not between ends and means, but between spontaneity and technique. More than anything else, Jack Burden expresses distrust for the use of mind divorced from the integrity of anger. Loss of an exciting, unifying vision determines the opening attitude toward Willie. The means he uses in the drug store speech at Mason City are not immoral in the sense that his coercing Judge Irwin is. They are not even seriously false. They amount to little more than what courses in public speaking inculcate daily in respectable universities—adapting the material to the audience….
The traditional case for Warren rests on his "wise" perception of conflicts between means and ends plus his understanding the self in relation to them. But his great claim to endurance rests on his "immoral" impulse, his secret sharing with the enemy. No other contemporary touches Warren's powerful identification with energetic intelligence—his enthusiasm for the efficient producer. In dramatizing the drive that Snow only suggests, he expresses better than anyone else the spirit of the forties. Politics in Warren appeals through its ruthlessness, its ethic of the imposed will, its by-passing the claims of decency and the civilian rules for muffling conflict. It allies with war and hero worship rather than democratic referral to committee. Only because Warren feels this drive in his bones can he raise the serious moral issue for an organizing society—the question of degrees of flexibility.
James Hall, "The Poet Turned First-Degree Murderer: Robert Penn Warren," in his The Lunatic Giant in the Drawing Room: The British and American Novel Since 1930, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 81-110.
Both speculative philosopher and intuitive explorer, Robert Penn Warren keeps pushing ever further toward a resolved truth that will satisfy a mind that longs for easy answers but will have none of them and a body acutely open to sense impressions, inescapably vivid however they are interpreted. His latest report on the world [Incarnations] finds it charged with the grandeur of God and plagued with the obscenity of man's grief. As the ripe fig incarnates the glowing light of the sun that brought it to maturity, so all the radiance of sentient things is proof of the soul in them and the divinity at their source. And yet the world goes its way careless of meaning, and the restless mind inquires at its own peril. The man facing electrocution for murder in a Southern jail begs for morphine to ease his intolerable dread of death, and the Warden of a place in which such horrors can occur has no reason to think that he is above the Law. Nothingness can be a powerful presence of things that deny the logic of their own being, or a dazzling sea of ineffable light. All flesh is one flesh, and though the logos may appear hideous—a hunchback Aphrodite—it guarantees an everlasting (?) reincarnation. These poems are sometimes gnarled, even gnomic, in their essays at dark wisdom and sometimes funny in their sharp anecdotal observations. Warren has not lost his gift for narrative nor his fondness for finding sermons in stones and other things. But the reality behind the slippery appearances of mortal experience demands expression with a new urgency. Where if not here will the heart discover its own meaning? There is no other place. However difficult and uncertain the enterprise may be, "We must try/To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God."
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. xv-xvi.
The influence [on Warren] of [John Crowe] Ransom is of course pervasive, but it is also to be seen in particular and tangible ways. The similar vision of man that dominates Warren's major themes is one; the manipulation of those themes is another. From his earliest protagonists (in Night Rider, 1939, and At Heaven's Gate, 1943) to his later ones (in Wilderness, 1961, and Flood, 1964) Warren has systematically explored the possibilities of a persona projected out of his own obsessive concerns. The persona emerges out of the self-delusions of idealism, innocence, and narcissism into the shattering knowledge that he participates in evil, that he shares, even exacerbates, the already imperfect human condition, and that to recognize this complicity is to take the first step toward healing his divided self.
One critic has happily applied to Warren the term Homo Viator, man on the road, the poet seeking for all the clues he can find—in external nature and in his own experience—that will justify an Emersonian faith in the glory of man's selfhood in the very face of theological and rationalistic assertions that deny that possibility. Jack Burden, Jeremiah Beaumont, Amantha Starr, Adam Rosenzweig are themselves protagonists on the road, all groping toward that integration which will confirm the worth in their particular lump of clay, a worth that must nevertheless be tested again and again. But if these familiar protagonists are one version of the dramatically achieved (and sometimes beautifully rendered) persona, there is another kind, more transparent, more personal: the authorial voice which interrupts the story of Billie Potts ("The Ballad of Billie Potts") and closes the agony of Beaumont's search (World Enough and Time), the barely disguised "R.P.W." (Brother to Dragons) and the outright I of the later poetry (notably in Promises, You, Emperors, and Others, and Incarnations).
