Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism Reply

RPW ImageOver the next few days, I want to deliver a paper I presented at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City, Utah last weekend. The theme of the Conference was Land and the Novel.  I had the pleasure of joining friends that delivered wonderful papers on the Picaresque form in Spanish and American Literature, and the role of Native American and western discourses on Sovereignty and Conquest. Today I will introduce the paper I presented titled Robert Penn Warren’s Southern Exceptionalism in Place. Over the next few days I will add sections.  Comments are always welcome.

Robert Penn Warren’s preeminent subject was the American South.[1] Born in Kentucky and living in various southern states, including Louisiana, and Tennessee Warren once reflected, “The South never crossed my mind except as an imaginative construct before I left it.”[2]  Later, Warren claimed “he became a Southerner by not being there.” [3] His novels reflect the tension felt by the author whose characters, like him, are at once out of place in their environment, while at the same time in the only place that seems best suited for their identity.

Through these characters, Warren performs the tension of southern identity – wrestling with the problem of not belonging, while also being in the only place where one belongs.[4]   Warren’s reflections of feeling isolated in a place he calls home has led to some scholars describing Warren’s view of southern identity as hallmarked by a perception of loneliness. [5] While loneliness is a theme that Warren’s work captures, another more prevalent theme emerges from Warren’s characters and places – that of Southern Exceptionalism.

In the next few posts I will describe what I mean by Southern Exceptionalism and then describe how that theme emerges in Warren’s novels All the King’s Men and Flood.  All the King’s Men follows the workings of Jack Burden and Willie Stark through the political machinery that reveals identities as against place and time.  Jack Burden, thought to be the character that Warren most closely aligns with[6] finds himself torn between the Jack Burden that existed in the past at Burdens landing, and the Jack Burden of the present – a journalist lackey of Governor Stark — who seems to have a knack for “making things stick” and “uncovering the past.[7]  Both Burden and Willie Stark find themselves at one in the same time in and out of contradictions.[8]

Likewise, Warren’s novel Flood : A Romance of our Time, tells the story of Bradwell Toliver a novelist and screenwriter returning to his home town Fiddlersburg to tell its final story. Fiddlersburg is set to be flooded by the Army Corp of Engineers TVA Project in Middle Tennessee leaving as the preeminent question for everyone in the town – can Fiddlersburg residents be themselves without Fiddlersburg.  Like Burden and Stark, Tolliver and other characters find themselves living out contradictions, whether its Toliver’s inability to write about Fiddlersburg while in Fiddlersburg.[9]

I argue in this seriesthat loneliness itself cannot answer that question of Southern identity, but rather is one piece of a broader identity question in the south.   For Warren, the collective action of being “lonely together” helps explain certain aspects of the south.  It may also explain why characters like Burden, Toliver, and Stark move through the south the way they do -able to  both associate and disassociate themselves from their actions and physical surroundings, while others do not.  But it does not necessarily explain the south, despite the claim by Warren’s characters and scholars alike. Loneliness is a description for a people that invoke a state of mind about their surroundings – the choices to embrace or not embrace their surroundings. Exceptionalism, on the other hand is defined by the irony of living with the contradiction.  For the characters, it’s the various contradictions of moral purpose, outcomes and identities that present contradictory moments.  For the region, Warren describes the ability to balance the surroundings with its narrative of superiority.   The constructs of place and time provide boundaries by which characters in Warren’s work navigate the central notion of those ironies.

[1] Warren’s works in both fiction and Non-Fiction detail a fascination with the American South.  His nonfiction works,  John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929) Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the American South (1956); Who Speaks for the Negro ?(1960); The Legacy of the Civil War (1961); and Jefferson Davis Get’s his Citizenship Back (1980); and his fictional works All the King’s Men, Flood, Time and World Enough, Night Riders, Meet me at the Green Glen, At Heaven’s Gate, … all are set in the American South.

[2] Watkins, Floyd C., et al., Talking with Robert Penn Warren 383 (U. Ga. Press 1990).

[3] Id. at 374.

[4] Warren himself described this tension personally reflecting about a farm he considered buying in Tennessee later in life.  Though the Middle Tennessee area where the farm was located was the place he claimed to know best, he also said he felt if he bought the farm he’d be isolated. “ A lot of friends are dead and gone, but I also felt a real change in the whole nature of the world. And I felt it would be an idle dream for me to go back there. It would be ridiculous.” Id.

[5] Randy Hendricks, Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile (2000) (suggesting that Warren more than any other writer has dealt with the southerner as exile); Lewis Simpson, Robert Penn Warren The Loneliness Artist, 99 Sewanee Review 25 (1991) (“describing the autobiographical connections of personal exile in Warren’s various works).

[6] Simpson, supra note 5, at ___ (suggesting that Warren can no more disclaim Jack Burden than Shakespeare can Hamlet).

[7] See Martin Lumpkin, Jack’s Unconscious Burden: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of All the King’s Men, in Dennis L. Weeks, “To Love thee So Well the World: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Penn Warren, 197 (1992) at 197 (describing Jack Burden’s tensions as between “denying his past and living with his cynical present without alms”).

[8] See Lumpkin, supra note 7, at 207 (rejecting Burden’s tale as mere tragedy, for its failure to account for “ambiguities, conflicts, complexities of the human personality); Robert Feldman, Responsibility in Crisis: Jack Burden’s Struggle in All the King’s Men, in Weeks, supra note 7, at 105 (arguing that Burden’s contradiction is the temptation to avoid versus confront the burden of guilt and responsibility); Steven D. Ealy, Corruption and Innocence in Robert Penn Warren’s Fiction, Modern Age (Spring 2005) (describing Willie Stark as an Idealist turn pragmatist with an idealist bent).

[9] Bradwell Toliver can’t seem to understand himself in the town of Fiddlersburg.  This emerges in two ways through out the novel.  First, Toliver’s best selling novel is based on Fiddlersburg but is written when Toliver is away from the town.  The second is the movie script that he writes while in the town, but which, according to Yasha Jones, does not capture the essence of Brad in Fiddlersburg.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s