It may be argued that Warren all too often extends the deft ironies of Ransom's domestic vignettes into full-scale obvious ones most commonly associated with melodrama, and that his antinomies, though they may begin as precariously balanced, always threaten to topple awkwardly into first one extreme, then another. This characteristic is perhaps Warren's most obvious divergence from Ransom. Certainly some of those qualities which Warren found in Ransom both as friend and poet—gaiety, an easy gallantry, a spirit of play—never saw full expression in his own career…. Behind the heavyhanded probing of ideas that we read in fits and starts in World Enough and Time or in You, Emperors, and Others lurks the tough grace of Ransom. But the edged wit, the settled assurances, the confident vision of unconfident man, and even the serious exercise of one's craft compete more vitally, more frenetically, more obsessively, than they ever do in Ransom's best work. "Man must make his life somehow in the dialectical process," Warren observes in a typical statement, "and in so far as he is to achieve redemption he must do so through an awareness of his condition that identifies him with the general human communion, not in abstraction, not in mere doctrine, but immediately. The victory is never won, the redemption must be continually re-earned." That comment on the great theme of "the philosophical novelist" must finally define Warren as his own man rather than as anybody's student.
James H. Justus, "A Note on John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the publisher; copyright 1969 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), November, 1969, pp. 425-30.
It's always a little hard to place Penn Warren's work, perhaps because so much of his poetry at first seems unresolved, built from a conflict of tensions: the strong narrative and historical sense he has of the frontier landscapes of the nineteenth century, in which hard characters play out their lives in violent actions, as opposed to an intense lyrical perception of an absorption in pristine nature, its animals and plants seen as if for the first time by a sensitive and reflective mind. That mind belongs to a philosophical poet whose method, like Faulkner's is to embody his thoughts in persons who, like most of the few naturally aristocratic, genuinely superior and simple Americans we have had, seem to live situated amidst a savagery both very nearly unthinkable yet obviously so common that it's taken for granted. Perhaps the poetry appears unresolved because our lives cannot be otherwise in America, and it is this recurrent fact that has always obsessed Penn Warren. As Faulkner did, he has evoked the wilderness sweetness and brutality and the obscure, doom-haunted destinies of American men and women: he has made poems out of them that seem like dreams of beauty and horror frozen in amber and preserved for our contemplation, a terrible contemplation of what it means to live, to have lived always, in a world without rules, a world where rules are irrelevant—the American world, in fact.
Jascha Kessler, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 2, 1970, pp. 35-6.
Warren has been the most open in texture and personal in tone of the Fugitive poets; when he began writing poetry again in 1954, after a ten-year interval during which he wrote none except for the long "play for verse and voices," Brother to Dragons (1953), these tendencies were much accentuated. Partly in response, no doubt, to the same pressures that caused a number of other poets to write "open poetry" or "confessional poetry" at about the same time, and partly as a result of private and internal developments, Warren's poems have grown steadily more open, more unabashedly personal, more overtly psychological and religious, and more interdependent. (There is, in most cases, no attempt to make each poem self-sufficient; the poems come in sequences of some length, and knowledge not only of the rest of the sequence, but often of the whole context of Warren's recent poetry, is required in order to apprehend the full meaning of any single poem.) The themes are similar to those … in the novels; and there is, in the latest poetry, the same new sense of blessedness, joy, redemption as really possible.
Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (copyright © 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 186.
Robert Penn Warren. The name is like a bell calling me back to those halcyon days when I was a student at Ohio State and Prof. Eliseo Vivas was having us ponder the profound resolutions of moral perplexities in Penn Warren's "Night Rider," his first novel. Now, nearly a quarter century later, I find myself on the same ground. In "Meet Me in the Green Glen" there is the same craftsmanship in narrative, the same attention to nature as a reflection of man's primitive self, the same fondness for Elizabethan blood-and-guts melodrama, the same morality play dimensions of good versus evil, the same inexplicable punishment of good while evil prospers. Above all, there is the same ability to rivet the reader's attention until the climax and the sustaining of a profound sadness in knowing the story has to end.
John J. Murray, in Best Sellers, October 15, 1971, p. 318.
The question of the relation between subject and object, feeling and episode, seems to me one of the grand questions, and in Mr. Warren's fiction the crucial matter. "Blackberry Winter" exemplifies a natural law, true to Coleridge's sense of imagination and reality, interdependent. The reality proffered by the story gives an impression of being single, that is to say, single-minded, and I take this to be a proof of its validity. But often in Mr. Warren's longer fictions and especially in his big novels I find the relation between episode and feeling insecure, and generally the feeling is exorbitant. Feeling and interpretation flow in, but their abundance is often gross, if we think of what occasioned them….
Like Mr. Warren's World Enough and Time, [Meet Me in the Green Glen] is a story of sin and expiation, and it is concerned more with the motive than the deed…. The theme is what Jeremiah called it in World Enough and Time, "the crime of self, the crime of life." Making subject and object interdependent once and for all, Jeremiah says, "The crime is I."…
Mr. Warren's … characters [in Meet Me in the Green Glen] have no freedom, and only as much vitality as is consistent with imprisonment, a life sentence in their nature. They are so empty that he must himself produce the fullness of the world and give it to the narrator, the narrative voice.
Mr. Warren has to do that as well as everything else. He must do what these wretched characters cannot do for themselves: imagine, understand, perceive. Their slightest gestures must be eked out, glossed, driven to mean something. The narrative voice never rests….
The narrator is equally generous to all his characters: each of them … is amplified, protected, filled from resources not his own. After a while, and no wonder, they all sound the same…. Mr. Warren should have told his narrator to shut up. Like Murray Guilford, the narrator "could sure swing the English language," but the swinging wrecks what might have been a good novel.
Denis Donoghue, "Life Sentence," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), December 2, 1971, p. 28.
In light of [Warren's] whole corpus, any single work within it is seen as at once more complex and more lucid. One should begin with Billie Potts and the Eleven Poems, for they state most clearly the first of his two compulsive themes: Original Sin.
In a score of fables, Warren has tried to re-create our sense of awakening into a web of guilt and responsibility we never made, and our dawning consciousness that we, knowing or unknowing, in every act extend and involve that web for lives of which we may never be aware….
To the moralist like Warren, the act can never be judged pragmatically by its fruits, but only by its motives, the state of the will that puts it in motion. And are such motives really knowable?
The ineluctable ambiguity of justice is the second central theme of Warren's work. To his very first published fiction, Warren prefixed the tag from Horace that mocks Spenser's Romantic dream of a Golden Age when Truth was simple and apparent. "Nor is nature able to distinguish between iniquity and justice, as it separates the good from the bad, and what is to be sought from what is to be avoided." The illusion of a primal innocence makes living possible for those who cannot face up to the fact that experience is ambiguous, truth elusive, the only certainty that we are born to sin and death….
[Insofar] as Romanticism is pledged to the mirage of a natural Innocence, Warren is anti-Romantic. If [World Enough and Time] is called a "Romantic Novel" to the confusion of some critics, it is as an irony, a truth to be understood on the second convolution. His whole work is a critique of Romanticism, whether it be an explicit defense of John Donne and a deflation of Shelley, or "just a story." In the "impure" art of Warren, the Garden into which his lovers enter is the Garden of Shakespeare and not of Tennyson. What Romeo and Juliet momentarily forget within the wall, Mercutio remembers outside, and the Nurse mutters in the bedroom: the toad is as real as the rose, the chancre as true as the moon.
What makes the anti-sentimental, ironic Robert Penn Warren palatable to the mass audience, which instinctively prefers the easiest romanticisms, the lushest sentimentalities; and asserts that they detest "ideas" in fiction? Warren's appeal depends primarily upon his deep flair for narrative, an instinct not merely for "telling a good yarn," which is within the scope of the weariest hack, but of touching archetypal plot material that embodies, quite apart from any explicit statement, ultimate mythic meanings. The author who can exploit plot significance, concrete meaning beside abstract, has a chance at least of reaching the great public whose responses and perceptions, where they have not been already vulgarized, are still more mythos than logos. Such great modern fictionists as Mann and Joyce, even Proust, have surrendered the direct use of the fable—and can move relatively few, though those deeply. To the naturalist, the pragmatist, the nominalist, plot can only be a "machine" and must in honesty be abandoned; but to the believer in the reality of guilt and grace, the "fable" with its immemorial reversals and recognitions is the formal vestige of a way of believing and a celebration of belief. The hunger for plot among the people is a hunger for ritual satisfaction, and the writer who can feed their hunger without condescension may satisfy them and his own alienated self at the same time. Besides Warren, only Graham Greene and perhaps Faulkner among contemporaries have this talent.
In the world of Shakespeare or the Greek dramatists, playwrights were happily required to draw on a body of archetypal material; in our world, it is only with great daring that they can attempt to kidnap for high art such popular, mythic forms as the "thriller" or the "historical romance." Warren has moved uncertainly, fumblingly in this direction. In Night Rider he touches his authentic material, but apparently without knowing it; in At Heaven's Gate, the most incoherent of his books, he loses it almost completely; in All the King's Men, he exploits a modern instance of the myth of the tragic hero, vaguely adumbrated in the life of Huey Long (had not three or four popular novelists already compulsively approached it?). But before his current novel [World Enough and Time], he seems to have clearly realized his proper subject matter and approach only in The Ballad of Billie Potts, a poetic version of a story, told in a score of literatures as "true," and for all one can tell erupting again and again from the fable into "real life," the account of the son of murdering innkeepers, who returns home rich and unrecognizable and is murdered for his money by his mother and father before he confesses his identity….
If World Enough and Time has any major flaw, it is the insistence on remaining still a novel—the expected, popular form; for it constantly aspires to become a narrative poem, an epic. One feels that the finally successful work toward which Warren has been groping will finally accept what is for narrative in our time, alas, the burden of verse. Certainly, Warren's imagery and command of texture, his concern with music and pattern, his sensitivity to language, all demand the freer scope and tighter discipline of poetic form. Perhaps his talent and skill, which have redeemed the metaphysical novel for the mass audience, may accomplish as much for the serious verse narrative….
To one who has followed Warren from nightmare to nightmare, [Brother to Dragons] is a reminder that there is only a single bad dream from which he has always striven to awake to art, a suggestion that perhaps for all of us there is a single archetypal experience of terror, unsayable and, therefore, forever to be said. This is not quite the point that the critics continue to make about Warren's works, observing that he returns to the same themes of Justice and Guilt, to the same reflections on the ambiguity of History, to the same exploitation of the dissonance between the intent of an act in time and its infinitely echoing meaning, to the same symbolisms of West and East, Wilderness and City, to the same Faulkner-ridden milieu.
These are the excrescences of something deeper, and by themselves suggest only an accidental entrapment, an obsession harmful to art. The reader of Warren who sees just so far is tempted to suggest that it might be well for him to find other concerns, to move on…. But his major theme seems to me to be precisely the paucity of possible themes, the terrible singleness of the truth under the multiplicity of our lies, the ineffable oneness of Nightmare, or, as he preferred to call it in an early poem, Original Sin….
This is a bombastic poem in the technical sense of the word: bombast as in Seneca or the Jacobean dramatists, a straining of language and tone toward a scream which can no longer be heard, the absolute cry of bafflement and pain. Such a tone becomes in Warren, as in Seneca or Torneur or Thomas Lovell Beddoes, ridiculous on occasion, ridiculous whenever we lapse from total conviction….
It is a Senecan tragedy that Warren has composed, a play that cannot be played, a poem that must be imagined as acted in the high, ranting style, complete with ghosts and prophecies and dire forebodings, shakings of the earth and raw skulls, suicides and obscene murders and crimes too horrible to define….
Here, for the first time, his form has allowed Warren to use all the trappings proper to the shrillness of his need. All the King's Men suffered not only because its hysterical rhetoric had to be disguised as the tough-guy patter of Jack Burden, but because its historicity prevented the appearance on stage of gibbering ghosts and portents out of nature. Even the considerably superior World Enough and Time permitted itself only a literary, metaphorical dragon; and the excuse of its Romantic milieu did not quite justify the more than Byronic bombast….
[Warren] represents a line of development which begins with Faulkner's vision of the South as the landscape proper to the terror of us all; but he is not what we ordinarily mean these days by a "Southern Writer," not one of those feminizing Faulknerians, who via Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty have burgeoned into the full-blown epicene school.
Warren, however, manages to preserve the shrillness of Faulknerian tone, the provinciality of his diction and the sense of a rhetoric more controlled by passion than design. He is, indeed, the only serious contemporary writer I know able to achieve the typical Faulknerian corkscrew motion of action, that inward and downward circling toward a climax of horror, which makes of plot an outward symbol of our inward flight from and attraction toward the revelation of guilt. But the author who clings to plotting remains by that token closer to the semiliterate reader than any exponent of sensibility; and this is by no means the only "popular" aspect of Warren's art. He is different from Faulkner in this respect, but no less sympathetic to those lovers of a "good story" so often baffled by current literature; for he has relinquished the hunting yarn, the comic folk tale of sharp dealing and the detective story only to substitute for them the Historical Romance, the debased and apparently unredeemable Bosom Book. We should be aware, however, that Warren's turning to the Historical Romance is an accommodation neither mercenary nor naïve, he exploits it for sophisticated and strategic ends….
I have been convinced for a long time that Warren was feeling his way toward a form which would be neither prose nor poetry, but I have never been able to find a metaphor to define it. Since reading Band of Angels, I have become aware that what he has been approaching for so long is something not very different from nineteenth-century Italian opera: a genre full of conventional absurdities, lapses of good taste, strained and hectic plots—all aimed at becoming myth and melody. Though I feel deeply the necessity of such a contrivance and respect the courage of Warren's attempt, I am not quite sure that either the novel or the long poem intended to be read as a novel can stand such a metamorphosis.
Given the vast distances of the opera house as it has evolved, the glare of lights and the stir of the audience, one can accept the bellowing, the gilt trimmings, even the vulgarities as finally satisfactory, part of a gross but coherent whole. In the intimate situation of reading a novel, however, there is not enough public rumor, not enough basic space to save the illusion. I see the grease paint; I am aware of the contrived effects; I cannot believe in the pasteboard sets. Or rather, by fits and starts I am carried away; and then my doubt returns. There is, at last, no sufficient poetry, perhaps no way of attaining it, to make an equivalent for the music into which all the oafishiness and coarseness of effect of the opera flow and are redeemed.
Leslie Fiedler, "Three Notes on Robert Penn Warren," in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, Volume I (copyright © 1971 by Leslie A. Fiedler; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 33-53.
With the best will in the world a reader will still find this new American Gothic [Meet Me in the Green Glen] a chilling, disappointing experience, in which Warren's considerable talents are only rarely matched by material that continually seems frozen, motionless, as if refrigerated too long in too-familiar Faulknerian rhetoric and stereotypes.
The Antioch Review (© 1972 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXI, No. 4, 1971–72, p. 589.
Meet Me in the Green Glen is stylistically Warren's most satisfying work. In dealing with the elemental human truths of pain and loneliness and identity and aging and pleasure it is not surprising that the author allows himself occasionally to lapse into a Faulknerian syntax—which from anyone but Faulkner is annoying. Now and then there are reminiscences of Stein. But most of the time the prose moves with a subtle indirection which portrays with great precision the torturous movement of introspection…. Warren's characters are real, their world is real, the slow evolution of their story to a sudden crisis is all too real. The poetry of the novel lies in its distillation of humanity, in its artistic combination of all elements—which we call vision.
Kenneth John Atchity, in Mediterranean Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 64-5.
[One] would dare speculate that Robert Penn Warren's Meet Me in the Green Glen, with its elements of romance, stream-of-consciousness, melodrama, and sex, with its ostensible familiarity, will work to crystallize a new category in fiction, the neohexameral or comtemplative novel, when what is contemplated is one's own coming into conscious sustained being, rather than going through more or less conscious (perceptible) local experience….
The novel proceeds … by adumbrations, intersections, and gentle epiphanies emerging out of mechanical, almost obsessive, dutifulness and habit…. Warren does not undermine the simplicity of his characters, but he articulates their consciousness, gives them an unpretentious language that nevertheless has profound reverberations….
The sense that Warren, while keeping up a nearly flawless simplicity of surface, is doing something metaphysically and esthetically adventurous gets ample reinforcement from the evidence that other novelists are trying to do what he has done, represent the creation of the delight and dignity of being human out of our modern "chaos" in a plausible idiom, on a workable ground of action, and with plausible characters who are not philosophical taws.
Michael Cooke, in The Yale Review (© 1972 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1972, pp. 600-03.
Since his first and best novel, Night Rider (1939), each of Warren's novels has been less interesting than its predecessor. In his early novels one is still aware of Warren the voice, the teacher, the exponent of a traditionalist view of the world that is essentially a philosophy of literature. Warren knows what makes certain literary works great; no critic in our generation has persuaded more people of just what there is to "understand" in poetry and fiction. He tends to apply understanding to his own imaginative creations—the understanding is in his voice, his will, his fluent skill. Warren is always in command of the narrative rather than the other way around, expounding the contradictions in human nature and breathing on its symbols. The omnipresent Warren voice, struggling with History, the contradictions of Human Nature and Original Sin as ideas for stories, makes him a sayer of contraries.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 45-6.
There is all the bad writing anyone could hope for in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Could this really have been the runaway best seller of 1946 and could Mr. Penn Warren really be a distinguished American poet? The style is a messy mixture of Faulkner and pulp 'tec writing, the sort of tough-guy talk used by the narrating heroes of 1940s murder-mystery movies…. [If] the hero is a sensitive, serious student of history why does he write like somebody talking out of the side of his mouth?
Stanley Reynolds, "Jungle Dust," in New Statesman, January 11, 1974, p. 55.
George Orwell once remarked that 'in all novels about the East the scenery is the real subject matter'. By a similar generalization one might say that in all novels about the American Deep South violence, or the threat of violence, is the real subject matter. Racial tension, political and social feuding, ignorance, poverty, corruption, the ugliest possible face of capitalism presented by the big, greedy corporations, machismo and the Sanctity of Southern Womanhood—all these factors so charge the atmosphere that a spark can cause an explosion. Any drama, however tame, performed against this backcloth acquires elements of passion and excitement which compensate for limitations of plot, character or dialogue. Witness the flaccid sub-Freudian posturings of Tennessee Williams, which are infused with intense melodramatic vigour by the lurid situation in which they are set. A genuine tragedy, in such circumstances, attains epic proportions.
Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is not quite of that stature…. [All the King's Men] is a finer novel than other American blockbusters by such competitors as James Gould Cozzens, William Styron or Harper Lee. But it is not a great novel (it is jejune when placed beside the densely textured works of Faulkner, for example) and, indeed, it is difficult to sort out how far it relies, as a work of art, on its considerable intrinsic merit and how far on the volcanic background of the Deep South in the depression years….
It is convincingly constructed, the characters are subtly portrayed, great depths of moral and imaginative insight are plumbed and there are large dollops of folk humour expressed in hammer-hard nail-on-the-head vernacular. What is more, Warren's novel relies as much on these virtues for its effect as on its setting, the submerged Southern jungle of which Huey Long was, so briefly, Kingfish.
Piers Brendon, in Books and Bookmen, March, 1974, p. 87.
Robert Penn Warren's first two novels have often seemed better as the trying-out of All the King's Men than as novels in their own right. Certainly, as studies of the nature and uses of political power, Night Rider and At Heaven's Gate are anticipatory. Both touch on big bossism in its corporate and individual forms, and both dramatize the dangers to the morally insensitive individual posed by abstract embodiments of power…. And compared to the firm assurances of the third novel, both seem tentative: they lack a particularized, sensuously immediate politician whose motives and acts are examined in a context of rich circumstantiality, as well as an engaging figure who is articulate enough to justify his credibility as a man both morally aware and expediently knowledgeable….
There are flaws aplenty in At Heaven's Gate, not the least of which are the undisguised threads stitching the various segments together like a patchwork quilt. There are occasional spurts of fancy writing, and its more self-conscious effects are obviously derivative and uncertainly controlled. (The derivation is mostly from Faulkner: there are detectable echoes from The Sound and the Fury, The Wild Palms, and perhaps Sanctuary.)…
Despite [the] flaws At Heaven's Gate is finally more interesting than Night Rider. Its stylistic modulations, its scattergun point of view, and its deployment of multiple narratives can be seen as both untidy and typically Warrenesque. For the first time we see the rich profusion of favorite words and phrases—"the blind, unqualified retch and spasm of the flesh, the twist, the sudden push, the twitch, the pinch of ejection and refusal"—and the lengthy segments of second-person idiom, faintly ironic and precisely detailed, straight out of the tough-guy and private-eye tradition of the 1920s and 1930s. And, in its more discursive moments, At Heaven's Gate achieves a kind of lyric naturalism that becomes a hallmark of Warren's prose: periods of closely observed details strung out in an evocative rhetoric which invites nostalgia for a specific time and place or which invokes awe for a mythic history that seems to explain national and even human urges.
Someone once noted that At Heaven's Gate is Warren's only city novel. In a technical sense this is true. But it is also the closest Warren ever came to writing an agrarian novel. The values associated with southern Agrarianism—integration of personality, mutual responsibility, and a general harmony of man and nature—are conspicuously missing in the lives of the major characters, but their very absence is a measure of their importance….
At Heaven's Gate is Warren's only work in which the combined effects of technology, finance capitalism, and political power are examined so explicitly, even obviously….
The novel is a brilliant example of Warren's insight into the manipulative uses of technique. The roles his characters play are desperate, and the techniques of their playing serve to mask, distract, or deceive. The major psychological patterns of the novel involve rejection and repudiation, often in violent ways. In most cases what the characters react against is the continuing relationship of the individual with the home, the past, and tradition. In Warren's own Unreal City the uses of technique are necessarily efforts to remake the self after new images, to fill the gaps left by the repudiation, to heal what Jack Burden of All the King's Men calls the terrible division of the age. What usually results in these efforts to create the self anew is to widen the division and make it all the more terrible….
Warren's emphatic and iterated references to calculated effects, artifice, rhetorical patterns, deployment of manners and gestures, tricks of phrasing and bons mots, and cultivation of personal images for public consumption: all point up the plight of the fragmented self who is not at home even in the world it tries to make. In an urban milieu liberated from the demands of family, past, or tradition, values that celebrate man's responsibility for man are few and fragile. Techniques can only oil the machinery of an impersonal, dehumanized, and abstract society….
As in most of his novels with strong political strains At Heaven's Gate is not about Warren's views of politics—even Agrarian politics—or politicians. It is a study of individuals who in the "blur of the world" strive to find a focus in their own shape and weight, apart from such piecemeal definitions as economic man or aesthetic man.
James H. Justus, "On the Politics of the Self-Created: 'At Heaven's Gate'," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Spring, 1974, pp. 284-99.